We knew a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) wasn’t going to be like going to France, but we did underestimate the calamity and frustration of the whole process. The invitation letters from local NGO representatives, Yellow Fever documentation, character reference (ideally from a man of the clergy), letter of intent and travel details were all required for the DRC visa application. The very indirect flights, ‘war zone’ personal and equipment insurance, were also organised and booked, not to mention the very specific photographic kit-list that Mike & I assembled to prepare for days away from electricity.
Being rejected on our first visa application for an unknown reason was tough and expensive enough. The 2nd application getting ‘lost’ in the chaos of the Great Portland Street DRC embassy was difficult to handle. The mental preparation for a journey into the unknown sounds OTT now, but there is a reason we had to get ‘war zone’ insurance. The South Kivu province of the eastern DRC is still a deeply terrorised area, within a wider central African zone which has experienced more horror, conflict, death and struggle than it is possible for me to comprehend.
So when we were 3rd time lucky in April this year, we hastily re-prepared and planned for a slightly different itinerary for June. This time we were to be three, with Joe Spikes from Children in Crisis (CIC) joining us. However, to further confirm the vagaries of the DRC embassy, Joe’s visa, although submitted under the newly created ‘7-day Express Service’ a day after ours, failed to arrive in 4 weeks, so sadly, we left Joe behind.
Laden with over 70Kg of bags, Mike & I flew to Doha, then to Entebbe, Uganda, arriving finally in Kigali, Rwanda. The next day we traded jets for propellers – for the final hop to Kamembe, still in Rwanda, but just a few miles from the DRC border on the edge of Lake Kivu.
Comparisons of scale – Left image is the UK mapped over Central Africa, the right hand image is Congo mapped over Europe. Images from thetruesize.comMatungo, and Rubyagiza, both employees of the Children in Crisis’ Congolese Partner, Eben Ezer Ministry International (EMI) met us at Kamembe to escort us into the DRC. The river Rusizi marks the border between DRC and Rwanda. Despite our paperwork being very much ‘in order’ we were ushered into various rooms and scrutinized as to our ‘intentions’ in the DRC. A final handshake lead to a passport stamp and our onward journey.
2-3 hours of mostly tarmacked road led us south to Uvira. With the vast Lake Tanganyika (longest lake in the world) to the east and the mountains of the moyens plateau rising to the west. Thea from Children in Crisis and Pastor Samson – founder of EMI welcomed us to their Uvira compound, the CIC DRC HQ and our lodging for the night.
We had made it to the DRC.
Monday morning we loaded up the Land Cruiser and in the expert driving hands of Matungo we left the tarmac, electricity and Uvira behind driving further south, dodging people, bicycles, mopeds and other vehicle along the narrow dirt track. A blow-out puncture the only thing to slow us down.
When the tarmac finished
A puncture with a viewOver 250,000 refugees have fled Burundi to neighbouring countries since the start of a political crisis in April 2015. Lusenda, a typical small Congolese farming village has seen its population grow by 16,000 in a very short period of time as the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) decided this land was suitable for a refugee camp.
The camp itself is a well-planned network of huts scattered across the low rolling hills leading to the shores of Lake Tanganyika. There is a solid construction hospital, UNHCR administration building and even a prison. From afar it looks, well, ok.
Lusenda refugee camp on Lake TanganyikaIt was only after a day in the camp, seeing, hearing and daring to understand the desperate situation these individuals are in, that the true reality lands with a thump. Caught in the limbo of political unrest, separated from their country and often family by just a handful of kilometres as the bird flies, Burundi is tantalisingly visible across Lake Tanganyika on a clear day. The stories are heart-breaking and terrifying in equal measure. Families being torn apart is a sad inevitability in a refugee crisis, lack of food, proper sanitation and shelter, are too often associated with mass population displacement.
We visited on an overcast day in the dry season. The heat from the near equatorial sun that briefly revealed itself was draining. But in rainy season mud rivers daily flow under the tarpaulin and timber batten ‘houses’. When a mat on the bare earth is your bed and a dug fire-pit the kitchen, the day-to-day challenge to live seems impossible.
Now add to that mental picture, the simmering violence still present in South Kivu, remnants from the two Congo wars and over 100 years of being mistreated and abused by international powers.
There have been reports of Mai-Mai rebels regularly descending from their bases on the ‘moyens & hautes plateau’ (middle & high plateau) to prey on the refugee camp and surrounding villages – that the young Burundian men are pressured to take-up arms, persuaded with overt violence and real threats. The women and young girls perpetually live in danger of sexual attacks from armed militia whose motivations may originally have been loosely political, but is more likely now to be for self-gain.
Ernest, one of hundreds of young men in the camp, who left Bujumbura, Burundi alone and with nothing to his name. Together with his 3 ‘house-mates’ he takes advantage of the EMI/CIC Drama club as an extension to their education. As well as the regular harassment from the Congolese ‘police’ within the camp, the mountains behind him hide MaiMai rebels who see young men like Ernest as prime targets for their heavy-handed recruitment.
Everywhere we went, an excitable following of Burundian children came too.
Below the hillside refugee camp in the original village of Lusenda lies a large dusty field.
On the west side of the field is a brick and mortar school with windows and a metal roof. This is one of the 6 schools which Children in Crisis and EMI are supporting. Lying near Lusenda camp (which has no schools within it) these schools were in desperate need of repair and investment before the arrival of the camp. With them now hosting Burundian students too, they are close to breaking point.
CIC explained to us that with the majority of international support placing its focus on primary school education, the secondary school students’ (both Burundian and Congolese) education is suffering. Teachers and classroom time (schools are shared between primary and secondary schools) are being taken away from them. With the help of UK donors, CIC & EMI plan to build at least one new school in Lusenda – replacing some of the temporary structures that were hastily erected.
Lusenda school built by EMI & CIC – Behind the sprawling refugee camp
EMI’s Pastor Samson and Rubyagiza hold a meeting attended by the head-master, teachers, students and some parents under the large tree in the field. This is the one-year review of the support that EMI/CIC have been giving the school. There is a report of progress and a much discussed list of next steps and priority needs. EMI/CIC listen intently to everyone, diplomatically collect options and will act accordingly. Then we and the wider school/village are treated to a play performed by the EMI/CIC initiated drama club.
The play is in Swahili, so tough to understand, but aside from being quite excellently acted, it occurs to me the incredible vision at work here. The skills learnt and the social benefits are clear, these drama student are doing everything possible to improve their chances of re-gaining control of their lives. The secondary benefits, are possibly even greater. The play they perform is jammed-packed full of ‘life education’ – gender equality, sexual health, cultural discrimination, domestic violence, alcoholism, even respecting your elders, with a smattering of humour too. These students were themselves educators to the 100 strong crowd.
The EMI/CIC Drama Club perform a play for the school and village.The foreign aid that has arrived since the placement of the refugee camp has for the most part been hugely beneficial to the area as a whole. The schooling available in Lusenda, now far surpassing what was previously available. The result is a mixed nationality school which attracts students from up to 10 miles (walk) away. The union of nations honestly portrayed as a positive to the community. Though there have been some protests from local Congolese residents (most recently over loss of communal agricultural land to make way for the camp), there largely seems to be an acceptance of the Burundian refugees. Perhaps a leftover empathy from when many of the Congolese were themselves refugees in neighbouring Burundi just a decade or so ago.
Mike on the ToyotaThe huge population increase has also attracted opportunistic business men and women. Market used to be once a week, now the demand means there is a market everyday, small shops have been built with the traditional mud and timber construction, supplying some ‘life essentials’ and there is even a bar in the camp. ‘The Good Life’ run by Robert, an entrepreneurial refugee from Burundi provides a glimpse of something beyond the bare-essentials. His sound-system, TV and solar powered fridge are luxuries that most will forgo. The option of a cold beer or a coke, might be a temptation too far for some, but for others it might be the moment they need to pause, smile and take a breath before the next challenge.
‘The Good Life’ Bar. In Robert’s bar a local beer will cost you about £1.20. Each adult in the camp if provided with food rations and $20/month to live.Our day in Lusenda came to a close back at our lodgings, as we were served foufou, plantaines, rice and stewed fish. I sat quietly, guiltily and contemplated what the children and adults, just a mile away had made of us. I’ll never forget that day, I wondered if they would, or will there be another crowd of camera wielding westerners poking around their homes next week?