JACK ZIMBA, Kawambwa
DEEP in the forested area of Kawambwa, Luapula Province, with little civilisation, we stumbled on a compound of tented homes among tall trees.
The tents bear the unmistakable white and blue of the United Nations and the logo of the refugee agency – the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Welcome to Mantapala Refugee Camp.
About 15,000 refugees now call this camp home. This is the humanitarian crisis that the growing political impasse in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has caused.
Inside the vast camp, which stretches seven kilometres, children run around carefree, while adults go about their daily business.
Outside one of the tents, a queue of women has formed; they are waiting to receive buckets for their domestic use.
To a casual observer, life here appears normal, but life is all but normal for these refugees.
Everyone in the camp, it seems, has a tale to tell, each story I heard seemingly sadder than the previous.
Meet Kasanga Kabengu and Kiluba Mukobe, two women who arrived in Zambia in November last year.
Kasanga is almost hysterical as she describes the living conditions here.
“We ran away from war in Congo, but this is also war,” she says.
The women’s biggest complaint is about the food rations they get from the humanitarian agencies, which they say do not last them through the month.
When they run out of rations, the refugees go to the surrounding villages, bartering items given to them by the humanitarian agencies such as blankets, with food.
“There is nothing we can do, because we are just refugees running from war in our country,” says Kasanga.
She adds: “We just leave everything in the hands of God.”
Kiluba says she was promised a form of employment before she came here, but that has not happened yet.
“They told us we would be given jobs here in Mantapala, but that never happened,” she complains.
But while they complain about the conditions here, most of the refugees are resigned to the hope of returning home.
Safi Chomba is seated outside her tent, a pot of beans cooking on the fire.
She is clearly in pain, grimacing as she talks.
Safi has a problem with her leg, although much of her pain seems to come from deep inside her soul – from the psychological wound inflicted by the war.
Like the other women in the camp, Safi’s major concern is the food the refugees are given.
“They only give us beans. We have nshima with beans every day, and if you are sick like me, it is really hard,” she says.
But she must eat the beans or starve, there is no other option.
Safi is despondent about the political situation in her country.
“The war in Congo will not end because Kabila has refused to step down, and he won’t step down,” she says in a whimpering voice.
The refugees see no justification for the civil war, blamed, largely, on President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down after his constitutional term came to an end in 2016.
The recent skirmishes are mostly between government forces and militias from the Tembo tribe.
“It is a senseless war,” says Augustine Kabangi, who is leader of the refugee community.
And yet at 29 years of age, Augustine has only seen the conflict in his country in part.
The Congo war has played like a movie sequel with different actors playing the same roles since the 1960s. The casualties number in millions.
Some refugees, like Kasota Malisawi, have seen various episodes of the war.
Kasota is an old woman with failing sight. She says she is 60, but she is definitely much older. Perhaps 10 years older.
Her first escape from the Congo was in 1960 when Moïse Kapenda Tshombe led an uprising demanding the independence of the mineral-rich Katanga Province.
Then she escaped again in the 1990s when Laurent Kabila led a military uprising against Mobutu Sese Seko, whom he eventually overthrew.
Kasota is now tired of living in fear and running away from her country.
She says she no longer wants to return to her Congo.
“I want to die here and be buried here. Look at me, I’m too old to return home,” she says, gesturing with her wrinkled hands.
Kasota is not the only one who feels this way.
Many of the refugees here see no end to the conflict, and no longer dream of going back home.
“The war will only end when Kabila leaves,” says Augustine.
Asked if he wants to return to Congo one day, Kapata Kalunga, a greying man with a friendly demeanour, could not be more pessimistic.
“It is better you tell me to lie on this road and get a truck to run me over,” he tells me as we walk across the compound.
After hearing Mr Kalunga’s story, it is easy to understand why he feels so strongly about the situation in his country.
This is the second time Mr Kalunga has escaped to Zambia for refuge.
Later, I meet Sangwe Sale, with her little girl tagging at her leg.
Sangwe escaped the war with her husband, but in May, he died of tuberculosis.
She now has to take care of three children alone.
The war has also brought some unaccompanied children. I meet one of them named John Kabamba, who is now 16 years old.
But while the refugees complain about the current situation here, Commissioner for Refugees Abdon Mawere is worried the situation may get worse once the current funding runs out in September.
The initial amount to establish this camp came from the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund – about US6.6 million. But that money will not last beyond September, according to Mr Mawere.
It is a worrying prospect for the refugee chief.
“I’m extremely worried,” he says.
If nothing happens before the funds run out, these refugees will have to brace for tougher times ahead.
Mr Mawere is also watching with bated breath the situation across the border. He fears that if the political impasse does not change, there will be further influx of the refugees, deepening the humanitarian crisis here.
“It will be a heavy burden for the Zambian government,” he says.
Elections are due in the Congo later this year, but the unravelling political drama is casting doubt on the prospects for long-lasting peace.
As I leave the refugee camp, the children gather around to pose for a last photograph, their happy, carefree faces beaming into the lens.
Maybe one day peace will return to the Congo, maybe one day these children will return home and grow up in a country that safeguards their future – just maybe.
JACK ZIMBA, Kawambwa