YANDE SYAMPEYO, Nchelenge
KAIMBA Kazla sits outside a tent nursing her infant child. The child is one of a set of triplets she delivered while escaping the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
There is anguish on her face and in her voice as she narrates how she escaped the killings.
Many others were not so lucky.
Kaimba witnessed soldiers ripping the belly of another pregnant woman and removing her foetus.
“The extent of war in the DRC is so bad that in one instance, I witnessed the brutal killing of another pregnant woman. The soldiers used a machete to rip open the pregnancy removed the baby,” Kaimba laments.
“This is what prompted me to run away from my country. I could not stand the thought of losing my life in a similar manner.”
Kaimba is among the over 6,000 asylum seekers from the DRC camped at Kenani transit centre in Nchelenge district of Luapula Province.
Kaimba, who spoke through an interpreter, arrived in Zambia on September 14. Her journey to reach ‘promised land of peace’ was not easy.
With tears in her eyes, Kaimba, a mother of 10, narrates the strenuous escape to safety, with five children in her custody.
She gave birth to her triplets; two boys and a girl, in an area called Pweto, in the Congo, on August 2.
Determined to flee the war zone, she continued her journey into Zambia with the triplets and two other children.
Luckily for Kaimba, she encountered a stranger, who had a vehicle and offered her a ride into Zambia arriving on September 14.
Five of Kaimba’s children have remained in DRC as they are married, while her husband is married to another woman.
While she appreciates the hospitality she has received at the transit centre, her major concern is inadequate food supply.
Kaimba laments that the triplets are always crying due to hunger as she does not produce enough milk to nurse them.
“The triplets are always crying because the milk supply is inadequate as my body receives very little food. At times, I feel like passing out due to the poor diet as a breastfeeding mother,” she laments.
However, Kaimba has vowed to remain in Zambia until there is a change of government in the DRC.
Another refugee, 16-year- old Albert Kaleya, fled his home town of Moba, due to continuous fighting between rebel groups and government forces.
Albert, an orphan, recollects the horrible trek to Zambia as his uncle, his guardian of 10 years, was shot dead by unknown forces.
“I ran for my life when my uncle was shot dead while I watched,” he says with a sorrowful voice. “That is one experience I will never forget for the rest of my life.”
He claims the war in Congo is as a result of the refusal by the incumbent President to leave office.
“We used to live comfortably until the coming of the current government. The security forces are fighting each other hence our decision to leave the country for fear of being caught up in the mess,” he says.
Another refugee, Mauno Rokogo, 45, of Congo’s Kivu area, has been displaced by the ethnic conflicts since her childhood.
She narrates that the war in her country is so deadly that her family fled Kivu and settled in Pweto area, which later, was also engulfed with the conflicts.
“I started running away from conflicts when I was a young girl. The war was too tough for us because Government, which was supposed to protect us, was killing us and that is why we ran away,’ she says.
Mauno, who arrived in Zambia on September 9, feels lucky to have settled in a foreign country with her entire family as most of the refugees have left their loved ones behind.
“We thank the Zambian government and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for welcoming and bringing us here,” Mauno says. “We feel at home here unlike in the DRC, where one can easily be killed.”
Mauno appealed for an increase in food rations and medical supplies due to the growing population at the centre of which children account for about 60 percent.
She also wants UNHCR to effectively secure the tents at the centre as they leak during rains.
Mushinga Chungu, a peasant farmer says conflicts in the DRC are more prevalent in Pweto village and has forced the entire chiefdom to flee.
Married with three children, Mushinga, 30, who hails from the war-torn village of Pweto, laments how a number of people have lost property in their pursuit for safety.
“I fled home with my wife and children in September, although I cannot remember exactly when we arrived in Zambia but it was sometime in October,” Mushinga says. “We went for days without food and water and at some point, my children were so exhausted and weak that I thought they would die.”
The conflicts in Pweto have resulted in him losing over 100 goats and pigs.
But determined to begin a new life in Zambia, he is hopeful things will change for the better in the coming days in terms of the food rations at the transit centre.
“I have no plans of returning to my country,” he says. “I will remain strong and pray for a better livelihood in Zambia.”
Mushinga wants Government to urgently allocate a permanent settlement to the refugees to enable them engage in income generating activities such as farming.
Unlike Mushinga, Maureen Kalumba, 34, a mother of seven, is devastated that three of her children are still trapped in the war-torn country.
Kalumba, who hails from Kaleme region is troubled that the children, who are in the custody of their grandmother, are located in an area where the conflicts are most prevalent.
Her husband is also in Congo’s Kasolo area where he had gone to seek greener pastures.
“My husband has no idea I am in Zambia because I left home abruptly. The conflicts became too much hence I decided to take my children and leave the country,” she says. “Painfully, I had to leave the other children because they are in an area where I could have been easily killed.”
Kalumba accused the DRC government of inflicting pain on people from certain ethnic groups.
“If you are of a tribe with a certain type of tattoo, then your life is in danger,” Maureen says. “I witnessed a tribemate being killed. We are being killed aimlessly, without a reason.”
Between 50 and 100 asylum seekers are entering Zambia every day, fleeing from widespread violence due to the volatile political and security situation in some parts of DRC, especially in eastern parts of that country bordering Zambia’s Luapula Province.
Other than Nchelenge and Chiengi borders, DRC refugees have been entering Zambia in small numbers through border points in Nsumbu, Kaputa and Mpulungu district in Northern Province, Kasumbalesa and Sakanya border points on the Copperbelt, as well as Kipushi and Kakoma in North-Western Province.
UNHCR headquarters in Geneva has declared a Level Three Emergency in DRC (the highest possible crisis alert calling all humanitarian actors to preparation and action against an imminent humanitarian crisis).
Zambia on the other hand has been categorised as Level One Emergency.
Humanitarian agencies fear that if the escalating number of refugees into Zambia does not improve in the coming weeks, the population could go as high as 20,000.
UNHCR has since appealed to the international community to urgently mobilise and put Zambia high on the humanitarian and development agenda as the escalating number of asylum seekers from DRC could result in a humanitarian crisis.
UNHCR country representative Pierrine Aylara says Zambia is facing a humanitarian crisis that requires international mobilisation and substantive funding to build capacity of the refugees.
The Zambian government and UNHCR are relying on the generosity of donors to effectively respond to the needs of the refugees.
And President Lungu, who recently visited the transit centre, has assured the Congolese refugees in Nchelenge and Chiengi districts that the Zambian government has priotised their welfare and will do everything possible to make them comfortable.
Government has put measures in place to protect refugees from waterborne and other diseases by securing additional supplies.
Mr Lungu says Zambia will remain a caring and compassionate country always ready to offer sanctuary to asylumseekers.
“Let me encourage leaders of the refugees to regularly interact with the local authorities so that your needs can be met adequately,” he says.
Mr Lungu has urged the international community to scale up interventions to help prevent the escalating refugee influx in the two districts from degenerating into a humanitarian crisis.
Hosting refugees has severe resource constraints.
Kenani transit centre is now home to over 6,000 asylum-seekers from DRC and more are still being expected.