JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
IT HAS been 21 years since Dorcas escaped the war in Burundi, dodging bullets and machete-wielding men, but she still sheds tears when she recounts the atrocities she witnessed.
Dorcas has witnessed two genocides in Burundi. She was a young girl when the first mass killing happened in 1972. At that time, thousands of Hutus were killed by the Tutsi-dominated army.
Dorcas was born in Burundi of a Congolese father and a Tutsi mother from Rwanda. She considers herself Burundian.
When the second genocide happened in 1993, Dorcas was a young teacher married to a Tutsi man who was involved in the country’s politics.
The second wave of killings started after the assassination of the country’s president Melchior Ndadaye on October 21, 1993. Thousands of Tutsis were killed in ethnic cleansing.
In November 1996 when the fighting escalated, Dorcas returned home to find her husband being taken away by rebel soldiers, his hands tied behind his back. Dorcas’ husband belonged to the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) party of the slain president.
Dorcas followed the men, demanding to know where her husband was being taken, but they threatened to take her along, too.
“The men asked me why I got married to a Tutsi when I knew the two tribes do not get along. But I told them there is no border in marriage,” she says.
That was the last time Dorcas ever saw her husband.
Later, she watched helplessly as her own father was killed by the rebel soldiers, who smashed glass bottles on his head. Her brother was also killed because he had the physical features of a Tutsi.
When the fighting got too close to her home in the capital, Bujumbura, Dorcas decided to run for her life. She strapped her six months old baby to her back as she ran for safety.
She left her other child, who was two years old, in the care of her maid.
She had not gone far from her house when the child she was carrying on her back was shot in the head, killing her instantly.
“I put my child on the ground and continued running,” she says.
Dorcas ran to a nearby village and sought refuge in a Catholic church, but she was told she would not be safe there, either. Some people threatened to break down the church because of the people who had sought refuge there.
“The priest took me to the harbour and paid for my boat fare to take me anywhere out of the country,” says Dorcas.
Dorcas boarded a coffee-carrying ship sailing to Zambia, via Tanzania.
“I couldn’t escape to Congo because the people there do not accept me, and I couldn’t go to Rwanda because they consider me a foreigner,” she says.
The ship spent two weeks on the water, battling severe storms.
“It was raining heavily when the ship was on the water,” recalls Dorcas.
“I remember staying on the ship throughout the journey because I was told not to disembark because I didn’t have a passport.”
On the ship, she had met a Tutsi woman who had a lot of money. The woman had engaged Dorcas as a maid and she would work for her to earn some money.
After two weeks, the ship docked at Mpulungu Harbour in Northern Province.
After being processed, Dorcas ended up in Lusaka’s Kaunda Square Stage II, where certain church members welcomed her and helped her to settle.
She started a small business, making fritters. Her business soon grew and she moved into a bigger house where she was staying alone.
One night while sleeping, four men broke into her house and demanded money. Shaken, Dorcas gave in to their demands. But the men had other motives.
They took turns in raping Dorcas.
“When they left me, I screamed for help and people came to help me. They took me to Chelstone Clinic, but I was referred to UTH [University Teaching Hospital],” she says.
Days and weeks following her harrowing experience of being gang raped, Dorcas would often feel unwell.
Months later, she went for medical check-up and discovered she was HIV positive.
It was a devastating discovery for Dorcas.
“I was confused. I escaped from war in my country and here, I got raped and got infected with HIV. Where is my God?” she says.
Dorcas slipped into depression and later suffered a stroke.
Following strict diet and drugs regime, Dorcas made remarkable recovery from the stroke, although she cannot make full use of her right hand.
She later graduated her business from fritters to selling chitenge materials. She would move from office to office hawking her merchandise. And then, she opened a big shop in town.
“I made a lot of money and I became well known in that business,” she says.
But Dorcas was later duped by a woman whom she had become acquainted with. That deal would land her into trouble with the police and other people she had borrowed money from to invest in the business.
Even more, it cost Dorcas her own business.
She tried to restart her business by selling her wares from a market stand in City Market, but later lost about K45,000 worth of chitenges and sewing machines when the market was gutted some months ago.
Today, Dorcas is struggling to restart her business. But she is also battling a tumour in her brain. She needs money to be operated on in South Africa.
Dorcas still reminisces about life in Burundi.
“I had a good life in Burundi before the war. We never desired to live abroad before the war broke out,” she says.
But the biggest regret Dorcas has about the war is the loss of her marriage and family.
“The biggest thing I lost as a result of the war is my life, my marriage and my children,” she says.
“I don’t know if my husband is still alive. If I had seen him being killed, then I would have the evidence that he is dead, but I have no idea. I have tried to contact him, but I have no information about him or my children,” she says, as she dabs a tear from the corner of her eye.
“I would want to return to Burundi, but there is no peace there. People are still running away from Congo, from Burundi so where can I go?” says Dorcas.
Following unstable political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 5,000 have crossed into Zambia as refugees in the recent months.
Dorcas is now among 50 refugees getting help to get established under the Graduation Approach Programme run by Caritas Czech Republic.
The project, which is funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, targets mainly the most vulnerable among the refugees, building their socio-economic capabilities, as well as helping youths undergo skills training.
Currently, 20 youths are undergoing vocational training at the Lusaka Business College.
The Graduation Approach Programme was initially tried in Bangladesh, and then replicated in other countries.
Lucie Hrabcova, who is project co-ordinator in Zambia, hopes Dorcas’ story is a reality check that should help people understand the suffering that refugees go through, not only as they escape from their countries, but also in their countries of refuge.
“Zambia may be welcoming to many refugees, but the world in general is a refugee-friendly place,” says Ms Hrabcova.
She adds: “Even the most impoverished person has where to belong, a place they can call home, but a refugee does not belong to any country.”
Ms Hrabcova says Dorcas’ story “is good motivation for us to continue what we are doing.”
By the end of this year, when Dorcas is expected to graduate, she will receive about K4,000 to start her own business.