a good friend of ours fled kiziba refugee camp a couple weeks ago, on the move again after fifteen years. we have been messaging through facebook, and that first night, after signing off with him, i thought: having a friend who is a refugee is talking to him on messenger while he and his family have fled a place that should have been safe and are struggling to find food and shelter in a new country and trying to get as much information from him and to him before his phone dies and you don’t know when you will hear from him again. and then you have to go wash the dishes and finish your reading for class.
i have stitched the following together from numerous correspondences with friends in kigali and kiziba, as well as news articles and posts made by protesters themselves on twitter and facebook as the events unfolded.
this past summer, the world food programme (wfp) switched from food rations to cash allowances in kiziba, the camp in which i used to work when we lived in rwanda. the switch worked well, at first. lots of positive changes, lots of new businesses. but in november the cash was cut by ten percent. in december the warning came that it would be cut a further twenty-five percent. many wondered, reasonably, if they could even survive on twenty cents a day.
recently, new integration initiatives were aimed at allowing refugees opportunities for work and citizenship. but to the often nationalistically loyal refugees, frustrated by and distrustful of the rwandan government, such plans made them feel they were being forced to become rwandan citizens, which to most is not desirable.
a few weeks ago the camp leadership said that if their concerns were not addressed by the unhcr they would all walk back to congo. better to die on the way or in that broken country, they said, than starve to death in the camp. no answer came from the unhcr.
and so on tuesday, february 20, a few thousand refugees left kiziba. they were stopped at the top of the ridge outside of the camp by the military and police. despite guns fired in the air to disperse them and a couple people wounded, the refugees continued their two-plus hour march to kibuye and the unhcr offices, where they camped out for two days, speechifying, singing, booing police officers using bullhorns, demanding the unhcr to talk to them. which they did not.
on thursday, allegedly because some refugees were throwing things, the cops and troops opened up to disperse the protests. tear gas first, then bullets. hearing about this, many refugees rushed from kiziba to join them in kibuye, but were stopped by police near the camp. the military denied any use of bullets, while, interestingly enough, acknowledging that some refugees had ‘succumbed’ to their wounds. by the end of the day the military said that five refugees were killed. later the claim was that eight bodies were buried. news outlets are saying eleven now. some refugees are saying twenty-two.
i don’t know how many were actually killed or wounded. but i’m in contact with a handful of kiziba refugees. i know that one of the deceased was a former english student at the library and had participated in our sports programs. and many people are still missing or hiding. and some refugees are combing the camp, trying to put together an accurate total. while things are calmer now, tension remains. the police are investigating.
the violence used does not surprise me, unfortunately. it matches the heavy-handedness rwanda has exerted in other areas, as well as the level of oppression found in the camp. i know we need to be thankful that these camps exist, keeping people alive, and i am, and acknowledge that the unhcr in rwanda is honestly, severely underfunded. but that doesn’t mean we can’t be dissatisfied with the conditions in the camp, or how, after two decades of everyone holding on to an untenable situation, making sustainability impossible, the unhcr and wfp have had to make tough decisions that lead to protests.
and this is why the work of jcm and our friends in the library was always so amazing to me, that refugees in that ‘open prison’, denied rights as citizens, caught in a mire of hopelessness, worked to build a better future. working with them, seeing their dedication, impacted me so much that i’m writing a dissertation on refugee-led community organizations in glasgow. i believe that if the world is ever going to figure out how to deal with refugee situations in ways that don’t create more kizibas or overwhelm countries, then we probably have to start listening to refugees more. and we will probably have to start changing what the terms ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’ mean.
in conclusion, i’ve had a terrible couple of weeks. while i have been productive in many ways despite it all, i destroyed my fingernails, and lived several days in a shaky state somewhere between wanting to weep and wanting to puke. all the while frantically refreshing twitter and facebook and messaging everyone i know in kiziba.
this recent message from one of the librarians sums up much:
‘hello my friend how are you now ? but for kiziba now not good. I am alone at library… keep praying for refugies in Rwanda .bye we are hungry and no peace in [kiziba] camp.’