Op-Ed: My Friend, a Refugee

Cap turned back to front, bellowing voice, yet short and stout of stature, he commanded attention and respect while hinting at a hidden story. He is my refugee friend, Robert, who haunted me long after my return to South Africa. By GUSHWELL BROOKS.

I met Robert in September 2015, while on assignment for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), to cover the JRS-JCHEM (Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins) tertiary programme graduation. He is a refugee. It is a label that could potentially cling to him for the rest of his life. It is a label that could move one to pity him; however, the most insidious effect of this label is how it limits his opportunities in life. In Malawi, where he is a resident of Dzaleka Refugee Camp, his refugee status keeps him out of the already impoverished mainstream economy, it limits his freedom of movement, yet most of all, its cause and effect could have left him incarcerated in hopelessness.

He, however, struck an immediate impression; with his somewhat antiquated Cannon camera hanging by a strap around his neck, he didn’t look like yet another mercenary photographer taking unsolicited photos, thereafter to extort money from involuntary customers who pay a ransom in exchange for their captured memories.

Instead, he moved like a seasoned photojournalist, seemingly hunting for a scoop that would eternally elude him on the dusty plains of Dzaleka Refugee Camp, half an hour’s drive outside of Malawi’s Capital, Lilongwe. Cap turned back to front, bellowing voice, yet short and stout of stature, he commanded attention and respect while hinting at a hidden story.

We covered the graduation along with two other refugees, Hugo Hivanove Mpenzi and Joseph Kabila Bahulule. Our collection of photographic and video material coalesced into an impressive tapestry documenting the educational efforts of JRS, stretching from preschool all the way to tertiary education level for refugees in Malawi and, by extension, the rest of the southern Africa region.

Robert, in particular, haunted me long after my return to South Africa; his story, his work ethic and the fact that he was seemingly chasing his tail with very little reward despite his effort in a refugee camp, prompted me to try to find a way to harness his energy. I immersed myself in what I could only imagine was the persistent psychological torture of a man with ambitions, talents, abilities and dreams, to have these unfulfilled as domestic Malawian law confined him to a camp as a refugee, thus restricting him from pursuing the truth as a journalist.

We took a chance – with no CV, no references and nothing but gut-feel, we contracted his as well as Hugo and Joseph’s services as refugee volunteer community journalists. Robert, of course, became their de facto supervisor.

This gamble was well worth the risk. Today, these three refugee volunteer community journalists meet their monthly deadlines with excellent stories, photos and videos for publication on JRS Southern Africa’s website. Throughout this period though, Robert maintained contact beyond the work he was contracted to do; he would mail, WhatsApp and Facebook, always enquiring about the welfare of my family and me.

In fact, on a trip to Malawi in January this year, he applied for and was granted permission to leave the camp for a day and travelled by bicycle taxi to the airport to wish me farewell as I returned to South Africa. He stuck around as I made my way through the ticket counter, through immigration and as I waited at the boarding gate, all to capture the only photo of me boarding a plane. He became more than one of the tens of thousands of beneficiaries of the faith-based organisation I worked for, an organisation that provides aid to him and other refugees and asylum seekers. He taught me invaluable life lessons, he showed me kindness and concern despite his own misfortunes, and so he became a friend.

At my age you begin to lose friends as opposed to making new ones. Married life, life as a parent with a career and divergent lifestyles pretty much relegate you to the realm of only having close friends and family to invite to children’s birthday parties and the occasional braai. However, Robert managed to break that mould.

Robert was born in Uvira, South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on 5 June 1978. He completed secondary school in 1999 and thereafter enrolled to study Development Studies – with a focus on rural development – at Institut Supérieur De Développement Rural (ISDR), in Bukavu, four hours’ drive by bus from Uvira.

His passion for journalism started as a student, when he managed to secure a job as a radio announcer during June 2000, at one of the local radio stations in Bukavu. A year later, he was commissioned to cover a story in Ndunda village where reports had emerged that rebels had descended on the village, leaving 13 people dead overnight. With notebook in hand, Robert left for Ndunda village to investigate the story.

The newsdesk cleared his report that RCD (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, or Rally for Congolese Democracy) rebels had initiated the brutal attack. Robert went to air with the story and later that day a convoy of RCD vehicles and rebels arrived, demanding to know who allowed the news segment to go to air.

Robert’s superiors had already left for the day and so he became the sole target of the rebels’ anger. Six rebel soldiers surrounded him and forcibly removed him from the studio. He explains:

At first they wanted to know who allowed the story to be aired. They were unhappy with the fact that we reported on the massacre in Ndunda village, the night before. By the time they had forced me outside, another group of rebel soldiers arrived, with another statement, a statement claiming that I had told Congolese people to hate Rwandese, that the children of Rwandese and Congolese are cockroaches, that they should be burnt. I had never and would never say that, but they destroyed the statement stating that I had reported on the village massacre without permission and replaced it with the statement stating that I had incited hatred toward Rwandese. I was then arrested and taken to Goma.”

Robert was not formally charged or tried; instead, he says:

There is no court, they decide who lives and who dies.”

Robert, along with approximately another 30 to 40 men, were held in what he describes as a four-by-four metre room that doubled as a cell.

It was horrible there, you had to use the toilet in a small space in front of everyone. We were given a small bucket to share as a toilet,” he says. That was not the worst of it for Robert. Two deep lines dig into his brow as he recalls and recounts the beatings, rapes and murders.

Every night was filled with terror, as each man in that room wondered whose turn it would be to be dragged out and violated.

I saw so many bad things there, I was held there for three months and three weeks. There was another small room outside. They would come at night and grab one of us, take you outside to that room and…”

Robert uncharacteristically resorts to profanity, but how do you blame him? I push, as it seems clear that it did not just happen to others, but to him as well, so I ask, “Did that happen to you as well?” His anger visibly turns to sadness, as an oscillating voice replies, “Yes, of course!”

I regret having asked him, I pushed too far, the trauma he had left behind has revisited him and by the next day, he is still not himself. He then tells me that our conversation reminded him of what happened, it made him think of the loved ones he left behind, and so I regret having prodded him for an answer.

He, along with the other men kept there, were psychologically and physically tortured to breaking point.

The soldiers would come, tell you to open your mouth and they spat into it. If they thought you were being defiant, they would beat you. We were tortured very badly there. If they come for you at night and you refused to go, they would beat you badly in front of everyone. I saw four people die in the three months I was there.”

Racism, xenophobia and genocide have been justified for as long as human society has existed. I look at Robert and search through the memory banks of many interactions and never recall any expression of disdain or dislike of anyone, let alone an entire community. However, taking into account what happened to Robert and considering that the RCD rebels that had taken him and who had been fighting in the region were made up of Rwandan nationals, I could not help but wonder, does he now hate Rwandese people? So I ask him.

All Rwandese are not bad. It is only those that were led astray. In any country or within any tribe there are people who think very poorly and are easily led astray, and then there are those who think critically, who can tell right from wrong and do the right thing. Also, many joined the rebels out of fear, because of what happened. Yes, there are some Congolese who will not even drink water from the same source with Rwandese, but I have been living here in Dzaleka for 13 years with people from Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo and Rwanda. I can’t hate all Rwandese for what some did to me. It is the politicians that need to be held accountable, the ones who make other people do these horrible things.”

Robert’s saviour was the ironically named Commander Shatan (Satan).

Their commander arrived one day and made us all stand in a line. He asked us one-by-one why we were there. It was my turn, and he stood in front of me and asked me why I was being held there. I told him about the broadcast and my arrest and he said, ‘No, you are not supposed to be here.’”

Robert believes that it had to have been about nine o’clock in the evening when the commander returned. He had Robert blindfolded and loaded onto the back of a jeep.

Blindfolded, on the back of the jeep, through the hum of the engine and crunching of rough terrain under tyre, Robert heard Commander Shatan tell his men that Robert should be executed, that he would do it himself.

Blindfolded, Robert could only feel vegetation tugging at and whipping his shins as he was pushed deeper into the forest.

He made me kneel and fired three shots with his pistol. He removed my blindfold and told me to run. I ran, I do not know how long I ran for, but I ran until I found a house. When I reached the house I asked the people there what place it is. I did not know where I was or where I needed to go. I needed to get back to Uvira, I needed money. To this day I do not know why he let me go!”

Robert, being a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reached out to the local congregation and managed to secure funds to return to Uvira. He eventually reached Uvira, but knew that now he would be put to death if he was to be discovered. As far as the rebels knew, their commander, Shatan, had executed him in the forest that night, so he could not return home. Robert therefore became transient, moving from house to house, sleeping in different places every night. Word eventually reached the rebels that Robert was still alive in Uvira and so they tried to recapture him.

After his escape, Robert wrote to the Geneva-based headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and was then advised to move to Burundi.

In Burundi, a man I remember as Benoit, I will never forget that name, asked to see my letter from the UNHCR. After looking at my letter, he told me to leave. He told me that the day before, people had arrived looking for me, they wanted to take me, they were going to kill me.”

Robert returned to Uvira where he stayed for another month, until one night, during clashes between RCD rebels and militia, the house neighbouring the house Robert had been sleeping in was struck by a mortar. Robert then fled to Lake Tanganyika where he boarded a boat to Tanzania. As Tanzania shares a border with the DRC, he decided to move further and subsequently took a train to Dar es Salaam, where he boarded a bus to Malawi. He reached Malawi in January 2003.

Robert left the DRC as a young man. Today he lives alone in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, but he had to flee leaving behind family, friends and a girlfriend. A year before he arrived in Malawi, his then-girlfriend left the DRC for Tanzania, along with her family. During Robert’s flight through Tanzania, he ran into her older sister, per chance.

I found a piece of scrap paper and a pen and wrote her a letter, telling her that I was heading for Malawi and that I was still alive, hoping to see her again. Instead, her sister threw away my letter, she probably thought that her sister was not interested in me any more.”

In September 2011, as the world focused its attention on the biggest terrorist act to rock the world, as the World Trade Center towers crumbled, an unknown Facebook message shook Robert’s world. “Are you the Robert I know?” was the simple question in the online message. The two long lost lovers started exchanging messages again and this is how Robert came to learn that she had been resettled to the United States. Eventually she asked him if in the time that they had been apart he had met someone else, got married or had a child. His reply was simply: “The way you left me is how I am, still single.”

She had had a daughter in the time that they were apart. She apologised to him, but she had no reason to apologise. While in Tanzania as a refugee, she was raped and so her daughter was conceived.

She had nothing to apologise for and I had no reason to forgive her. That is my daughter, even if she is not biologically mine. She will never know her biological father but I will raise her as my own. How could I be angry at her? What happened to her, happened to me. I know that she didn’t want it, I know that she was hurt just as I was, no one asks to be raped.”

Robert smiles and says:

Because of her, I believe in love, man. She has shown me love exists.”

She saved money and two years after their coincidental meeting via Facebook, flew to Malawi, to finally marry Robert. The nuptial celebration took place in the dusty refugee camp on 27 September 2013. She returned to the US with her daughter after a three-week stay and the couple are hopeful that they will be reunited as a family some day soon.

Thirteen years on as a refugee, still hoping to be reunited with his family, Robert along with Hugo and Joseph find some solace in the work that they do. As refugees they are stuck in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, with nothing but the tormenting images of what led them to this place to haunt them in their nightmares. They have not curled up and given up though, but instead have made lives for themselves in this part of Malawi that once served as a political prison.

Hugo, the youngest member of the team, has built a recording studio and has dreams of signing artists and becoming a world renowned music producer. Joseph is studying toward a Regis University accredited diploma through the JRS-JC:HEM three-year diploma programme.

In a place with no government-supplied electricity, running water or sanitation facilities for the 28,000 refugees that live there, these men, like so many other refugees, wake up every morning, wash themselves, put on clean clothes and go about changing this small patch of terra firma for the better. They return with hair, faces and clothes covered in red dust, just to wash it off and begin a new day.

They, Robert especially, taught me that the human spirit prevails. What he taught me is that we – organisations like JRS – and people working to provide refugees with support, are simply conduits, we provide some of the tools for refugees to live fulfilled lives in a world that has led them to a life on the run, but it is the refugees that use these tools to make their lives better.

It is people like Robert who pick up the pieces and rebuild. He chose not to allow the trauma of his experiences in the country of his birth to debilitate him, he chose to continue working despite the absence of immediate financial reward, he continues to care about others and to forgive those who did horrific things to him. He continues to believe that truth should prevail above all, despite what the act of simply telling the truth led to:

The truth must be known. As journalists we must not be shut down, we are here to tell the truth.” DM

Photo: Mothers wash clothes in a Red Cross refugee camp after they left their township houses in the area due to the xenophobia attacks in the Primrose, Johannesburg, South Africa, 19 April 2015. Xenophobic attacks that started in the port city of Durban spread to Johannesburg. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK


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