Community, Diaspora and Immigration
A hard life away from home
For Neema Zawadi, 22 years of age, July 1 was a day like any other in Buganzi Nyaruhange Village in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Although aware of the on-going war between mutineers, the M23, and the Congolese Armed Forces, Ms Zawadi and her husband did not think it would spread deep into their humble village.
Now taking refuge at the Nyakabende Refugee Transit Centre in Kisoro, she spoke, through a translator, about how one peaceful day turned out to 11 days of horror.
“My husband and I woke up that Sunday morning and went to our local church. While there, we heard rumours that soldiers had been seen several kilometres from the village. We did not think much of the rumour,” Ms Zawadi narrated.
In the DRC, regular sighting of groups of soldiers rarely raises concern amongst the population. This time, however, the armed forces were at war with mutineers, who had taken over parts of eastern DRC. Soldiers close by meant the war was not far from this village.
A storm in the teacup
“After church, my husband decided it may be safe for us if we move to his parent’s farm in Rwagumba. So when we got home, we packed some belongings, locked our doors and left,” she said.
Half an hour into the journey, Ms Zawadi said the couple and their one-year-old daughter encountered government forces.
“I had never seen how [FARDC] soldiers look like. They were unusually subdued. They did not question us or harass us. We saw many wounded soldiers on the roadside. Two of them walked up to us and advised us on which roads not to take and that was it,” she continued.
On arrival at Rwagumba, the couple found the homestead abandoned.
“The house was open; cups, pots and pans were everywhere. It was evident they left in a hurry and not long before we reached because there was a fire still burning in the kitchen. My husband located their foot prints and we followed them,” she says, adding that it was around 3pm local time. The couple and their daughter were unaware what danger they were about to encounter. Wandering through the thick forest, they came across dead human bodies.
“We could not tell whether they were government soldiers or the M23. There were weapons everywhere. My husband wanted to pick a gun but I begged him not to. We could be mistaken for either side. I covered by daughter’s face and we moved quickly.”
Farther on, they encountered a handful of other people who were also on the run.
The sound of gunshots and mortar fire was now very prominent in the air.
“We did our best to walk farther and farther away from where those sounds came from but the more we moved, the more we seemed to get closer. We ran so fast. I prayed to God to keep us alive and deliver us to safety. There was so much confusion, I was not thinking straight. My husband, in the process, vanished in the jungle.”
For 10 more days, Ms Zawadi and a handful of civilians wandered though the jungle.
“When darkness fell, we would find places to sleep. Most nights we slept in short trees for fear of wild animals.