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Finding complicated peace in Malawi's refugee camp

Congolese refugee Reine-Jean Pierre is happy to be with her family at Dzaleka, despite overcrowded conditions. Photo by Andrea Lynett.

By Andrea Lynett

Sometimes I wonder where people find the strength to carry on.

As I sat in a clay hut with a roof fashioned from a tarp marked with the sky-blue UNHCR logo, I found myself in awe of the woman in front of me.

With her hair wrapped in red cloth and a bowl of food sitting idle on her lap, 36-year-old Reine-Jean Pierre flatly explains she “left the Congo because of war.” It was the type of war “where people come at night, pick somebody and murder them,” she says.

Dzaleka refugee camp on the outskirts of Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe has served as a haven for displaced people fleeing war-torn countries since 1994. Like most refugee camps, day-to-day challenges such as medical shortages and insufficient food are all too common, but for many asylum seekers it’s the closest thing to home available.

It’s been three years since Malawi’s two refugee camps consolidated to create Dzaleka, and the camp now faces overcrowding. At the beginning of 2007 there were 5,000 refugees at Dzaleka. Today there are 11, 500. Most have come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

The government has no plan in place to deal with the large crowds as new refugees continue to stream in. Many are wondering what will happen when the camp reaches its limit and fear that the government will be forced to turn away asylum seekers like Pierre who walk thousands of miles in search of peace.

“They came to our house one night and took everyone out of the house and committed some sexual violence,” says Pierre, describing  a 2008 attack by the Mai Mai, a Congolese defense force. “They undressed all of us, and asked me to sleep with my father,” she adds.

Reluctantly, Pierre complied. She was then forced to watch as the militia tied up her husband’s genitals. Unable to handle the inhumane treatment inflicted upon her family, Pierre’s mother left the group and committed suicide.

Sadly, Pierre’s story is one of thousands just like it.

According to UNHCR Malawi representative Abel Mbilinyi, refugee status is supposed to be temporary, “but how temporary it is depends mostly on the conditions in the country where refugee’s come from,” he says. Those who escaped war in Angola and Rwanda, for example, have been displaced from their countries for 10 to 14 years, making their refugee status a permanent reality.

“What UNHCR does, is generally to help refugee’s find durable solutions,” explains Mbilinyi. “One of the solutions is to help refugee’s return home.” But they have only been successful on a small scale—in 2009, 220 of the country’s 5,000 refugees eligible to return home actually did so.

To make life more bearable, NGOs such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program work closely with refugees, ensuring they are provided basic amenities such as shelter, clean water, education and food. But some say this is why many refugees won’t go home—often they don’t have access to even those basic provisions because of the lasting devastation caused by war.

Nonetheless, these organizations are currently facing a problem of understaffing. With only four permanent social workers at the Red Cross, each one is responsible for serving over 1,000 refugees.

"We cannot say we fully serve them,” explains Cecilia Banda, a social welfare officer with the Red Cross.

The 2010 UNHCR budget provides the camp with $2 to 3 million each year, in addition to financial assistance provided by WFP. This may seem like a lot, but when compared to Zambia, which was given over $16 million in 2009, it’s clear why the camp clinic consistently faces drug shortages and understaffing.

Regardless of the difficulties facing refugees who call the 200-kilometre dirt escarpment home, individuals like Pierre are thankful they escaped war.

“I was a business woman, I used to sell clothes and my husband was a teacher,” she says with an air of sadness. “But I don’t think I can go back home. Those Mai Mai are still there, fighting the government and committing these atrocities.”

She points to her young daughter, responding with certainty in her broken English, “we have few problems here and we are together.”

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Africa Without Maps

  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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