I must say that the two day visit to Nyarugusu was very informative but also exhausting and challenging. The first challenge we encountered was driving up to the camps on unpaved roads, the journey was expected to last about 2.5 ,however, it took us over four hours to reach the camp. The roads are better maneuvered by4x4s ,however, we opted out of that option as a line of 4x4s would attract too much attention as we were a group of 20. Secondly, this was everyone’s first time at the camp and while we did not know what to expect, the situation was something that you had to experience to believe. It cannot be easily captured through articles or books.
My first observations were the lack of sufficient resources such as shelter, water, food, medication, and clothes. A majority of the children did not have shoes which is problematic as this has been one of the biggest factor in causing parasite and worm infections.
Furthermore, speaking with the Congolese Leaders provided great insight into what life in the camps are like and what is being done to maintain customs and prepare for repatriation or resettlement. The camp is divided into seven zones with each zone having three democratically elected leaders. These zones are further divided into 52 villages. The Leaders
serve as the voice of the refugees so that their complaints grievances are voiced to the government of Tanzania. They also report any information from the government, international community, and UNHCR back to the Congolese population in the camp. They also represent the community when meeting with NGOs in regards to specific work they perform in the camp. For instance, meetings with TWESA in regards to lack of access to sufficient water resources. They even have their own justice department that is based on Congolese customs and not under the Tanzanian police.
It was also interesting to have the Congolese voice their grievances and concerns in regards to the situation in the camp and the new influx. The biggest grievances are the lack of sufficient water, low pay rates for refugees who are employed in the camp, less services because of the Burundian influx, and the long distances that women have to travel to acquire firewood and change in diet. They are requesting stoves that require little firewood so women would not have to risk being rape by walking long distances to collect wood, a change in the diet as they have had the same minimal diet of corn flour and beans for twenty years and equal pay rates as Tanzanians working in the camps.
The Congolese Leaders were all concerned about whether or not the UNHCR will to provide services to them and how will the international community still cater to their needs with the new influx requiring the diversion of resource and attention. One leader expressed that even before the influx the UNHCR had stopped providing certain services to them and that they did not receive any soap for three months. The group also collectively expressed concern about the media’s portrayal of the Congolese’s perception and attitude towards the Burundians. With the influx being unexpected, the UNHCR did not have the capacity or resources to accommodate the new arrivals. As a result, the Congolese bared the burden of the first set of arrivals. The Leaders assured that the Congolese prepared tents and set other infrastructure in place for the arrival of the additional Burundians, shared food, clothes, jackets and other supplies and that Burundians are even staying in the homes of some of the Congolese. However, the Congolese believed that they have been inaccurately portrayed by the media.
With the exception of Tanzania and other countries that are friendly towards refugees, I am truly disgusted by the way refugees are treated by the international community and in their host countries. Many view them as economic burdens when in reality they are evading certain death. As someone in the humanitarian field I keep current with humanitarian crises and trends in international development but never could I have imagined that the situation inside the camps would be so dire. In all fairness, the Congolese population who have been settles for almost twenty years seem to be thriving and have been able to acquire assets such as livestock and expand their homes. However, since the camp is still in the emergency phase from all the new arrivals it is very over populated and over stretched.
On a more brighter note, I was very impressed at how resilient the refugees were. I was particularly impressed by how happy and welcoming the children were despite the trauma of their situation.
I will post a separate blog about my experience with the children.