I’m on my way home. Not there yet but after 130 hours in cars, 30 hours on planes, and 10 hours on boats over the last five weeks, this hotel room in Kigali , Rwanda feels like a wonderful first step to my final destination.
Throughout this trip, it’s been hard not to apply what I’ve seen to my own personal life.
I’ve been missing home, missing family and friends, and all the thousands of familiarities and creature comforts that go with home.
So last Wednesday, as I stood on a dock in the town of Baraka, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and watched hundreds of Congolese refugees returning to their homeland for the first time in many, many years, I fought back tears.
For one family I met, it has been seven long and painful years since they fled from their small village in remote South Kivu province into western Tanzania . Muzalio Chiba, his wife, Suzanne, and their two-year-old daughter, Anna, escaped, along with a wave of their neighbors, just as the country’s civil war began to sweep into their village of Tulonge .
For seven years, in the refugee camp where they lived in Tanzania , they tried to make some sort of life for themselves. And for seven years, they dreamed of returning to their homeland and their family.
On Wednesday, for the first time since 2000, Muzalio and Suzanne, along with their now four children, set foot once again on Congolese soil.
They are among the tens of thousands of Congolese who are finally making their way back home, after the official end of DRC’s decade-long civil war. Many of these returnees have been away as long as 10 years.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that it became safe again for them to come home. Since then, large ships, each carrying up to 600 Congolese, dock each week at the ports of Baraka and Uvira, near the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika .
On this particular day, I watched as IMC’s medical and logistics staff helped each of the returnees gingerly make their way down the steep gangplank onto the dock; babies, the elderly and the sick were physically carried or transported by stretcher.
There, I saw Muzalio and Suzanne, like the 300 or so other people on the ship, holding all that they possessed in the world: a bit of food, a makeshift cloth sack, filled with their clothes and other personal belongings, and their identification papers. Their entire lives were boiled down to this. I remember the looks on their faces – at turns joy, anticipation, and consternation. What would happen to them now?
Many Congolese have no other family left in the country – or if they do, they may be hundreds of miles away from the port. What will they do for food, medical care, a place to live, a job?
In July of 2006, as thousands began repatriating, IMC identified massive shortfalls in the care and services they were receiving. The 55 existing health centers in two of the health zones were unable to offer adequate medical support for the huge influx; shelter had been provided for fewer than 2,000 of an estimated 60,000 returnees; nearly 3,500 women had experienced some type of gender-based violence over the prior nine months, with virtually no follow-up care; there was extremely limited access to sanitation facilities or clean water (in one area, the only water available to a population of 37,000 was five miles away); and there were virtually no modes for people to earn an income and support their families.
So in January of ’07, with funding from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, IMC began providing health care to returnees at every step of the process - from the boat to their villages of origin. This includes primary health care and follow-up care, screenings and referrals for those suffering from malnutrition, pre- and post-natal care, immunizations, as well as treatment and counseling for victims of sexual violence and assistance in reintegrating into society. In addition, IMC has begun improving access to safe water supplies and sanitation by rehabilitating existing water sources, constructing new ones, installing rainwater catchment systems, and building latrines.
In all, IMC is serving about 560,000 people, including those repatriated from Tanzania , those displaced within Congo because of the war, and a host population that already was underserved.
At the transit center, where returnees stay on average 48 hours, they are registered, receive medical examinations, are fed hot meals and are able to take showers, and given a three-month food ration. They then are driven in convoys – with IMC medical escorts on board - to their villages of origin.
Sitting outside the registration tent at the transit center in Baraka, Muzalio and Suzanne told me they’re thrilled to be back in their country, but uncertain about what lies ahead. They feel lucky to be healthy and to have family back in their village (about 200 miles away), whom they hope to see soon. Still, their needs will be enormous on this long journey home, as they try to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. I feel like we’re going far toward helping them do that. For those who have no support system at all and are most vulnerable I feel we’re giving them what they need as well.
My mind fixes on the image of IMC staff at the port in Baraka, holding these refugees’ hands, helping them grab onto the rails as they put one foot in front of the other, make their way down that slippery ramp, and finally reach firm ground.
That’s the goal; that’s the mission.