Baraka is a town bursting at the seams. At midday, the sandy streets are hot like a bath and the casual walker is soaked in sweat in about the time it would take to jump into one. The sun is blistering, yet the town is teeming with people.
The school playground brims with children, so many that they flood over the road and the neighbouring churchyard. The border between the school and the road is a row of burned-out cars. A forlorn metal sign, a souvenir from the former petrol station, faded, colourless and riddled with bullet holes, reads “Fina”. Next to the school is a wooden kiosk with a tin roof. In big reassuring letters it is labelled “Bureau de Police, Baraka”. A soldier walks past in full combat gear and wades through the children.
The name Baraka is Swahili; it means “blessing”. Maybe the slave caravans named it so, because they were so pleased to see the lake after months hacking their way through the forest. Or perhaps some early Zanzibari colonists were delighted with its crystal water. In any case, the town is now a blessing for the hordes travelling in the opposite direction: those who fled across the lake to Tanzania and Burundi during the war and who are now coming home. They are the living emblem of a Congo returning to peace, and I want to meet them. They are being repatriated to the isolated villages down the lake-shore and I am eager to see if I can catch a lift with the UN boat that will take them there.
“Before the refugees returned, Baraka was a sleepy fishing village of 10,000 people. Now it is a bustling town of 40,000 and rising. It cannot cope”
The man in charge of the refugee repatriation operation, whom I must convince to grant me permission to meet the returning refugees or get a lift with them, receives me in an air-conditioned office with a miniature UN flag on the desk. The office is billeted in the second-largest building in Baraka; the largest is the church. But unlike the church, whose tall battered wooden doors are wide open, the UNHCR compound is ringed with razor wire and guarded by men with guns. The head of the office is Magatte, a tall, elegant, infinitely patient and polite man from Senegal who has been given an almost impossible job.
Ten months before the repatriation operation began, Baraka was a sleepy fishing village of 10,000 people, nursing its wounds from the civil war. Now it is a bustling town of 40,000 and rising. Many of the refugees are daunted by the prospect of reclaiming their villages from the bush and rebuilding them, so they stay in the town where there is water, markets, schools and security. But Baraka cannot cope.
Magatte is at once proud of what his office has achieved but concerned at the forces that the return has unleashed. The UN charters ships that, twice a week, bring 500 people across the lake. Even at this rate, it will take years to get everyone home. Around three million people left the country between 1996 and 2002. Half a million of those who fled ended up in camps in Tanzania and about 300,000 of them are still there, living in vast cities in the dry plains east of Lake Tanganyika. Some have been there for ten years; a generation of children brought up in refugee cities. For them, rural life will be a shock. I fear many will not survive the return to the village and will slink back to Baraka to join in the process of turning it into Congo’s newest slum.
Magatte smooths his hands over the flat-pack desk and looks around his drab office as we talk, assessing his surroundings. Finding them in order, he fixes his bright eyes on me again.
I hesitate to ask him if I might interview the returnees. When I finally pluck up the courage, he raises his eyebrows, not in caution but in surprise. He is delighted. And he could not be more helpful. If and when there is a boat delivering refugees, I am welcome to ride on it. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade several journalists to come down from North Kivu to cover this good news story, for he laments the media image of his continent as a place mainly of war, famine and Aids.
“It is ironic, is it not,” he begins in precise French, “that while international news channels show pictures of people fleeing North Kivu, no attention at all is paid to the thousands who are returning to South Kivu.”
This, one of the largest UN repatriation exercises ever undertaken, a logistical feat of epic proportions, is almost unreported. I suppose “People going home” is always going to be a less sexy headline than “Refugees flee massacre”; I can also understand exactly why Magatte and his hard-working colleagues in the UN and many Congolese are piqued at the imbalance in coverage. After years of war, finally some good news! But it seems as if foreign correspondents can only see the bad; wearing the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles. Theirs are tinted a slightly darker shade: the colour of blood.
The voice of Baraka
At dawn the next day I go to the docks with Magatte to meet the newest arrivals on the incoming boat. The sky is turning gold, the water on the lake is slow and flat like hammered metal and the last of the morning mist sits heavily on the surface. A large white boat bobs gently at the quay, its deck covered in goats wearing little name tags to indicate their owner and plastic bags around their feet to stop them from catching foot rot from the other animals.
Through the portholes, hands poke out. The boat sounds as if it is groaning or has run aground. The mournful noise is the sound of the refugees singing in the hold; they are happy to be coming home. Since late last night their radios have been tuned to Radio Baraka.
Radio Baraka is a one-man outfit run by a determined, ageing man, Jonas, who I had met the night before. His office is a tiny tin shack, little bigger than a toilet, with a desk and a short aerial not much taller than a tree from where he broadcasts songs of welcome across the lake to the returnees. Radio Baraka plays a key role in uniting families through its messaging service; listeners pay 50 francs to have a text message broadcast. But Jonas is more ambitious than that: he also wants bicycles for his journalists so they can report on the news farther afield, not just within Baraka. He’d like to send someone, for example, to report on the four children who were injured and the two killed at the weekend when they played with a grenade left by soldiers in a church.
On the shore, relatives have lined up behind a string and started singing. The two groups, those on the boat and those on the shore, call and answer each other like worshippers in a church. Eventually those returning come tottering down the ramp clutching identical radios, plastic flip-flops and Chinese plastic bags; they don’t look well. Their eyes are red, their hair is dirty, most of the children don’t have shoes and many have bloody, rotten toes. One boy’s big toe is tied tightly with string to stop the rot from spreading, but the other end has burst like a sausage popped in the pan. When the crowd recognise one of their own a great cry goes up; the women ululate and clap their hands.
“Radio Baraka plays a key role in uniting families through its messaging service; listeners
pay 50 francs to have a text message broadcast”
Magatte and I catch up with the refugees in the transit camp. This is where they will spend their first night back home while they are, in Magatte’s phrase, “processed”. The process involves medical examination, rights education, food allocation and immigration bureaucracy.
In a huge tent, a dormitory, dozens of women are breastfeeding babies whilst older kids run riot across the makeshift beds and shriek through the flaps at the tent’s sides. They are waiting for their turn to be examined for lice, worms and other diseases. Many of the children running around this transit camp were born in Tanzania and these are their first steps on Congolese soil.
A large truck is dispensing drinking water into plastic buckets while old men with absent eyes sit on the ground staring at the middle distance, as though they don’t want to look too closely at where they are, nor focus on the green hills of home beyond: as though the story that bridges that gap is too painful to contemplate.
Outside, eager young relief workers in red jackets and blue UN baseball caps hand out food rations. The Democratic Republic of Congo used to export 40,000 tonnes of maize a year across the lake but now the World Food Programme imports food for the returning refugees and others. At the transit camp they receive three months’ supply of food per person: 36 kilos of maize flour, 10.8 kilos of beans, half a kilo of salt and 2.7 litres of cooking oil. This is what the international community has mandated it takes to keep one person alive for three months. After that, they are on their own.
Over the next few days they will be dropped, with their rations, seeds and tools, in the bush where their villages used to be. For many the challenge will prove too daunting and they will return to Baraka. After ten years in the camps in Tanzania some have forgotten how to farm, many don’t want to, and most have become used to free services and food aid and to being told what to do.
“What do you expect?” says Magatte. “There are no schools, no clinics, no functioning markets; settlement patterns will be different now.”
He is right. The problem is that no one is taking responsibility for planning Baraka’s explosive transition from village to city. Once the refugees come back, the UN’s job is done.
“This is where God means us to be”
In the tent, the children crowd around, hanging on each other’s shoulders, disappearing as soon as I direct a question at any one in particular. They are polite, shy and unfailingly optimistic and they speak grammatically correct Tanzanian Swahili; a product of the camps. I ask them what they are looking forward to, coming home.
Every single child wants to go to school. Nothing else. No talk of clothes, or food, or money. In the Tanzanian camps the schools were free. It breaks my heart to hear their hopes; Congo does not have enough schools even for those who are already here. Brought up in the relative entitlement of the refugee camps, where everything was laid on, I suspect they will find freedom in their homeland more than a little disappointing.
The women want land, their only real safety net, to grow their own food. One old woman is not sure if her plot will still be there when she gets back.
“What will you do if someone else has stolen it?” I ask her.
“I’ll buy another one.”
“With what money?”
“I’ll sell my food rations.”
“And then how will you eat?”
“I might be hungry for a while but then I know that next year and the year after that, I’ll be able to eat.”
It will be hard, but she is ready for the struggle. “Would you rather have stayed in the refugee camp?” I ask.
“No,” comes the chorus from her and from all the other women listening to our conversation.
“This is our home. This is our land. This is where God means us to be,” says a large woman in a brightly coloured head wrap. She has learned English in the refugee camps and earned money making clothes which she now intends to use to open a school back in Congo. It will be a good business.
There is one old man in the tent, sitting on a mattress with his walking stick between his legs. He beckons me over and asks what I am doing. Whatever it is I am handing out, he wants some of it.
“I’m asking people what they hope to do now they are home, after the war,” I say.
“I have nothing to say. I have already achieved my wish,” he says.
“What was that?”
He fled the Democratic Republic of Congo twice. He rebuilt his home twice. This is the third time he has returned across the lake; he sneaked back in 2011 to register and vote in the elections but then had to go back and collect his family from Tanzania.
“I am Congolese. If there is an election I must vote, I must be heard. Is it not so?” he says proudly. “That was my wish, to vote.”
Magatte comes in and gives a short speech in French exhorting them not to sell their food rations. I catch the eye of the old woman and she winks at me. They may be poor but these people are in control of their destiny once more. This is what dignity means, to be able to decide how your own meagre resources are used. Queuing for food, for shelter, waiting for someone else to decide your circumstances is a kind of
humiliation. No matter that the
provisions in the refugee camps were free. The returnees are not only regaining their country, but their autonomy, their selfhood, too.
Ben Rawlence is the author of ‘Radio Congo’, published by Oneworld at £8.99.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.