The 20th June is the World Day of Refugees promoted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It is the day to celebrate their strength and courage and promote public awareness and support of refugees.
Personally, my intention is to celebrate the strength and courage of one of them, Rehema, a girl I met in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC).
As I was doing my round in Mugunga I camp for displaced people, situated on the border of the road between Goma and Sake, in the province of North Kivu in RDC, an UNHCR officer approached me and asked me for help. A girl, in a miserable state, had arrived to the selection hangar. No one had been able to find out the simplest details about her as she was so weak to answer the basic questions for identification. She appeared there with the help of a gentleman who disappeared straight away. She literally dropped into one of the mats that was available spread out in a corner of the hangar and fell into a deep sleep or ‘unconsciousness’.
The selection process to decide the situation of a refugee or displaced person took two to four weeks. That enormous hangar was the ‘residence’ for those who fleeing from terror were searching for protection and help. UNHCR, to avoid the abuse of people who wished to be taken for displaced people or refugees, is forbidden to give any kind of assistance until their situation is clarified and confirmed.
The help that this officer wanted from me was that we took charge of that young girl, fainted on the small mat, while the process took place, since they, as UNCHR, were not able to do so. During the next three weeks we fed, dressed and cared for Rehema, and managed, with a little of the creativity used by humanitarians, to get the NGO responsible for the medical care in the camp to do a minimal check-up even though her situation was not yet clarified. Rehema never objected to do what she was asked, and she never asked any questions either. With a blank look and a slight smile in her face she turned left and right while we washed her; she leaned on our body when we were lifting her up to eat; she extended her arm making no resistance whe we needed to take her blood for analysing… and every time she would go back to sleep as if that was the only thing that mattered and the rest were small interruptions.
While she was still in the hangar we found out that her name was Rehema, that she was 20 years old and that she came from one of the small villages lost in the mountains between Walikale and Masisi where militias, guerrillas and such lived, oppressed by an armed conflict lasting over 20 years. We also learned the results of her analysis, but we decided to wait till she was stronger and not so depressed to let her know. She had hepatitis B and carried HIV virus. During three intense weeks Rehema recovered slightly. She was tall and very good looking. I was always impressed by her delicate look and the expression of tenderness that her smile transmitted.
When her process was completed she was given an identification card by UNHCR which allowed her to have food and medical assistance, and a plot in Mugunga I to build a shelter, plus the materials necessary for it. Meanwhile, Rehema and I had created a bound between us. We enjoyed building the tent and placing the canvas stretched out on the sticks that were the structure of the shelter. I asked her, while she was waiting for something more permanent, whether she would like to be a volunteer with us helping in the various daily tasks. She answered by offering us a smile that I will never forget.
I never asked her about her past. When one has the honour of knowing and living the day by day of these people who have suffered so much, and are suffering so much, one feels enormous respect for them and there are questions that one never asks. Five months after we had met we were in the container, that served as office and storeroom for materials, writing down names for the next activities when Rehema turned to me and said: “My grandmother is called Ange”, “Ange?”, I repeated. “Where is she?” – “In the village. I hope she is in the village, that nothing has happened to her”. I remember, as if it had happened today, how I put down my pen on the notepaper because I realized she was going to speak about herself and what had happened to her…
When she was 17, one of the many militias that control the mountains of Walikale and Masisi because of the coltan mines (a mineral necessary for the components for our smartphones and electronic devises, better known as blue gold) entered her village and the guerrillas killed, beat, burnt houses and robbed whatever there was in animals and recent crops. The same men, armed and looking wild, forced her, together with other three girls, to place enormous sacks on their heads. They were forced to carry through the woods what they had stolen till they reached the hidden camp where there were more than 30 men of all ages, but with the same aggressive and violent look.
For two months, she and the other three girls did all kinds of work, from cooking to being raped every night by 7-8 men… Rehema told me all this without the least alteration in her face, without anger, without anguish, without drama. Only once did I see her eyes full of tears when she declared that some of those men were as old as her grandfather. Not able to stand it any longer, after two months, the 4 girls decided to escape, and they succeeded. They returned to their village and life seemed to be settling when 5 months later the same guerrilla group returned to the village to bring about terror once again and provide themselves with food. Unluckily, one of the guerrillas recognised them… “They beat us to death”, Rehema remembered. Such was the violence with which they beat the 4 girls that in anger they themselves had to carry them back to the base as the girls could not hold themselves up.
They remained four more months in the woods, where life repeated itself day after day as in those previous two months: work during the day, being raped during the night. Rehema preferred to die trying to flee than to live in this way. This time she said nothing to the others and she risked it on her own. I asked her how they managed to escape. It seemed impossible to me… When the guerrillas went out for provisions, that is to rob a village, they took some women they had in the camp with them to carry back the bags. When they went out they marched in a line in military fashion: one man behind the other and the women as well. Whoever intended to escape would slow down little by little, slowing her step as if she was tired, remaining at the back and waiting for a moment when the guerrilla at the back was distracted. If that happened she would run into the woods knowing that the immediate noise she would hear would be the shots going across trying to hit her. Many women and child soldiers died in this way without their bodies ever been found… but is better to take the risk.
For a second time she returned to her village, under the protection of her grandmother who had brought her up, herself and her sisters. What this militia does is also done by other. Two more months were not over when another armed group invaded the village… Rehema fled. She left everything behind. She walked during 4 days and 3 nights, she walked without stopping and without destination, lost in the woods, till she reached a paved road. It was the road that went from Sake to Goma. She sat down exhausted, dejected, on the edge of the road. A truck stopped, a man came out and seeing her in that condition said to her: “Come, I will take you to Mugunga I Camp, they will look after you there”.
~The stories of 65,6 millions to whom we pay homage on the coming 20th of June are variations of Rehema’s life story. This is the year in which we are witnessing the higher levels of forced displacement ever registered. 22,5 millions are refugees and more than half of them are under 18.
Paraphrasing Pope Francis in his unforgettable homily on the 8th July 2013 in Lampedusa, the Rehemas I met come back to my mind continually like a thorn in my heart that hurts. I feel the duty of doing my best to awake our consciences so that what is going on now may not be repeated. It is not possible to remain indifferent. It is not possible not to welcome with open arms the one hwo is searching for protection.
I started by saying I was writing in homage to Rehema. I believe it is more exact to say in memory of Rehema. I left her at 21 and I don’t believe she can be alive.