NCHELENGE, Zambia: Recounting horrific stories of rape and murder allegedly by government soldiers, thousands of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo have sought safety on the Zambian side of Lake Mweru.
About 6,000 Congolese residents have fled across the border since late August, triggering an emergency response from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) which has struggled to provide basic food rations and shelter.
DR Congo’s huge eastern region has long been wracked by violence, but fighting between government soldiers and militia groups, as well as inter-ethnic clashes, has increased this year.
The UNHCR said that the unrest had caused the largest influx into Zambia for the past five years, with many refugees blaming DR Congo President Joseph Kabila’s troops for the worst of the violence.
“I witnessed an incident where one pregnant woman was raped, her stomach ripped open and the baby killed before they killed her,” Kaimba Kazili, 39, a former subsistence farmer, told AFP at the Kenani transit camp in Nchelenge, northern Zambia.
“It is not safe to live in Congo any more because government soldiers are killing people,” she said.
On her journey to the camp, Kazili gave birth to triplets Ari, Kalangila and Kanaila — two boys and a girl — who were born on August 20, before she finally arrived in Zambia on September 14.
“It was not an easy thing but luckily we found a man driving a minibus who gave us a lift,” said Kazili, originally from the Kivu region of DR Congo.
The triplets were shown to Zambian President Edgar Lungu when he visited the camp last week accompanied by UNCHR officials and reporters.
But Lungu had an uncompromising message for the refugees.
“You have run away from lawlessness, so don’t bring lawlessness here,” he told them.
“We have laws which should be obeyed by everyone. If we jail you, when you finish your jail, we will send you back to Congo.”
Despite Lungu’s harsh words, Pierrine Aylara, the UNHCR head in Zambia, told the president that she wanted “to applaud your hospitality toward those displaced by war and conflict.”
For those in the camp, the only priorities have been the safety of their lives and getting enough to eat.
“Thank God that we all arrived safely as a family with my husband and all the four children,” said Mauno Rukogo, 42.
“I will never go back to Congo because war is tough. Kabila’s government was supposed to protect citizens but is killing its people.”
Rukogo said she had been repeatedly displaced inside DR Congo, where the eastern region has been roiled by conflict for more than two decades, before she fled to Zambia on September 9.
The UNCHR said the refugees have fled inter-ethnic violence and clashes between the army and myriad militia groups, particularly in Haut Katanga and Tanganyika provinces since end of August.
Earlier this year, security worsened sharply in the Pweto area of Haut Katanga, which shares a border with Zambia.
Many refugees said that they feel safer in Zambia but that food rations were scarce and children were not getting enough to eat.
“We are also asking for medical clinics for the children,” Rukogo added, with rampant malaria and diarrhea posing major health problems.
The UNHCR has set up tents and grass-thatched shelters at the 56-hectare (140-acre) site, as well as sunk two boreholes and nearly 300 pit latrines.
An agency official said that they provide 400 grams of maize (14 ounces) and 60 grams of rice a day for each family, as well as other food supplies.
“I saw my wife be killed by government troops and I only just managed to run away with my three children,” said Minga wa Minga, a 40-year-old school teacher.
“I had to keep going until I found some Congolese heading to Zambia,” he added.
“The UN have described the situation as a humanitarian crisis but let them do something to stop Kabila from destroying the country.”
Kabila failed to step down after his second and final term last December.
Elections were re-scheduled for this year, but have now been announced for December 2018.
DR Congo’s military spokesman in Kinshasa could not be reached for comment on the refugee’s accusations.