Issue 5 - Article 4

Refugees in South Kivu, Zaire

June 1, 1996
Danielle de Lame

Danielle de Lame, an RRN Member, was one of the anthropologists contributing to the Rwanda Evaluation. In this article, based on her experience of Rwandese camps in eastern Zaire, she describes life in the camps from a refugee, and in particular, a woman’s perspective. The article offers a reminder of the complexity and dynamic nature of social and power structures within many refugee camps and their impact on certain fundamental needs as access to food and information. It considers the problems experienced by women refugees, in particular those from modest backgrounds, to feed in to the decision-making processes which affect them and the lives of their families; the majority have little or no access to information and therefore no recourse against arbitrary decisions.

The experience of the Rwandese refugees in South Kivu is one of evolving cultures, shaped by the particular social and economic contexts of the different camps. In July 1995, when I was with the refugees in South Kivu, a year had passed since the blue plastic sheetings had first taken over the landscape. The number of refugees per camp varies from around one thousand to 50,000, giving a total of some 300,000 refugees throughout this part of Zaire. By mid-1995, the emergency had taken hold with no end in sight and most refugees were resigned to an indefinite stay.

It was in this perspective that communities began to re-organise themselves accordingly – some on the basis of kinship existing prior to their flight, some regrouped by humanitarian agencies moving people to pre-prepared sites. To some extent, the refugee communities evolved through new forms of interaction with humanitarian agencies, the local population and representatives of the Zairian authorities. But for many, behind the official organisation of food and fuelwood distribution, the former social and economic divisions and political power games had simply re-established themselves, the location of the twenty or so sites, some of them chosen by the refugees themselves, offering clear illustrations of such cleavages.

In my experience, the ‘northern’ image of a refugee camp has little in common with the bustle and apparent wealth of a site like Kashusha, for example, with its car park, money-changers, restaurants, market, import/export office and two-storey brothel. The Zairians do business there, as do the rich refugees. In the event of an attack, a cordon of plastic sheetings surrounds and protects the centre; sentries control arrivals and the movements of the camp’s inhabitants. Yet, the climate is very different in a camp like Kalehe, where poor people who had remained in the towns were brought and where many of the women saw my visit as a unique opportunity to make their voices heard, in the absence of educated women in the camp.

Serious economic inequalities and hence unequal access to modern culture have accompanied Rwandese refugees and women, in particular, into exile. For a privileged minority, life in the camps means business as usual, even if the location has changed. As before, this minority jealously guards its privileges, though to obtain the various advantages which even life in the camps can provide, now demands a political loyalty above suspicion. For these élites, the camps provide the opportunity to do business and carry on illegal trading in goods, which may involve aid (such as elaborate patchwork quilts intended for orphans) or food rations, enabling educated women in particular to take advantage of humanitarian agencies’ bias in their favour. In terms of access to employment, ‘charm’ also has its advantages (although for some privileged women, their status actually contributed to their suffering: for example, since her flight from Rwanda, one woman has never been able to reunite her children who were on holiday when the genocide started). But the vast majority goes on living in poverty, without even the consolation of familiarity and contact with their land and neighbours. Food and fuelwood distribution and the need to obtain adequate food rations, earn money, and plan for the future (however uncertain it may be) will be experienced very differently depending on a refugee’s position in the camp’s social structure.

Peasant women have virtually no other option than to cultivate the fields of Zairian farmers, sometimes walking for more than two hours to earn $0.33 for a day’s agricultural work. They are often paid in kind, with a bunch of bananas or tubers similar to those traditionally eaten in their own country. Additional responsibilities include caring for children, taking the sick to the dispensary, queuing for rations and cooking. Such responsibilities as keeping up the nutritional content of their families’ food intake affects women on two counts (as a result of the courage of the refugees and Zairian solidarity, nutritional status has remained satisfactory despite food rations sometimes reduced by half (Report on Health and Nutritional Co-ordination from UNHCR – Bukavu, 20 May, 1995): as a vulnerable group caring for children and as agricultural workers responsible for daily food supplies. Such problems are compounded by a lack of communication between peasant women in the camps and the humanitarian agencies delivering the assistance. For example, while some humanitarian organisations are aware of a nutritional problem affecting elderly people, and especially women, in some cases they have wrongly assessed the cause, putting it down to the hardness of the maize which they therefore think should be milled. They are unaware of the custom, still very much alive in the countryside, for the elderly and unproductive members of a community to leave food for the youngest and especially young men in order to maintain the lineage, and allowing themselves to die.

Such a lack of understanding illustrates the difficulties peasant women have in communicating with the élite and hence with humanitarian workers. Most communication between refugees and humanitarian agencies is through educated women, therefore mostly from the élite. Some of these women, who were previously involved in social solidarity action, have re-organised and are acting as intermediaries between humanitarian agencies and illiterate peasant women. For example, a small group of women from the “Women’s Network for Rural Development” has formed and obtained funds to set up workshops and organise a nursery for the children of women working in the fields of Zairian farmers, as well as promoting socio-cultural activities in the camp. Although, as before, such solidarity is based on unequal relationships, peasant women are now just a few tents away and such material deprivation may help bring the two groups closer together. 

Differences in wealth can also be seen simply in the space available for and surrounding the shelters. Simple folk have plastic sheetings covering an area of some 12-16 square metres, divided into two rooms by an earthen partition. In one room, six people of different ages and sex may be piled together on one mat under a single blanket. The better-off use their money and intimidation of census-takers to accumulate shelters and negotiate for more space. Although individual conditions are less harsh in the minority of ‘rich’ neighbourhoods, known as “Kyiovu” after a wealthy neighbourhood in the centre of Kigali, there is a serious lack of privacy for everyone, which is particularly painful in light of Rwandese cultural habits: typical Rwandese dwellings tend to be well spread out, opening onto a courtyard; control of one’s emotions is very much the rule – for example, in the presence of a stranger to the family, the only outward sign of intimacy, even between married couples, would be shaking hands almost at arm’s length. According to one woman from the élite who drew my attention to the problem, overcrowding in the tents and proximity to neighbouring ‘dwellings’ – in some camps tents are almost touching – inhibit “any expression of emotion, whether positive or negative”. Partners have to go elsewhere to settle their disputes and then wait for the children’s absence to make up on the mat… Such customs have to be overcome if the aggressiveness or tenderness so much a part of the dramatic circumstances of the camps may be expressed. 

Despite evidence of differences in wealth and status, and unequal access to high levels of education, paid work and an urban life-style, all women share a lack of status except in association with a man. Until 1992, no Rwandese women could inherit land in the countryside and all still share the same need for masculine protection, particularly in the towns. Such feelings of inferiority are constantly reinforced by a macho culture coupled with contempt for the poor. Whether from well-off or peasant backgrounds, women have to submit to this male supremacy, an inequality further reinforced by the political apparatus behind official structures and leadership elections carried out by secret ballot.

Subject to this three-fold constraint of money shortages, subjection to men and inequalities in the power structure, peasant women inevitably suffer more than others from intimidation relating to their gender. Such intimidation affects chances for survival in a number of ways. Food and fuelwood rations can be snatched away during the journey back to the shelter. If distribution is indirect through neighbourhood leaders, women may not be as well served. According to the élite, if men do the queuing, they are likely to trade a proportion of the rations to satisfy their own wants. Humanitarian agencies therefore considered directing all food distribution through women. After speaking to several peasant women, however, I became concerned that agencies were simply following humanitarian fashions based on the perceptions of élite women, in situations which peasant women considered uncommon and which involved additional work for them. Mothers separated from their children also found themselves in a particularly difficult position. Most camps for unaccompanied children were closed last summer as a result of the policy of family placement. However, a few ‘orphanages’ remained in some camps, despite instructions from UNHCR because they provided an opportunity for the powerful elements within the camp to receive external aid from distant donors, unaware of the indirect effects of their assistance. It was very difficult, even for officials of organisations responsible for family reunion, to get access to these ‘orphanages’. When a mother finally located her children, she was put under pressure by the unofficial beneficiaries not to collect them. In some cases, those in charge of such ‘orphanages’ refused to allow children to return to parents who had been located in Rwanda, on the pretext that their fate would be uncertain. Intimidation was also directed at preventing refugees from going back. For instance, internal networks in the camp would put about the rumour that anyone wanting to go to UNHCR in Bukavu would have to join a group and, therefore, register on a list held by the unofficial camp sentries, all loyal to the intimidators.

Violence has affected all Rwandans in one way or another. Among Hutus, mainly men have been killed. Feelings of sadness and loss are intense amongst refugee families, particularly affecting women who have survived the death of their husband or partner and those who have lost one or several children. Alone with their children, they find it more difficult to face up to all the obligations they must fulfil in order to survive, the emotional shock and the onset of depression. Macho ideology tends to favour men on their own, who can easily find a new partner amongst the young girls, rather than widows in charge of children. Convinced of their need for protection and brought up with no other prospect than to be mothers and cultivate their husband’s fields, many of the latter agree to unions during their flight (known as “turquoise weddings”) or in the camps. Disappointed to find that marriage makes little difference to their situation, “they tend to be flighty” according to one woman, who immediately corrected herself saying, “the men soon tire of them once they become pregnant and exhausted”. In a situation characterised by shortages, hopes of improvement can give rise to short-lived liaisons.

Refugee women, who depend entirely on the political will of the powerful, expressed to me that their greatest desire was “to go home”. But this request carries with it serious political implications and very few dare to voice their desire. For the moment, the fundamental problem for Rwandese women is one of communicating their needs. Traditionally, silence is the prerogative of women. Submission to leaders is also a cardinal virtue. This means that women from modest backgrounds are doubly excluded. I found no echo of what they told me in the way humanitarian agencies acted.


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