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Zimbabwe: a long journey of hope to reunion

09-06-2008 Feature

When the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo spread to the village of Uvira in South Kivu Province, people fled in fear for their lives. Many were separated from their families. Some, like Domina, undertook arduous journeys to ICRC-supported refugee camps such as Tongogara in neighbouring Zimbabwe. The ICRC's Mabel Sithole reports.

  ©ICRC/M. Sithole    
  Tongogara refugee camp, Zimbabwe. Domina tells her story.    

Tongogara refugee camp

  Opened on 17 February 1984, Tongogara’s first residents were 17 refugees who had fled Mozambique’s civil war. "Over ten years, the camp's population grew to about 60,000 Mozambiquean refugees," explained the camp's administrator, Mr Mlambo.

  After the civil war ended in 1994 most refugees were successfully repatriated. However, conflicts in the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda fuelled new influxes of refugees from 1998 onwards. Today, more than 2,600 people are housed at the camp, most coming from the DRC. The ICRC is involved in re-establishing contact between separated family members living in the camp.

  "I feel good about the ICRC because of its effective role in restoring contact between separated family members in Tongogara and their loved ones," remarked Mr Mlambo.    
©ICRC/M. Sithole 
Tongogara refugee camp, Zimbabwe. The camp is a beehive of activity as children play and men and women go about their daily chores.    

In the smouldering heat of the summer sun, Domina reminisces about life in Ulvira, the only home she ever knew before fighting erupted there. Sitting in the shade of a small msasa tree, the middle-aged mother of six wipes away beads of sweat from her forehead and, plagued by frightening thoughts about the fate of her younger sisters, wonders if she will ever see them again.

She tells how she managed to escape from Uvira with her six children and other villagers during the fighting. They walked for days begging food and water before reaching the shores of Lake Tanganyika. From here canoes ferried them across the lake to the small Zambian township of Mpulungu.

Exhausted and hungry, Domina was relieved to be safe and far away from the fighting. But she worried constantly about the fate of her husband and sisters. Anxiously, she searched Mpulungu, looking for any of her relatives who had managed to escape.

 From Zambia to Zimbabwe  

After a few days, Domina decided to go to Zimbabwe with her six children in the hope of finding her loved ones at a refugee camp called Tongogara. Her journey would see her travel by bus and truck for several days over a distance of almost 1,400 km.

Although the journey seemed endless, Domina kept her spirits up with thoughts of finding her husband and sisters. On arrival at the camp, they were met by government officials and representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to aid their integration into the camp. Soon afterwards, Domina approached the a uthorities in the camp to enquire about her family members, but was disappointed to find no news about them. A few days later, however, she came across her cousin, Mamadou, who visited the camp once in a while from Harare.

 News at last  

Many months passed during which Domina and her children settled into life at the camp. Then one day a refugee who volunteers to deliver Red Cross messages for the ICRC came to her with a message for her cousin, Mamadou, who at the time was in Harare. The message was from Domina’s sister, Dorcas Myinyi. Relieved as Domina was to learn that her sister was alive and well, the message revealed that Dorcas was now living in far-off Australia!

A few weeks later, a further Red Cross message arrived, this time from another missing sister, Tendilonge, who was living in a refugee camp in Burundi. This raised Domina’s hopes that one day she would again see her husband and other sisters.

" It was very wonderful to contact my sisters. One went to Australia and I found her through the Red Cross, " says Domina. Although at the time she had no idea whether she would see Tendilonge again, all three sisters kept in touch with each other through the Red Cross.

 Hope burns brightly  

In December 2007, Tendilonge moved from Burundi with her five children to be reunited with Domina at Tongogara. It was a joyful time for both sisters.

" I was so happy because to begin with I did not know where my sister was and it has been two years since I last saw her, " says Domina.

For Tendilonge the happiness of reunion with Domina was tinged with sadness for her missing husband who was left behind when she fled to Burundi. Nonetheless, she rema ins hopeful that one day they will be together again. And both Domina and Tendilonge have faith that someday they will meet up with their sibling Mulumderwa.

See also the article entitled: An unexpected twist: Mulumderwa's story .