As thousands more flee violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia is now facing a growing humanitarian crisis.
By Pumla Rulashe in Chiengi, Zambia | 03 October 2017
Congolese refugee Chipile erects a makeshift shelter in the sweltering heat in Zambia. © UNHCR/Pumla Rulashe
Seeing dead bodies strewn on the ground in his hometown of Pweto, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during lulls in the fighting, was traumatic enough for 74-year-old Chipile Malangisha. The final straw was when he saw a woman shot with a baby strapped to her back.
“Nobody knows whether the baby survived because [we] were all trying to get out of the town as quickly as possible,” he says, weeping. “That is the one thing I still feel badly about. What if the baby was alive and no one was brave enough to check because they also feared being shot?”
His knees crippled by arthritis, Chipile hobbled out of town, stopping frequently to rest his painful joints. He had no family to support him – the man had lost three of his children and his wife seven years ago. All he could do was pray as he slowly walked to Chiengi, a district on the border with Zambia, where over 3,360 Congolese like him have sought refuge since 30 August from clashes between government forces and militia groups back home.
“Nobody knows whether the baby survived.”
As a result, Zambia is now facing a growing humanitarian crisis, with thousands in urgent need of protection and life-saving assistance including food, water, health care, shelter and sanitation. At the end of August, approximately 500 people entered the country on a daily basis, fleeing what they called “certain death”. Arrivals report killings, rape, looting and burning of houses.
What took able-bodied villagers a few hours walking, took Chipile a full day. Upon his arrival in Chiengi, he was transported by the authorities to a school which served as a reception centre, before embarking on the two hour long journey to a transit center at the district of Nchelenge. There, he and others received assistance.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is currently working with the government of Zambia, local authorities and partners on the ground to provide core relief items such as tents, plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, blankets and hygiene kits. Temporary shelters have been erected, boreholes drilled to provide potable water and temporary latrines constructed. But more help is urgently needed.
Chipile smiles after UNHCR staff helped him to build a shelter. © UNHCR/Pumla Rulashe
Zambia is currently hosting some 60,600 refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR, including some 27,400 from the DRC. Some 5,761 Congolese asylum seekers have been registered in Zambia this year alone.
“The Zambian government has remained exemplary in its obligations towards refugees,” says Pierrine Aylara, UNHCR Representative in the country. “But UNHCR urgently requires continued support from the donor community and its private sector partners as soon as possible.”
Shelter is just one of many critical needs.
Upon arrival, Chipile tried to build his own home. However, as a vulnerable elderly person with no money and no stamina to find the materials, UNHCR and its NGO partner the Zambia Red Cross completed his hut which now has reed mats for walls and plastic sheeting for the roof.
“UNHCR cannot do it alone, neither can the government.”
Chipile is now one of hundreds of vulnerable asylum-seekers in Nchelenge who, without the assistance of the Zambian Government, UNHCR and the donor community, may not be alive today.
“This is why for UNHCR it is critical to have all life-saving amenities in place to receive as many refugees as the conflict in the DRC may generate,” says Aylara.
UNHCR and partners are currently developing a second transit center in Nchelenge, to receive new arrivals and to decongest the first, as well as a settlement where arrivals will be relocated for the longer term.
“UNHCR cannot do it alone, neither can the government – however, with collaborative efforts and donor support, we have every confidence that by the time seasonal rains intensify, we will have the development of these two sites well underway and ready enough for occupation.”