DRC 1994: A million people adrift

© Teun Voeten Click on image for larger version.
A million refugees, mainly Hutus, crossed the border between Rwanda and Zaire within a few days, in July 1994. Estimates put their numbers at 15,000 an hour in the afternoon of the 13th of July. A million people adrift, without water, food or any facilities. After only five days, a dreadful cholera epidemic broke out in Goma resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Rwandans. After several weeks, several refugee camps formed and the health situation of the refugees had become fairly stable. However the security situation in the refugee camps deteriorated considerably. People implicated in the genocide - "Interahamwe" Hutu militias, ex-Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) soldiers and other community leaders - were quick to regain positions of prominence in the camps and gradually began to subject the refugee population to a reign of terror. Those indicating a desire to return to Rwanda were accused of collaboration with the new government and put their lives at risk. THE RWANDAN REFUGEE CRISIS Nurse The Tutsi refugees were the first ones to arrive from Rwanda, in April 1994; around 4000 of them settled in a camp near Goma where I started working. At that time, the massacres had just started in the neighbouring country, and some were taking place right across the border with Goma. From the shore, we could see all kinds of dead bodies floating on the Kivu Lake - decapitated women, castrated men, women without breasts, who had been thrown into the water on the Rwandan shore and brought by the flow to the Congolese side of the lake. In the camps, we were also confronted by people who had been injured by machete; some were treated by us, but some had to be transferred to the French military hospital in Goma given the seriousness of the wound - mutilation of the arm, machete wound on the neck. It was so painful to see all these dead bodies in the streets that I would always come home from school with a terrible headache. That year I also lost my little sister; she was eleven years old, and a Congolese soldier in a car just hit her. I really found out then that people could die suddenly, just like that.
The Tutsis stayed one and a half month in the camp, while the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) proceeded against the Hutus in Rwanda.When they finally took over the country, the refugees left the camp to go back to Rwanda. Then the Hutus started arriving in Goma, and it became a crazy flow, going back and forth between Goma and Rwanda. The Hutu refugees arrived in the space of two weeks; they were coming by foot, by truck, by bus - there was a terrible overflow in Goma. Some of them were arrived exhausted, especially the ones who had walked all the way to the border; some were so tired and starving that they died on arrival. The dead bodies were mostly of children and old people. During the night in the camp, we could see the men circulate freely with arms, sometimes with grenades. Even in the consultation room, the men were armed to the teeth - they were using arms in the camp, especially for settling of scores. The people told us with enthusiasm about the number of Tutsis they had killed; even an eight year-old child told us that he had killed two Tutsis - an eight year-old child ! I know he was telling the truth. At that time there was a message being broadcast by the radio: "If you see a Tutsi beside you; man, woman, child, kill him before he kills you". When the Hutu refugees settled in the camp, there was a Hutu man who really had a Tutsi morphology (the nose, the Achilles' tendons, the hands) - he was shot in the thorax if I remember well. They brought him to us in emergency, but he died of his wound. Cook In the beginning, when the refugees were staying on the streets, I saw many dead bodies - I couldn't understand how people could die like that, there were even innocent people who had nothing to do with the genocide. You would even see dead children with their mother sitting next to them, alone, with nobody to turn to. Normally here in Africa when someone dies, all the neighbours and friends give assistance and consolation - in this case, the mothers were completely abandoned. I, myself I sheltered two women who had both lost their husbands during the genocide; they both had a child. I had met them on the road; they had asked me for money, and I had suggested that they come to my house to eat something - my wife then proposed that they stay with us. When I started to take care of them they would sometimes act strangely, like sitting alone in a corner and not answering your questions. It took them a few months to start feeling comfortable, to forget about what they had experienced; but they could not stand to hear talk about the Tutsis, because they were the ones who had killed their husbands. One of the women told us that the Tutsis had asked her husband to have sex with their fifteen year old daughter - he refused, and they killed him. These two women lived with us for one a half years. They left when Kabila entered Goma, because people said that he was coming to chase the Hutus. I have had no news of them since then. THE OUTBREAK OF CHOLERA IN GOMA Nurse The cholera outbreak started two weeks after the Hutu refugees arrived in Goma. At that time the camps were not yet organized, and the refugees had sought shelter in the churches, the schools and the stadiums.Many Congolese families were also sheltering refugees; we felt so sorry for them, seeing them in the streets, sleeping outside - we had to take care of them. I sheltered a Rwandan woman with her two children for two days, until she was allowed to enter one of the camps. Her husband had been killed in Rwanda. I even remember her name.When they left my house I lost track of them. I tried to find them through the Red Cross, but in vain. I don't know what happened to them; if they died there or not. The children were six and ten years old. Suddenly the cholera epidemic spread and people started to die en masse - not only Rwandese but also Congolese; especially those who were sheltering refugees. At that time I was working in the health post of one of the only organized refugee camps near Goma; we were completely overwhelmed. To get rid of the dead bodies, the people would put them on the side of the road, wrapped in mats, piled one on top of the other; cubic metres of them, like animals. Trucks would collect them and bring them to mass graves. There were cadavers all over the town, it was impossible to count them. At that time I thought life was really negative. The things that I saw affected me so much, that the images of what I witnessed still haven't been erased from my mind. Mechanic Very soon after the Hutu refugees arrived in Goma, they began to fall ill and to die one after the other. Sometimes you would see someone walking around at eight o'clock in the morning, and by the afternoon you would see his or her cadaver lying in the street. I saw five people like that. You would see the dead bodies on the side of the road, like stones. There was even an organisation in charge of burying the people - they would collect them from the street, throw them into the vehicles and bring them to mass graves. In our neighbourhood, one of the families was affected by the disease; they almost lost a child. The air was extremely polluted in Goma - there were places where you could not go without holding your nose. There was such a terrible atmosphere in town. It was so painful to see all these dead bodies in the streets that I would always come home from school with a terrible headache. That year I also lost my little sister; she was eleven years old, and a Congolese soldier in a car just hit her. I really found out then that people could die suddenly, just like that.