There are also 10 tents provided by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on the right side of the approach road to the camp.
Its streets are dusty, not-so-tidy but well-defined. Teeming on the dirt walkways are hordes of kids playing house or soccer and adults engaged in hushed discussions. At the centre of the compound are blocks of stronger, better white buildings that house administrative offices for the police, social welfare and immigration officials.
As the Chronicle news crew drove to the offices one recent Tuesday, the discussion groups momentarily broke and people, mainly women in doeks and fabric wrapped around their waists, accost the vehicle, shouting “security, security!”
“These are asylum seekers who are anxious about their applications for refugee status,” Mr Kudzai Mudzingwa, the deputy camp commandant later explained.
“Their applications are still being considered and as is normal practice, our security officials have to thoroughly vet them before they recommend whether or not an asylum seeker can be granted refugee status.”
He added: “We are a cut above many refugee camps in the world. We have electricity, communal tap water and decent houses built of bricks and are properly roofed. If you go to other refugee camps, it would be all tents. So don’t think that we are not accommodating our guests well; I can say their living conditions here are very good, under the circumstances, of course. This is expected in a refugee camp.”
His office, at the end of a long, dimly lit corridor has a damp smell because part of its roof leaks down on the ceiling. Some materials were stuffed up there to cover the hole.
This otherwise glum-looking camp in Chipangai area in Chipinge District, Manicaland Province, some 50km west of Chipinge town, is a safe haven for 6 193 people, a platform for them to break from their troubled past. Of the total population, 4 733 or 77 percent are refugees and 1 438 or 23 percent are asylum seekers. Males, who number 3 476, constitute the majority of inmates while females are 2 717.
By nationality, DR Congolese are by far the biggest segment of the population with 4 539 having fled political instability in their expansive, rich but notoriously unstable country. Of these, 3 327 are refugees while 1 212 are asylum seekers. Rwandese at 815 people, are second in population size, followed by 641 Burundians.
DR Congolese also make up the bulk of urbanite refugees at 748 and 29 urbanite asylum seekers. These are people who have refugee or asylum seeker status but proved that they have enough money, skills or educational qualifications to run businesses or secure formal jobs in urban centres. Other refugees and asylum seekers come from Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Angola, Congo Brazzaville and Somalia, among other countries.
Here, no-one trusts the next person, so any interviews have to be conducted in private. Still, that is not reassuring enough as the interviewees constantly look over the shoulder. These are people who ran for their dear lives from their countries; some after being brutalised by close relatives or their national armed forces, others seeing their children, parents or siblings killed as they watched. So their paranoia or vigilance is justified.
Although mutual distrust pervades the encampment, they appear to agree on two points — a dislike of the routine lives they lead there and fear of returning to their countries.
Mr Titus Bihojo (42), a DR Congolese asylum seeker, led his mother, wife and seven children and three brothers from Uvira in East Kivu on 5 November last year through the jungles of his country to Zambia, arriving in Makokoba in Bulawayo 24 days later. They were joined by 13 others from their area on the arduous journey they undertook on foot, trucks and across the Zambezi River. Mr Bihojo of the Banyamulenge tribe, said rebels belonging to the Mai Mai ethnic group shot dead his father after he turned down their demands to have him (Titus) join the ongoing rebellion against President Joseph Kabila’s government in eastern DRC.
“There is a conflict between two tribes — the Mai Mai versus Banyamulenge,” said Mr Bihojo in good English after requesting to be interviewed privately.
“I am Banyamulenge, so these guys are also rebels fighting the government. They say we came from Rwanda and settled in Congo, so we must return to our original homes. But personally I don’t know Rwanda. I was born in Congo and I am Congolese, I studied there. They (Mai Mai) are rebels and wanted me to join them despite the fact they despise my tribe.
So I said ‘no’, my father also said ‘no’. On 5 November last year, they came to our home and saw my father and demanded to know where I was. I had gone fishing, so he told them I was out. They thought he was lying. As they argued, making a lot of noise in the house, I arrived home. I got suspicious and looked through a window, just the time one of them shot dead my father at point blank range. It was sad and frightening, but by God’s grace, I, my mother, my wife and children and my brothers, we managed to come together and flee before the rebels could see us.”
After some days, they reached Mpulungu, at Lake Tanganyika at the common border of DRC and Zambia. A church took them in on the Zambian side and worshippers contributed money which the 26 used to travel to Livingstone, near Victoria Falls.
At Livingstone, a universe of water which is the Zambezi River stood in their way to their intended destination, Zimbabwe. A fisherman back home, Mr Bihojo said he summoned his skills, bravery and physical and mental strength to take his relatives one after the other across on a dugout canoe.
“We then found our way to Bulawayo. We had Christmas at the church (African Methodist Episcopal Church in Zimbabwe) in Makokoba. Now we are here, everyone is fine. I hope for help to take us out of the camp. We are grateful and happy for the security, but we want to lead more productive lives. We are still waiting to undergo interviews so our status is decided,” said Mr Bihojo, a holder of a college diploma in chemistry and biology.
Swahili is the de facto lingua-franca at Tongogara, followed by French. Because basically all Zimbabwean administrative staff neither speak nor understand Swahili or French but English and Shona, a kind of pidgin Shona has developed. In the 1990s, Portuguese was the language when as many as 30 000 Mozambicans were held there.
Speaking through an interpreter, Mrs Alyce Bondo (36), a DR Congolese refugee, said she fled Kinshasa in December 2008 with her husband, Noël, who reckoned his life was in danger from a senior military officer whose wife he was seeing. Mr Bondo was a chauffer for the army boss but is now the country representative of DR Congolese refugees at Tongogara. Mrs Bondo blames the soldier’s wife for pestering her husband into a relationship. She has fond memories of what she says was a good life she and her family led in Kinshasa. They had a family car, she said, a house and she ran a hair salon. Now she spends her time selling vegetables to her fellow refugees at a stall in the camp, earning around $10 daily. They caught a plane from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi and through Zambia into Zimbabwe on trucks.
“We lost a son, Geremi, in the hustle of coming here,” she said, tearfully.
“There was no time for us to look for him. He was nine; we don’t know where he is. We brought one and now we have another, a Zimbabwean, eight-month-old son Jenovike.”
Many other refugees are running businesses at the camp. Some rear hundreds of goats and cattle, while others run commuter omnibus businesses and tuckshops. Mr Seoul Tshishiku (27) from Kasai in DRC runs a tuckshop, which he named Congo Store while Mr Hibamana Ezekiel (57), a Rwandese, operates an open-air butchery. The vegetable market and tuckshops are at a central place, which refugees call “city centre”.
Mr Ezekiel has cuts of a whole beast hanging from a line just behind the vegetable market. A friendly character, he is an open, popular figure at Tongogara and recognised by his colleagues as “pioneer”. He does not exactly know when he arrived there but says he witnessed the flooding of the camp in the January-February 2000 Cyclone Eline deluge. He claims that his parents died during the Rwanda genocide, but is uncomfortable disclosing his tribe and the specific reason why he fled.
“I can’t go back, you never know. I don’t think I have any relatives left there. You are now my relatives; remember I have three wives here in Zimbabwe. The fourth one, who is my first, is in Rwanda. I don’t know whether she is alive or not, but she is the president,” he laughs, as do his curious colleagues gathered around his butchery.
“Ndiri mwana wemuno, handiendi. Ndikadzokera madzimai angu ndinomasiya nani? (I belong here, I will not return to Rwanda. I don’t want to leave my wives here),” he added, to another round of laughter.
While Mr Ezekiel is free to speak, others, like a 37-year-old female Burundian refugee are fearful. She has a husband at the camp and four children, three born back home and one at the compound. Her father-in-law fled his home together with his family, including her husband, during the 1993-2005 Burundi Civil War. He left a lot of property, including his fields and later died in DRC. A year after the conflict, she and her husband returned home, but found their family home and land occupied.
“They said they would kill the whole clan if he continued demanding the land. That was a year after the war, so the situation was still fragile. They were serious, so we had to leave through Tanzania, and Zambia,” she opened up after minutes of persuasion and on guarantees that she speaks off the record.
Like others housed at Tongogara, she lives in the same house with her family as authorities ensure that the family unit is preserved. Each able-bodied refugee or asylum seeker builds his or her own dwelling using materials provided by the Government and its partners. Vulnerable individuals such as the 300 unaccompanied children at the refuge have houses built for them.
Tongogara Refugee Camp has a number of amenities and services like a clinic, more than 10 churches and mosques, sporting facilities and St Michael’s primary and secondary schools. In 2009, the refugees’ football team won the Manicaland Governor’s Trophy.
Provisions for the refugees are adequate, said Mr Mudzingwa.
“We have partners like MSF, UNHCR, Jesuit Refugee Services, Christian Care and Imbisa,” he said.
“The Government pours resources as well. We give them food rations, pay school fees for children and offer health services. We have two doctors who work here twice a month. It’s a home away from home.”