Carrying scars from the past into an uncertain future

Publié: 20 juillet 2016 8:00 CET

Katherine Mueller, IFRC

She walks somewhat aimlessly around the maze of tents. Her head covered in a red scarf, her brown eyes covered by dark glasses, she is seemingly invisible among the crowd. She is quiet, speaking to no one as she winds her way back to her temporary home – a tent, pitched amid thousands of others, one virtually indistinguishable from the next.

It is here that Divine Kagajo finds her parents, and her two daughters, aged 5 and 11. Her husband she had to leave behind in Burundi, buried six feet below the earth’s surface. “He was shot and died on the spot,” says Divine, recalling the day in early 2014 when men attacked her. “Before the whole country had gone into crisis, a gang came and found us and started kicking us. They lifted a pan full of hot oil and poured it on me.” Divine fell unconscious, later learning how her husband was felled by a bullet after rushing back to help her.

“I can’t straighten my fingers.”

She spent one year in hospital recovering from severe burns which now scar half of her body including her head, her eye, her right hand, her leg. “I have a number of problems because of the burns. When I go and look for work like any other person, nobody gives me work,” Divine explains in a strong voice that belies the trauma she has experienced. “I can’t wash my own clothes because my hand has become disabled. I can’t straighten my fingers. The skin that you see on my face where I was burned was removed from part of my leg. So that part also hurts. I can’t stand for a very long time.”

After being released from hospital, Divine, now a single mother, made the decision to flee to neighbouring Rwanda. It was 2015 and violence linked to the upcoming elections was on the rise. “Things were getting worse,” says Divine. “We would wake up in the morning and hear that people had been killed overnight. Some nights we would hear people scream, and grenades and guns exploding all night.”

With the equivalent of less than $20 US dollars in her pocket, Divine and her daughters joined others enroute to the land of a thousand hills. They were able to get a car to take them across the open border and spent two months in a transit camp before being moved to the Mahama refugee camp in June 2015. “Life here is not easy for me. Because of the injuries in my jaw, I am not able to eat the maize they give. I come and collect maize for my family, which I sell to get lighter food that I can chew. But when I sell it, what I get in return does not last for a month.

Help from a neighbour

“Some days my children will be sleeping and they wake up and tell me ‘mama, we don’t have any food’ and I feel so bad and I cry the whole night but there is nothing I can do,” says the 28-year-old. “This week has been very difficult. Yesterday, the children didn’t eat during the whole day. They only had something small to eat at night.”

It is when food is scarce and Divine’s charcoal stove is not being lit, that a neighbour from home assists, calling the children over to eat. “I help Divine because she’s just a child,” explains Mariya Rosa Kabaganwa, 58. “I knew her before and how she got injured, how she became vulnerable. So, whatever I have, I share with her, in whichever way I can.”

It has been one year since Divine and her daughters arrived at Mahama camp. Where others have received houses, they are still living in an airless tent, through the heat of the summer, and the cold, muddiness of the rainy season. Although challenging, it is home. Divine entertains no thoughts of returning to her native land. “I don’t want to go back to Burundi. I don’t believe I will ever feel peaceful there again, and sleep in the house, and feel I am happy.”

In September 2015, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an Emergency Appeal of 549,020 Swiss francs to support the Rwandan Red Cross in assisting 7,500 Burundi refugees, as well as 2,500 people in the host community. Among the activities undertaken in the Mahama camp, Red Cross volunteers have distributed non-food items, held mobile cinemas to raise awareness on proper hygiene and disease prevention, dug kitchen gardens, and provided psychosocial support. The Appeal is currently 78 per cent funded.