Nostalgic nonagenarian from North Kivu faces twilight years alone

Telling the Human Story, 7 November 2012

© UNHCR/F.Noy
Paul sits in his humble shelter in Mugunga III, musing on a happier past and ruing the present.

MUGUNGA III, Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 7 (UNHCR) Paul Mirurumu has led a happy, long and relatively successful life in the heart of Africa, but in his twilight years he has experienced only devastating personal loss and suffering. Today, the 92-year-old Congolese is alone, friendless and marooned in a camp for the internally displaced, convinced that he will never again see his home village in North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

He is among the tens of thousands of vulnerable older people who have been forcibly displaced in the long conflict that continues to smoulder in the east of the vast country, despite a formal nationwide peace accord in 2003 and a truce in the east in early 2009.

These people are of particular concern to UNHCR, especially if they are alone and have special needs. Many have health problems or need help providing for themselves. They are also often victims of discrimination by those who see the elderly as a burden. And older women, unable to protect themselves, can become victims of sexual violence.

Paul told a rare visitor, UNHCR's Céline Schmitt, that when he was born the country was a colony known as Belgian Congo. His first 40 years coincided with a relatively peaceful time in the country's history, but independence in 1960 ushered in a period of secessionist violence. The resources-rich east of the renamed Zaire was swept by war towards the end of President Mobutu Sese Soko's strongarm 1965-1997 rule.

Paul managed to survive the waves of violence and even thrive in North Kivu. But his world came crashing down in 2008, when he lost most of his family in the fresh fighting between government forces and various rebel and militia groups. He fled from his village and ended up in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Minova, where he stayed two years before being relocated to Mugunga III, a UNHCR-run IDP site located to the west of the North Kivu capital, Goma.

With no family to help, he relies on humanitarian aid organizations for almost everything. UNHCR has provided Paul with shelter and also works with the Europe-based, HelpAge International, to help people like Paul. The non-governmental organization provides material assistance for the most vulnerable as well as psycho-social support. It also runs income-generation programmes for older people, literacy courses, and provides health care and protection.

Paul's story:

I was born at a time when women were still wearing cache-sexe [loincloths]. They sported belts with pieces of material in front and behind.

Before the fighting started, I was living very well. I was the chief of my village. I was a farmer and a businessman, growing potatoes, beans and manioc for sale. My family lived well and I owned 26 cows and 18 sheep. They were all stolen during the conflict.

When the conflict started four years ago, I had a wife, 12 children and four younger brothers. All were killed. I don't know how I managed to flee without being caught. I spent a week on the run, eating what I could find growing by riverbanks, before I reached Ngungu [located about 60 kms north-west of Goma in Masisi territory].

I had a stick to help me walk. From Ngungu, someone carried me to Minova IDP camp [just inside South Kivu province], where I spent two years. I have been living here in Mugunga III for two years. When Minova camp was closed [in 2010], vulnerable people who could not return home were transferred to Mugunga.

I live alone; I have no wife. I depend on humanitarian assistance and help from other people around me. I also beg because I have nothing I have no cooking utensils. I sleep on bare volcanic rock. When I received a sleeping mat and a blanket, I sold them to buy food.

When I wake up in the morning, I drink a glass of water and sit in front of my shelter. The neighbouring families help me with a little something to eat. As I have no energy to move, I stay here until the evening comes.

I don't see anyone I know here. I have no one here because I am poor and poor people don't have friends. I sometimes meet other older people living in the camp, but when we meet we only compare notes on our problems and feel sorry for ourselves. That's the only topic we have.

If peace returns, I am willing to go home, but peace does not return. And anyhow, how would I get home in my vulnerable situation. I will go anywhere if I am given a home where I can live. But someone would have to carry me. I have no strength. Even to walk to the main road [next to the camp], I have to rest several times to catch my breath and regain strength.

As long as God does not call me, I just want a house, food and peaceful sleep. Please help me and give me just a little money to buy food. My stomach is empty.

By Celine Schmitt

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