Rwanda: move to a new camp transforms life for resilient amputee

Making a Difference, 25 June 2014

© UNHCR/E.Fitzpatrick
Judith with her three children in southern Rwanda's Mugombwa camp. Judith lost her right leg to a gunshot wound during renewed fighting between Congolese government forces and rebels in North Kivu province in 2012.

MUGOMBWA REFUGEE CAMP, Rwanda, June 25 (UNHCR) Judith self-consciously adjusts her skirt as she balances her two-year-old-son on her knee. Her sarong-like traditional kitenge covers one leg to her ankle and she makes sure her other, amputated, leg remains hidden.

But it's not her missing leg lost to the war in her native Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that's on Judith Mukansanga's mind today. The 31-year-old refugee is celebrating having a safe home of her own for her three children, and being able to get around with relative ease despite her disability.

Judith has overcome obstacles that would daunt many others. She lost her right leg to a gunshot wound during fighting some two years ago between DRC government forces and rebels in North Kivu province. She decided to flee with her family to neighbouring Rwanda, making the 75-kilometre journey mostly by motorbike because she could not walk far on crutches.

During their flight, she and her children became separated from her husband; she later heard rumours he had been taken into custody as punishment for allegedly joining a rebel group. She has not seen him in two years.

Once she reached safely in western Rwanda, Judith and her three children had to spend a year in the Nkamira Transit Centre, close to the DRC border. It was originally designed to house refugees for only days. Rwanda, a crowded country, had limited space for new arrivals in its four existing refugee camps.

"Life in the transit centre was very difficult for me," Judith now recalls. "It was especially difficult to sleep at night."

She found it hard getting around the cramped centre on her crutches. Families slept almost on top of each other; privacy was non-existent and overcrowding led to disputes among people forced to be neighbours.

In addition to that, she worried about her two school-age girls, seven years and 10, because they were missing out on formal education. Instead, they attended informal English and Kinyarwanda lessons sitting on the floor of an overcrowded classroom.

Since UNHCR built the new Mugombwa camp in southern Rwanda and moved some 9,000 refugees here life has improved for Judith, her two daughters and her baby boy.

Judith and her neighbours are getting along just fine. There's a hospital, in case anyone in the family gets sick. And her daughters are excited to be enrolled in the national education system and with "real desks to sit at!" UNHCR has not yet been able to provide her an artificial limb, but that is not uppermost in her mind.

"Although life is still a struggle for me, I am happy to have my own house," says an excited Judith. "I can sleep in peace. But most importantly, my children are safer and can attend a normal school." At long last, she says, "I have hope."

By Erika Fitzpatrick in Mugombwa Refugee Camp, Rwanda




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Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Edwige Kpomako is a woman in a hurry; but her energy also helps the refugee from Central African Republic (CAR) to cope with the tragedy that forced her to flee to northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year. Before violence returned to her country in 2012, the 25-year-old was studying for a Masters in American literature in Bangui, and looking forward to the future. "I started my thesis on the works of Arthur Miller, but because of the situation in CAR . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off. Instead, she had to rush to the DRC with a younger brother, but her fiancée and 10-year old son were killed in the inter-communal violence in CAR.

After crossing the Oubangui River to the DRC, Edwige was transferred to Mole, a camp housing more than 13,000 refugees. In a bid to move on with her life and keep busy, she started to help others, assume a leadership role and take part in communal activities, including the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. She heads the women's committee, is engaged in efforts to combat sexual violence, and acts as a liaison officer at the health centre. She also teaches and runs a small business selling face creams. "I discovered that I'm not weak," said Edwige, who remains optimistic. She is sure that her country will come out of its nightmare and rebuild, and that she will one day become a human rights lawyer helping refugees.

American photojournalist Brian Sokol took these photos.

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UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented Sister Angélique Namaika of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award at a gala ceremony in Geneva on Monday night.

Sister Angélique, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development, has helped transform the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who had been forced from their homes and abused by fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or other armed groups. Many of those she helps suffered abduction, forced labour, beatings, murder, rape or other human rights abuses.

The Roman Catholic nun helps survivors to heal by offering them the chance to learn a trade, start a small business or go to school. Testimonies from these women show the remarkable effect she has had on helping turn around their lives, with many affectionately calling her "mother."

The Award ceremony featured a keynote speech from best-selling author Paulo Coelho and musical performances by singer-songwriter Dido, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Grammy-nominated Malian musicians, Amadou and Mariam.

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