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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Half a Continent, Step by Step

On the 6th of April 1994 the genocide in Rwanda began. Three weeks later the world’s attention turned elsewhere, to the ‘miracle’ happening in South Africa, with its first democratic election, but over a period of three months close to a million people were killed.

Innocent was visiting his aunt in Kigali on that day. He was thirteen years old at the time. He never returned home. They hid in the passage of her house for over a month before fleeing in their car. Eventually there was no space to drive, and his long walk began.

‘I walked with my aunt for about a week, there were thousands of people walking, and then in the chaos I got lost and I was on my own, just walking with everybody, millions of people who were trying to leave the country. At one stage you walk in a group of so many people there is no space to walk. Everyone is pushing one another. Then people get tired and they just sit. And others get sick. So the crowd becomes smaller and smaller.’

Along the road he met a school friend who was also lost, and together they walked approximately three hundred kilometres from Kigali to Cyangugu on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaïre), where they stayed with his friend’s aunt and uncle for eight months.

When the fighting stopped he decided to return to Kigali to look for his family, but a trader from DRC brought news that his mother was across the border in a refugee camp in Bukavu. He crossed the border by pretending to be the trader’s son and was reunited with his mother and two of his brothers. Then he learned that his father had been killed on the first day of the genocide, and three of his six siblings were missing.

‘We lived about two years in the camps, and then we were forced to move again. And then there was nowhere to run to.’ In 1996 the revolution to remove dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko from power, which he had enjoyed since Patrice Lumumba’s assassination three decades earlier, began in Zaïre. Kabila’s rebel army attacked the camps, and about thirty-seven thousand refugees fled into the forests. ‘So people who were walking away from the war in Rwanda, in the process they were getting killed in the DRC.

‘Some people had cars, but a large portion of DRC is jungle, and the roads are not maintained, there’s nothing, so those people who are driving are usually driving 4x4s. And because there are so many rivers, most people just drive up to that point and then leave their cars and walk. Whether you walk or you run, you just try to get as far away as possible.’

At fifteen his year-long mostly barefoot walk across the DRC began. ‘From the border of Rwanda, from Lake Kivu in DRC, we walked to reach the border of Angola. It’s maybe four thousand kilometres. The walk was sort of in a linear way, just walking in one line, following the people in front of you.’ The images of refugees that we see on the news. ‘Because left or right it’s just the jungle, and if you get lost in there it’s going to be very difficult to get back. So people stick together.

‘The local guys, they’ve got homes in the jungle, they know short cuts to special places where they do their farming. And then they sell their products in the centres, and those centres are a distance away from one another. So you walk until you reach a commercial centre, if you’ve got money you’ve got food. If you don’t have money you trade in something, shoes or clothes, a watch. Then that will be your provision for a week. Then you walk you walk you walk… Sometimes you walk for two weeks and there is no centre, the next centre is five hundred kilometres away. And you’ll know because you’ll meet guys who are coming from there, who went to sell their food there. You ask them, “Where is the next centre?” They tell you, “You’re going to reach there by Monday.” That’s if you’re walking fifty kilometres every day. You trade until you have nothing left to trade. By the time you’ve walked maybe three months you’ve got nothing.

‘The only way to do it is just to survive the next step. If the troops find you they will kill you. So you have to walk. When we started walking it was a huge number of refugees from the camps. Walking, scattering in the bushes. People used to walk till their feet were so big. I saw women with feet as big as…,’ he demonstrates the width of a soccer ball. ‘Because of the nutrition, because people were eating a lot of bad meat in the jungle, baboons, rats… People got very sick. Even from fresh meat, like pork, maybe it’s pigs that were sick, people died. So basically from that time I didn’t eat meat, for five years. Just vegetables and fruits, and drink water.’

The water too could make you sick. ‘And sometimes we couldn’t find water to drink. I saw people drinking water that was like mud.’ A bitter irony that some would survive the rebel soldiers and be killed by the water.

And then there were the rivers. ‘If you come to a river and you can’t cross it, then you have to stop. So the motivating factor was just to get as far away as you can.’ This was how he was separated from his mother. ‘When we arrived at the Congo River she had to walk back, she couldn’t swim. I saw many people drowning. We could swim, but because the river was big there were only a few guys who could swim straight across. It took about two hours to cross.

‘By the time we reached the border of Angola we were not more than fifty. When Kabila took power in DRC we were at the border of Angola. I got two kilometres from the border. Some people tried to go into Angola but they couldn’t because there was still a war there. So people walked to the point where they couldn’t walk any more. And then you decide that you’re going to lie in the street. Wait for UN aid or somebody to assist you.’

I find it hard to comprehend walking from one war, through another war, and into another. But the borders become almost irrelevant as the wars bleed into each other. Conflict in the DRC was sparked by the influx of Rwandan refugees. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had liberated Rwanda from the genocide, assisted Laurent Kabila to oust Mobutu, who was accommodating many of the perpetrators of the genocide in the refugee camps, living side by side with survivors – the First Congo War. After relations between Kabila and the RPF soured, they supported his overthrow, fuelling the Second Congo War.

‘By the time we reached that point, on the border of Angola,’ says Innocent, ‘I was the youngest, the smallest. It wasn’t safe for us to go over the border because Savimbi,’ the rebel leader, ‘his men thought that the refugees were helping the Angolan government. There were lots of misconceptions. And then when we reached that point – me and two of my close friends, we met in the refugee camp, we walked together, then we separated, then we met again – we decided that we’re just going to integrate into the community in Tshikapa. It’s one of the richest places in the DRC, with lots of diamonds. And we stayed there for a year.

‘When we arrived there, it’s like you’ve got a mark. A refugee was a person who’s known to be… He looks different, he’s dirty, he’s got thick hair, he doesn’t have shoes, he steals… But that perception changed within a few months.’

Innocent remembers his first job. Unlike his friends, who were bigger and started earning their living producing charcoal, ‘My first job was to sell cold water. That place is very hot. First you have to fetch the water from somewhere far, between a six- and ten-kilometre walk. This twenty-litre basin, you carry that to the village. When you get there you have to start looking for a fridge where you can put it for a while. Then you put the water in small plastic bags, one cup. Then you put the plastic bags in the basin and you walk through the village with the basin shouting Mayi ya malili, cold water. You go from A to Z, your customers are big guys who are standing on the street. You sell it for about fifty cents. And you do that for three months.’

He often speaks in the second person, as though remembering another time, another life, another person.

‘When Kabila took over in 1997, he had been assisted by many of the troops from Rwanda, then he said all the troops must go back to their countries, and that fuelled the conflict again. Rwanda became the enemy of DRC, and people from Rwanda were considered enemies. And even though in that village people knew we were fleeing from the war, and by that time we could speak the local languages fluently, we just had to make the decision that we have to leave DRC. By that time we had a little bit of money, and we couldn’t go through Angola, so we had to go to Zambia, which was a long distance. We took a train. It took about two months.

‘Then I met a guy from DRC in Zambia and he was broke, not a cent, and he said, “You know, I’ve got a brother in South Africa, but I can’t get to him, I don’t even have money to give him a call.” So I said to this guy, “You know what, I’ve got a little bit left, let’s go.” By the time we got to Joburg I didn’t have one cent left. But this guy took me to his brother, a businessman in Alberton. We stayed there for about three weeks. And then I ended up in Ponte. I went to church and met some guys from Rwanda and they said, “There’s this guy, maybe go speak to him”, and I went there, and he gave me accommodation for about seven months. He had his wife and his kids, and he was helping a lot of people.’ Ponte City, considered by many natives to be a druglords’ haven, is also the first hope for thousands of displaced Africans arriving in Joburg.

Later, Innocent heard about Mercy House, a home for refugees started by Diana Beamish in 1996, not funded by any particular organisation but by a number of ‘church persons’ and groups. ‘I met some other refugees and one guy recommended we should go there. “Teacher Di” is quite well known now  amongst the refugees.’

Diana recalls what prompted her to start Mercy House. ‘I was watching the footage of the genocide on TV and I was absolutely horrified, and I wanted to do something. I wanted to adopt a baby but that turned out to be impossible. In October 1994 a group of refugees arrived and I traced them to a disused mine.  They had nowhere to go. I went there regularly, Woolworths gave me food for them. There were no windows, and rats were crawling over them where they slept. It was terrible.

‘Then I went to the Comboni Fathers,’ a Catholic missionary organisation, ‘and they helped as much as they could, but their resources were limited. So I went to every organisation I could think of, and no one would help, not even the Red Cross, so eventually my aunt and I bought the house in Bez Valley.’ Though Diana is Catholic, and most of the donations that keep Mercy House running are from the Catholic community, the home is nondenominational and takes in any refugee child who is in need. ‘We simply take in orphans from the wars in Africa,’ she says. ‘We started with five Muslims and one Christian.’

Innocent considers himself nondenominational. ‘I go to any church,’ he says. ‘You don’t gain anything by limiting who you can be friends with.’

I am astounded, listening to his near-perfect English, to discover that he could not speak the language at all when he arrived here a decade ago. He puts it down to his primary education. ‘At primary school I was educated in my mother tongue. If you need to learn French, English, you can do that from your first year of high school, but if you learn to think first in your mother tongue, to develop your cognitive skills, then learning another language is not a problem.’

Starting off at Task Academy, he moved to Highlands North Boys High, and finally to Sandringham High School because he wanted to do extra maths. Getting there was not easy. ‘My first year at Sandringham was tough,’ he says. ‘I had to integrate, get involved in sport.’ He did cross-country running. ‘There  were a lot of misconceptions about the kids coming from Highlands North – “they’re rough, they smoke drugs, they steal”. So I had to change all that.’ At the age of twenty-two he matriculated with distinction, which earned him a  scholarship for his first year at Wits University.

Now a big, tall man who works as an electrical engineer for a company in Pretoria, one of whose main clients is Eskom, South Africa’s precarious electricity supplier, he reflects on living in South Africa as a ‘foreigner’. He has driven from Pretoria to meet me, still using an international driver’s licence, as getting a South African licence has proved to be hard. ‘The South African licensing department is full of dramas,’ he says. ‘The last time I went to apply for a licence they said that I couldn’t because I must produce a South African ID. So I went to get a driver’s licence in DRC. I had to start working, so I had to drive.

‘These xenophobic attacks,’ he says, ‘it shocked everybody. But most people actually saw it coming. The headlines were there, but people didn’t pay attention. I think the fact that Zimbabwe went so bad, that there are so many Zimbaweans coming into the country, I think that’s what triggered it. Because Zimbabweans are probably amongst the best-educated Africans. So these guys they just come, go into the townships, start a business, and before you know it he’s bought himself a house.

‘The thing that people fail to understand… I mean, they say that people are taking jobs from the locals. But which jobs? Speaking from experience, you’re not going to get a decent job if you don’t have a South African ID. You’re not going to be promoted. The moment you don’t have that you are excluded. If you do, it’s an exception.

‘The company that I’m working for, we are so overworked. They take on projects, but those projects are going to take so much time because there aren’t graduates who have the skills available to employ.’ As increasing numbers of South Africans are choosing to do business degrees, the sciences are being left behind.

‘And many immigrants who can contribute to the country are not being given the chance, so they have to find a way of surviving. They have to start a business, and if the business doesn’t survive they go into crime.’ What he’s pointing to is that skilled people are often forced to remain in the informal sector, competing for jobs with poor South Africans or deviating into criminal activity. So, while violence erupted among the poor on the ground, government and its immigration policies play a significant part in fuelling the conflict.

‘My feeling is, I’m not a refugee any more. I said to myself, when I graduate I can no longer be considered a refugee. I’d love to stay in this country and contribute as much as I can. I’m not the type of person who says there’s crime and what-what – I mean, crime is everywhere. You can’t run.’ He muses, though, on the irony of potentially becoming a statistic on a South African street. ‘I’ve got friends who have been hijacked. I’ve got a friend who was walking in Yeoville, he got shot. The bullet went into his shoulder, missed his heart by about an inch. And that guy has survived bombs. They’ve gone through all that, and someone comes in Joburg and stabs you.

‘My car was stolen last year, my first car. I was going to be in it about a minute later. I was walking towards it as the guys were driving off. I was mugged when I was a student, at knifepoint in Braamfontein.’ A quick transaction, he says: ‘“Where’s your phone?” “Here.” You don’t resist someone who’s got a knife or a gun. If they want something, you just give it to them.’

But if anything forces him to move on, he says, it will be the ongoing battle to become a recognised citizen of the country, ‘because I’m paying tax just like everybody else, and I’m working hard, and I can’t benefit from the economy that I’m helping to build.

‘You can live in this country for twenty years and not be allowed to become a citizen. That guy who gave me accommodation in Ponte, he’s been here for sixteen years, he works as a fitter and turner, he’s excellent at that job, and he doesn’t yet have permanent residence. And because he still has refugee papers his boss is not going to promote him. He can’t make him a manager or anything like that.’ It’s a frustrating subject. He becomes silent.

I imagine, after all the thousands of miles that he’s walked, he wouldn’t miss it now that he’s driving. But he says he does. ‘For the first two years when I got to South Africa I used to walk a lot. From Ponte, and then from Mercy House. I know town very well. For me walking is essential. You can’t appreciate the car you’re driving unless you’ve walked. You’re not going to understand…

‘I’m in the habit, if I’m driving from Mpumalanga for work and I see someone who’s walking, I will be very careful, but if I know I’m not in any danger I will stop and give them a lift. Because I know, if someone’s been walking for hours and nobody’s stopping because they’re scared this guy is a criminal, and the guy’s just trying to get to work on time, I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there.

‘When I was doing vac work at varsity, we were doing some work in Vereeniging, at the power station. I used to knock off at four, but one day I finished at two, so I thought, let me just go, otherwise I’ve got to wait for two hours for these other guys to finish. So I started hitch-hiking. From that power station to the next town you walk about five hours. I walked for about two hours, nobody would stop, and then all of a sudden somebody stopped. And I couldn’t believe it was a lady driving alone. This experience is something I will never forget. When you live in South Africa, it’s crime, and you’re just walking, and it’s a lady by herself who stops.

‘We were talking and she said she believes in helping out, and she thought I was  coming from work, I had my hat. But I had been walking for long hours and people wouldn’t stop.’

I suppose it is moments like these that restore one’s faith in humanity. And yet, Innocent says, it’s something he has never really doubted. ‘Me, I’ve seen kindness everywhere I’ve been – from Rwanda, DRC, Zambia, South Africa. The guy who helped us get visas to Zambia, his life was in danger. He took a risk to help us. So  I saw kindness all the way.’

What has surprised him more, he says, is his own survival instinct. Thinking of the war, he says: ‘You walk past a lady, her husband has left her, she can’t walk and some of her kids are missing, she’s crying, and you look at your own life, and you can hear the bombs, and you get to a point where your emotions just run dry, you don’t feel anything. Even if you’re strong and you can help, you don’t because your own life is at risk, so you just leave her.

‘Many people lost their kids in the jungle. At some stage you’re walking, and the fighting is so close that you just have to leave the road and go and hide in the bush in the hope that once everything is calm you can come back and start walking again.’

Miraculously, Innocent’s mother made it back to Rwanda, and he has been back to see her. ‘I was amazed. I couldn’t imagine how she made it back.’


Excerpted from Slow Motion: stories about walking (Jacana, 2010).


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    April 7th, 2012 @22:58 #

    Wow. Read this. And it's worth adding that Home Affairs makes the lives of working, contributing refugees and resident aliens impossible, indeed fuelling crime. One of my closest friends, here for seven years, married to a South African, has just had his bank account frozen (just stop and imagine your life if this happened to you) because Home Affairs has apparently lost his most recent renewal permit. There is NOTHING that he can do and no end in sight, not even with a superb lawyer.


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