My refugee life

The first thing that usually hits you is the smell. It permeates from the regroupement camps in Burundi and the internally displaced camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has the power to make your eyes water. Gihembe refugee camp, in Rwanda's Byumba prefecture, however, is remarkably clean. A fact difficult to fathom considering the mountaintop camp, covering an area no larger than a standard professional football stadium, is home to 20,000 Congolese refugees.

Although Gihembe has only one entrance, manned by an indifferent solider no more than 18 years old and armed with an AK-47, registered residents must be granted written permission to leave the premises. The criteria for entering the camp, as they did by the thousands in 1996, is somewhat different.

"It is rather simple," Jean d'Amour knows. "Fighting breaks out where you live, houses are looted and destroyed, neighbours are killed, your family could be next so you flee. Refugee camps are our only alternative." Having lived in two such camps in the past four years, the seventeen-year-old understands that this cycle can be endless.

A violent rebellion, in what was then eastern Zaire, drove Jean d'Amour, his parents and seven siblings from their quiet farm situated on the outskirts of the village of Masisi and into an uncertain existence. Trailed by a hailstorm of bullets, the family fled to Rwanda. An unlikely place, at the time, to seek safety, as the country was still in turmoil from the 1994 genocide.

"We had no choice," he recalls. "If we stayed in Masisi we would have certainly been killed. Rwanda was a gamble. A gamble that nearly cost us our lives."

The year Jean d'Amour and his family spent in Mudende, a small western Rwandan village converted into a refugee camp, was long. Tense days were interspersed with frightening hours. Interahamwe, Hutu soldiers and militias were constantly staging raids into the unstable area. Mudende was attacked twice. The first resulted in the death of 200 innocent refugees. The second killed more than 400 and prompted the Rwanda government to disband the camp and shift its population to Gihembe.

Jean d'Amour was happy to bid Mudende good riddance. "Many of my friends did not make it out of there alive," he solemnly shares. "To be moved again was troublesome, but our safety was of more importance. The place was too dangerous."

Gihembe contrast its surroundings in a manner similar to Jean d'Amour's past and current life. Like a lone giraffe lost in a herd of zebra, the signature blue United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tarps that shroud the camp do not blend well amongst the lush forested mountains of Byumba. Nor does Jean d'Amour.

Prior to being forced from his home, the good looking, athletically built boy was a dedicated student and maintained a prosperous banana plot, given to him by his father. The money generated from selling the delicious fruit provided him with the means to buy new clothes, shoes, a good watch or whatever he wanted. It also taught the maturing teenage boy about responsibility, from which grew a developed sense of freedom. A sense of freedom that no longer exists, as it has been drained from his body.

"Compared to my life in Masisi, my life today as a refugee is not good," he admits. "I attend school, study, help my mother the best I can, but we are not free. Nobody in Gihembe is free."

The clothes on his back and a tin cup are all that he has to his name. That he did nothing but stand in line to get them troubles him. The irony, on the other hand, he finds funny.

On a regular basis, UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) issues rations of cooking oil, staple foods and bars of soap to camp families. When available, clothing, in an orderly and calculated fashion, is also distributed. Jean d'Amour's family is allotted ten random garments, as they are comprised of ten members. "Never mind that we are made up of both boys and girls," he laughs. "Not long ago, I was given a dress. What could I do with a dress?" His sisters did not want it so he now uses it as a pillow.

Jean d'Amour realizes his circumstances are trying. He also knows expending energy on things he can not change is futile. Instead, he excels in school, has a girlfriend and maintains hope that one day it will be safe for his family to return to Masisi.

"I don't wish this life on anybody," he professes. "Even though kids here are malnourished, each family lives in a four meter by four meter tent and we've zero privacy, life could be worse. That I know people elsewhere are suffering more, helps me keep my chin up."