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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 37, Number 5. 3rd April 1974

Refugees' Tales of Horror

Refugees' Tales of Horror

Two hundred and twenty-five miles to the east of Lusaka and fifteen miles west of the Mozambique border, not far from Cabora Bassa, lies the small Zambian township of Nyimba. In 1965 the town's population expanded dramatically as a result of the Zambian Government's decision to establish the country's first refugee settlement there.

Today Nyimba is one of three refugee settlements established by the Zambian Government to deal with the problems created by the people who have fled to Zambia to escape from the racial oppression of the regimes to Zambia's south, east and west—Rhodesia, South Africa, Mozambique and Angola.

The refugees have provided the Zambian Government with a major headache. They arrive from across the border with no means of support—no money, no food, no clothes, no possessions. In many instances they come not in ones and twos, but as whole families. As a developing country which has yet to celebrate ten years of independence the strain which such an influx creates is not inconsiderable.

Thousands flee racist terror

But the Zambian Government has long made it clear that it is prepared to put principles before expediency or economic interests, and as a result it refuses to return the refugees to the countries from which they came.

The government is assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and by several Christian agencies within the country. Twelve thousand refugees live in these settlements—3,700 at Nyimba, 1128 at Mayukwayukwa, and 7361 at Maheba in the north, close to the Zaire and Angolan borders. Added to this the Zambian Government estimates that there are 25,000 refugees living inside Zambia close to the borders.

The refugee settlements are not open to inspection by any local people or tourists who feel like having a look. Permission has to be granted by the Commissioner for Refugees (a Zambian Government Civil Servant attached to the Ministry for Home Affairs) before the settlements can be either visited or photographed. This is no exercise in bureaucracy, and neither is it because the Zambian Government has anything to hide. It is chiefly because under a system where anybody could visit the settlements, spies would run rife. It is also to prevent the insensitive tourist from turning a people's suffering into a sideshow.

Nothing hidden from NZers

Mr R. Munkuni, the Commissioner for Refugees viewed our request to visit a settlement with sympathy, stating that he hoped that such a visit would be informative, not only to us, but to our fellow New Zealanders.

For practical reasons (mainly concerned with time and finance) it was agreed that we should visit Nyimba. Mr Munkuni explained that this settlement was different from the ones at Mayeba and Mayukwaukwa because at Nyimba all the refugees live in the settlement, with farming done on an adjacent farm. Since the Nyimba settlement was created, Zambian Government policy has changed. Instead of all the refugees living close together within a confined space as they do at Nyimba, the other two settlements provide each refugee family with ten—twelve acres on which they build their dwellings and on which they farm. As a result, population density is much lower at the two more recently established settlements. This is a relatively new policy for any country to adopt, and in many respects it is regarded as a model of how refugee settlements should be run.

The Refugee Officer at Nyimba is Mr R. Mwanza, a civil servant attached to the Refugee section of the Ministry for Home Affairs. Although we arrived on a Saturday he was most co-operative, and for over two hours he discussed the life of the settlement with us. There was no-where that we were not allowed to go, and nothing that he told us we were not allowed to photograph.

Brutal oppression by Portuguese

The refugees all had tales of hardship, brutality and suffering to tell. We spoke to several, and the stories were very similar.

Selifulaye Banda is a 56-year-old subsistence farmer from the Tete province of Mozambique. We asked him why he became a refugee. Through an interpreter he replied 'I left Mozambique because of the suffering caused by the Portuguese soldiers. A lot of my friends were killed by page break the Portuguese because they would not tell them anything about the freedom fighters. Those who were not killed had either their fingers or their hands cut off.'

I asked him if his wife and family were with him in the settlement. He replied that they were, but that in many cases husbands had to flee—'you just have to run from where you are and that's it'—leaving wives behind; The wives that were left behind have a terrible time. The soldiers in the Portuguese army would continually harass them. Sometimes they would kill them.'

The soldiers would come every day and annoy us. Sometimes they would destroy the crops by burning. Other times they would bomb the crops. People die of malnutrition. They also die of TB, malaria and leprosy. There used to be a hospital but the Portuguese closed it down. The Portuguese live in the towns, not in the rural areas; they couldn't care what happened to us.'

Selifulaye Banda was lucky—he escaped with his life and in one piece. There are others in the settlement who bear the scars of Portuguese brutality. One girl we spoke to had lost her baby—shot by the Portuguese Her own left arm was contorted and shattered. It hung there, grotesque and useless, a symbol of Portuguese barbarity in Mozambique.

Back in his office Mr Mwanza discussed the logistics of caring for 3,700 displaced people. When refugees come they are provided with the materials necessary to construct a house. These are usually small unsophisticated huts made out of mud bricks with a thatched roof. Food is provided by the farm attached to the settlement. The 500 acres are looked after by the refugees, and this year, for the first time, the settlement is expected to be self-sufficient.

Health and educational services are provided by the Zambian Government. Two medical officers have been seconded from the Ministry of Health and work full-time at the settlement. There is a clinic a short distance away. Malaria and TB are the main health hazards. There is no malnutrition, and a sophisticated water supply ensures that there is neither cholera or typhoid. Football grounds are provided for recreational purposes.

The 455 children at the camp all receive education at the local Zambian state school school. Uniforms are provided by the Government. This is done despite the fact that there are not enough places in Zam bian schools for Zambian nationals.

I asked Mr Mwanza if there was any strife or friction between the refugees and the Zambians in the village. He said there was none. As a general rule this was true of the three settlements, although this situation was particularly good at Nyimba because both the refugees and the local Zambians spoke the same language.

Refugees adjust well

There are no law-and-order problems in the settlement, despite the fact that while we were there we saw a beer party in full suing. The only real problem facing the settlement springs from the fact that it lies on the Great East Road. Refugees living in Zambian villages are taken to the settlement to live. Often they try to return to the village in which they were found. Refugees are not allowed into the villages. The Great Hast Road provides those who wish to leave the settlement and live in the villages with an easy exit route.

This rule is necessary for a number of reasons. With no possessions and no money, a refugee would quickly become an imposition on the local community if he lived outside the settlements provided for him. Although some countries integrate refugees into the general population, Zambia does not want to do this, chiefly for reasons of security and the one mentioned above.

Surrounded for the most part by hostile powers, young and under-developed, Zambia is showing the world that she will not run away from her commitments and from her principles, whatever the cost.

Photo of an African child writing