July 20, 2024

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Zimbabwe: Red Cross to the Rescue

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Last year, a frightened 22-year-old Bendele Mpoyi Dallas of Jake Village in Nord Kivu, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was captured by rebels when they attacked his village.

For the month-and-a-half that he was in captivity, Bendele said the rebels forced him and two other young men from his village to be undertakers, burying scores of people in mass graves.

One of his colleagues was shot dead when he tried to escape. Seeing his colleague being shot, forced Bendele to ditch all plans to escape.

Two months later, alone and frightened, Bendele managed to escape as his captors lay drunk and he headed straight to the border with Zambia. In early February, he eventually reached Zimbabwe. Today, he still does not know what happened to his other family members.

Efforts to try and locate them or find out if they are still alive through the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s Restoring Family Links (RFL) programme at the Tongogara Refugee Camp (TRC) in Chipinge, Manicaland, have not yielded any positives as the fighting is still raging on in Nord Kivu, preventing access to Red Cross volunteers.

“I remain hopeful that I will get the news so that at least I get closure. The Red Cross people in the DRC have promised me they will keep trying to get information on what happened to my family members. I trust they will. I don’t want to go back to the DRC. I want to start my life here. I want to train as a motor mechanic. It’s peaceful here,” Bendele told The Herald.

Twenty-nine-year-old Anne Malu of Katoka Village in Kananga, in central DRC, counts herself lucky after she managed to escape with her three children after the rebels attacked them in their village three years ago.

“The sad part is that I don’t know what happened to my husband, parents and the other siblings after we fled the fighting. I don’t even know if they are even alive. I have been searching for them through the RFL programme. Thank God, through this programme, I recently have reconnected with one of my brothers who fled and is now in the United States. Together, we are still searching for our parents and other siblings,” said Anne.

For Mukuta Jojo (24) who fled to Zimbabwe with his four brothers from their village in Beneleke in Kananga Province in the DRC in 2017, the story is almost similar.

The family was scattered as they fled the violence after his brother, who was a university lecturer, became a target of the rebels.

“The five of us, minus our parents finally ended up in Zimbabwe in 2017, where we have taken refuge. Through the RFL programme, we later learnt that our mother died during the violence. Luckily, again, through this programme, we have reconnected with our father who also fled and is now in the US,” said Mukuta.

Mukuta is now a Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS) volunteer at the TRC, translating from English to his home languages Lingala, kiSwahili, French to his compatriots in the camp and vice versa.

ZRCS secretary general, Mr Elias Hwenga, said his organisation, with technical and financial support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is implementing the RFL programme in TRC among other areas in the country. “The RFL programme aims to prevent family separation, restore and maintain family contact, reunite families, and clarify the fate of missing persons. The programme targets over 15 000 refugees and asylum seekers housed at the TRC, primarily from the Great Lakes Region, who fled conflicts in their home countries. Many of these individuals lost contact with their families due to sudden displacement and lack the means (mainly financial) to re-establish connections,” said Mr Hwenga.

Since January to date the programme recorded three positive tracing outcome, registered more than 25 new tracing cases, and four cases of unaccompanied children cases.

“The programme also distributed 30 000 Wi-Fi tokens, facilitated 538 phone calls and provided 1 440 phone charging services, exchanged four Red Cross Messages and facilitated 139 RedSafe downloads.

“Under the RFL programme, the ZRCS assists individuals in locating their loved ones and facilitates written communication between separated family members through the Red Cross Messages. The programme also distributes 30-minute Wi-Fi tokens to facilitate internet access and offers digital tools for family tracing through the RedSafe mobile application,” said Mr Hwenga.

He explained that the RFL also facilitates family reconnection through three-minute phone calls to re-establish contact and provides for the trace the face facility

“We also provide support for unaccompanied and separated children through registration and follow-up to ensure their protection and reunification with families.”

He said promoting the use of the RedSafe mobile application can significantly enhance the RFL services in the camp, leveraging digital tools to maintain family connections in today’s interconnected world.

“We, however, have challenges in slow Wi-Fi network. The limited internet speed vis-a-vis the large number of beneficiaries at a time hampers the ability to increase the number of beneficiaries downloading and using the RedSafe application. This is compounded by inadequate power supply, especially during winter. There is a challenge in providing consistent phone charging services. The ZRCS relies exclusively on solar power, which may not always be sufficient,” he said.

Red Cross volunteer, Mukuta, said the RFL programme at Tongogara Refugee Camp plays a critical role in reuniting families and maintaining family connections among refugees and asylum seekers. “Despite the challenges of slow internet and limited power supply, the programme continues to make significant impacts on the lives of the beneficiaries,” he said.

TRC administrator Mr Johanne Mhlanga said currently they have 15 835 refugees and asylum seekers with 73 unaccompanied children and 46 separated children. “The Government of Zimbabwe, as a signatory of international conventions and treaties protecting children, is working flat out to protect unaccompanied and separated children who are here at Tongogara Refugee Camp. We are happy with the work that the ZRCS is doing here in the camp through the Restoring Family Links programme.

“Protection of unaccompanied and separated children remains Government’s priority here at Tongogara. We are grateful for the work the ZRCS and other partners are doing here,” said Mr Mhlanga.

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