[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]

Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 30, 2007

Seeking refuge in America: Survivors are set free

Reaching a Pinnacle after fleeing a ravaged homeland

By Saranac Hale Spencer

On the high plateau of South Kivu, cows are suffering from the force meant for their herders.

"Right now, the government of Congo has sent thousands of troops to that area," said Olivier Mandevu. "Their cattle are being stolen, their houses are being burned."

Mandevu is a Banyamulenge Tutsi who was resettled here in April, after a 2004 massacre at a United Nations refugee camp where he was living.

The Banyamulenge are a small group of pastoralists who have lived near the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for generations, raising cattle and small, subsistence crops. For years, they lived quietly in the northeastern hills of the Congo, until the 1994 Rwandan genocide spilled over the border.

"It’s linked to the Rwandan situation, but it’s different," said Mauro De Lorenzo, of The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, who has done fieldwork in the area. "It’s not simple."

Mandevu shed some light in the darker corners of the situation, as he sat in his sparse Albany apartment, next to an empty glass with a milky film still at its edges.

"Our people love milk a lot," he said. "By stealing our cows, it’s one way of killing people."

Although the Banyamulenge had lived amicably in the Congo for years, the government made deals with the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide when they fled to the Congo, Mandevu said. In the early 1990s, Hutu forces killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda, committing genocide on a scale often compared to the Holocaust.

"When Hutus from Rwanda moved to Congo, they found more Tutsis — we, the Banyamulenge," said Mandevu.

The Hutus began inciting violence against the Banyamulenge, and, by 1998, hatred of the small Tutsi group had become so entrenched that Yerodia Ndomasi, a government official, gave a speech, where he called the group "vermin," and instructed Congolese people, "Use all of your means to kill them," Mandevu said.

His native South Kivu, where the Banyamulenge are concentrated, is very rural, Mandevu said. The houses are made of grass and there are no phones, no electricity, no roads, he said. Of the violence, he added, "This is why the world doesn’t know."

Remembering a massacre

Three years after the massacre at Gatumba, the United Nations refugee camp where Mandevu’s mother and brother were killed, survivors who had come to the United States gathered for a memorial service.

"A Tutsi is now like the first enemy in his own country," Mandevu said, addressing the men in full suits and women in bright, cotton dresses, who listened for hours in thick summer heat as fellow survivors told their stories.

Over the last few months, refugees from the Gatumba massacre have been arriving in cities all over the United States; sixteen have been resettled in Albany. Many of them, from across the country, met at Camp Pinnacle, in the Helderbergs, on Aug. 16 to commemorate the third anniversary of the massacre.

With deep, soulful eyes, they looked upon their comrades, listened to their stories, and laughed with their children.

"We thought it was a safe haven for us," began one woman’s story of the massacre, the cadence of her native language translated into English. At 10 p.m. on that summer night three years before, armed men from the Mayi-Mayi, Interahamwe, and Forces Nationales de Libération, entered the Gatumba refugee camp where she was sitting in her tent; they threw a grenade into her shelter. She lost her husband and six of her seven children. Her only surviving son pulled her from the fire.

Of the camp’s 760 residents, 152 were killed and another 107 were injured.

Janvier Gasita, a young man with an intense gaze, saw his sister die in the attack. He and his parents arrived in Wisconsin two months ago, and a church group raised enough money for him to come to the Helderbergs for the memorial.

The group that has settled in Albany has been attending the Emmaus congregation, which raised money to help fund the memorial.

"They are a deeply spiritual people," said Denise Stringer, pastor of the Emmaus church. "These people have had everything taken from them but their souls."

Some of the money raised helped bring Gatumba survivors from other states, like Gasita of Wisconsin, to the memorial.

It is United States policy to spread refugees who are coming from one area around the country. "We have found that people integrate better when they’re not all grouped in one place," said Regina Wills, a public affairs director at the Department of State.

"The United States requires that they be, basically, placed in communities that, A., can support them, and B., it’s supposed to be done in a fashion that doesn’t support continued interdependence within a population," said Molly Short, director of the Albany branch of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. (See related story.)

The group of Banyamulenge that just arrived got refugee status because of the 2004 massacre. When asked why it took three years, Short answered, "The same reason why refugees live in camps for generations."

Some Gatumba survivors are still in Burundi and Rwanda, Mandevu said, and it is the mission of his group, the Gatumba Refugees Survivors Foundation, to bring them here.

"Our grandfathers are still there," he said.

"If you go back to Africa, it means you are going to die," said Gasita.

Demanding justice

There has yet to be an official investigation into the Gatumba massacre, but Mandevu and his group are demanding justice.

"We are acting as the voice of these voiceless people," he said of the survivors’ foundation.

"One way of understanding Gatumba is it is a message from the government," De Lorenzo said of the governments’ failure to investigate or help the Banyamulenge. Those who want to eradicate the group will take advantage of the weakness of the Banyamulenge community right now, he said; their survival in the Congo depends on their own actions. "The only people who can stop it are the Banyamulenge themselves," he said.

"The Congolese army has stolen thousands and thousands of cows in the last two weeks," said Mandevu. "Targeting the cows will make them more poor and lose interest in the land and flee. It’s one way of making them leave the land."

The Banyamulenge who are left in South Kivu are largely uneducated farmers, he said. They don’t understand all of the politics behind the violence, he said. "They just undergo the consequences without knowing why."

He warned, "When your neighbor’s house is being burned, don’t feel safe, because the fire may shift."

Trail of horrors leads Devota to a new home

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY — War has followed Devota Nyiraneza for half of her life.

She carries that burden without resentment and her lank, angular frame is larger in a room than her humble character.

For two days, she hid in the space between the ceiling and the roof of her parents’ house in Rwanda when genocide spread from the nearby capital city, to her small village in the 1990s.

When the noise beneath her had stopped, she came out of her hiding place to find that she was the only one of her 50-member family left living. She was 14 years old.

Now nearly 30, she tells her saga quietly, with the familiarity that comes with having told it dozens of times to officials.

From her empty home she sought refuge with a neighbor, who was herself a refugee — she had fled from Burundi to Rwanda. Nyiraneza spent two months hidden in her neighbor’s house, before she traveled with her neighbor’s family back to Burundi, and from there, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo — all on foot.

They made it to a refugee camp in Bukavu, a Banyamulenge area of the eastern Congo, that borders Rwanda. The Banyamulenge are a tribe of Tutsis who are the target of genocide. (See related story.)

There, in the eastern Congo, Nyiraneza’s Burundian neighbor demanded that she marry her brother. She threatened to run Nyiraneza out of the camp if she refused, so she complied.

The war soon crossed the border into the Congo and Nyiraneza gave birth to a daughter.

With just her three-month-old baby on her back, Nyiraneza left her husband at the camp and spent the next year-and-a-half walking to the neighboring Republic of the Congo.

In a flood of refugees, Nyiraneza traveled through remote valleys, always hidden, sometimes walking through chest-high water for days at a time.

The refugees could not stop; the war was always at their backs.

With nothing to eat, people would search for wild sweet potatoes, eating the leaves and the roots of the bitter plant, despite its dizzying effects.

Nyiraneza watched children die on their mothers’ backs. They would be left behind on the side of the road; there was nothing else to do. People too exhausted to keep going, but not yet dead, would fall by the wayside and ants would crawl in through their noses.

"You could tell that people were rotting alive," she said, in smooth, rhythmic, French.

One of the most terrifying parts of her journey was not knowing or trusting fellow travelers. There were two groups of soldiers that would walk with the refugees — one group was also running and the other was chasing them.

"Soldiers that had been with you would try to kill you in the middle of the night," she said.

Along the way, two soldiers began a rivalry over Nyiraneza; each demanded that she marry him. "One said, ‘Marry me,’" she recalled. "One said, "Marry me or I’ll kill you.’" She married the first for protection against the second.

When the refugees made it to a camp in the Republic of the Congo, they were each given a handful of couscous and a doll-sized jar of tomato sauce, a two-day ration for each adult.

They lived in that village of green army tents for a month, until the war was at their backs again. The government gave refugees 30 days to leave the country.

Nyiraneza and her husband settled in a small village near Cameroon, where she lived for three years and bore two children.

Then the war was on her heels again.

It came suddenly this time, and she scattered with her children in a different direction than her husband. Nyiraneza paid more than $1,000 in bribes to cross the border into Cameroon.

For the first time in the whole journey, Nyiraneza rode in a car.

She arrived in the capital, Yaoundé, with her three children and $20. She spent the next four months begging for food. Little by little, she learned enough French to explain her situation to a passer-by, who took her to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office, where Nyiraneza applied for refugee assistance.

As soon as she could, Nyiraneza applied for resettlement, but it would be a year before she would get her first interview; after that, the refugee office sent her to see a psychologist. People often make up stories so that they can be resettled in another country, but hers was so far-fetched that the interviewer sent her to seek psychological help. The doctor saw her story was credible and spoke on her behalf.

After four years of living in Yaoundé, Nyiraneza was told that she would be leaving for the United States on June 20, but she didn’t believe it. Refugees are routinely given several dates before actually leaving.

There is a rumor "that once you got motion-sickness medicine, you were actually going to leave," she said. Nyiraneza got her medicine and arrived in Albany on June 21.

Now she is living in New York’s capital city, wearing a fuzzy orange fleece in the heat of the summer, and for the first time in her adult life, the war is not at her heels.

"In life," she said, "there are always going to be some kinds of problems."


Translation was provided by Steffa Krisniski of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Help for refugees

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY — When a family from Burma was greeted by glowing pumpkins and vampires last October, Linda Hutton had some trouble settling them in.

They arrived as refugees to the United States on Halloween, and they were the first family that she helped to resettle here.

"I had a hard time explaining that people didn’t usually look like that," said Hutton, a volunteer with the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

The committee is one of 10 certified agencies with which the United States government contracts to resettle refugees around the country. It has been in Albany since 2005 and has settled about 300 people here.

In the coming months, the Albany office expects to get between 30 and 50 people per month who will be resettled in the area, according to Steffa Krisniski, a coordinator for the USCRI. The committee needs volunteers like Hutton, "to be the American friend of the family," she said.

The committee, which depends largely on government grants and private donations, also collects donations of household items, warm clothes, and school supplies.

For volunteers, the hours are flexible, Hutton said, and no special training is required. Her favorite part is working with the children, but, she said, the volunteer work is "great for anybody who wants to get to know somebody from a different culture. It’s a nice addition to the family."


Donations may be sent to: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, 10 N. Russell Road, Albany, NY 12206

[Return to Home Page]