A reality check for western eyes in Rwanda

Friday 04 April 2014 19.46
Many people are fleeing to Rwanda from Democratic Republic of Congo
Many people are fleeing to Rwanda from Democratic Republic of Congo

We came upon the refugee camp all of a sudden when we rounded one of the many bends on our way through the hills of Nyamagabe District in Rwanda's Southern Provence.

All the hills are wonderfully verdant, but this one had been stripped of its greenery.

 RTÉ's Christopher McKevitt reports from Rwanda

This was a hill where the reddish-brown soil had been exposed and turned into dirt roads and acres of mud brick huts.

In fact, we worked out later Kigeme Refugee Camp is on two hills. It has recently been expanded to cope with Rwanda's burgeoning numbers of people fleeing the conflict in Kivu next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When we had gone higher into the hills and could look back it looked grim but impressive. We were a little more than 100km from the DRC border.

We rang someone in the Government in Kigali to see if we could visit and it was agreed we could.

There is nothing makeshift looking about Kigeme Refugee Camp. There are a number of aid agencies supplying support there. The older children go to school locally and there is health care.

Trucks with UNHR logos trundle on the surrounding roads. The camp manager, a Rwandan returnee who was himself a refugee living in Burundi throughout his childhood, told us there had been a camp here for years and years.

It had sheltered persecuted people from Rwanda for many years but when that crisis abated, the camp had cleared in 2009.

It was reopened in the spring of 2012 when the Democratic Republic of Congo's army became pre-occupied with recapturing the provincial capital of Goma.

It left the hinterlands unprotected and the Tutsi population exposed to militia attack.  Kivu is painted as a truly appalling place where the government has little control and the militias of various persuasions terrorise civilians, often with minimal intervention from a poorly trained and poorly disciplined DRC Army. 

We spent the first hour in the camp preoccupied with the scores of children who have use of a pre-school building.

It is a great building with some solid rooms where these six-and-unders are supervised. They were obediently polite, moving when they were told but very curious about Paul Deighan's camera and fascinated by the slim legs of his tripod.

I saw just two toys amongst them all. One child was pushing part of the wall of a tyre with a stick. She was very good at it. 

Another child, a boy this time, had a homemade football. He derived a huge amount of fun from it.

It was made from tightly-bound bits of paper crushed into a sphere (banana leaves are an alternative) wrapped in plastic, which was secured with twine and a piece of material.   

I scanned the other children for any sign that any of them might have some class of a homemade something, but they didn't. They had each other and that was it.

A woman from the residents’ committee, for want of a better phrase, explained that there was a baby born in the camp every other day and that at least 8,000 of the camp's 18,500 residents were children.

Inside the little classrooms there did not seem to be anything for them to scribble on, or scribble with. I couldn't see paper or crayons and I found that incredibly depressing.

How could so many children have so little and yet still smile so broadly? But then I told myself that in four days I hadn't really seen play things at all in rural Rwanda. 

I had to tell myself that I was looking at childhood here through Western eyes, and that maybe I was being a bit grim. 

I kept turning that phrase, 'what you never had, you never missed,' that my parents and aunts and uncles used to say to me growing up over in my mind, and wondering could it really be stripped all the way back to just the clothes on your back?

On instinct, I decided that the toy angle was going to be part of the piece-to-camera, which is term used for that bit in a television report where the journalist shows the viewer that they are where they are reporting from.

We interviewed one of the community leaders on camera who, when I asked him how long he expected he would remain living at Kigeme Camp, told me my question was not the right question.

He said the question was what needed to happen to allow people return to Kivu. Then he answered by saying that the interahamwe militias roaming the region had to be dealt with and secondly the DRC Army must show itself able to protect DRC civilians.

So on we went further into the camp, filming daily life and having fun with the stream of children who followed us about. I was making myself useful carrying the tripod while Paul was shooting sequences, the visual building blocks to make a television package.

Watch Paul Deighan's photo montages:

School time in Rwanda's Southern Province

Agriculture in Rwanda's Southern Province

After a while Paul ended up at one end of a group of women who were helping some of the men with carrying sand in basins and buckets on their heads towards where, it turned out they were building a new latrine. I happened to be at the mound of sand where they were digging the sand.

The women there smiled and chatted with each other. I asked our interpreter to ask them if I might ask them some questions for our television report.

They indicated that I could so I asked our translator to ask them why they had come to Kigeme.

One of the women answered, without hesitation, that militia men were raping where she had lived.

The woman next to her added that they would be frightened of being infected with HIV.

It was a very hard thing to hear.

I asked another woman and, again, she said that she was concerned about the rapes taking place in Kivu, and the risk of being infected with HIV.

It didn't seem necessary to ask anyone else anything else at that point. Those few statements would form the basis of our report. 

The women of Kigeme Refugee Camp had told me they were terrified of sexual violence if they remained in their own homes in Kivu.

And it is possibly the bleakest reality check that anyone has ever presented me with.

Watch Christopher's Six One report here