The nations of central Africa - Congo,
Rwanda, Uganda and others - are currently embroiled in a fifth year of
regional war. Victims of the ongoing fighting are tens of thousands of
refugees, most from Congo and Burundi. Neighboring Tanzania has accepted
the bulk of these refugees, and agencies like CARE are charged both with
sheltering and sustaining thousands of people in refugee camps in the west
of the country, as well as protecting Tanzania's fragile environment.
Following is the story of a CARE refugee worker in Nyarugusu Camp as told to a CARE staff person. It has been translated and edited...
Nyarugusu Camp, TANZANIA -- "In early November 1996 my wife, three children and I fled from our home in Uvilla, Congo to the Tanzanian border. We reached the shores of Lake Tanganyika several days later and found many other men, women and children covering the shoreline like locusts in a Cassava plantation, all scrambling to board small fishing canoes for the journey to Kigoma, Tanzania. As I boarded a canoe, I overheard and old man next to me say: 'We refugees are like plants when changed from one place to another: We don't die, but we never fully recover.' I felt he was right.
"We entered Tanzania with only a few belongings - some food, cooking utensils and clothes - and though I was relieved to be away from guns and bloodshed, I wondered how we would survive in this new country without our own land, trees, or anything that was familiar to us. We reached Kigoma town and were received and registered as refugees. After two days, we boarded a truck and ours was the first one to arrive in Nyarugusu refugee camp. I managed to be one of the very first Congolese to enter Nyarugusu. Many of us thought that we would be staying for two or three days before the fighting would settle and then we would return home or resettle elsewhere. We were wrong. One week passed, then a month, then two years.
"When we first arrived in Nyarugusu I was no longer worried that I couldn't bring trees with me. Nyarugusu refugee camp seemed to be in a forest. However, the first week we were there was like a 'timber jack festival' - everyone was cutting down trees to build their homes and make fires for cooking. Wood had no value since it was so abundant. Some businessmen began clearing trees and making charcoal for sale to other refugees or nearby Tanzanian villages. Within a short period of time, there were a lot fewer trees in the camp. I saw the environment changing at a great pace. The trees, which we had thought would stay forever, started to disappear.
"One day, I saw an advertisement for a CARE Environmental Guide position. I decided to apply for it, and my name was among the names selected to work with CARE beginning on October 1, 1997. From then on, I have been working with CARE continuously as a refugee laborer protecting the forest. I help teach other refugees about the importance of protecting the environment, and I guide them to harvest sites when they need to cut poles for building their homes or latrines.
"Most refugees no longer cut trees except within designated areas and people no longer seem to take the trees for granted. As a result, women and children do not have to walk so far for firewood. This year, we received more than 15,000 new Congolese refugees in Nyarugusu camp and we have still managed to maintain the forest. The salary that I get from CARE helps me to boost my family's income and well being too.
"The other day, I remembered the old man in the canoe's words. Maybe he's wrong and maybe we can recover. My family has chosen a more stable future through CARE."