Security paramount to rebuilding for refugees

October 21, 2010
Amy Dove

The Congolese can gauge distance from a single gunshot.

Jane Lawson learned that while watching chaos unfold through the window of a mud hut in Uganda. The Congolese refugees didn’t skip a beat as they carried on their discussion of peace-building tactics, telling her not to worry as the gunfire was not close yet. It wasn’t until the machine gun fire started nearby that everyone took notice.

Members of the group rushed to close the window and barricade the door while Lawson took in the scene outside. “The last image I saw through the window was a terrified little girl struggling to run with a small jerry can of water, crying and falling almost every step of the way, but never letting go of the water,” Lawson said.

Her cellphone rang as a coworker tried to reach her, ordering her to return to base camp. A covert mass deportation of Rwandese Refugee Asylum Seekers was underway.

Life at Nakivale

The 50-year-old Nakivale refugee settlement is home to 60,000 refugees from nine nations. The majority are Congolese, Rwandese and Somalis, although there is one resident made famous for being the only Liberian. There are 20,000 Ugandans within its borders as well.

The massive settlement – it covers roughly 217 square kilometers – is run at a high level of organized chaos, Lawson said. Within the camp, nationalities are divided into villages to promote and maintain each culture. The residents were given a small plot of agricultural land so they could supplement the food provided to them.

“The openness of the refugee population engulfed us and we began to hear people’s stories of struggle,” Lawson said. “We got to see their homes and meet their families.” 

Those personal connections are part of what drew Lawson to Africa, and specifically to refugee camps. She spent roughly five months in Uganda, before moving to Liberia for two months. The knowledge she gained during her travels was as much about policy as it was about humanity. 

Lawson arrived at Nakivale May 24 as an intern with the German Government International Development Agency (GTZ). The organization oversees all GTZ programs in the camp as the main implementing partner for the UNHCR and through it Lawson was able to work with the Refugee Peace Initiative (MOBAN). She helped facilitate peace and conflict sensitizations with various villages and mediated a dispute between a Rwandese and Burundian village. As part of her work she created and held a conflict resolution certificate training program.

She also worked with the community development department assisting with contracts, interviews, hiring, monitoring and pairing more than 75 specially-built houses with people with special needs. These were usually victims of rape or other gender-based violence, single parents, and disabled or unaccompanied minors.

She worked with various groups on conflict management programs and helped distribute aid, from food to sanitary pads for women. “It is a desperate scene watching people receive aid,” she said. “It is overwhelming and sometimes discouraging as I know I am with only 50,000 of the 40 million refugees worldwide.”

Ultimately, her work there was part of her field research for her major research project for her arts program in Human Security and Peacebuilding at Royal Roads University.

Broken trust

For the people living in Nakivale, their struggle wasn’t helped by the mass deportation on July 14. Lawson later learned the Ugandan government had planned a covert deportation operation in the Nakivale and Kyaka refugee camps in southern Uganda. This plan came from a bi-lateral agreement signed by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments to return all rejected asylum-seekers to Rwanda despite refugee law which requires a structured appeal process. The refugees were lured to an area in the camp under false pretenses and told they would be returned to Rwanda immediately. People panicked and tried to flee, leading police to fire warning gun shots and release tear gas into the air. Chaos followed.

The refugees were loaded onto 12 cattle trucks without their belongings, official papers or family members; two more trucks were loaded with bicycles. One person jumped from the truck, dying from head injuries before the vehicle even rolled out of the camp. It was reported that up to three more people lost their lives in this same way before the trucks made it to the Rwandan border, Lawson said. Many of the refugees were separated from their children who remained at Nakivale, orphans by nightfall.

“I am absolutely astounded by the lack of human rights that took place and the trickery and poor planning of such an operation,” she said.

Following the chaotic deportation 26 people were treated for minor injuries in a trauma area Lawson set up and monitored. The refugees that remained had an intense lack of trust of the organizing bodies at the camp. People no longer wanted to gather for meetings or events, hampering efforts to move forward with various programming and to identify the children which were separated from their parents on that day, she said.

“Their fear of being rounded up was acute and memories of that day were fresh in their minds,” she said. “All refugees regardless of nationality succumbed to feelings of vulnerability.”

Lawson was scheduled to leave the camp a week and a half after the deportation. As she watched the dust trail out behind as she drove away, Lawson could think of only one thing.

“Saying goodbye to the refugees was always full of the same thoughts… I wonder where their paths will lead them,” Lawson said. “All I could think was where my path would lead me. It is amazing when you know what you want but difficult to understand the path that will lead you there.”

Policy and reality

Soon after leaving Nakivale, Lawson made a temporary home in Monrovia, Liberia. Her new posting with the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission allowed her see a different side of the refugee’s story while affording her time to travel within the country.

She went to the town of Bucanan, passing through a massive Firestone rubber tree plantation. Workers there cut into the tree’s bark to allow a milky substance to flow out. Once harvested the liquid is combined with an acid to create rubber. The plantations were staggering in size and the smell of the factories pungent.

“I will never look at black rubber or latex without remembering Liberia,” she said.

In the communities themselves, colourful fabrics and the much more pleasant smells of cooking food was everywhere. For all the beautiful scenery, the effects of conflict could not be missed though. The natural scenes were contrasted by bullet riddled highrises, houses and buildings marred by barbed wire and mortar holes.

“It really puts things into perspective on the mass destruction war brings on the infrastructure,” she said. “There are so many buildings half constructed as once the war broke out everything stopped.”

Through her internship, Lawson mingled with politicians and policy makers, working to help shape a five-year strategic plan for refugee issues in Liberia.

“First I was on the frontlines in the camp and (then I was) seeing where the funding and policy define what is on the ground,” she said. “Witnessing both sides had me pondering on how they work and don’t work together almost daily.”

Lessons in humanity

Lawson’s time in Liberia was an “education beyond my wildest expectations,” she said. The experience came with lessons on the fine line between peace and justice and the stark reality that rebuilding is much more difficult than destroying.

It is vital to empower people to fix their own situations, she said, as survivors of conflict do not like outsiders speaking or acting on their behalf. True aid intervention and leadership comes from the ability to let those most affected forge the path of their own reconstruction, she continued, because in that way they will build the confidence they need to better their lives.

In order to do so people need to feel safe and trust that those around them are working toward the same goal, she said.

“I have learned that without security, nothing else can happen,” she said. “(Above all), I have learned I have so much more to learn.”

Jane Lawson was awarded the Governor General's Gold Medal for her thesis work at fall convocation 2011.