Meet TRAFIG researcher Joachim Ruhamya of the Congolese Team

My name is Joachim Ruhamya Mugenzi. I work as teacher and researcher at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural (ISDR-Bukavu), where I am the Executive Director of CREGED - Centre de Recherche et d’Expetise en Genre et Développement (Research and Knowledge Centre on Gender and Development). I have a background in Political and Administrative Sciences. Together with Stanislas Lubala, Innocent Assumani and Patrick Milabyo, I am part of the Congolese research team for TRAFIG, which we’re carrying out with The Social Science Centre for African Development KUTAFITI. As a team we’ve been working together with Leiden University since 2014.

My affinity with displaced people is fed by my own experience as a refugee. Let me tell you my story. On the night of Friday, May 11, 1990, there was a massacre at the university campus of Lubumbashi, where I was enrolled as a first year Bachelor student at the Faculty of Social, Political and Administrative Sciences. I miraculously managed to escape the massacre, but it appeared that I was - falsely - accused of being one of the instigators of the student uprisings that had taken place. (To read more about the massacre, see for instance https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8654.html, or the personal narrative by Louis Alphonse Koyagialo, published as ‘Massacre de Lubumbashi, 11-12 mai 1990’, with Harmattan in 2012.)

The security and intelligence services of the dictatorial regime of Mobutu were looking for me. I went to hide in the presidential area of Lubumbashi, in Kisanga, with a senior officer of the army, a close collaborator of Mobutu, but just like me coming from Kivu province. In this presidential concession there was housing for close collaborators of the president. In a meeting of South Kivu people, the officer had told me: "to escape the enemy, you have to hide from him". I had been disguised (big coat, sunglasses, in a small Renault 5) to cross the 3 barriers to get in. For a month, I could only leave my room after 23:00, just to watch TV in the living room. I ate in the room. I spent all my time reading books and listening to the radio, until the day when I was going to escape to the city of Likasi, 100 km from Lubumbashi. From there, I took the train to Kalemie, then the boat to Uvira and the vehicle to Bukavu.

Only five days after my arrival in Bukavu, the same officer sent a message urging me to leave the country immediately, because the intelligence services had just arrested a colleague named Rumanya whom they had confused with Ruhamya (me). I took a false identity. I used the name of […], a student colleague who had just died in a refugee camp in Ndola, Zambia. That is how I went to Tanzania via Burundi.

In Tanzania, I went to UNHCR in Dar-es-Salaam. I took a room at Gogo Hotel, at my own expenses, but I also received assistance from UNHCR. One day, a month after I arrived in Tanzania, I received a visit from two girls who spoke French and Lingala [one of the main languages in Congo]. It was a nice surprise for me to find nice Zaireans [at that time, the DRC was named Zaire]. They invited me to a birthday party. When they left, the Gogo Hotel reception informed me that the parents of these girls work at the Zairean Embassy in Tanzania. I quickly realized that I was trapped. Fortunately, I already had some other knowledge, for instance with […], a Congolese professor who worked at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, and with a Kenyan who worked at Amnesty International in East Africa. The Congolese professor offered me hospitality and the same day I went to live with him until the day UNHCR decided to send me to a refugee camp in Kigwa, close to Tabora. There, I found 3 other young Congolese; G., P. and S. but who were in a bad state of health. S. died of amoebic dysentery, G. caught a form of madness, and P. too was always sick (gastritis, amoebic dysentery, etc.). It made me scared and I decided to flee to Kigoma. In Kigoma, I had empty pockets because the immigration service got hold of me as an undocumented person. I had to bribe with all that I had left to avoid being sent back to Kigwa.

On the spot, I was lucky to be able to offer my services as an interpreter to a Japanese couple who wanted to visit the Kahuzi-Biega National Park [which is in Congo]. I got a bit of money, and they paid for the trip and fed me until we reached Uvira. In Uvira, I used the little money that I had left to get a false identity. I preferred to come to die at home than in a refugee camp in Tanzania. When I came back, my whole family was scared for my life, but I had no other choice.

When the University of Lubumbashi reopened, I returned to continue my education, against the will of my family. I was really stubborn, not because I was proud, but because I did not understand why I had to stop studying for something that I wasn’t involved in. My suffering was more psychological and mental than economic and social. When I returned to the campus, I found that the students from Equateur (Mobutu’s province of origin) had fled. They were the ones who had been involved in the massacre. Some never returned to finish their studies. My bravery, my determination and my innocence paid off. I continued my studies and finished them in 1993.

This journey makes me particularly interested in the fate of internally displaced persons and refugees.

By Joachim Ruhamya

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