The border crossing was a nightmare. There were crowds of people as far as you could see along the roads, carrying everything they could with them as they fled. It looked as though a whole country was emptying itself into another country. It was a human river of people. Some were carrying sleeping mats and cooking pots, pulling children who could hardly walk, exhausted. Some were carrying folded mattresses on their heads; others had bundles of whatever they could carry with them. There were those who were pulling goats and sheep while others even had their cows with them. Apart from occasional bleats, moos and children’s cries, the air was almost silent. People waited in dread of what lay ahead of them.
“Can this be happening? Is it real?” Jacques’ wife, Nadia, said, in an outburst of sobs.
“It looks real,” Mom said slowly, patting her shoulder. “But it’s worse than a bad dream.”
“I never thought I would ever become a refugee. I never dreamed that I would have to leave my country,” Nadia continued, wiping away tears with the edge of her gitenge (wraparound).
“I never dreamed I would ever be separated from Xavier,” my mother replied. “And here I am, not knowing where he is. Not knowing if he is still alive.” She also wiped away some tears with her hand.
As she said these words, Claire and I also found ourselves in tears. I thought of Louis. He must be somewhere in this long line of people and animals and cars moving like snails towards the border. Would I ever see him again? He had become like a shadow that shows itself before disappearing behind the clouds, at the whims of the weather.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. But … let’s be strong and keep our hope alive,” my mom said at last, quietly.
It took us an entire day to reach Goma, the nearest town in the DRC.
I watched in bewilderment as the soldiers in the DRC took away our mattresses and half our belongings as soon as we crossed the border. We had already lost so much, and now we were being robbed of more, in the place we had fled to for safety.
Mugunga Camp for refugees was like a city. A city of tents. Some were tarpaulin, others were plastic. The relief agencies working in the camps handed out tents, and we had to put them up ourselves. The camp had been set up by the United Nations Refugee Agency. The tents were so clustered together that there was hardly enough air to breathe.
In our small tent, squashed next to my sister and mother on a mat, I thought of my bedroom in our house in Kigali. The bedroom that I shared with my sister Claire. I thought of one of the pictures on the wall. A picture of school children running after a ball in the playground. Would I be able to study again? I thought of our garden where Claire and I used to pick and smell roses before putting them in a vase on our dining table. Then I thought of our dad. There was still no news of him. A big lump formed in my throat and I struggled to chase this thought out of my mind. It was unbearable.
The next devastation was the cholera disease, from dirty water. It spread like smoke in the clouds, leaving many corpses littering the streets before they could be taken away for burial by aid organisations. I had noticed a healthy looking little boy playing next to our tent. The next day I saw him vomiting incessantly as his mother struggled to keep him drinking out of a cup. She also kept changing his nappies, and I could see flies buzzing around.
“Byarangiye.” (My little brother passed on.) His older sister was in tears as she told us the news late that evening. My mother hugged her and tried to comfort her.
“I will spend the night with them. Sleep well,” Mom said to me and Claire as she followed the girl to their tent. In the night, we could hear Twaremewe kuzajya mu Ijuru (We were all created for heaven) and other sad songs rising into the air from there.
What if I was the next person to die of cholera? I was so frightened by this neighbour’s death. I went to my brothers’ tent. The moonlight was dim as there were clouds in the sky.
“Philippe, let me in.”
“Wait … what are you looking for this time of the night?” he asked, after lighting a candle and untying the strings that closed the tent.
“I cannot sit and wait to be the next victim of cholera here. Can you? We have to get out of here.”
“What is your plan?” André asked. He too had woken up.
“That’s why I’m here. We have to make a plan.”
“Let’s go to Zambia. I hear it’s a nice country,” Philippe suggested.
“Maybe I can study there and follow my dream of becoming a nurse,” I agreed.
“Let’s waste no time. We can leave tomorrow morning,” André said firmly.
“Mom, we need to leave here.” Philippe’ voice was desperate as he spoke to Mom in the morning, when she returned from the vigil. I looked at my brother, usually so calm, now trembling with fright.
“Where do you want to go now?”
“Zambia,” I told her.
“I think you’re right. It smells of death here,” Mom said. “I’m staying with Claire though. I’m too tired from sleepless nights, and Claire is still too small to endure another long journey on foot.”
My mom pressed fifty dollars into my palm. “Keep it safe, you will need it.” She also gave money to my brothers.
I was sewing the money into a piece of cloth when I heard a familiar voice outside our tent – a voice that made me whoop for joy.
“Can I borrow your axe? I need it to cut some firewood.”
I ran out to find Louis standing there. We hugged shyly. I told him we didn’t have an axe but I would go with him to his tent, to see where he was staying.
“Can I ask you something?” I said in a low voice, some distance away from our tent. “My brother and I are heading to Zambia. Do you want to come with us? We are leaving in about an hour’s time.”
When we reached his tent I urged him: “You better hurry. We will fetch you soon, look out for us.”
My mom packed me a bag for the road: a few clothes, a spare pair of shoes, and a spare igitenge.
“You will need it to get dressed when you are with the boys,” she said as she folded it neatly before giving it to me.
“Thanks, mom. It’s very kind of you.” I held her hands; I didn’t want to let them go. It was breaking my heart to leave her. First my dad, and now my mom. We prayed for a safe journey, and for my dad. My mom, Claire and I crushed each other with hugs.
“Family always sticks together, no matter what.” I could again hear my father’s words as we walked away from our tent, to collect Louis, and then to walk on out into the unknown again, in the crispy, early morning.
Tell us what you think: What could happen to Odette, Louis and her brothers as they try to reach Zambia? Should they have stayed with their mother in the camp?