If there is a place on earth that seems to sum up the grim chaotic reality of the refugee crisis it’s Goma. Chiwetel Ejiofor described it recently in The Observer:
“I was in Goma,” he recalls, “which is an extraordinary place to be. We crossed the border from Rwanda and were almost immediately in the midst of these camps, thousands of displaced people. People had been there for years in some cases. They had got caught up in the fallout from the Rwandan genocide, which became their own war, and all that time the eyes of the world have looked away.” He talks about some of the people he met in a place that “was as close as I have ever seen to despair… a woman who when the rebels had come in and killed three of her children in front of her had grabbed the fourth and fled and ended up here. And what did she dream of? You know, a sewing machine so she could start to rebuild her life…” And he talks too of the other unpalatable side of that conflict, the fact that it is fuelled to a large degree by the world’s need for Congo’s mineral wealth, particularly coltan, the rare ore that is a key component of all our computers and mobile phones. (Observer, 16 June 2013)
When Paul Kagame’s army took control of Rwanda and ended the genocide in 1994, over a million Hutus fearing reprisals (just because they were Hutu, or because they had taken an active part in the massacres) headed over the border into DRC and Goma – just 1 km from Gisenyi in Rwanda – was where they ended up.
The camps quickly became caught up in ongoing violence between Hutu and Tutsi (who fled the 1994 genocide itself, or previous pogroms) from Rwanda and neighbouring countries, and over 10,000 Hutu militia and former troops effectively controlled the camps, including food distribution and information (eg about possibilities of safe return). The confusion was such that humanitarian organisations found themselves feeding and supporting genocidaires – as Ben Barber says, ‘For Americans and Europeans who saw the televised images in 1994 of the smoky plain in Goma covered with 500,000 starving Rwandans – men and women wrapping the bodies of their children and their elderly in straw mats to hurl them into mass graves – a refusal to help would have seemed inhuman.’ (Barber, 1997, p. 13). Add to that the collective guilt that we had all stood by whilst 800,000 were massacred, and it is no wonder that an outside world which had barely grasped what had happened in those few weeks after 6 April 1994 should have assumed that the refugees now so visibly suffering in Goma were people we should help.
Nearly twenty years on, Goma is still a focus for refugees, for military activity, for human misery.
Refugee camps are amongst Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ – ‘transit points and temporary abodes … under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity’ (Augé, p. 78). They are also ‘hors-lieux’, ‘outside of the places and outside of the time of a common, ordinary predictable world’ (Agier, p. 323), sites of segregation, where ‘life has to redefine itself within wholly unprecedented and unknown contexts’.
This redefinition can be emancipating – Twa refugees who had fled Rwanda during the genocide were able for the first time in Goma to win official recognition, having been previously amongst the poorest and most marginalised community in Rwanda, scorned by both the large ethnic groups (Godding, cited in Agier, p. 335). So this place, ‘predicated on collective suffering and interpersonal conflicts’, can provide an innovating framework.
A refugee camp should be a neutral place of sanctuary – but it can also become a training camp for a routed army, suffer internal control by exile groups, and its inhabitants can become the shields and targets of local military operations. It can also of course be a focus for disease – around 40-45,000 refugees died of cholera or dysentery during the month following their arrival in Goma in July 1994.
The refugee camp is a liminal space. Like a border or no-man’s land, it is a place through which people pass, but not a place where they should live. It is a between-space – between the place from which the refugees fled and the place of safety which they hope to reach (which may, of course, be the place from which they fled, if conditions and circumstances have changed). The camp’s inhabitants are uncitizens, marginalised and separated both from their former home and from the country in which the camp sits. It’s a waiting zone where nothing can be fully brought to fruition, a place of quarantine. Is it purgatory – a place of temporary suffering, though without the promise of paradise to come? Or limbo – the first circle of Dante’s Hell?
There are many Gomas out there.
UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report covers displacement that occurred during 2012 based on data from governments, NGO partners, and the UN refugee agency itself. The report shows that as of the end of 2012, more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement compared to 42.5 million at the end of 2011. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries. The report does not include the rise in those forced from their homes in Syria during the current year. War remains the dominant cause. A full 55 percent of all refugees listed in UNHCR’s report come from just five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. The report also charts major new displacement from Mali, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Sudan into South Sudan and Ethiopia. “These truly are alarming numbers. They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and head of UNHCR. The report highlights worrisome trends, including the rate at which people are being forced into situations of displacement. During 2012 some 7.6 million people became newly displaced, 1.1 million as refugees and 6.5 million as internally displaced people. This translates to a new refugee or internally displaced person every 4.1 seconds. (http://www.unhcr.org/51c071816.html)
Michel Agier, Between War and City: Towards an Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps, Ethnography, 3 (2002), 317-41
Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995)
Ben Barber, Feeding Refugees, or War? The Dilemma of Humanitarian Aid, Foreign Affairs, July/August 1997
Alain Deztexhe, The Third Genocide, Foreign Policy, 97 (winter, 1994-5), pp 3-17
Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (Portobello Books, 2009)
Barry Levy & Victor Sidel, War & Public Health (Oxford UP, 1997)
Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed (Zed Books, 2009)
Kate Nash, Between Citizenship and Human Rights, Sociology, 43, 6 (Dec. 2009), pp. 1067-87