Refugees learn to cope with the trauma that forced them to flee Congo

MANTAPALA REFUGEES PLACE, Zambia — Donned in a traditional blue apron, Martha Milambo sells her tomatoes, onions and dried fish to locals and fellow refugees at her small market in the Mantapala Refugee Settlement in northern Zambia.

Milambo, who started her business two years ago after receiving a grant from the local church and non-governmental organizations, is a refugee from Congo. She and her family fled an armed attack on her village in the south of the country in 2018 and sought safety across the border in Zambia.


“I came here after they killed my husband. I knew we were all going to die and we had to save my remaining family,” said the 40-year-old mother of four.

Most of the refugees in the camp experience extreme poverty as they have hurriedly left their homes in Congo with nothing there. They have no food, water, medicine, school fees for their children and other essentials. However, Caritas Zambia, the Catholic Church and international and local NGOs play a vital role in helping refugees survive and recover from forced displacement.

“We came up with nothing, and life became difficult for us,” Milambo told Catholic News Service. “We had no food to eat, clothes to wear and money to take our children to school. But I want to thank those who have come to improve our lives by involving us in business activities that are a source of income.”

Southern Congo has been embroiled in ethnic conflicts and fighting between Congolese soldiers and militias since 2017. The violence has resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives, while thousands of people have been displaced in the country. The conflict has also led to a mass exodus of refugees to Zambia, where they have settled in Mantapala, located in the Nchelenge district of Zambia’s Luapula province, the country’s second poorest.

The camp, which opened in early 2018 to accommodate the refugees, is home to about 18,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Since their arrival, refugees have received emotional and financial support, skills development and life-saving assistance. They have learned business skills and undergone an entrepreneurship training, which enables them to start small businesses to support their families. Others have learned to grow cassava, vegetables and corn, raise dairy cows, pigs, sheep and goats, and keep bees.

Catechist Michael Phiri said the Catholic Church has given refugees a monthly food allocation consisting of corn, beans, cooking oil and salt. He said the church has also established community centers where refugees gather to pray, sing, reconcile and heal.

“Most of the refugees here have been traumatized by the war and persecution they have endured and need mental health care,” explains Phiri. “We provide counseling to refugees so they can heal, live with the community and rebuild their lives.”

Dorcas Lubinda, 45, is one of the refugees who has used mental health care. She was traumatized in early 2018 when gunmen attacked her village in the middle of the night, killing her three sons and husband. She later made her way to Mantapala.

Lubinda said she was thinking about killing herself after having nightmares and flashbacks. “I could not sleep. I saw in my dreams armed men shooting and killing my sons,” she said. “I could suddenly wake up and start screaming. It was a horrible experience for me to lose my whole family in one night.”

She underwent counseling with religious leaders who worked in the camp, which helped her cope with her grief. She started a grocery store, which she ran for two years before remarrying.

“The counseling really helped me to regain hope and believe in myself,” said Lubinda. “I have been able to appreciate myself and start life over again. I am now a born-again Christian and have come to understand that everything happens according to God’s plan.”

Eugene N’gandu, who is responsible for Caritas Zambia’s Livelihoods and Climate Change Adaptation Program, said the organization will start a three-year project in 2021 for refugees aged 17 to 23. The program includes sustainable agriculture, village rehabilitation and income-generating activities.

The project has reached more than 150 young refugees, the majority in the camp, N’gandu said.

“The project has enabled young people to engage in farming, including beekeeping, as well as participate in small businesses to help them become sustainable and help themselves,” he said.

Caritas Zambia has also conducted peace sessions through the Diocese of Mansa to address conflicts that have led to the exodus of refugees from Zambia.

“We also encourage young people to take care of the environment by planting more trees,” N’gandu said.

Bishop Patrick Chilekwa Chisanga of Mansa said the church has been assisting the refugees since they arrived in early 2018, providing spiritual, emotional and physical support.

“The church visits them to provide relief supplies and also to pray with them,” he said. “We have encouraged people to treat refugees well and to live with them as brothers and sisters.”

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