Refugees Live in Fear as Riots Tarnish Zambia Image as Haven

Updated on
  • President Edgar Lungu says calm returns, foreigners protected
  • Government buses start taking refugees back to home areas

Zambian authorities provided police escorts and buses to help bring people who took refuge in a church in Lusaka, the capital, back to refugee camps and their homes after a week of anti-foreigner violence.

The action followed President Edgar Lungu’s visit Thursday to St. Ignatius Roman Catholic church to assure more than 400 foreigners that it was safe to return to their homes. Some who fled the violence, such as James Kezamahoro, a 27-year-old war refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said they remained fearful of attack. While the Home Affairs Ministry gave Kezamahoro permission to remain in Lusaka, “I’m in danger,” he said.

Lungu, 59, went to the church to apologize for the violence and assure those who’d taken refuge that his government had stopped the attacks which erupted following a spate of suspected ritual murders. He ordered the army to help police reestablish order in the low-income areas and refugee settlements hit by the violence.

“Most of the refugees are now cooperating very well,” Father Charles Chilinda said Friday while receiving donations of food and other groceries for the refugees from Zambians. “Some shops have re-opened today.”

Safe Haven

Zambia’s reputation for being a safe haven in southern Africa was battered by the attacks. Since independence more than half a century ago, it’s hosted more than 50,000 people that have fled wars in countries such as Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It also housed South African political exiles during white-minority rule in that country, including African National Congress leaders such as Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president.

“On behalf of the Zambian people, I’d like to apologize,” Lungu said. “It’s a shame that this has happened in Zambia, which is renowned for its peace and its hospitality to refugees.”

The anti-foreigner violence started April 18 in a densely populated low-income area in the west of the city after residents accused a Rwandan shop-owner of being behind the killings. They first looted shops and houses owned by mainly Rwandans. By the next day, the attacks had spread throughout Lusaka’s poor residential areas and involved other nationalities. Police said two people were killed, both of them Zambians.

Economic Slowdown

The attacks occurred against the backdrop of economic growth that’s slowed to the lowest level in 17 years and inflation that’s soared to more than 20 percent. Prices for the staple corn-meal rose by more than a fifth in March compared with a year ago, eating into disposable income in the nation where more than 60 percent of its 15.7 million people are living on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank. Political tensions are rising as the nation prepares for general elections on Aug. 11.

While Lungu told those gathered in the church that the situation had returned to normal, pledging “we’ll protect you,” Benigne Miyungeko wasn’t convinced moving back to the Mayukwayukwa refugee camp was a good idea.

A Burundian refugee who’s been in Zambia for 16 years, she said she lost everything when looters struck her family’s house and shop.

Miyungeko said she didn’t want to return to Mayukwayukwa because the medical facilities in the camp aren’t good enough and there’s not enough food.

“My baby is sick and I don’t even have a kwacha to buy a Panadol,” she said, referring to drug that treats aches and colds, during an interview before she fell to the floor, crying.