A Banyamulenge Survivor
So far we’ve looked at one side of the refugee equation—the activists and organizations who are committed to the cause. But we’ve yet to meet any of the refugees themselves, or to hear their stories in their own words. As World Refugee Day fast approaches, it’s time to draw back the curtain and meet the people whom we seek to honor and to help.
We’d like to introduce you to one of the four survivors featured in The Last Survivor. Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa is a Congolese refugee who was resettled to the United States on June 11, 2008—exactly two years ago today. This is his story.
I would like to tell you about my home and my people.
I was born in Minembwe in the Democratic Republic of Congo—over the mountains of the land, deep within the green fields of South Kivu. It is a land full of green vegetation, lush forests, and beautiful wildlife. Between the greenery, numerous rivers always flow among mountains and flat land. We have just two seasons—the rainy season and the sunny season—both marked by favorable temperatures. Throughout the year, a nice breeze offers comfort each morning. Within this peaceful land, there exists a community that struggles to survive. These are the members of the Banyamulenge tribe. They are my people.
The Banyamulenge have lived on the lands of South Kivu for five centuries. It is the home of our grandfathers, our ancestors—the only home we know, but one that is not acknowledged by our neighbors or our government. They believe we have no right to live in Congo, constantly insisting that we return to our “real” home far from the lands of South Kivu. This unprovoked hatred of the Banyamulenge people has been the cause of indescribable suffering and massive killings of my people.
In 1996, war began in Congo—a war which continues to this day and one in which a malicious group called the Mai Mai seeks to eliminate the entire Banyamulenge Tutsi tribe. The Mai Mai is a group of many tribes in the South Kivu region (Abafurero, Ababembe, Abanyintu, Abashi, Abarega) that joined together with Interahamwe (Hutu’s who fled from Rwanda after they carried out the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide in 1994). Together, they started attacking Banyamulenge villages—killing men, women, and children, taking our cattle and burning our homes. While they attacked our villages, those Banyamulenge who lived in other areas of Congo were captured, jailed, and in some cases, killed. My brother, Bizimana Mavugo, was one such Banyamulenge—he was arrested in the town of Kalemie and was killed by machete along with 81 others. They were buried together in a single grave.
In 1998, my own village was attacked. I remember the sound—shouts, the intensifying beating of drums, guns firing at those who tried to escape. Suddenly, the sound of my father’s voice: telling us to run, to each fend for our own life. There was no time to say goodbye.
I ran through the bullets, past the attackers who were shooting us, toward the forest we call Nyarubari. I thank God I was not shot. In the forest, I stood with my cousin, Bogabu, waiting in the darkness for the silence that would signal the end of the attack. I was content to wait there, alive. But Bogabu was less patient. After sitting in silence for several hours, he insisted on walking out to see if the attackers had left. I pleaded with him to stay put, but he was older and he insisted.
As soon as he emerged from the bush he was shot. He cried out for me, but I could not help him for fear of being killed myself.
After my cousin was killed, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I remained in the bush alone, confused, waiting to be discovered and slaughtered like the others. But God protected me from the attackers and they did not come to the bush in which I hid—a bush that was surely shaking from the twitching of my nerves.
My life changed that night. It was the last time I saw my home in the green fields of South Kivu. I lost five of my best friends that night, friends with whom I did everything throughout my childhood. I loved them very much. It was also the last time that I saw my parents and my siblings—my father’s command to run the last I have heard of his voice.
There is no way that I can explain to you in words the troubles that I endured after that night. I have no words to tell you of the hunger I felt from having nothing to eat as I walked through the forest. I survived off the leaves and roots of trees. If I discovered a piece of fruit on the forest floor, it was indeed a good day. Nor can I explain to you the pain that I felt in my heart—the longing I felt for my family and my friends, the desire to return home.
Of course, I could not return home and so I moved through the forest, comforted by the protection of God’s great trees. I went to a town called Uvira. There were other Banyamulenge in Uvira and I thought I would be safe there. A group of children I encountered upon my arrival in the village proved this thinking incorrect.
“What are you doing here?” they asked, already moving toward me with machetes. “Do you think this is your motherland?” Even young children are trained to hate the Banyamulenge.
I decided that it was better to be killed running than to stand still and wait for death. And so again, I ran. It was not until after I escaped that I realized I had been struck in the leg by a machete that had been thrown at me. I was lucky. Other Banyamulenge who had approached Uvira suffered a much worse fate, their bodies hacked apart while they were still alive or burned—simply because we are Banyamulenge and these others do not want us in their country.
From Uvira, I journeyed into Rwanda, which was not safe either. In Rwanda, I heard that there was a city in Kenya called Nairobi where I would be safe. I heard that Nairobi was a silent city—a place where I would not hear guns, where I would not hear the cry of women and children who screamed out as they were killed. I decided to go there.
I remained in Nairobi for five years. During that time I grew sick of my own struggle. I wished I had someone with whom I could share my days, but I was alone. I had a terrible infection in my sinus that kept me up at night. I missed my parents and my siblings. I missed my friends and our cattle back home. Each day I prayed to God, asking Him to bring me to a place where I could be in peace.
I thank the creator of Heavens and Earth who heard my prayer and sent his servant to come and save me.
Of course, I speak of Sasha Chanoff and the organization he founded, Mapendo International. Tirelessly, they worked beyond what was asked of them for me and my people. Mapendo found someone to pay for the operation I desperately needed on my sinus—allowing me to breath and sleep for the first time in five years. They helped me find shelter and helped me through the long and difficult resettlement process.
And so it is that suddenly, after ten longs years during which I traveled the forests of Africa, I find myself in St. Louis, Missouri, for the first time feeling safe.
I thank God for keeping me alive and now, allowing my voice to be heard—allowing me to speak on behalf of my Banyamulenge people who have no one else to speak for them. We, Banyamulenge, do not have a place to call home. We are hated in our country, our people are displaced across neighboring countries and our attackers follow of us, killing us wherever we seek shelter. Many of you may have heard of the massacre of the Banyamulenge at the Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi in 2004—a nightmare in which hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered simply because of who they were. Banyamulenge.
My remaining wish—aside from that of one day being reunited with my family—is that no other child shall cross the difficult path that I passed through. I will dedicate my life to working toward that goal.
To learn more about Justin, his incredible story, and his people, check out Imuhira, the organization he founded to document, preserve, and celebrate Banyamulenge culture. You can also see Justin in the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor, available now. Share with your friends and family; host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home; and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work together to fight genocide.
More ways to get involved for WRD:
▪ Throw a dinner party and initiate a discussion about the world’s refugees. Serve a traditional dish from a country with a high number of refugees or IDPs (internally displaced persons). For a Congolese favorite, try Liboké.
▪ Wear light blue (the international color of UN Aid workers) and tell people why.
▪ Learn “Mambo Sawa Sawa” and sing it with pride!
▪ Join the Genocide Intervention Network and the Save Darfur Coalition on Meetup.com to meet up with refugees and activists who live in your community.