Dem. Republic of Congo: out of sight, out of mind
10 August 2014

Sr Inés (left) at one of the camps for internally displaced persons in Masisi, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Peter Balleis S.J./Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Masisi) August 10, 2014 – In this poignant essay, Inés Oleaga shows how accompanying forcibly displaced people can be a very practical way of protecting them and of showing them that they have not been forgotten by all, despite evidence to the contrary.

April 2006: I had been living in Timor Leste for one and a half years when armed violence that seemed to herald civil war led to the displacement of thousands of people within a few days. The capital, Dili, became a battlefield: neighborhoods erected barricades and attacked each other with fire, stones and all manner of homemade weapons.

When our embassies extended an offer of evacuation, I and several other sisters refused to leave, although we didn't know clearly what we could do if we stayed.

Our Timorese neighbors, friends and acquaintances soon showed us what we could do to help. Put simply, we were foreigners; we had a car; and we could get around more easily than the local people. This meant we could become witnesses and 'human shields' for those who wanted to escape to the outskirts of the city where a camp had been set up for people displaced by the violence. 

What's more, the Timorese people told us, "We don't want to be abandoned to our fate as we were in 1999 [in the violence perpetrated by Indonesian troops and paramilitaries following the country's vote for independence] – such atrocities won't happen again if there are foreign eyes watching."

For weeks, we devoted ourselves to ferrying our neighbors to Metinaro, the camp set up some 30 kilometers from the capital. International military aid gradually arrived in a bid to prevent the fledgling country from descending into full-scale war. There was no repeat of 1999. The world did not abandon the Timorese people to their fate, perhaps due to lingering 'guilt feelings' for not intervening to stop the devastation in 1999.

For three years after the violence, without consciously planning to do so, I felt compelled to visit the people displaced in Metinaro camp. What did I do once I got there? I tried to accompany them, to preserve a link with their old reality. Above all, I tried to continue bearing witness to their plight in a country that was moving towards stability but where thousands were still barely able to survive from one day to the next. 

I was perfectly aware that they found my status as a foreigner helpful, that they felt somehow protected. At the same time, as Timor Leste emerged from the crisis and tried to show that "everything is fine,” I could raise my hand, point towards Metinaro camp and say: "The displaced families, whose houses were burned down, are still there and other people have grabbed their land." It was only after nearly three years that the displaced people were able to return home.

September 2012, North Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: The rest of the world knew something was wrong here. The President of Congo, Laurent Kabila, was in New York, attending a special summit on the so-called 'Great Lakes crisis'. In Masisi, North Kivu, they call it war, not crisis. The presence of the president at the UN ensured that international attention was focused, at least temporarily, on the conflict.

What we don't know is what "international attention" really meant. There are many long kilometers between New York and Masisi, kilometers that hide the length and depth and senselessness of what has been happening in North Kivu. As the saying goes, "out of sight, out of mind.

In Masisi, we see camps where thousands of displaced people live; they fled their villages because armed groups wouldn't leave them in peace. It's a tough choice: if you don't run away, you risk your life; but if you do run, you lose everything and live hoping against all hope. The camps are small, with a few thousand people in each, scattered across the mountains and difficult to reach.

Jesuit Refugee Service accompanies, serves and advocates for the most vulnerable and the poorest of people. Those who could afford to go elsewhere left long ago, opting to live in the town or in more stable and safer areas of the province. The camps are multilingual, multi-tribal and very complex. The people have been uprooted several times over and are very skeptical about seeing a positive outcome to their plight.

Foreign volunteers are hailed with great joy in the camps because they renew hope. Somehow or other we are like a bridge over the abyss that separates the displaced people from the world that decides, at least in part, what will happen to them. They don't ask what Chinese, Spanish, Chilean or Italian volunteers are doing here, simply because their geographical perspective does not stretch beyond 100 kilometers of Masisi.

But in JRS Masisi we ask ourselves constantly what we are doing here. If we didn't do so, the hostility, incomprehension, frustration, loneliness and, especially, the sense of the ineffectiveness of many of our efforts would get the better of us and we'd give up. We can hardly speak the language spoken by the majority of the displaced people. In fact, some of them don't understand it either. We travel around in a land cruiser and the roads are in such a bad state that at times we never make it to our destination.

Sometimes we have difficulty getting along with the few other humanitarian workers in the area, because we sense they don't understand that our mission of accompaniment stems from a profound experience of human brotherhood. Put another way, our sense of accompaniment enables us to understand that, although refugees may be "out of sight" for the rest of the world, they are in our minds and hearts because we believe in a loving Father who cares especially for those who are most forgotten and vulnerable. With St Paul, we trust that we, who are many, are one body in Christ (Romans 12:5). It is this certain knowledge that abolishes all frontiers and tribalism and places us in the shared land of humanity.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says, "Strangers are not a modern invention – but strangers who remain strangers for a long time to come, even in perpetuity, are." Perhaps it is this belief in human 'inter-belonging,' beyond interdependence, that makes sense of a presence that may not always be efficient but is reaffirmed every time a camp is attacked and JRS volunteers happen to be nearby. When we witness what happens, when we use all the communication networks at our disposal to tell the world what we have seen, then others may be touched by what they can see through our eyes.

It gives us hope and encouragement to feel that we are points of reference, 'strangers' around whom a welcoming and even family- like atmosphere springs up. When vulnerable displaced people are forced to flee again, they know they have a place to come back to – whenever it's possible for them to do so. 

They can be certain we will be waiting for them, to support their efforts to start all over again, even though we were helpless to prevent the circumstances that led to their flight in the first place. Since we cannot guarantee full security, given the conflicts that surround us, accompanying displaced people turns into an opportunity – and also an obligation – to instil a sense of confidence.

As foreigners, creating bonds of trust and not of 'foreign' power allows us to share the most human of experiences: faith that reaches beyond fears and insecurity. Raimon Panikkar, a Catalan priest and philosopher, said: "Security is to be found in strength (political, physical, economic, military...), certainty in an epistemological necessity, but trust in human nature. The search for the first is driven by our fears, the second by our doubts and the third by our faith."

There is only one way to explain this, although it is admittedly very difficult to do so. All foreign JRS volunteers arrive in North Kivu with their own roots, nationality, identity and cultural background. The displaced people become a part of us, as we are a part of them; ignoring them or looking the other way is not an option. There is no turning back. 

As I walk alongside displaced people, they start to make their mark on my identity: in my hometown of Bilbao, many friends and family members have now integrated the displaced people of North Kivu into their lives in a variety of modest ways. 

In Timor, where I lived for six years before coming here, and where the worst is over, they worry about the displaced people in North Kivu, too. And, of course, the entire network of JRS colleagues, who try to persuade the international community to do whatever it can to support the people of North Kivu, are far from indifferent and make good use of our eyes.

In this way, we bridge many thousands of kilometres in our mission to accompany. Although our mission may seem at times to be weak and inefficient, it reaches a truth dear to St Ignatius: "The more universal the good is, the more it is divine." 

God chose to be accompanied, first of all, by shepherds and wise men from a different world, then, in his daily life, by his humble but brave mother. In his mission he found companionship with rough, clumsy men and wonderful women; and, when he died, the same women and incredulous Romans surrounded him. 

No doubt, the mission of JRS to accompany refugees has dimensions that cannot be explained by the criteria of today's society, but that can be understood only from the perspective of the Gospel. This is the Good News that saves the poor first, with the simplest of means.

by Sr. Inés Oleaga ACI
JRS Asia Pacific
JRS Great Lakes