During my first year at the university I met a young Congolese woman. I would meet her in class, and in some cases sit next to her, but other than the occasional hallo, I never got to talk to her much. She spent a lot of her time alone and seemed to be in her on world.
On one occasion, the two of us were paired for an assignment. At that time I knew very little about the war in Congo. As we were discussing our assignment one day, I asked her whether the war had affected her family.
I was simply making small talk, and completely unprepared for what followed my question. She explained to me that she lost her parents to the war. She was left with her two sisters, and they had to live together just the three of them. I realised that in war, death and loss are inevitable.
At night, she explained, there was never electricity, and they spent their nights terrified, and in darkness. I realised that in war, all systems shut and nothing functions as it should.
In the midst of the dark and terrifying nights, the three young girls would often hear the loud sound of gun shots. She narrated how they would cover themselves with mattresses, rather than lie on them. This was their way of protecting themselves from bullets in case they flew into the house. I realised that in war, children had to be wise beyond their years and learn to protect themselves.
Other than the possibility of dying from bullets that could fly in, their other biggest fear was the possibility of sexual violence from military officers. She explained how they often broke into houses raping women and girls. I realised that in war, the people you expect to protect can be the greatest source of terror.
I don’t know how successful she and her sisters were in protecting themselves from rape and other forms of sexual violence, because she finished telling her story at that point. Perhaps she ended her story at that point because she didn’t want to relive the trauma of that period, or because it was too painful, or because it occurred to her that she was telling her story to someone she hardly knew. I realised that war came with trauma and pain that could only be described in silence.
I had many questions to ask her, for instance where they got food from, how they escaped, whether she escaped together with hersisters, whether she was in contact with them, but it was clear that she didn’t want to discuss it any further. After our assignment was over, she went back to her withdrawn self, with the casual greeting when we met on the corridors or in class. My questions about her experience during the war were never asked or answered. I realised that in war there were many unspoken words, unanswered questions and experiences that will never be told.
This week I have been forced to remember this experience after the Kenyan government declared its decision to close down the Daadab Refugee Camp. I imagine that many women in the Dadaab Refugee Camp have similar and even worse stories to tell. The story of the young Congolese woman tells us that refugees are not here on a picnic. They are here because they have no choice. Many walked hundreds of kilometres, for days on end without water and food, without knowing what lay ahead of them, to find refuge in this country.
I wonder what kind of government would decide to take back thousands of women and children to that hell of a nightmare, whether or not they were born in this country. I wonder which country decides to evict hundreds of thousands of women and children to a country considered the second most fragile country globally. Where health care, education, and all other basic and essential services have broken down, making them completely unavailable or inaccessible.
I wonder, which country they are supposed to go to; a country that killed their husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and neighbours. A country that almost killed them. A country where women and children watched their fathers and husbands die, as they were raped and exposed to all manner of sexual violence. I am sure many do not believe that they made it through that horror. I can imagine the nightmare of the possibility of going back to such a country. When we ask Somali refugees to go back and build their country, do we imagine that it is easy to build a country that has been torn asunder by avarice and lack of accountability?
As Kenyans, this is our time to demonstrate our humanity, let us stand up and speak out. Let us help the Government understand there are many young girls and boys that do not understand what a terrorist is; and to make them pay for the sins of terrorists is equal to terrorism in itself. Let us remind the Kenyan government that Somali is not synonymous to terrorist.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Pastor Martin Niemoller-