BY MOSES MUGUGUNYEKI
For Raphael Musasa, how he left his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s South Kivu province following attacks on the city of Bukavu by the CPCA-A64 militia remains a mystery.
He described his voyage from the war-ravaged South Kivu province to Zimbabwe’s Tongogara Refugee Camp in Manicaland province as a “long walk to freedom” although he dearly misses some of his family members, including his father.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, around 5,2 million people, including three million children have been displaced by the decade-long conflict in the DRC.
Tongogara Refugee Camp is home to 14 998 refugees of which 74% are from the DRC, with other migrants coming from Rwanda, Burundi and Mozambique.
Musasa came alongside his mother and sister, but he is yet to ascertain where his father is after the attack on their village three years ago.
“When our village was attacked, we joined others and walked towards Rwanda,” he said.
“It was not easy staying in Rwanda, so we headed south and we ended up here in Zimbabwe.
“We are the three of us here, but we don’t have our father. We haven’t heard from him since 2019 when we left home.”
Musasa, who felt he could have played soccer for the DRC national team, is among scores of refugees at Tongogara camp who frequent an internet facility recently established by the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS) with the aim of increasing refugees and asylum seekers’ accessibility of services and their families.
The facility also offers refugees services aimed at helping them re-establish and maintain contact with their relatives via internet sessions.
It is an addition to other facilities known as RedSafe kiosks established by the ZRCS in Bulawayo, Harare, Zaka and Beitbridge with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
ICRC also chipped in with technical support and assisted with the upgrading of the solar system and the connectivity at the camp.
While the facility at Tongogara Refugee Camp is an extension to the restoring family links service, the RedSafe services also include access to the RedSafe app, which allows migrant communities to safely store their personal documents such as IDs, medical records, education certificates through a digital vault.
The RedSafe app also allows users to save a copy of their contacts in their digital vault, limiting loss of contact.
“I have been coming to this kiosk and I have managed to get in touch with some of my relatives back home,” said Musasa.
“However, I haven’t reached out to my father, but I believe he is still alive and very soon we will reunite.”
Twenty-three-year-old Israel Mustafa Kapalata, who also came to Tongogara Refugee Camp in 2019 following an attack on the city of Bukavu, is optimistic that he will soon be reconnected with his relatives and colleagues through the digital platform.
“I have been active on this digital platform since its launch and I have managed to reconnect with friends and relatives,” Kapalata said.
“We were lucky that we were able to come here as a family, but there are relatives whom we left in the DRC while others were displaced by the armed conflict and are in other countries.”
Kapalata said most people in the camp were now turning to the humanitarian digital platform to get in touch with their loved ones.
“Almost everyone is here at the kiosk, trying to reach out to their families left in the DRC or who are in other countries,” he said.
Hulda Kabeya, who came to the camp 10 years ago, said she goes to the internet facility to reach out to some of her relatives scattered across the globe.
“We have been here for 10 years and I came with my mother and father as well as my brothers,” she said.
“I did my O’ Level here in Zimbabwe, but I did not do well. However, my two brothers are excelling and the older one is doing A’ Level while the younger one is doing his O’ Levels.
“Although we have been in this camp for 10 years and we now call it our home, we go to the internet to reach out to some of the relatives back home.”
Kabeya, who did a course in fashion and design at a vocational training centre within the camp, is hopeful that the digital platform will link her with their relatives.
According to ICRC, 11 110 internet connections have been made since the launch of the humanitarian digital platform in June last year.
“For the first time since the launch of the connectivity service, the number of internet connections (5 744) made in 2021 alone, surpassed the number of phone calls (3 245) made by those in Tongogara Refugee camp,” said ICRC protection coordinator Marie-Astrid Blondiaux.
“Access to the internet is no longer a luxury, but a humanitarian need.
“Adapting to the changing environment and needs of vulnerable communities is crucial in this digital age.”
Blondiaux said families needed to have access to online tools, empowering them to connect and maintain contact with their loved ones beyond traditional channels offered.
ZRCS secretary-general Elias Hwenga said his organisation was trying everything possible to help refugees link with their loved ones.
“Today’s humanitarian challenges are vast and intricate, hence the need for continuous and diverse engagements with vulnerable communities, who remain at the heart of our work, as we navigate the ever-changing humanitarian landscape together,” said Hwenga.
“Our permanent presence within Tongogara Refugee Camp and proximity to the people, attests to our commitment as the Red Cross to be everywhere for everyone.
“Through the restoring family links programme, we aim to prevent the separation of families, restore and maintain family links and clarify the fate of persons reported missing.”
Tongogara Refugee Camp administrator Johanne Mhlanga said the programme was helping families of refugees and asylum seekers in many ways.
“Of course, we have had some positive impact with the restoring family links programmes,” Mhlanga said.
“We have had people who have been able to reach out to their relatives they long separated from and psychologically it uplifts their spirit.”
Mhlanga said the camp received around 287 migrants in the last two years and the figure could have been higher had it not been for the Covid-19 restrictions.
“You will realise that the Covid-19 pandemic hit across all nations and it was difficult for the refugees to move, hence the camp receiving around 287 migrants in the past year,” he said.
ICRC head of delegation in South Africa Mamadou Sow said his organisation and ZRCS have turned to technological innovation for humanitarian intervention.
“What we have witnessed from the RedSafe kiosks that we have launched in Harare, Bulawayo, Zaka and Beitbridge and this internet connectivity facility at Tongogara Refugee Camp are a true testimony of how the Red Cross is using technology for its humanitarian efforts,” Sow said.
“I am impressed by how our volunteers have been able to assist several people at this camp to access the internet and reach out to their loved ones.
“The volunteers have always showed their commitment to the Red Cross, keeping the humanitarian work in motion.”
Daniel Masanga and Mizake Donatien, who are also refugees, are ZRCS volunteers in charge of the internet facility at Tongogara Refugee Camp.
To ensure the elderly and those with mobility challenges also have access to the restoring family links service, volunteers led by Masanga and Donatien conduct weekly visits throughout the camp.
“A lot of people are finding the service helpful as they are reconnecting with home,” said Masanga, who is also a pastor at a church in the camp.