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In search of havens of peace?

CHIMALIZENI—Our lives were under threat

Alick Ponje:

Six-year-old Rodrick Sebastian strolls casually in front of a group of about 30 men and women sitting on bare ground doing nothing.

It is around nine in the morning and, now pushing a wire toy-car around the open space which has been his home for the past eight months, Rodrick yawns widely and strikes his chest with impatience.

His family of seven arrived in the hilly village of Masokosa, Traditional Authority Nthache, in Mwanza District just weeks after getting back home from Luwani Refugee Camp which had kept them for three years.

“We had returned home in Mozambique after escaping the conflict there, only to be attacked there again. So we had to return to Mwanza and seek refuge in this village,” says Vyson Chimalizeni, one of around 400 Mozambicans who have bundled themselves in Masokosa Village.

Rodrick’s state of affairs— where he sometimes goes a whole day without food—is familiar among other 227 children whose parents have no clue about where their next meal will come from.

The children do not even go to school. Together with their parents, they are written off as illegal immigrants, do not benefit from Malawian social services and are crushed by want and deprivation.

“Our lives were under threat; we saw our relatives being killed in Mozambique and we had to return to Malawi,” Chimalizeni says, his voice packed with fretfulness.

Nearby, women, some with babies trapped to their backs, speak in low tones while little girls unflappably plait their hair. The women’s eyes reflect an indistinct detachment common in those not sure about where they fit in.

They are like resting hunger marchers with distant hopes that their wretchedness will die away.

A gust that sweeps across the spot that has become the Mozambicans’ home sends mats and worn-out blankets, which they bundled at sunup under a sparsely-leafed mango tree, off the ground before they lie still once again.

“Most of us sleep outside because we don’t have anywhere else. The only house that Group Village Head [GVH] Masokosa offered us is not enough to accommodate all of us,” Chimalizeni says, sitting on a squat wooden bench, his hands clasped between his knees.

About 200 metres from where the Mozambicans are, the local ruler wonders what the future holds for these people who invaded his village eight months ago and have put their feet down that they will not be returning home any time soon.

They have become a portion of the power that he wields, against his will, and higher authorities are unhappy with their presence.

Once in a while, GVH Masokosa offers them food when they pop up at his house with rumbling stomachs.

“These people are struggling. We have had cases where children have fainted due to hunger. They are distressed,” Masokosa says of the strangers in his fold who, three or four years ago, had lost everything, returned home to retain it, and lost it again.

From the veranda of his house, which is badly stained with red dust, he silently watches the Mozambicans’ children dash towards a borehole to draw water.

Human affliction, by its nature, draws out compassion and the rural ruler confirms it copiously, in words and deeds.

“These children don’t go to school. They don’t have friends here. Their home would be the best place for them to grow up,” he says.

And as lunchtime—typically thought to be midday— approaches, cries from babies further push their mothers into states of deeper despair. A few fireplaces around the place are cold, as though they have been abandoned.

In a typical refugee camp, all forms of assistance would be flowing in and life would be moderately fair but, at this spot near Mwanza Border, the Mozambicans, who insist they are refugees despite not affirmed so by the Malawi Government, have to fend for themselves.

They claim their numbers are likely to grow apparently because others who have escaped attacks in their country are stuck somewhere across the border on their way to Masokosa Village.

“We are coming here because there is no peace at home. Why would I leave my home country if everything was fine there?” queries Chimalizeni in an apparent reaction to sentiments that those leaving Mozambique to Malawi have other reasons for doing so.

DESPERATE—Lingitoni

It is a sentiment echoed by Otilia Lingitoni who claims that she was attacked at her home before escaping into the south-eastern Malawian border district.

The mother of six has a two-year-old baby whose future she fears will be a troubled one just like hers.

“I don’t know my age because I have never been to school and my father never told me how old I am,” Lingitoni says glumly, patting her suckling baby’s scrawny and freckled legs.

She does not want to continue recollecting what she calls the bitter incidents that forced her back into a country that she had left two months before the end of last year.

“Yet I know I will have to forever live with the sour memories of how I was almost killed. It was after my dogs went after my attackers that my life was saved,” she says before reclining into a moment of poignant silence.

Now, Lingitoni relies on piece-work to feed her children. In their desperate situation, they often sleep on empty stomachs and the condition of her baby bares it all.

During the first days of their return to Malawi, officials from Mwanza District Council and Capital Hill visited and supported them with food items.

That is no longer the case. Even the sanitary facilities which were put up to ease hygiene challenges have fallen apart.

When we sought the government’s position on the status of the Mozambicans, Ministry of Homeland Security Principal Secretary Sam Madula insisted they are illegal immigrants who have not been granted any status to live in the country.

“They were supposed to be registered as refugees if that was, indeed, the case. There is no war in Mozambique and all those who were in the country returned home [last year],” Madula said.

But Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance Project Officer for Mwanza District, Boxten Kudziwe, asserts that the returnees deserve good standards of living as long as they are in Malawi, whatever their status.

He is confident that 400 people would not just abandon their homes if all was well for them and trek into a strange, foreign territory.

“There obviously is something that pushed them out of their homes. They are living in pathetic conditions; conditions which are far below the minimum standards for human beings.

“Malawi has a responsibility to support them. If there are issues that need to be addressed with Mozambique, they should be done while these people are being supported and protected,” Kudziwe says.

Mozambique has been fervently dismissing reports that there are conflicts in that country.

But just last week, the government and the former rebel group Renamo signed a peace accord aimed at ending what have been described by some quarters as years of armed hostilities.

Ahead of the peace pact, President Filipe Nyusi was quoted by Aljazeera as saying: “The agreement that we will sign marks the official end of the conflict between Renamo armed men and the defence and security forces and allow for the long-lasting peace that all Mozambicans have so longed for.”

If that is to stand the test of time, perhaps Rodrick will be shoving his wire toy-car around his home on school holidays which are not there anymore.

His parents are unsure about his future; they are unsure about their own.

Today, they are more nervous than they were a year ago, when they were among over 3,000 Mozambican refugees who had found a subtle sanctuary at Luwani Camp.

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