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19 September 2001

Uprooted people tell tales of suffering and hope
Raymond Bitemo

When fighting broke out between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, about a million refugees fled into what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC). In 1996, widespread fighting in the RDC between rebels and government forces caused further refugee displacement. The devastating civil conflict in the RDC was renewed in 1998 and fighting continues sporadically, exacerbating the severe problem of uprooted people - refugees and internally displaced - in the region.

As well as doing all it can to try to stop the war, that it sees as the root cause of uprootedness in the Democratic Republic of Congo (RDC), the Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC) held an extensive consultation in Kinshasa, 5-16 August, to educate its leaders and members on the issue of uprooted people and develop practical responses.

The ECC is a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC); the August consultation was followed by a meeting of the ECC executive committee that focused on the same issues. This article by Raymond Bitemo is the second in a series of three articles on uprooted people in the DRC, and part of a longer series on refugees and internally displaced persons. Bitemo, from Congo-Brazzaville, was forced to flee his home but now again lives in Congo-Brazzaville.

A Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC) consultation held in Kinshasa from 5 to 16 August was, amongst other things, a time for listening and sharing. Two testimonies from uprooted people brought home to the participants what it means to be a refugee or an internally displaced person.

Pastor Kongo, now general secretary of the Maison de la Bible in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC), recalled the outbreak of the Mulelist rebellion at Bondo in the eastern province, in 1964. "I was only seven at the time. My parents and brothers and I fled the fighting, and were forced to keep moving on.

Our long journey eventually took us into exile in the Central African Republic. The rebels, who had managed to kill all his colleagues in the civil service, were looking for my father. We endured moral and physical torture, frustration and all kinds of traumas, and survived by small trading, working in the fields, cutting firewood and other odd jobs. Added to all this was the difficulty of getting an education. But I must acknowledge the generosity of the humanitarian agencies that provided us with food and medicines."

Referring to "the war of occupation that started in 1998, with its trail of outrages against innocent people", Pastor Kongo said he is ready "as a pastor and servant of God" to forgive the killers and murderers. "If I was given the opportunity to preach in Rwanda and the aggressor countries, my message would be one of love for our neighbours, peace and repentance. The blood of too many thousands of innocent people has been shed in the Great Lakes region."

Driven out of the Congo-Brazzaville by the war, Sidonie Malanda (adopted name) told the consultation that "This is the second time I have come into exile in Kinshasa through Bas-Congo. The first time was in 1997, and I have been here now since March 1999.

"I was a candidate for the post of prime minister of the transitional government at the time of the sovereign National Conference in 1991, and this was the reason for some of the harassment I was subjected to later. Having been trained in international affairs, I never hesitated to offer the leaders of my country advice, and I have been suspected, blacklisted and placed under surveillance ever since. I had to live clandestinely, and several times was subjected to attacks by armed men.

"During the war in 1998, I got away by climbing over the back wall of my house. Some of my relatives were massacred, and I don't know where my husband and our children are, or even if they are still alive. At first, I was displaced in my own country, and spent months in the south-eastern forests, where I suffered all kinds of degrading treatment (torture, rape, death threats...) So I decided to head for Kinshasa through Bas-Congo. When I arrived in Bas-Congo, I was subjected to ill treatment by the Congolese police force. But after a while, my Congolese brothers and sisters took me in, and I was able to recover some peace of mind. Memories of the nightmare I endured forces me to stay here, with the help and protection of a family who have taken me into their home. The secret of my resistance," she concluded, "is my faith in God, and prayer."

The two testimonies greatly helped the consultation to identify the causes of uprooting - fear, humiliation, insecurity, intolerance, hatred...; the needs of uprooted people - food, clothing, protection, affection, reassurance, hospitality, information about their rights...; and the sources of their strength - faith in God, prayer, determination, hope... Bearing in mind all these elements of uprootedness, Rev. S. Tilewa Johnson, bishop of Gambia and president of the All Africa Conference of Churches' (AACC) Committee on Refugees and Emergencies, called on the ECC "to involve uprooted people in identifying their needs and to build bridges between them and their host communities".

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter
WCC Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
tel.: (+41 79) 284 5212 (mobile);
e-mail: media
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.