Restoring Family Links: Reaching Across Continents and Conflict

John Kwigwasa holds picture of his sister sent to him along with a Red Cross Message.

John Kwigwasa holds picture of his sister sent to him along with a Red Cross Message.

Story by American Red Cross Connecticut Chapter

John Kwigwasa braved incredible hardship after being displaced from his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to civil war and then as a refugee living in South Africa during the violent xenophobic attacks of 2008. Since John and his immediate family have relocated to the US, John has been working with the American Red Cross to trace his relatives in other parts of the world. He vividly remembers the day in 2001 when he last saw his village in DRC and his six siblings.

“We had seen it brewing, but we still had hope. After all, this was our country. I was born in Congo and it was all I knew; besides, I was just recently married and my wife was three months pregnant with our first son. Word had reached me at work not to return home, Kivu had fallen under attack from gunmen.”

That morning in 2001, John saw the last of his six siblings before he set out to work in a distant village. “I’d always wanted to become a mechanic. I’m really good with cars. I actually was working on a diploma to qualify for a professional certification.”

Throughout his village rumors had begun to spread about a potential violent retaliation following the assassination of President Laurent Kabila. “We knew Kabila had received help from Rwanda and Uganda,” John recalls, “but nobody thought much about what Kabila had promised those governments.”

The conflict that erupted in 2001 was targeted and vengeful. Among government forces, it was widely believed that the Ugandan and Rwandan governments had a hand in the president’s assassination.

“Soon enough, the was word that all refugees in the country, particularly Rwandans had to be hunted down, returned—or worse, if you were a woman, raped before being killed.”

John’s father, a local fisherman who had regularly canoed Lake Tanganyika, as far as Zambia, soon found his house surrounded by gunmen.

“My mother was Tutsi, from Rwanda. They weren’t just hunting down foreigners, but everybody suspected of harboring them as well. Worse, a slight deviation from an arbitrary look, a Congolese look, marked you as a target for the brewing attacks.”

Anticipating the coming danger, the family managed to smuggle their mother out of the country the night before gunmen surrounded the house. However, John wouldn’t find out about her fate until later when, as a stateless person in Zambia, the tragic news would reach him.

“We got her onto a boat to cross Lake Tanganyika to Burundi, but the Navy patrolling the border had been given orders not to let anyone to enter. We suspect their boat was defiant, for everybody on the boat was killed, shot by the Navy.”

When John escaped DRC to Zambia, he had left his pregnant wife behind. The gunmen that had attacked his father’s home killed his father and two other siblings. It would take years until he was reunited with his wife and two-year-old son in a refugee camp in South Africa.

For several years, John enjoyed some stability in South Africa. He held two jobs. “I was a mechanic by day; at night I worked as a security guard. But South Africa was bad, eh!” John remembers the violent xenophobic attacks of 2008 on migrant workers in the country. 

“One day, a friend came to pick me up at work. On our way home, we met a group of young Xhosa men who were very hostile. Their leader asked us why we were taking their jobs and stealing their women. When we told them that we both had been married before coming to South Africa, and that we got the jobs nobody wanted in the country, the group leader felt annoyed. He looked down on us and said he was going to kill us. I thought it was a joke. Within seconds, he pulled out a pistol and shot me. The bullet went through my left thigh and out.”

Even though John survived that incident, he spent two months convalescing at a local hospital. Upon being discharged he asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative at his refugee camp to see about being repatriated back to DRC.

“I wasn’t thinking straight, I was traumatized. I couldn’t look my wife in the eye. To add to my experiences, I just couldn’t live with the feelings I had buried inside. I was so traumatized I wanted to kill myself, to end it all,” John said, recalling the stress of his attack and of learning about his wife’s treatment at the hands of attackers in DRC.

While in South Africa, John says, his wife finally told him how she managed to escape. “She said, after I left her family took her in. However, their village was attacked too. She and other young women were taken away by the gunmen as sex slaves.”

With 2010 fast approaching and South African officials getting serious about hosting the FIFA World Cup Soccer Championship, John’s camp in Cape Town was shut down.

“They told us that they couldn’t have refugee shacks within eyesight of tourists. Thus between 2008 through 2011, we lived in fear again. To integrate us back into the community, they assigned us homes where we lived with until our papers were processed and were assigned to a third country, the United States of America.”

The American Red Cross provides Restoring Family Links services to families that have been separated by natural disaster, conflicts and other tragic events. Caseworkers at local chapters around the country help families locate missing relatives by working with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in nations around the world.

Once a family member is found, the Red Cross helps them reconnect through short messages. This year the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region has helped restore family links between repatriated Congolese refugees and their families in New Haven and Bridgeport. John Kwigwasa’s family is one of them. 

“In the beginning, life here in America was tough,” John said. “We went five months without jobs. We asked for jobs but they told us that we needed to settle down first. Later, I got a manufacturing job. I now work for a small company that specializes in winter gardening.”

John met Jan Radke, Senior Director of International and Military Services with the American Red Cross Connecticut and Rhode Island Region. It was through her that he discovered he could trace the whereabouts of his siblings. 

“I was excited, but also had to be realistic.”

After some months, a Red Cross affiliate in Zimbabwe was able to locate John’s sister at the Tongogara refugee camp.

“I thought I was alone. I felt happy knowing my sister was alive.”

The reunited siblings have continued to exchange messages through the Red Cross. John is hoping to help his sister to resettle in a safe place, as he was able to do.

“My sister wrote to me saying once she received a two-weeks ration of food supplies and was told to hold onto them for two months. Can you imagine that? With two kids, huh?”

Despite his concerns, John remains hopeful; an outlook that he attributes to the favorable chances his sister has over being sent here to America because he now has an established permanent resident status.

“Now, I’m really happy and want to help my sister find a third country. It’s not easy living in a refugee camp. I lived in one. In the camp, the processes can be long and if you don’t know anybody to help you, it can almost be impossible to get a third country.”

The process is ongoing, but there is hope that one day the two siblings will be reunited and his sister will know the security John, his wife and children now have.

“We have sleep now. We go home and nobody comes to attack us. I feel safe. Safety is really important to me.”

For more information on the American Red Cross Connecticut Chapter, please click here.