Tales of misery from Dzaleka

It is 6:50 hours in the morning Friday and Martha, a refugee from Burundi, has woken up at Dzaleka Refugees’ Camp in Dowa thinking about how the day will unfold without food and without a proper place to rest. She has been driven by authorities to Dzaleka after she failed to abide by the order for the refugees to move to the camp. She was taken from her shop in Area 24 in…


It is 6:50 hours in the morning Friday and Martha, a refugee from Burundi, has woken up at Dzaleka Refugees’ Camp in Dowa thinking about how the day will unfold without food and without a proper place to rest.

Martha is heavily pregnant.

She has been driven by authorities to Dzaleka after she failed to abide by the order for the refugees to move to the camp.

She was taken from her shop in Area 24 in Lilongwe and has been at the camp for five days.

Just like others who are being considered lucky, Martha was allocated a small space which she is sharing with her husband and their three children.

We find Martha sitting outside the tent which was formerly used as Covid-19 isolation camp.

Martha’s family and the others are now being called ‘new arrivals’ at the camp.

“My family was forced into the vehicle on that particular night. We came here and things haven’t been easy. There is no food and this is how we sleep.

“If you look at this space, you can see that my family can’t fit in. So I, being the most vulnerable with the pregnancy, am allowed me lay first while the others wait for their turn to sleep.”

Martha allows us to take a picture of the place she has been allocated to share with her family but refuses to have her pictures taken.

“If they see me that I spoke to the media and complained of the living conditions here, they will come and move us from this space and give it to someone else.

“They don’t want us to tell the world how much we are suffering here,” she says.

According to Martha, the refugees have stories to tell but they are afraid of the authorities who are not okay with them speaking to the media or any organization.

At this moment, Martha tells us to hide in one shelter and she is speaking to us while peeping outside to make sure no one is seeing her.

Martha says government has not provided the makeshift camp with any food and that the refugees are told to fend for themselves.

“This is worse than the time we were running away from war in my country.

“We thought Malawi is a Warm Heart of Africa. We thought we would find peace here but the story is different.

“We are being treated like animals. In my condition I’m sleeping here in this cold weather,” she adds.

Another new arrival, Esther, tells us that the refugees are receiving inhumane treatment and it has left many, especially women, traumatized.

“In my case, we were brought here without our belongings. I and my husband had a shop; we don’t know where the items in the shop have gone and again there was money in that shop. We don’t know where it has gone.

“Who are we going to question? They don’t want us to speak to you about this because they know where our money is,” she says.

As we walk around the camp, one officer who is taking down names of those who are just arriving warns us to leave the camp.

“Zomwe mukupangazo mutipweteketsa [What you are doing will land us in trouble],” the officer shouts.

After exiting the tents, two men, Peter and Mussa, follow us and complain that the makeshift camp has no electricity and following big numbers of people that have been accommodated there, theft is the order of the day.

“I have come from Blantyre.

“I have been here for three days but no single night have I slept without my items being stolen. Every night I’m losing an item because of some individuals who are stealing every night.

“It is worse when it’s dark. Yesterday as I went to sleep, I had K10, 000. When I was waking up today I found the money gone and some bananas I kept also gone. It is sad authorities should help us,” Mussa complains.

One of the police officers at the camp’s police station admits that crime rate has risen following the arrival of the refugees being relocated to the camp.

“If you talk about crime, that’s not news here. There are a lot of people here so crime is always expected but talking of theft the cases we are receiving have increased because the numbers have gone up here,” says the officer.

According to him, government has increased the number of officers to 35 from 20 to reduce theft rate at the camp.

“With over 900 people now back into the camp and staying in a makeshift camp which is not secured; 20 officers couldn’t manage, so government has sent us more officers but still they are not enough because Dzaleka is a district on its own. So let’s say in Lilongwe, you have a station and also police units while here it’s just that Station dealing with over 50,000 people,” the officer says.

The officer however said they are conducting patrols every night as one way of curbing the theft.

On being stopped to speak, Dzaleka Camp Manager, Hilary Namakhwa, said at the moment they do not want people or the media to be coming to the camp anyhow and without permission since what is happening there is ‘work unusual’.

“This is work unusual, so we can’t allow people to be coming here talking to people anyhow. This happens everywhere.

“What is happening here is not what we do on a normal day. We are receiving people every day, we knock off in the wee hours and come back to sort out those who have just arrived.

“I’m explaining this just to make you understand that this is work unusual so we would not expect you to come here and talk to people anyhow,” he says.

On poor living conditions, Namakhwa says:

“There is no issue there, this is their home. It’s just like you, madam, you are staying in Lilongwe but you do have a village. If you fail to build a house in your village and your landlord chases you out of the house you are staying in Lilongwe, you will find yourself in the village sleeping outside because you did not build a house.

“So it’s the same. This is their home. They were supposed to build a house before going to the city.”

Namakhwa added that government ordered that they should move to Dzaleka themselves but did not and government is using public resources to relocate them.

He said the refugees should be able to fend for themselves since they were not just staying in the cities.

“They were doing business there while in the city. They should have constructed a house here knowing it’s their home. Their colleagues constructed houses and are back in their houses and are fending for themselves,” he says.

At the time we were at the camp, two vehicles were seen dropping more refugees.

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