17-year-old Apoline Tchikumba has travelled a journey of a thousand miles as a victim of war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has overcome many challenges that she says has opened her eyes to the ugliness of the world – but through all of this cruelty, she chooses to be hopeful, and see beauty.
Born and raised in the DRC, Apoline lived an ideal life with her family. She was raised by both parents in a loving, supportive home. She says that her life was good and that she always felt loved and cared for. The family lived with Apoline’s maternal grandfather in a village on the outskirts of town.
One evening when she was nine years old, Apoline sat with her mother, father, grandfather and three brothers (then five, seven and twelve) in the dining room of their brick house. It was a regular occurrence, as the family always ate together at meal times. She remembers her grandfather entertaining the kids with jokes and stories of his youth.
“As far as I can remember, we were having dinner when we heard people shuffling around outside. My dad went outside to see what was happening, but then he disappeared. Everything happened very quickly from that point onwards. Shortly after, we heard people screaming and the sound of gun shots. At first I didn’t know what the sound was, and thought it was firecrackers.”
“The rebels forced their way into our house. There were many of them and they pushed everyone outside. We were surrounded by them and they started shooting in the air and in all directions. They looked at the boys and the girls in the family, seeing their size and looking at what they could be used for. They took the boys to become soldiers and the girls to become sexual slaves.”
“The men made us stand outside our house when they began grabbing at my mother. My grandfather fought with them shouting “let her go, let my child go,” but they pushed him to the ground. They wanted to show him who was in charge, so they took my mother and raped her in front of us. We were held captive by the other men, and I remember my younger brothers looking to me for protection as they took my eldest brother away.”
“My grandfather was shoving, hitting, kicking, fighting, but they held him. After they had finished with my mom, they pushed my grandfather back and cut his head off with a weapon – I don’t know what it was. We all just stood there, and I don’t remember much after that. I know it was just after sunset so I know it was getting darker. I was looking for my father but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I thought he had been killed too.”
Unable to withstand and comprehend what was happening to her family, Apoline says that she felt as though she “switched off” in those moments, until she heard gunfire in the distance.
“I remember waking up and seeing the men pushing my mother away and letting go of me and my brothers. Some of them were shooting and they ran off.”
“My mother stood up and grabbed us. She called my eldest brother who had managed to free himself. We couldn’t use the roads, so we ran into the forest with six other families.
We spent two nights in the forest. We found dead bodies all along the way and I remember thinking we were all going to land up like that. We had to be quiet, so we couldn’t cry or talk. We just walked in silence.”
“I don’t remember eating anything. It was very hot, and I had a pink dress on which made me itch, but I remember I was too scared to say anything. My mom’s feet were swelling up because she was barefoot. The forest was very deep and its sounds scared me. It had the kind of sound that tells you there is trouble. We would sometimes hear voices, and at other times we would hear animals. We couldn’t sleep because we were too scared that a creature would eat us, or worse still, the rebels would find us.”
Unsure of how long their journey would be, the family’s determination kept them going.
“At some point we knew we would get help, and that we weren’t alone. When we complained to my mom about being hungry and tired, she would tell us things to help us take our minds off the situation. She would sing soft hymns to us when we were trying to go to sleep.”
After two days of walking, the group reached the next town. Apoline says what she saw shocked her.
“We ran to the other town and saw that the same devastation had happened there. It looked the same as where we had come from. There were broken plates on the ground, and you could see that people had been about to eat. There were bodies lying everywhere, their skin was grey in colour. We found a young girl about two years old who was sitting next to a body. We took her with us because she was alone. We also took food and drinks that were left behind.”
One of the men who was walking with us said that we were close to Tanzania, that there was a harbour close by and that he knew that we could get a boat there.
“We arrived at the harbour during the day, and there was no one else there. There were some nice boats, so we all got into one boat and spent the next three days on the water.”
Apoline says that she felt the safest while in the boat.
“It was my first boat ride ever so I was curious, but I kept having flashbacks of my grandfather’s death. There were mostly women in the boat so we felt secure with each other.”
When the families reached Tanzania, Apoline said that her mother told her that the authorities wanted papers from them, but they didn’t have any.
“We were arrested because we didn’t have any papers. Women, children and men were all separated from each other. We spent one night there, with one mattress in a cell which we all shared. In the morning my mom told us that the Tanzanian government was going to send us to Malawi, and we went there by bus. I was convinced that when we got off the bus our lives would go back to the way they were – but I was surprised and shocked by what happened next.”
“When we got there we were registered as refugees. They spoke mostly English in Malawi and we couldn’t speak English so it was all very confusing. My mother would always tell me what was happening but she didn’t always understand.”
“We were given a room to stay in. We would fetch water and food, but there wasn’t always food. It became clear that in order to survive in the camp you needed to give something in return - mainly sexual favours. My mom would leave the camp and try to get food, sometimes staying away for a few days. There was no one with us, just me and my brothers.”
During her time at the refugee camp, Apoline did not attend school, but there were people at the camp who were trying to teach the kids. “There were people trying to teach but not in French, only in English. I made friends from other countries like Somalia and Ethiopia. No part of me enjoyed being there, but I tried to make the best of it. I would think about school, and what it was going to be like when we went back. I always hoped that we were going back home.”
After staying in Malawi for about a year, Apoline and her family were transferred to Zimbabwe.
“The Zimbabweans took us to another camp, where we received food, blankets, and clothes. We stayed there for a few weeks, but then the people who were living in the site before us became angry about sharing resources with us. It was very difficult because we felt like there was nothing we could do.”
“Another problem was that people would disappear. I remember a whole family disappearing and my mom telling me that she thought they were trafficking people, so we needed to leave soon.”
“The refugee camp was wide open, so we left very early one morning and for the first time it was just us, we didn’t know where we were going, we just walked on the side of the road. Then late in the afternoon on the first day, a white woman drove past and stopped her car. She asked where we were going, but we couldn’t really understand what she was saying.”
“I remember showing her our tummies to say we were hungry, and she mentioned something about us not being safe in Messina. She sounded like a good woman even though we didn’t know her. She pointed to the car, inviting us to come with her. It’s weird, but I felt safe when we got into her car. My mom helped because she kept telling us that we were going to be OK.”
Apoline says that they drove for about two days until they arrived in Cape Town.
“She took us to Home Affairs, where there were other people speaking French and Swahili - our home language! It was the first time I felt like someone really understood us. We waited in the office and we got papers saying that we could stay here for six months. Next, the lady gave us someone’s number and took us to a house in Heideveld. It was a one-room house and she gave us a key and told my mom we could stay there.”
“The lady couldn’t speak our language so she got a translator. I heard her telling my mom that she needed to find us a school, I was ten at that time. So she drove us around to different schools.”
A few weeks later, Apoline and her brothers were enrolled in school.
“The only school that accepted us was an Afrikaans school. I was happy, even though I didn’t understand the language. My brothers and I were the only students from another country. On the first day I was happy, but as soon as the learners understood I couldn’t speak the language, they became mean and unpleasant. They made me feel different, I felt like an outsider who they would treat like a fool at any opportunity. But I wanted to prove to them that I wasn’t stupid. So I would sit where there were lots of kids and I would ask them how to speak Afrikaans. That year, despite not understanding the language I passed. In the process, we all learnt to speak Afrikaans fluently.”
This year, Apoline is in Grade 11. She speaks fluent English and Afrikaans and is doing very well at school. She assists her peers in any way she can, with the subjects she is good at, such as maths, science and accounting.
When asked to conclude, Apoline says, “In your darkest moments, keep moving forward. Never lose hope that things will get better. I have seen cruelty in people but I have also seen real beauty and strength, like in my mom. I choose to hold the beauty of the human spirit close to my heart, because this is the only choice that can keep me hopeful for the rest of my life.”
Apoline is a Leaders’ Quest participant.