No end in sight for Africa's suffering masses
By Jeff Koinange
Editor's note: CNN's Jeff Koinange has spent years covering events from Africa, including visiting war and disaster zones and following the lives of refugees forced from their homes. Here are his reflections on the U.N.'s World Refugee Day.
CNN's Jeff Koinange at a refugee camp in Niger in 2005.
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ENTEBBE, Uganda (CNN) -- Just imagine for a moment that everything you own -- from your hard-earned money to your home to your car to little mementos like pictures on the wall -- has just been taken from you by a group of people who don't like the way you look or the shade of your skin or the shape of your nose. Everything gone except, perhaps, the clothes on your back.
You've been forced to flee, probably separated from your family and end up on the run with a bunch of people you've never met, but with whom you now share a common goal -- staying alive.
Many hours or even days later, you arrive at a shelter run by an international nongovernmental organization.
You're tired, exhausted, sick to your stomach and scared to death. You end up sharing a tent with 40 to 60 other strangers where your bathroom, bedroom and kitchen combined have all been reduced to little more than the size of a normal bed. (Watch Angelina Jolie reveal what she finds most shocking -- 2:10)
And this will be your home for the next few months, perhaps years, and in some cases, decades. This is what it's like for a person fleeing persecution, war, civil strife, genocide.
Imagine living like this for years if not decades, raising your family in a refugee camp because you can't go home. Even if you do manage to go home, you learn someone else has taken over your land, your home, your life.
I've seen that person many times, that face that says, "I too once had it all but one day lost it all." Faces of refugees across the Africa I've been traversing for the past decade and a half, from Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa, from Congo to Tanzania in the center of the continent and from Somalia to Sudan in the East.
Their stories are as heartbreaking as they are gut wrenching, lives turned upside down in the blink of an eye.
Living in a stadium sharing a pit latrine
Like the time I ran into Marcus Sawyer, once a wealthy attorney in Liberia's capital, Monrovia. Sawyer owned holiday homes in South Africa, an apartment in the south of France, real estate in Dubai. You name it, he had it. He had some big clients in the country, including influential government officials.
One day rebels invaded the capital and Sawyer, his family and thousands of Liberians were forced to flee and seek refuge in the city's soccer stadium, the former home of the national team, The Lone Stars.
Suddenly it was home to more than 50,000 internally displaced people, or "IDPs," and would become Sawyer's new residence for the next six months.
"I never imagined in my wildest dreams I'd end up like this," he once told me, "sharing an outdoor pit latrine with a thousand people, sleeping in the same room with dozens of strangers. It takes some getting used to." (Watch Dr. Gupta's heartbreak as disease rips through squalid camps -- 2:50)
The last time I saw Sawyer he had become a shell of his old self -- dejected, depressed and despondent.
And then there was the time I was in Gulu, in northern Uganda, where I came face to face with a new kind of terror -- and a new kind of refugee. A town where for 20 years one man has caused untold suffering.
The man's name is Joseph Kony, a one-time altar boy who claimed to have a vision from God to wage war against the Ugandan government.
Human rights groups say his rebels kidnapped children, brainwashed them and turned them into killing machines responsible for thousands of deaths, their victims often raped and tortured.
Propping up firewood with human heads
I met 19-year-old Alice Abalo at a rehabilitation center run by the nongovernmental organization, World Vision, for those who escaped.
She was one of the lucky ones who had managed the impossible, fleeing with her 4-year old daughter, a product of rape. At first she didn't say much, but when she warmed up, she recounted tales of terror that could make anyone's skin crawl. (Watch Alice describe how she was forced to desecrate bodies -- 5:42)
"One day the group we were in had just killed about six people and proceeded to decapitate them," she said. "Then, I was asked to light a wood fire using the victims' heads as support, the same way one would use three stones. I still have nightmares of their burning hair and brains oozing out of the burning heads. It was horrible."
Alice bore some visible physical wounds of torture, bullet scars on her leg and shrapnel wounds on her chest. Aid workers said her physical wounds would eventually heal but her mental scars would no doubt last a lifetime.
She was to stay at this center for 45 days and then make her way back to her home in a village 20 miles away -- that was if her home had survived the rebel onslaught.
Trying to annihilate a generation of newborns
And just when it seemed things couldn't get more depressing on a continent where misery and hardship are an every day occurrence, I landed in a refugee camp in the town of Bukavu in eastern Congo. I walked into a hospital filled with victims of rape and mutilation and broke down.
The women here had been forced to flee their villages by marauding soldiers who weren't satisfied with just raping them -- they wanted to annihilate a generation of newborns -- mutilating their mothers by inserting knives, machetes and even pistols and rifles into their private parts after gang-raping them for days.
I have never seen such inhumanity in all my years as a reporter. And to add insult to injury, when some of these women returned to their villages, they were either shunned by their families for "allowing" themselves to be violated, or they were gang-raped again by some of the same men in uniform.
If I've ever felt helpless as a reporter, it was in Bukavu -- for these women had nowhere to run, nowhere to call home, and a bleak future that will deprive them of the ability to feel like women again.
In all of my journalistic travels, I can't help but see the images of Africa's helpless and hopeless, and I can't help but think about what is it that drives man's inhumanity.
What makes us revert to our basic, animalistic instinct? What makes one ethnic group want to destroy another? After all, this is the 21st century. Are we not yet civilized?
Questions I'll be asking myself for a long time. There seems no end in sight for the agony of Africa's suffering masses.
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