“As long as the refugees are there, we will be there with them”.
Fr. Paul Flamm, CSSp.
Fr. Paul writes: In December 1999, I arrived as a newly ordained Spiritan in Kigoma, a province in the far western part of Tanzania. There I joined Fr. Gervase Taratara of the Spiritan Refugee Service in our ministry with the Burundian refugees living in the former refugee camps of Mtabila and Muyovozi.
At that time, the Arusha Accord negotiations were coming to a close, and everyone was saying the Burundians would be going back home sometime in the coming year. However, many of them were still there in 2010 when I moved to Burundi to follow up on some peace initiatives undertaken by the Joint Commission for Refugees which was formed by the Episcopal Conferences of Burundi and Tanzania.
By the end of 2012, the vast majority of the Burundians did go back home. But only three years later, over 250,000 came back to Tanzania in the wake of the post 2015 election violence and insecurity in their country. Over 70,000 of them were sent to the camp of Nyarugusu where two Spiritan confreres, Br. Mariano Espinoza, from Paraguay and Fr. Deockary Massawe, a Tanzanian, were already working with the Catholic community among the 80,000 Congolese refugees living there. Most of the Congolese arrived in 1996. But since last year, thousands of new refugees have been coming from DRC because of the increasing instability there, largely due to uncertainty about upcoming elections and competition over the country’s vast natural resources.
So for both the Burundians and the Congolese, what is looked at by many as a temporary condition, life in the refugee camps has become a protracted “transitory” state with no end in sight.
Br. Mariano has since returned to Paraguay to work in formation. Two other Spiritans, Fr. Dickson Kilula, from Tanzania, and Fr. Daniel Waweru, from Kenya have joined us within the last year.
The Province of Tanzania’s commitment to refugee ministry began twenty three years ago in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees had already arrived in the Rulenge Diocese following the civil war and subsequent genocide in their country. In response to a request from the Bishops of Tanzania, the provincial leadership sent Fr. Gervase Taratara and Fr. Josaphat Kilawila to offer pastoral services to the Catholic communities living in the Kagenyi and Rubwera refugee camps. Fr. Gabriel Myotte Duquet, a French Spiritan and myself, still a seminarian at that time, joined them that same year. When the Rwandan refugees were forced to return to Rwanda in December 1996, Fr. Gervase and Fr. Josaphat were sent to Kigoma Diocese, where hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees had fled from the civil war that broke out there after the assassination of the newly elected president in 1993.
A large part of our ministry with the refugees is pastoral service – Sunday masses, weddings, baptisms, celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation, visiting the sick, funerals, and catechesis for those preparing to receive the sacraments. We encourage the faithful to help their neighbors in need, and, during the Christmas and Easter seasons, we organize meals for orphans and widows. We in the process of organizing and training a group of people chosen by their fellow parishioners to help married couples in difficulty. And we are planning to build two new churches to replace the temporary structures we have put up for our services with the Burundians Catholics who have arrived over the past three years.
In all the different aspects of our ministry, we rely heavily on our catechists and elected leaders. We meet regularly with them and have a program of ongoing formation for the catechists. The catechists receive a monthly stipend, while the work of the elected leaders is done on a voluntary basis.
In DRC, elections are tentatively scheduled for the end of this year, while in Burundi the next elections will be held in 2020. The current presidents of both countries have given indications of wanting to change their countries’ constitutions to allow them to run again. As a result, there is concern about renewed, widespread conflict in both countries.
For our part, the Spiritans’ commitment to refugee ministry in Western Tanzania is open-ended. As long as the refugees are there, we will be there with them.