Refugees in fear as anti-foreigner riots tarnish Zambia’s image as haven

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Country's president has apologised for this week's violence as army joined police in seeking to restore calm. Looming in the horizon is an election.

JAMES Kezamahoro says he won’t leave the St. Ignatius Roman Catholic church in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, even after President Edgar Lungu assured him and more than 400 others that it was safe to return to their homes following anti-foreigner riots this week.

“Forever, if possible,” the 27-year-old war refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo said when asked how long he planned to stay in the church. “We are not safe.”

Lungu, 59, came to the church on Thursday to apologise for the violence and assure those who’d taken refuge that his government had stopped the attacks which erupted following a spate of suspected ritual murders. He ordered the army to help police reestablish order in the low-income areas and refugee settlements hit by the violence.

“On behalf of the Zambian people, I’d like to apologise,” he said. “It’s a shame that this has happened in Zambia, which is renowned for its peace and its hospitality to refugees.”

That reputation for being a safe haven in southern Africa was battered by the attacks. Since independence more than half a century ago, Zambia has hosted more than 50,000 people that have fled wars in countries such as Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Involved other nationalities

It also housed South African political exiles during white-minority rule in that country, including African National Congress leaders such as Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president.

The anti-foreigner violence started April 18 in a densely populated low-income area in the west of the city after residents accused a Rwandan shop-owner of being behind the killings. They first looted shops and houses owned by mainly Rwandans. 

By Tuesday, the attacks had spread throughout Lusaka’s poor residential areas and involved other nationalities. Police said two people were killed, both of them Zambians.


Zambia president Edgar Lungu pledged to protect those targeted.

The attacks occurred against the backdrop of economic growth that’s slowed to the lowest level in 17 years and inflation that’s soared to more than 20%. Prices for the staple corn-meal rose by more than a fifth in March compared with a year ago, eating into disposable income in the nation where more than 60% of its 15.7 million people living on less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank. 

‘We’ll protect you’

Political tensions are rising as the nation prepares for general elections on August 11.

While Lungu told those gathered in the church that the situation had returned to normal, pledging “we’ll protect you,” Benigne Miyungeko wasn’t convinced moving back to the Mayukwayukwa refugee camp was a good idea.

A Burundian refugee who’s been in Zambia for 16 years, she said she lost everything when looters struck her family’s house and shop.

Miyungeko said she won’t return to Mayukwayukwa because the medical facilities in the camp aren’t good enough and there’s not enough food.

“My baby is sick and I don’t even have a kwacha to buy a Panadol,” she said in an interview before she fell to the floor, crying.

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