Life renewed after horror

Life anew: Apolina Kakonga with her daughters Eliza ,8, and Honorina ,10, and Yves Nkoranyi. Pictures: ELENOR TEDENBORG

Yves Nkoranyi and Apolina Kakonga have endured heroic journeys to escape the horrors of war. In the first of a two-part series, they tell their ultimate story of hope to reporter Nigel McNay.It was his final, liberating flight from death, chanced to him like a feather plucked from a barren sky.

Nine years in a Kenyan refugee camp.One of 70,000 people trapped by a suffocating squalor and hopelessness, starving though somehow still alive.

And then there wasthe lingering terror of raids by bandits.Refugees had money, or so the local people outside the camp’s perimeter thought.These opportunistic thugs would enter the camp’s plastic tents in the dark, nonchalantly shooting people dead if they could not find something, anything, of value.

Yves Nkoranyi always had hope.It wasn’t yanked away by his parents’ assassination when he was 14, nor by witnessing the rape and murder of his sister.It was a kernel of truth deep inside him, like a small, smooth stone he could reach in and grasp and from which he could somehow draw life. He had faith he would pull himself free of the quagmire of barbarity.

Carer: Yves Nkoranyi with Kalianna clients Christopher Taylor and Maddie McInnes. Yves’ future, he says, is all about doing what he can to help others in his new, cherished community.

And he had a resolute faith in God that he would be spared, despite living in a world choking on raging contradictions over the sanctity of life.

The horror that struck – six of Yves’ family of 11 were killed – was spat out by politics and tribalism in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.In area alone it is Africa’s fourth-largest country, rich in natural resources, but wracked by a civil war of two decades that has extinguished the lives of millions. Up tonine nations have becomeentwined in its indecipherable web.

The teenage Yves fled. “I started running.”Through the forest, day and night, no shoes and no idea of where he was heading. Fear drove him on, the relentlessness of it all causing his legs to hideously swell.Piles of putrefying bodies, sometimes 20 or 30 at a time, would come into sight on the road ahead as they tried to reach the relative safety of a police compound.

“You say, ‘OK, rest in peace’,” Yves says, crossing himself. “There is flies, it’s smelling. You can’t do anything.We have to cover the kids’ faces at the time.And we didn’t know where we are heading to.”

It should have been a 300 kilometre journey.Avoiding “the guns, the bombs” meant it stretched for an eternity more, the flight of a crow devoid of its anatomical compass.

But because he had lost contact with his brother’s family, he then moved on to the enormous Kakuma refugee camp in north-west Kenya. The thought was his brother might re-appear. Yves is now 31. For the past six years he has lived in Wodonga, working as a disability support worker with Albury’s Kalianna Enterprises.

He has also become a man of learning, recently meeting Charles Sturt University’s requirements for a bachelor’s degree in social science.It’s one of several qualifications he has racked up, despite his ongoing struggle with English.

His now-life quest stemmed from the time in 1999 when war was raging in Uganda.People were turning up with terrible injuries and because there was no nurse, he and others helped clean their wounds.

“When I got here (to Wodonga) I thought, ‘OK, let’s make it my career to help people’.And since I’ve been here I’ve just been studying.”

Yves is married to Edwidge – she too was in Kakuma, though romance bloomed much later – and they have had three children, aged 2, 4 and 6. Yves also has an older boy, now16.The terrible, all-pervading fear has gone.He is a relaxed, cheerful man.But that fear had gripped him so tightly, for so long, it once made him reluctant to share his story.

“Sometimes it’s very hard. I feel myself not comfortable, it’s very emotional,” he says.

It returns him though to the moment that set off that seemingly impossible desire to dodge an anonymous death in the camp.He raises his left hand, drawing his thumb and forefinger to about two inches apart.

With a quick twist he outlines a dirty, messy scrap of paper that by some miraculous opportunity he sighted. That brightly coloured feather floating in the drab mass of numbed misery.

Someone was sharing a contact from Australia. It was what Yveshad never given up on finding. An age passed before he saw it again. “It was a long process for that person to give me that address.”

But he did. And so Yves wrote, telling his story to a person “I don’t know”. Six more hungry months passed, then he got a reply from the Sanctuary Australia Foundation. The Coffs Harbour-based organisation helps re-settle government-approved humanitarian entrant refugees. And that includes people such as Yves from war zones around the world .

“When I went for the interview (with the Immigration Department) official, I feel like I’m leaving the camp,” he says. “I’m going to Australia. I’m starting a new life. I’m just now going to get a better life.”

Hope: Apolina Kakonga is full of joy for her children’s new future on the Border.

A mother’s dreamHE was killed in the never-relenting bloodshed. A husband lost, making for an albeit-remote opportunity lost forever.

It left her to raise several children alone, an impenetrable mess should she stay in the Congo. Her first home.But Apolina Kakonga does notwant to dwell on that, unable or perhaps just unwilling to sort through scant fond memories from before the madness struck.

“Sometimes I tried to forget, but it’s hard to forget something that has happened to you in your life,” she says.Apolina wants to tell a different story anyway. How she survived six years as a widowed mother in a Ugandan refugee camp.

Like Yves, she is multilingual. He speaks seven languages and is quick, with a laugh, to say his English “is No.8”. It’s not so bad though that it hampers his translating for Apolina, who has set learning her new tongue near the top of her must-do list.

As a child, Apolina wanted to be a nun. Getting married took that away, then the war and her husband’s death gave her no choice but to flee the Congo for Uganda.She was 29 when she and her children entered the refugee camp. “Life wasn’t easy. I struggled. When I started running (from the war) I was with other members of my family,” she says.

In a tale that runs true with so many, they became separated. All hope of support from her family was gone. They lost sight of each other at the border.Apolina, now 36, has never heard of them again.The struggle in the camp was in finding food and again, when darkness fell, the fear of armed marauding thieves rose.

“They may come in the night. My little girl was worried when we went fetching water,” she says.“Life was hard. There was no schooling for my kids.”What she knew most was she could never go back to the Congo, because of what it had already done to her life.“My life was in danger. I was just looking to where I would feel safe.”

Those times were over quickly for her kids, coming to an endsix years ago. The oldest, Leo, puts his hand out waist high to show just how much smaller he was back then in Uganda. He smiles, yet again. They all do.

But they carry one stark memory of a not so distant reality, Mum says quietly.“The sound of the gun.”

Her boysLeo, 13, and Steven, 12,love soccer, while thegirls –Honorina, 10, and Eliza, 8 –are intobasketball. Smart, healthy kids, a bit bored by this serious stuff their mum’s talking about, but listening closely and picking up on everything said.

Mum holds her younger daughterclose, smiling and kissing her gently as she strokes her hair. Eliza drifts off to sleep whereshe sits, her head resting on the table.Apolina is grateful and no longer feels “like I’m that person I was in the Congo”.

When Yves pushes through and talks about the horrors, Apolina sinks back inher chair and bows her head. Briefly she has lost the openness and warm, engaging smile that constantly outpoints her limited English.

But talk about her new community, the life ahead, and that past floats away.

“I can see the change in the life for my children.There is no hungry. There is no sleeping without eating, nothing.No fear.”

Part two of Yves’ and Apolina’sstory will appear on The Border Mail website next weekThe Border Mail

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