Benjamin Nzobonakira is a former child refugee who is now an Assistant National Training Officer with Right To Play in Burundi. In February, Benjamin travelled to Canada to participate in a public dialogue on Sport, Peace and Development and to speak first hand to the impact sport and play has had in transforming his life. This is his story of courage, resilience and leadership.
My name is Benjamin and I am from Burundi. I was born in 1983. When I was a child my family had a good life. We were neither rich nor poor. We were happy with life.
In 1993, when I was 10 years old, an ethnic and Civil War broke out in my home country. This was when I started to experience true hardship. During the war, I witnessed inhuman activities. I saw innocent people being massacred. Some of them were my relatives, friends, schoolmates, and neighbours.
My family was forced to flee Burundi. We took exile in Rwanda.
In Rwanda, we stayed in a refugee camp, but after only several months, the genocide began. This genocide became much worse than the conflict we left behind in Burundi. My family and I were forced to leave again.
This time we travelled to another refugee camp – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, (Ex-Zaire as some of you may know it). We stayed there for two years until 1996 when the Democratic Republic of Congo entered into a Civil war. During this war, several refugee camps were attacked - including the one where we were living.
My family had to flee again. This time we headed to the forest. This was the beginning of a very difficult journey. For four months, I travelled hundreds of kilometres by foot without food or water, and with only bullets and rain on my back.
I survived by eating tree leaves. I could only rest when the gunfire ceased. Each day I woke up with the sun and I could not imagine making it through another day.
My lovely mum and sister died on this journey right in front of my eyes. I had no means to save them. It was a human catastrophe. My own survival was uncertain.
After my mum and sister died, I continued the journey with the rest of my family, but over time we lost each other in the forest. The bush was big and too dark to see each other. It was “survival of the fittest”. At one point, I entered into a coma for two days from hunger. I didn’t think I would make it out alive.
After many months, I somehow reached a village near a lake. This lake was the only route we could take to reach Tanzania and be saved. I took a fishing boat to a village in Western Tanzania. Then I settled in another refugee camp. I couldn’t believe that after 4 months in the forest, I was finally safe. After a year in that camp, I was shifted to yet another camp in North West Tanzania called Lukole.
This refugee camp was located in a district called “Ngara” about 45 km from the border of Burundi. When I arrived at this camp, I was amazed to find my remaining family living there. It had been more than 1 year since I had seen them alive. I didn’t even know that they had survived.
Seeing them again brought me so much joy. It was very good medicine for me.
Lukole camp was like paradise to me compared to the previous ones. The camp was being run by the UN. People lived on large plots with huts built with plastic sheeting. There was water and closed bathrooms.
People were also given one meal a day. To me, after living in the forest without food, this felt like luxury. But, for most of the people living there, one meal was not enough.
It was not enough at all.
In order to get other commodities, most people had to break the law to get outside of the camp to work as manpower to the local population. However, this was a very risky choice, because you had no safety. Instead of paying you, the local person could beat you or take you to the police station, where you would be put in jail.
Instead of this, I chose to live with stability. Even with the small amount of food, I stayed in the camp for more than 12 years without going beyond its boundaries.
While I was there, I was really lucky to be able to pursue secondary school. During the first days of school in the camp, it was not easy. We could only have classes when there was shade under the tree and we could only attend if there was no rain. This was not always predictable.
In 2001, while at school in this refugee camp, I was introduced to sport activities by Right To Play. Right To Play arrived at a sensitive time. Youth in the camp were facing many political problems. Many of them were being recruited to follow rebel groups fighting in Burundi. Right To Play programs gave them an alternative. Some youth, including myself, chose to be involved in sport and play activities instead of fighting.
Looking back, I believe this was a very wise decision.
Sport was the only thing that gave me relief and allowed me to relax. When I played sport, things felt normal again. The stress, anxiety and depression which affected me were reduced. By playing sport, my friends and I were able to laugh and have fun and to live peacefully together.
Working as a community volunteer, I participated in many Right To Play activities. From this, I learned about tolerance. Before being introduced to sport, I could not make sense of the hell of exile that deprived me of my education and all the essentials of life for almost 15 years.
But, by the power of sport, I was able to overcome these difficulties. I learned how to accept people’s differences and I acquired key life skills that gave me the confidence to set future goals.
When Lukole camp closed, I finally repatriated and settled back in my home country. After 15 years, it was a great pleasure to be back again in my homeland. I started to organize sport and play activities for the children of my community – to help them recover from their hardship.
When Right To Play started running programs in Burundi, I started working with them. I am now the Assistant National Training Officer. My job is to train Coaches so they can carry out Right To Play programs in the community.
Sport was my favourite hobby and it helped me heal. I now see it as one of the solutions to the problems in my home country. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr Johann Koss because his programs made me who I am today. He is considered to be the foster parent of thousands of children. Thanks to him, they are participating in educational sport and play programs in countries affected by war around the world.
Mr. Koss has dedicated his life to ensuring that they have a full childhood and a better future. I want to remind everyone that the world’s recovery is in our hands. We can all help improve lives through the power of sport and play.
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