John Mpaliza recently passed though Geneva, a third of the way through an epic walk across Europe to draw attention to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by conflict in eastern Congo, which he himself left almost two decades ago.
The charismatic 40-year-old, accompanied by fellow walkers, reached Geneva, headquarters of the UN refugee agency, last week after setting out from the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia on July 29. He met senior officials of the refugee agency’s Africa Bureau to discuss his walk and learn about UNHCR’s work.
Mpaliza, an information technology expert who works for the municipality in Reggio Emilia, trained for months in preparation for the 1,600-kilometre journey, which took him to the northern Italian cities of Milan and Turin, before crossing the Alps to the picturesque French lakeside town of Annecy and then up to Geneva.
He will now pass through Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands before ending his mission late September in Brussels, where he hopes to meet officials of major international institutions, including the European Union.
He travels about 40-kilometres a day, stopping to spread awareness among officials and the public about the political situation and the continuing violence and suffering in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where hundreds of thousands of people are forcibly displaced almost a decade after the civil war official ended. Mpaliza is calling for a lasting solution.
But he and his companions are also having fun in between the walking, speeches and meetings. Along the route they have put on performances, attracting artists, dance troupes, intellectuals, writers, students, refugees and curious citizens. A documentary is being produced and the walk has been getting good media coverage.
Some people have joined the walk spontaneously, drawn by the enthusiasm of Mpaliza and his core group of supporters, including an Italian priest, Silvio Turazzi, who has been living for many years in Goma, capital of Congo’s North Kivu province, where tens of thousands of people have fled fighting this year between government troops and the M23 group of defectors.
Mpaliza was born in the neighbouring South Kivu province, where the security situation also remains fragile and many have been displaced by fighting between rival armed groups. He fled the provincial capital, Bukavu, at the age of 22 and ended up in Italy, where he has lived ever since.