It all started in the Belgium Congo where my parents had migrated from Cyprus, in search for a better life during the building of the railroad. My name is Nikki, and my sister Olga and my brother Christos were born in the Belgium Congo except my older sister Anna she was born in Cyprus.
(By the way, I am the fourth one sitting in the canoe starting from the back from the picture I posted.)
My parents moved to the Belgium Congo for a better and safe life. The town that we lived in the Belgium Congo was named Kongolo near the Lualaba River.
I remember Kongolo surrounded by an endless forest of natural beauty, a forest with oil palms, and acres of cotton plants. We spoke French, Greek and the native language Swahili.
When my sisters and brother were old enough to go to school, my parents sent them to Belgium.
I was ten years old when the Congo Civil War, or Congo Crisis became a complex political turmoil that began just days following Belgium’s granting of Congolese Independence June 30 in 1960.
The Escape of the town of Kongolo in the year of 1960
It was late afternoon, the Belgium army went house to house and told us to leave right now or you will be killed. I remember getting in the car with my mom, dad, brother and I with only our clothes we were wearing and drove to CFL (Compagnie des Chemins de fer du Congo) near the Lualaba River. It was a full moon that night the first group that arrived started to walk in a single line towards the Lualaba River; two barge boats waiting for us. The first boat name was “ Le Kadia” and the second one “The Baron Janssens” to take us to Kabalo. We were the second group because my brother knew the area very well; he was the one that was assigned in the front line guiding us towards the Lualaba River waiting for us the second boat “ The Baron Janssens”.
“The Baron Janssens” with 300 passengers was a very old Barge boat. By the time we were all in the boat, women and children squeezed in a cabin and the men hid wherever they could find refuge, my dad was in a small lifeboat. The Congolese started to shoot towards our boat. My mother lay on top of me protecting me from the bullets. Unfortunately, because the boat was so old it was moving very slowly so they contact the first boat to come back and with gables they pulled us faster away from Kongolo going towards the town, Kabalo. It was a miracle because our boats sail nearby a military camp. Every one of us took cover and kept quiet until we arrived in Kabalo. The boat was sailing opposite direction from the military camp to keep us safe from them. When all the shootings occurred still nearby Kongolo and my father was in a lifeboat he decided to move in a different area and a Belgium gentlemen took his place on the lifeboat few seconds later, he got shot on the head and died instantly. When we arrive in Kabalo, we had 1 death and 2 casualties. (the person that died could had been my father if he hadn’t moved from from the lifeboat)
In Kabalo, a train awaited for us to take us to Albertville from there on, we went to Dares Salam then Nairobi where the Red Cross took care of us with clothing and food, and from Nairobi we settled for two years in Bristol, England. In Kabalo, Lieutenant Jacquemart ordered everyone with guns to put down our riffles before entering the train. His soldiers including the Congolese soldiers were waiting for us to escort us to our destination. It was in the train, I realized we will never go back to our home in Kongolo and I will never see my German Sheppard dog again, and I started to cry. Scared what will happen to us, and scared of the unknown.
Once we arrived in Nairobi, my dad send my mom, brother and I to England. We went to live in England because my mum had a sister living in Bristol and at that time Cyprus was a British colony. My two sisters were in Belgium at the boarding school joined us in England. You can imagine how scared they were not knowing if we were going to make it! My dad stayed back in the Congo. I will never forget a Congolese at the train station going to Albertville said to my father “we don’t want you to go Mr. Chakas we like you” He was respected by the Congolese people and stayed until he was 80 years old.
In the meantime, he restarted several businesses and the Congolese government took it away from him and they said “you will be working for us from now on, we own the shops now”. Then the last straw he brought a state of the art equipment to make bread. When he went to Greece on vacation, the Congolese totally destroyed all the equipment to make the bread and the building. That’s when he decided it was over for him and moved to Greece. After the war in the Congo we only saw our father the most one week and maybe 5 times for the rest of our lives.
War destroys families and destroys relationships.
Second time a refugee now in Cyprus
Before 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus I remember hearing the Turkish planes flying low, I was inside my house alone. I heard people running afraid something wrong is going to happen. I immediately took an ivory cutting paper and pointing it to my heart. Yes, I was ready to kill myself. I said to myself, “I will not let the Turks take me away”. My mum and I lived in Famagusta in a house my dad bought for us and several land in Famagusta for my sisters and I. He wanted to make sure we are secure and always have a home to come, too. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and invaded my town Famagusta and left it as a ghost town for 42 years. For the second time, we became refugees. It took me several years to stop the nightmares but I did it. I remember I use to wake up screaming.
Famagusta was once the most glamourous resorts in the Mediterranean, a favorite of stars like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot. Right after the war, Famagusta became a ghost town overnight when its inhabitants fled from the invading Turkish army.
My sister Olga married an American from Ohio, moved to Ohio before the invasion took place in Cyprus. In the meantime I moved back to the Republic of the Congo with my dad and step-mom. I worked for two years at Importlux, a retail Boutique store as the store manager and buyer.
When my sister became an American, she wanted for me to move with her in Ohio because she had no families of her own plus things in the Congo was not stable for the young.
When I moved to America, I went to college, I became an American citizen and followed the rules. Everything we do or happen’s in our lives is a journey filled with lessons, joys, hardships, heartaches, celebrations and special moments that will ultimately lead us to our destination, and our purpose in life. Oh yes, some of these challenges have tested my courage, my strengths, my weaknesses, and my faith.
If the war did not started in 1960, I would probably still be living in the Congo, or back to Cyprus, but look at the bright side, the many people I have met in my journey, the stories I heard, the places I lived, in the Congo, England, Belgium, Cyprus and now in America from one continent to another. Memories are priceless and treasures that we can cherish forever in our hearts, and they also enables us to continue on with our journey for whatever life has in store for us.
We all have a story to tell, and mine is a life lesson to share, and a wealth of knowledge.
Proud to be an American.