Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - One step at a time in Rwanda
Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1995
Voluntary repatriation may be a crucial first step in the long and complex process of bringing lasting peace and reconciliation to Rwanda and Burundi.
(Editor's note: This issue of Refugees focuses on the growing international trend toward comprehensive or regional solutions to refugee problems. This topic is also examined in UNHCR's biennial report, The State of the World's Refugees: The Search for Solutions, published by Oxford University Press in November 1995.)
By Fernando del Mundo
A meeting held in Burundi in February was yet another attempt by the international community to resolve a long-simmering conflict in a tiny region of Africa that has produced the world's largest group of refugees.
One result of the meeting – sponsored by the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – was a commitment to set the stage for the voluntary repatriation of both Rwandese and Burundi refugees to their homelands.
At first appearance, it seems a modest objective. But it is a crucial first step in what will certainly be a very long and complicated process. The camps that now hold millions of refugees in the region are so inhospitable that there is an urgent need to safely and voluntarily return as many as possible to their original homes, thus ending their agony.
The civil war that erupted in Rwanda last April claimed over 500,000 lives and forced more than a third of the country's 7.3 million people from their homes. More than 2.1 million Rwandese sought asylum in neighbouring countries, joining over 1 million others who had fled ethnic bloodletting years earlier.
There also are 220,000 refugees from Burundi in neighbouring countries. They include remnants of the 700,000 Burundi refugees who escaped a failed coup attempt in October 1993 that left more than 50,000 dead. And some are victims of more recent unrest in Burundi.
The problems are so huge that most observers agree they can only be dealt with in a regional context.
Looking beyond the return plans, another meeting is to be called soon by the United Nations to try and tackle the root causes of the conflicts involving the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi peoples in both Rwanda and Burundi.
It will not be easy. Commentators say the problems of Rwanda and Burundi are extremely complex, and reject suggestions that they stem simply from ethnicity. In Rwanda, for example, divisions exist among the Hutus themselves, including the more privileged Hutu of the north and their neglected kin in the south.
Animosities between ethnic groups are sometimes so deep-seated that even Rwandese children harbour thoughts of murder.
"I have heard 10-year-old children talk of killing their neighbours when they grow up," said Blaise Cherif, UNHCR's senior legal adviser for Africa. "You then realize how serious the antagonisms are," added Cherif, who served as UNHCR representative in Burundi and Zaire in the early 1980s.
The violence that engulfed the two central African countries in the last two years provoked much outrage and soul-searching. Some criticism was laid at the U.N.'s doorstep, particularly for its perceived failure to act decisively to prevent the carnage in Rwanda at a critical time.
Regional efforts to resolve the conflicts in central Africa have been ongoing since the 1960s, initiated by front-line countries burdened with refugees. Under the auspices of the OAU, the Tanzanian government facilitated peace talks between the Rwandese government and the Rwanda Patriotic Front at the turn of the decade.
And on 4 August 1993, a power-sharing agreement was signed in Arusha, Tanzania. Known as the Arusha Accords, the documents are still recognized by the new government in Kigali as a basis for settling the various outstanding issues that have torn Rwanda apart. The accords envisioned a broad-based transitional government, integration of the warring armies and repatriation and resettlement.
Following adoption of the accords, the United Nations sent peacekeepers to monitor observance. UNHCR had even begun planning for repatriation when on 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down near Kigali, killing both leaders and sparking the horrific civil war in Rwanda. Ironically, the two slain leaders had just attended a conference in Dar Es Salaam to try and expand the Arusha peace process to cover Burundi.
But efforts for a lasting peace continue. In June 1994, the OAU Council of Ministers proposed a regional conference on assistance to refugees, returnees and displaced persons in the Great Lakes Region. The project was endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly. The OAU and UNHCR called the conference in Bujumbura 15-18 February after a preparatory meeting in Addis Ababa in January. Before the conference, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata travelled in the region to drum up support for the project.
At an earlier, informal meeting of UNHCR's Executive Committee on 17 January, Mrs. Ogata outlined the steps her Office had taken to meet the challenges in Rwanda. But, she stressed, "if solutions are to be found for the Rwanda refugee crisis, wholehearted support of the international community will be required to attain a more stable and secure environment in Rwanda."
Later that same week, at a UNDP-sponsored conference on Rwanda, the Rwandese government received pledges of financial support from major donor countries for its reconstruction programmes. Without these resources to rebuild its infrastructure, U.N. officials have warned that Rwanda faces the specter of further chaos and anarchy.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (1995)