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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)

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UNHCR country pages

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Since the end of October more than 26,000 Burundian former refugees have been assisted by UNHCR and its partners to return home from the Mtabila camp in northwest Tanzania. The operation is organized with the Government of Tanzania to help some 35,500 Burundian former refugees go back to Burundi by the end of 2012, when the Mtabila camp officially closes.

Refugee status for most Burundians in Tanzania formally ended in August following individual interviews to assess remaining protection needs. A total of 2,715 people will continue to be hosted as refugees in Tanzania, while the rest, the last of a population of refugees who left Burundi some 20 years ago, must return home. This is not an easy move after having spent most of your life -- and sometimes all of it -- in exile.

While awaiting their turn to join one of the daily convoys to bring them home, Burundian former refugees are preparing themselves for a fresh start…

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the beginning of 2009, in addition to some 2.3 million refugees, an estimated 11.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict in Africa.

To address forced displacement on the continent, the African Union is organizing a special summit on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people from October 19-23 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Heads of state and government will look at the challenges and at ways to find solutions to forced displacement. They are also expected to adopt a Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDP) in Africa, which would be the first legally binding instrument on internal displacement with a continental scope. This photo gallery looks at some of the forcibly displaced around Africa, many of whom are helped by UNHCR.

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Burundi: Finding Our PlacePlay video

Burundi: Finding Our Place

More than 75,000 Burundian refugees have returned home this year. One of the biggest challenges they face in restarting their lives is finding a place to live.