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Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Rwanda: Finding a way home

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1996

Over five days in November more than 500,000 refugees streamed back through the border crossings they had used to leave Rwanda in 1994. Back in their country, the returnees seem relieved their exile is over.

By Paul Stromberg

"I was living in Kibumba camp. We set off for Rwanda after disturbances had broken out in the camp. Unfortunately, unidentified people fired at our group and forced us to make our way to Mugunga camp. Before we arrived there we tried unsuccessfully to reach some UNHCR vehicles but, once again, unidentified people shot at our group. So we continued west to Nyamirambo on the road to Sake. We spent two weeks in Sake without receiving food and nothing moved until now."

For Védaste Nsengiyumva, a Rwandan refugee from Gitarama Prefecture, "now" meant the massive return of Rwandan refugees from the Goma area that began on 15 November. Over a five-day period more than 500,000 refugees streamed back through the border crossings they had used to leave Rwanda in 1994, evoking the same images of overwhelming numbers and endless columns of people labouring under the weight of whatever belongings they could carry.

Like hundreds of thousands of others in Goma, Bukavu and Uvira, Védaste's trek began after a rebellion broke out in eastern Zaire and forced the refugees from their camps or to seek food and shelter elsewhere. In the Goma area, however, most Rwandans had remained close to the border so that they were able to take advantage of a break in the fighting and repatriate almost as one.

"I left Kahindo camp nine days ago because of fighting and went into hiding in a nearby forest. We spent five days there and we narrowly missed starving to death. Afterwards we passed through the forest and arrived at Sake, where fighting broke out again. Therefore we decided to come back to Rwanda," recounted François Muvyekure when he reached Gisenyi.

"We had to find a way home and we did," said Faustin Dangari, who returned to Gisenyi on 16 November when arrivals were estimated at 12,000 an hour. "The Zairian combatants let us through but we had inquired before whether the first group of refugees had gone through safely on Friday evening and it was confirmed that they had. Then we prepared to follow," he added.

Despite the low level of repatriation in the preceding months due to inertia, willful distortions of reality in Rwanda, or simple apprehension when contemplating a return the returnees seemed relieved their exile was over. Many voiced their frustration at the disinformation and pressures directed at ordinary refugees that continued even at the height of the conflict. Once in Gisenyi, Védaste said "people who were not following the soldiers or militia decided to come back home. Concerning rumours, we shut our ears to them because we were fed up. No one could fear to go back home."

François concurred: "We have been told that Rwanda is insecure, but we find it peaceful. In any case we are all safe."

By 22 November, the first groups began arriving in Kigali, some 180 kms from the border with Zaire. Along the way, the majority had branched off the main road, heading into their home communes in the north-western prefectures most represented in the Goma camps Gisenyi, Ruhengeri, Byumba and Rural Kigali. In the communes, the priority immediately became the registration and reintegration of the returnees who had bypassed transit centres where they would normally have received food rations and material assistance. The UNHCR "return packages," comprising plastic sheeting, blankets, jerrycans, kitchen utensils, as well as an allotment of seeds and hoes per family, would therefore have to be distributed in almost every village once the newcomers were counted and identified.

UNHCR hired two clerks in each commune to work with local authorities registering the influx, and with NGOs began organizing temporary shelter and reception centres in the majority of communes. The lists are to form the basis of distributions of the return packages by UNHCR as well as the several months' food rations by the World Food Programme.

Given the large number of farmers among the returning refugees, whose hope, like François' "is to go back home and cultivate my land," the provision of seeds and tools is essential. About 150,000 hoes were ordered to increase existing stocks and bean seeds, normally provided by the European Union, will be supplemented by allocations of vegetable seeds by UNHCR. With the ability to move back into one's house, the possibility of becoming self-sufficient or generate income from the production of food has been identified as the most important element of a successful repatriation in Rwanda.

Based on surveys carried out in the past, it is expected that a certain number of returning refugees perhaps six or seven percent will not be able to reoccupy their houses immediately. Some were damaged or destroyed during the war in 1994 while others have been occupied by individuals or families who took advantage of the available shelter in the absence of the owners.

Three weeks after the influx began, monitors from UNHCR and the Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda reported that most property problems were being settled amicably and by informal arrangements between occupants and newly arrived returnees. The government of Rwanda shortened delays given to the occupants, announcing that they had 15 days to return houses to their rightful owners.

Many returning refugees have already recovered their homes under similar circumstances: Cecile Nyinawintwali, who was visited by UNHCR staff after her repatriation from Burundi in August, had to move in with friends when she arrived in the Rwandan capital, where available housing is in short supply. Three months later she lives in one of the adjoining properties she owns in the Nyamirambo section of Kigali while making repairs to the other in order to rent it.

"UNHCR has originated the shelter programme because you cannot expect reconciliation from people who have no homes," states UNHCR Representative W. Roman Urasa. Since 1994, UNHCR has made the issue of housing a priority, acquiring 77,000 "kits" for construction projects in every prefecture in Rwanda. Urasa continues: "We are involved not simply because shelter represents a basic right but because the issues of property and poverty have been root causes of the conflict in Rwanda."

Recipients are identified from among returnees, as well as from other groups of vulnerable individuals such as single heads of households or survivors of the genocide, and supply the labour themselves, usually forming associations while benefiting from the technical advice of an NGO. The kits include corrugated metal sheeting, wood, nails, hardware, doors and windows, and material for brickmaking.

To date 15,000 houses are either completed or under construction, some standing alone, others part of planned settlement villages on land made available by the government. The acceleration of the shelter programme will be one of the keys to alleviating the housing shortage, potentially one of the greatest obstacles to the process of reintegration.

In addition to material assistance, UNHCR has redoubled its monitoring activities in order to ensure that the problems returnees face do not go unreported. At least 26 protection officers are involved in general monitoring, follow-up of security cases and registration. As in August of this year after the large returns from Burundi, UNHCR will work with local authorities on common difficulties observed as returnees restart their lives in Rwanda, paying particular attention to areas with higher than average detention rates or litigation involving land or homes.

The reception given to the returnees has so far received good marks from UNHCR protection staff. "From an estimated 24,000 new arrivals to the three communes in Kigali ville only around 100 are still in transit centres; others who may not be able to move into their houses now have been taken in by family or friends," reported UNHCR's Gottfried Koefner during the second week of December, "and with NGO partners we've carried out non-food distributions in most of the city's 19 sectors." The Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda had recorded 5,460 arrests among returnees from Zaire and Tanzania by 31 December 1996. Many of these returnees had given themselves up for their own protection after local people identified them as having been involved in killings in 1994.

Protection issues will continue to be major concerns and UNHCR will push projects aimed at strengthening the country's justice system with an emphasis on basic civics. Among programmes started two years ago are workshops and projects organized through the ministries for youth and women, where UNHCR has tried to promote a message of cooperation and justice.

"In this context it is not bricks we are counting," says Urasa, "the point is for the youth to work together and help the population, and for women to come together and look at problems as women, especially as many of them are heads of households."

In Tanzania, meanwhile, UNHCR and the government issued a joint message on 6 December to the Rwandan refugees in that country. It stated in part that "on the basis of the repatriation from Goma, the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania has decided that all Rwandan refugees in Tanzania are expected to return home by 31 December 1996." The message was translated into Kinyarwanda and broadcast by a local radio station as well as in the camps with megaphones.

Already, news of the return from Zaire had reached the 530,000 refugees in the Ngara and Karagwe camps where there had been an increase in the number of candidates registering for repatriation.

Armed with lessons learned from the five days in November when the road from Ruhengeri to Gisenyi was impassably thick with returnees, UNHCR began preparations for repatriation on a similar scale from Rwanda's eastern border. Water points were set up between the largest concentration of refugees in Ngara the Benaco camps and the Rusumo crossing point as well as at five kilometre intervals from there to Kagitumba, on the border between Rwanda and Uganda to the north, for a total of 42 sites. The almost 150 additional trucks brought to Rwanda since the influx from Zaire were readied to support the available fleet in Tanzania and the staff of Sub-Office Ngara began the registration of vulnerable cases in order to assist them in the event of a large-scale repatriation movement.

Since November, some 1.3 million Rwandans had returned to their country, including 483,500 from Tanzania and 719,000 from eastern Zaire. These numbers vastly surpassed any return figures since UNHCR began promoting voluntary repatriation at the start of 1995. Admittedly, large numbers of Rwandan refugees swept out of the camps in Tanzania and headed for the bush to avoid repatriation. But Tanzanian troops were deployed to stop the exodus and directed the refugees toward the Rwandan border.

Since then, almost all the Rwandan refugees in Tanzania have returned home.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)

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