Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - "Too long away from home"

Rwandan Refugees in Tanzania decide to go back home, despite all remaining problems with Tutsis.

By Mans Nyberg

On an early December morning in the Departure Centre of the enormous Benaco camp, in Tanzania, people are queuing up for repatriation. Those who have made up their mind to return to Rwanda are requested to register the day before their departure. During the last week, the number of registrations has gone up sharply, from 100-200 a day to over 1,000. Most of these refugees have spent almost two and a half years in the camps. There has been no apparent wish to repatriate to Rwanda. Now, mainly because of the successful return of over a half a million refugees from eastern Zaire, the mood in the Ngara camps is changing.

"Now it is safe to return," said Hadija Nbagwile, 19, a young widow with a small infant child. She has no relatives in the camp, but when she fled her home in Kigarama, a sister stayed behind. She has no news of her fate. She does not know if the house of her late husband is still standing, or if it is occupied by other people, but she has decided to return anyway. "It is better to go back than to remain here as a refugee," she says. She already has plans for the future: she wants to start a small business, open a shop in her village - "if I get the capital for it," she adds with a shy smile.

Marilene Mbarushimana, 39, a peasant's wife with five children, is very determined to return to her home in Kibungo. She would have left long ago, but she has been ill, and the doctor advised against it. Now she is well and ready to return, regardless of the situation. She does not know if her house is still standing or if her relatives are alive, but even if she had that information it would not change her decision to return. "We are living in difficult conditions here; in Rwanda we had our own house, we had our own things. We have been too long away from home, doing nothing."

When the conflict broke out in Rwanda two years ago, Straton Sakindi was a student in the 6th grade in the secondary school of Nyabitare. In the camp he has worked for the YMCA. He speaks good English. His ambition is to return to Nyabitare, get a job and finish his studies. He is better informed about the situation back home than most people, since his uncle stayed behind and has sent him letters through the Red Cross. The 25-year-old Sakindi knows that his house is undamaged, but that it is now occupied by strangers, and he worries about how to get it back. "Anyway, it is better to return to my home country, because here in the camp there are many problems - no schools for example. Life here has no future." Straton's parents and his nine younger brothers and sisters will stay in the camp for the time being. His father has decided to wait until Straton sends him a letter from home telling him that it is OK to return.

Evarist Ntagara, 25, is a farmer from Murambi. He is married, with one child. He has decided to repatriate because he knows that those who have returned have had no problems. He has had contacts with people who have returned to his home village. They all tell him that everything is fine. "Now a lot of people are planning to repatriate, which is good, because it is better to go in a great number. There is no need for us to stay here any longer." Evarist says that he is not afraid, he was not involved in killings, he has a good conscience. Even if the government has changed, he wants to return home to continue being a farmer. He adds that those things which are necessary for a good life cannot be found in a refugee camp, they can be found only at home.

A group of four men from Rusumo, just across the border from Ngara, are standing outside the registration office. They say that they have decided to return because most people are talking about repatriating. The news from Rwanda has been encouraging: "Since nothing happened to those who returned from Goma, why should we be afraid of returning?" Also, UNHCR has brought back returnees to the camp to give information about the situation back home. However, there are still intimidators in the camps telling people that they should stay and that they will get into trouble if they return. One of the men, Jean De Dieu, explains: "Some people have committed genocide and they are discouraging others from leaving. Those are the young militiamen who are assistants to the commune leaders. They will not repatriate, they will resist to the end."

Immediately afterwards, we had a chance to see the intimidators in action. Outside the Departure Centre, the inevitable crowd of idle onlookers are standing. When we go out, some of the men standing there start a discussion with us. A middle-aged man of some authority takes the lead and acts as the spokesman of the group. In excellent French, he explains that he is not ready to return, because he has heard of so many problems for the returnees: they have been denied their property rights, people have disappeared, there are even reports of massacres. "When people return to their villages in the hills and are out of sight of the international community and the media - then the Tutsis kill them!" The bystanders nod in agreement. We realize that we have been witnessing the intimidators at work, conducting their whispering campaign in the camps, with the aim of persuading as many refugees as possible to remain. They still need the innocent refugees as a power base and a shield against retribution and justice.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)