Rwandan refugees come out of the woods in Kivu region

Through 20 assembly points in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNHCR has been repatriating a monthly average of 800 Rwandan refugees who had been hiding for over a decade in the dense forests of the Kivus.

Rwandan returnees unloading their belongings and getting registered at the UNHCR transit centre in Byumba, Rwanda.   © UNHCR/B.Heger

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 4 (UNHCR) - Mami Nyirabyango was just a child when she fled deep into the forest of eastern Congo in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. By the time she finally emerged from hiding this July, she was a widow with two children of her own.

After a decade of trauma, including losing her parents and a sister on that long-ago flight from Rwanda, Nyirabyango is now one of hundreds of Rwandan refugees taking advantage of UNHCR's assembly points in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to end their exile and get help in re-establishing their lives in Rwanda.

The UN refugee agency, which is actively promoting returns to Rwanda, sends workers out from the 20 assembly points to inform refugees hiding in the dense forests and remote communities of North and South Kivu that it is now safe to go home. It was from one such "sensitizer" that Nyirabyango heard the news she had been awaiting for years.

"I always thought of going home," says Nyirabyango, who says she's 24 but looks like a teenager. Soon after her arrival in Congo in 1994, she married a Rwandan man who never wanted to go home. The Rwandans still in hiding in eastern DRC are Hutus, the same ethnic group that carried out the slaughter of 800,000 countrymen in 1994. Many of them hesitate to go home because they are afraid of being unfairly labelled "genocidaires".

"When I had a husband, I couldn't go home. He refused. But when my husband died, I decided I didn't want to live in a foreign country," says Nyirabyango, adding that her husband died of illness in February.

She brought her two daughters, aged three and four, to an assembly point, from where UNHCR transported them to Bukavu transit centre on her way back to Rwanda. She will get a blanket, some clothes, shampoo, sanitary materials, a kitchen set, plastic sheeting and one month's food rations to ease her transition to life in her homeland.

Now well-fed and dressed in a peach-coloured T-shirt and bright cotton skirt, Nyirabyango is enthusiastic about the future, encouraged by the good experiences of an older sister who went home with UNHCR in March. "I have courage and I will work hard," she says of her future in Rwanda.

Most of the people who come out of the forest to the assembly points are in poor shape, suffering from malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhoea, say doctors at the Bukavu transit centre.

"In the forests, they have no contact with anyone, not even with traders," says Brigitte Bampile, a nurse at the centre. "They have been living like animals. If they have any clothes, they are dirty, just rags. Some of the women are pregnant and their children are malnourished."

But that is not the worst of it. "The women who come from the forest are really traumatized," adds Marie Murhega, director of the transit centre. "There are women who have seen their husbands die and they struggle to live in the forest. There are orphan children who have seen both parents die in the forest."

Children like Jean-Pierre, a tiny 12-year-old who's already spent 15 days in the transit centre while the Red Cross searches for any of his relatives who might still be alive. Jean-Pierre's huge brown eyes inspect visitors carefully, and then he breaks into a friendly smile. But, workers at the centre say he cries bitterly every time other Rwandans go home and he is left behind.

UNHCR is helping an average of 800 Rwandans go home from the Kivus every month. The refugee agency has taken more than 78,000 home from the area since 2000.

"Our numbers and ability to reach and sensitize the refugees are significantly affected by the politics of the FDLR, the Rwandan Hutu rebel group that has been in the Kivus for 11 years," says UNHCR repatriation officer Jaya Murthy.

Much of the South Kivu region is under the control of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), which is accused of playing a lead role in the 1994 genocide in which about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu militias.

"Most of the refugees in the forests are held captive by the FDLR, which makes it very difficult for us to get access to them and inform them about our repatriation programme, and for them to freely leave to go home," Murthy adds.

After the FDLR gave a commitment in Rome at the end of March to end the armed conflict and repatriate its fighters, the numbers of civilian refugees coming to UNHCR's assembly points rose dramatically. (Soldiers are handled separately by MONUC, the UN peacekeepers who are trying to rid the area of foreign fighters.)

However, with recent atrocities committed by Rwandan rebels in the Kivus - as well as a new flight out of Rwanda of some of its citizens afraid of traditional gacaca courts - the number of refugees coming to the assembly points has dropped again.

There may still be tens of thousands of refugees in the Kivu forests, but, says Murthy, "it is impossible to know exactly how many because they are scattered and mixed with the FDLR and the roads are in terrible shape, so it is very difficult for us to reach them."

One Rwandan refugee, Kameze Hakizamungu, says he long wanted to go home, but as a 38-year-old Hutu man, he was afraid. "I knew there was no more war [in Rwanda], but I knew they would kill everyone who had fled as a refugee. I heard that everyone who went back got killed, "he says at the transit centre.

Interviews broadcast on the UN's Radio Okapi with Rwandans who returned safely convinced him that now is the time to make the move. His face brightens and his hand gestures become livelier as he talks about his upcoming return to Rwanda. "I am very happy to go home. As long as it's peaceful there, I am happy."

As for Mami Nyirabyango, who displays a lively intelligence but has never spent a day of her life in a schoolroom, she has one burning ambition for her two young daughters once they get back to Rwanda: "Above all, I want to send my girls to school."

By Kitty McKinsey