Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1997
Africa's Great Lakes was a cauldron of conflicts and coups for much of 1997. Laurent Kabila swept across the former Zaire and overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko after 32 years in power. Refugees were killed in the equatorial rainforests and their plight put an intolerable strain on the very institution of asylum in Africa. Civil war in the neighbouring Congo Republic added to the images of a region in flames.
Amidst the carnage there was some good news. UNHCR field staff, together with other UN and humanitarian agencies used aircraft and helicopters, bicycles, boats and jeeps to comb the bush, tracking down wandering refugees and shepherding them onto one of the largest repatriation airlifts in Africa's history. During the year, 185,000 Rwandan refugees returned to their homeland from the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 62,000 went by a fleet of humanitarian aircraft.
In Rwanda, UNHCR assisted government efforts to rebuild a country shattered by the genocidal murder of more than 500,000 people in 1994. The agency trained cadres of policemen and prosecutors as part of a programme to rebuild Rwanda's justice system. It provided more than 30,000 shelter kits consisting of sheeting, poles and nails to house returnees as well as distributing seeds and tools and installing water points in the country's communes.
'The shelter programme and rehabilitation of the justice system are probably the most critical components in the reintegration and reconciliation process,' says Augustine Mahiga, coordinator of UNHCR's Special Unit for Rwanda and Burundi in Geneva. It will remain so for many years.'
The rebuilding of Rwanda, in fact, has hardly begun. The government urgently appealed to the international community for additional aid of all kinds. A total of 1.3 million refugees have returned home since October, 1996, overwhelming existing institutions, provoking new tensions, clashes between government troops and rebels and sparking small outflows of refugees late in the year.
Overlooked at times by the world community, were events in Burundi. An estimated 161,000 refugees did return to an uncertain future in that country, but a further 260,000 remained in camps in Tanzania and Democratic Congo. When Bujumbura charged rebels were using Tanzanian territory for cross-border raids, Tanzanian authorities began a crackdown on illegal residents' in September. Thousands of so-called spontaneous settlers' were expelled to Rwanda and Burundi.
The fate of tens of thousands of Rwandans still unaccounted for after the sprawling refugee settlements in Eastern Zaire were broken up in late 1996, preoccupied UNHCR heading in to 1998. Many undoubtedly had already died of malnutrition, exhaustion and disease. Unknown numbers perished in the fighting which swept across the then Zaire. But pockets of survivors remain.
UNHCR pinpointed an estimated 45,000 people in a dozen locations in Democratic Congo and across the river in the Congo Republic. Tiny pockets of stragglers were located as far as 700 kilometres north of the Congo capital of Brazzaville. Few wanted to go back home.
'They have had nothing but negative feedback of the situation back home,' says UNHCR's Nikola Mihajlovic. They want more information from their communes to help them make up their minds whether to repatriate or not.' Added Mahiga, The humanitarian challenges in the Great Lakes remain daunting. A relentless effort will be required to address them.' That was a masterly understatement.