Rwanda: DRC rebels limit access to forced returnees
UNHCR is facing increasing difficulties in gaining access to refugees returned under duress to north Kivu from camps in Rwanda - a contentious operation that is continuing despite our request to the government of Rwanda to stop.
A UNHCR team travelled yesterday (Thursday) to the village of Kichanga, some
80 km north of the DRC border town of Goma. More than 7,000 returnees have been told to settle in Kichanga. The UNHCR team was allowed into the site after long negotiations with authorities, but only on condition they did not interview returnees. The north Kivu area is under the control of the rebel group Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD/Goma). According to figures provided by Rwandan authorities, more than 7,500 refugees had returned to north Kivu by yesterday (12 September).
Living conditions for the returnees in Kichanga and the adjacent village of Kahe are rapidly deteriorating. With nearly 600 refugees arriving daily, the water and sanitation situation has become increasingly difficult. The majority of families are living in three run-down buildings in a disused tea factory. Others in the surrounding hills have put up tents with worn-out plastic sheeting that had previously covered their mud houses in camps in Rwanda. The refugees are being returned from Gihembe camp in Byumba prefecture, northern Rwanda, and from Kiziba camp, Kibuye prefecture, in an operation that began on 31 August.
The team visiting Kichanga yesterday talked to an elderly woman who, speaking in Kinyarwanda, narrated how she was forced out of Gihembe with her husband and nine children, including her grandsons. She wept as she gave the account. The camp committee president, however, insisted that the woman had returned voluntarily.
Meanwhile, reports from Rwanda indicate that an estimated 2,000 - 3,000 refugees may have fled Gihembe camp into surrounding villages to escape forced return. Sections of the camp are visibly vacated and have been destroyed. All that remains of refugees' huts in some sections of the camps are the foundations or remnants of fireplaces. Refugees continue to sell their shelter material ahead of their departure. Some are also selling livestock because they remain unsure of transport for the animals. The Congolese refugees spend the night outdoors before boarding trucks which come to the camps early in the morning.
We understand that this morning, 95 refugees left Gihembe camp, compared to more than 250 yesterday. The drop in numbers could be attributed to a joint government of Rwanda/UNHCR communiqué aired on Rwanda radio last night to clarify that the return operation is meant to be voluntary and to outline the arrangements for those who decide to remain in Rwanda.