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First Rwandan refugees fly home from Zambia

First Rwandan refugees fly home from Zambia

After nearly a decade in exile, Rwandans who fled their country in the wake of the 1994 genocide and the subsequent civil war have now started to fly home from Zambia, under an agreement between the two African countries and UNHCR.
1 May 2003
Rwandan refugees in Katale camp in North Kivu, then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

KIGALI (UNHCR) - Isaac Ndayisabye, 22, saw the Rwandan capital, Kigali, for the first time on Wednesday, 30 April, as he disembarked from the Kenya Airways plane and stepped on the tarmac at Kigali's Kanombe Airport. He was among the first 16 Rwandan refugees who returned Wednesday from Zambia. The flight marked the start of a repatriation effort that should see the return of more than 5,000 Rwandan refugees from Zambia.

Pulling a large bag at the airport in Kigali on Wednesday, the tall, well-dressed young Rwandan returnee smiled shyly as he spoke to UNHCR officials.

"It is bad to be called a foreigner all the time. I have wanted to return for a long time" said the quiet returnee in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language.

The repatriation movement follows a tripartite agreement signed between the governments of Zambia and Rwanda, and UNHCR in January this year in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Ndayisabye and his family first fled to Bukavu, south Kivu, eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), from his home in the border town of Cyangugu in 1994, joining the human tide that fled Rwanda in the wake of the genocide and civil war that engulfed the tiny central African nation. But as refugee camps were broken up by the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) in 1996, Ndayisabye - then 13 - was separated from his family in the ensuing chaos and followed a group of refugee friends who inched their way southwards from south Kivu to Zambia.

Ndayisabye decided to return to Rwanda in 2000, after he received a letter from his mother who told him that his family had returned to their Cyangugu rural home on the southern shores of Lake Kivu. The family was well, she had said in her letter, and urged him to return home. His mother's letter, he said, was a long-awaited response to several letters from him to the family through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which helps separated refugees trace their family.

Asked about his plans, next steps and aspirations, Ndayisabye had the same answer: he wanted to see his family - father, mother and siblings - he told UNHCR officials sent to meet him and other returnees at the airport. He could think of nothing else, it seemed.

Some returnees were met by friends and relatives at the airport - the scene of warm embraces and evident joy as some of the returnees met friends and family for the first time in years. Ndayisabye and other returnees who had never been to Kigali before were driven by UNHCR officials around the town to see the central business area, shops, the bus park and Nyamirambo - a densely-populated suburb, before being taken to a transit location for the night. They were expected to travel to their homes outside the capital on Thursday, May 1.

More flights are expected to bring back Rwandan refugees now registering in Zambia. Through arrangements being made by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), refugees will fly with commercial airlines from the Zambian capital, Lusaka via Nairobi, Kenya before landing in Kigali.