A decade after genocide, Rwandans return home to reconcile and rebuild
Ten years after the genocide that saw an estimated 800,000 people killed by their countrymen and more than 2 million flee the country, the UN refugee agency is working with Rwanda and neighbouring countries to help refugees willing to return to rebuild their lives.
BYUMBA, Rwanda, April 7 (UNHCR) - Thousands of returning Rwandan refugees have returned to reconcile their past and rebuild their homes so far this year, a decade after the genocide and civil war that killed an estimated 800,000 of their countrymen and forced millions to flee Rwanda.
On Wednesday, United Nations staff around the world observed a minute of silence to mark the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. The 100-day violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus had spiralled out of control a day after Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira died in a plane crash on April 6, 1994.
In the 10 years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees have returned home, many with UNHCR assistance. The refugee agency helped more than 22,700 return in 2003, and plans to help 40,000 out of the 60,000 Rwandan refugees still in the region to repatriate this year.
These include some 18,000 in Uganda. In the last week, three convoys carrying 974 people from Uganda's Nakivale, Oruchinga and Kyaka II refugee settlements rolled into UNHCR's reception centre in Byumba, northern Rwanda. These convoys followed similar voluntary repatriation movements in January, when UNHCR repatriated 1,100 people from Uganda. Another 1,000 refugees have asked to follow.
Each of the returnees is registered upon arrival in Byumba and then transported back to their home areas.
Among the refugees planning to leave Uganda's Oruchinga refugee settlement is Zakilina Batamuriza, who was 16 years old when the genocide occurred. She built a home in Oruchinga, eventually marrying another Rwandan with whom she has a baby.
Batamuriza, a Hutu, has had no news of the family she left behind when her village was engulfed in violence 10 years ago, but she now wants to return home. "I will go anywhere in Rwanda to live as long as it is in peace," she said.
Another exile, who has already passed through the Byumba transit centre, is Jean Bosco Bigirimana, who was 10 at the time of the genocide. Fifteen members of his immediate family went missing or were killed during the genocide.
When he returned to his village recently, he found two other families living on his family's land. The local government ordered them to give his family a third of their original property back. He travelled back to Uganda with the news, and his relatives opted to go back home and farm.
Across the region, other Rwandan refugees are similarly leaving settlements and heading home; some are even coming out of the forest and approaching UNHCR for help returning to the homeland they have not seen in a decade.
More than 2,200 people trooped out of the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the first six weeks of this year. They first checked in at one of UNHCR's 17 pick-up points, where they received medical treatment and food aid before being transferred to Goma or Bukavu and then eventually to reception centres in the adjacent Rwandan towns of Gisenyi and Cyangugu, from where they were sent home.
"Convoys with the returnees arrive at the Nkamira transit centre," said Janvier Njiruyukinga, UNHCR protection assistant in Giyseni. "Here we register the civilians, and distribute food, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, blankets and jerry cans. From here the returnees are transferred to their places of origin within 48 hours."
Not all the Rwandan refugees throughout the region want to go back right now. Gideon Matabaro arrived in Uganda in 1996 after leaving Tanzania. He is bitter at the men back in Rwanda who he said murdered his family and took away his father's land. He says that he will not be safe in Rwanda.
Eager to welcome back its refugees, the government in Rwanda last year signed repatriation agreements with Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Republic of Congo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, adding to the accords it already had with Burundi, the Central African Republic and Tanzania.