Rwandan refugees rose to prominence in 1994 when their mass exodus to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo - DRC), Tanzania and Uganda was broadcasted globally. At the same time a less well-known group of Rwandan refugees who had been in Uganda since 1959 returned to their country on the heels of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), which itself was made up of 1959 refugees. Moreover, the majority of those Rwandans who did not cross the border in 1994, thereby not being counted as refug...read more
Rwandan refugees rose to prominence in 1994 when their mass exodus to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo - DRC), Tanzania and Uganda was broadcasted globally. At the same time a less well-known group of Rwandan refugees who had been in Uganda since 1959 returned to their country on the heels of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), which itself was made up of 1959 refugees. Moreover, the majority of those Rwandans who did not cross the border in 1994, thereby not being counted as refugees, were in one way or another uprooted and at least temporarily internally displaced. The history of this small country of the thousand hills is also a history of refugees.
Now, ten years after the war and the genocide, the complexities of Rwandan refugees persist and possibly even deepen. The two main trajectories along which the complexity of Rwandan refugees should be conceptualised are firstly, their different backgrounds and secondly, the intricacy of bringing them back home.
About 80,000 Rwandans still remain refugees in mostly African countries and they hardly represent a coherent lot. This is to say that there are qualitatively different Rwandan refugee populations. A way of shedding light onto this complexity is to compare the big remaining groups in DRC, Uganda and Tanzania. The second form of complexity with regard to Rwandan refugees has a more long term orientation and will only matter upon repatriation. It is the complexity of bringing them home in a sustainable and thus responsible way.
When the RPF started making advances inside Rwanda, Hutus started crossing the borders first and foremost into Zaire, Tanzania and Uganda. In Zaire, a large group of extremist Hutus, i.e. perpetrators of the genocide, were able to hide out in the Kivu hinterland - protected by the infamous “Operation Turquoise”. The dilemma of those extremists residing in camps or elsewhere in the Kivus has been a source for international debates about humanitarian assistance. To this day, it is the reason why the current government of Rwanda has a highly critical view of UNHCR. The presence of those extremists has not only provided a pretext for continued intervention by the government of Rwanda in Zaire and later DRC, but also poses a big challenge today when it comes to repatriation.
As such, radical Hutu elements barricaded areas in the Kivus in early 2004 to prevent moderate elements from demobilising under UN auspices and thus from returning to Rwanda. In the long run, it will be this group that will be pivotal in deciding whether Rwanda as a united nation has a future or not. Will they follow one of their former rebel leaders General Paul Rwarakabije and return voluntarily to Rwanda (as the former did in November 2003) or will they only stop fighting once the government in Kigali is overthrown?
The group of Rwandan refugees in Uganda does not compare to the group hiding in the Kivus. For starters, it is highly unlikely that the group contains high level perpetrators of the genocide, as they moved into the territory of the government that was a supporter, an ally as well as a mentor for the RPF in the 1980s. The Rwandans in Uganda fled the atrocities in their homeland and managed to create veritable settlements including their own livestock. They are everything but hiding. If anything they have built respectable homes for themselves, which now requires a rather high incentive to lure them back to Rwanda. Studies and research in the Ourchinga and Nakivale settlements have highlighted this tendency as well as capacity for economic development.
The group of Rwandan refugees that still resides in Tanzania today is different yet again in composition and origin. Those 500,000 who fled in April 1994 (250,000 crossed Rusumo bridge on 28 April alone) did certainly contain extremist elements similar to those in the Kivus. But the display of Rwandan decisiveness in Eastern Congo in 1996 and limited funding for those refugees led to a full-scale repatriation exercise.
The residual group of refugees today is qualitatively different from the ones in DRC (ex-Zaire) and Uganda. The situation in Tanzania prior to 1994 was yet a different one, and new arrivals in after the genocide mixed with Rwandans that had already been there for years if not decades. Under Nyerere and his pan-African ideology all refugees were embraced and welcomed to Tanzania, not only Rwandans. Some came prior to Rwandan independence in 1962, others settled spontaneously, and some fled atrocities in 1959 and 1994. Most of those Rwandans never registered as refugees or even applied for citizenship; they were able to live their lives in the Kagera region.
The enormous number of refugees and the swelling camps, however, presented a burden to Tanzania that the country was not willing to shoulder any longer. Through UNHCR facilitated repatriation almost all Rwandan refugees from 1994 returned home, leaving behind a group of compatriots that did not necessarily want to return, but was also denied local integration in Tanzania.
The generation of leaders following Nyerere were less sympathetic to what they see as aliens on their soil. It is a general trend in Africa, whereby local integration as a durable solution has become less and less of an option.
Hence, now those old Rwandan refugees and at times migrants are effectively stateless. There might be solution in bringing them back to Rwanda, but this is a marginalized group of ethnic Banyarwandans that have no links with their country of origin any longer. It should also be noted that while repatriation from Tanzania was ongoing some Rwandan refugees moved across the border into Uganda to avoid repatriation. This is unlikely to be connected to the fear of prosecution for crimes against humanity, but rather it is a harbinger of the second level of complexity regarding Rwandan refugees - the complexity of repatriation.
The different backgrounds highlight that there is not one repatriation policy that will fit all. Whereas genocide perpetrators actively resist the idea of returning to a state run by the RPF and want to overthrow the current government of Rwanda still, many refugees in Uganda and Tanzania have concrete economic and security concerns that are diametrically opposed to those still in DRC.
There are three main reasons why Rwandan refugees are reluctant to return home. The first is the problematic process of unity and reconciliation; secondly, refugees might have little to strive for economically in a land that ranks 158 on the 2003 UNDP Human Development Index and which has a long way to go in terms of development and poverty reduction; lastly Rwanda is densely populated and fertile land is scarce, which some Malthusian scholars have attributed the origin of the genocide in the first place.
Unity and reconciliation is the explicit policy of the current Rwandan government and it is often juxtaposed with the South African model of truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, amnesty is taboo and the government is adamant in fighting what it calls a “culture of impunity”. However, this process of justice is skewed in that it excludes RPA war crimes committed between 1990 and 1994. Thus only genocide is considered crime, which leads to a collective accusation of Hutus as a group and the victimisation of Tutsis as a whole. This precludes a genuine reconciliation effort. The same issue, namely that of RPA war crimes was what chased Carla Del Ponte from her position as chief prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICTR) in Arusha. This renders the process of bringing Rwandans back home more complex, as it is difficult to see how this represents a sustainable situation.
The problem of development is a serious one, in a country that has next to no natural resources, depleted land and no access to ports or main waterways. The donor presence in Kigali is impressive and many strategies are being devised, most recently the World Bank's Poverty Reduction Strategy Plan with distinct country ownership. However, the focus remains on a limited amount of clusters like coffee, tea and tourism. Evidently, those clusters are volatile and dependent on many factors that are largely beyond the reach of any Rwandan government.
In an economic situation like this, it is highly difficult to bring ever more Rwandans back not knowing how and where to fit them in. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Rwandans are subsistence farmers. For some it could simply be more attractive to keep their livestock and stay put in places like Uganda and Tanzania.
Lastly, there is the issue of land, and anybody who has ever driven across the thousand hills of Rwanda cannot be but startled that wherever you look you will find houses or settlements. The population density with 323 persons/km2 ranks among the highest in the world. The lack of land need not be the cause for another conflict, but it makes life upon return to Rwanda significantly more difficult. The double pressure of land degradation and growing population density has been pointed to repeatedly as a main impediment for development. Additionally, one has to take into account the population growth. According to UNFPA estimates, given the current birth rate, Rwanda will count roughly twice of today's population by 2050. This does not yet include the Rwandans that are due to return soon. The question any observer who knows Rwanda will have to wonder, “Where will they all live”? This prospect or absence thereof in terms of development contributes to the complexity of Rwandan refugees who are ultimately to become returnees.
In conclusion, Rwanda history is a history of fleeing and returning populations. Many different refugee groups have emerged over the course of the last five decades and continue to coexist and overlap. Rwandan refugees do not represent a coherent whole, but rather a sum of contradictory and at times antagonistic parts.
This complexity of the multi-facetted Rwandan refugee “community” is exacerbated by the future they will face. Should the UNHCR Executive Committee at some point vote in favour of the cessation clause, thereby withdrawing prima facie refugee status, the only real foreseeable option for the vast majority is indeed to return home. This is when the heterogeneous group of Rwandan refugees will face yet more complexities in trying to reconstruct and rebuild a nation. To overcome enormous developmental challenges such as reconciliation, development and access to land will be a highly complex process. But given Rwanda's history of in- and outflows of entire groups it is legitimate to ask where the “re” in “reconstruction” actually comes from. Ultimately, the construction of a Rwandan society without precedent in the land of the thousand hills is the consequence and combination of this two-fold complexity of Rwandan refugees.
* Volker Schimmel is UNHCR Reports Officer in Rwanda. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of UNHCR.
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