Getting Rwandans to Go Home

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LAST week, international attention turned once again to Goma, Zaire, the area with the highest concentration of the 1.5 million refugees who fled Rwanda last year.

In the span of four days, the government of Zaire achieved what Western governments and many humanitarian agencies had been unable to achieve, bringing about the return home of Rwandan refugees. Though the number returned was only 1 percent of the total population of Rwandan refugees, the week-long forced return served as an important reminder that the Zairian govern- ment has not only the authority but also the capacity to expel or provide haven to the Rwandans.

Zaire's action violated the human rights tenet against forced repatriation, causing an outcry. Yet relief workers privately hoped that the coercive action would result in mass return by convincing refugees that they could not stay in the camps indefinitely and by showing them that it was not dangerous to return. In fact, it had this effect. While the media last week highlighted the tens of thousands of refugees who scattered into the hills, fleeing the Zairian military, tens of thousands more came out to meet the military with their bags packed, resigned to finally ending their exile.

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The process of reconstruction and reconciliation inside Rwanda needs to include the majority of the refugees. Otherwise, in-group versus out-group tensions will become entrenched and sow the seeds of yet another round of bloodletting.

Experiences in the last 10 years with refugees from Mozambique, Guatemala, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and other crisis areas have proven that the repatriation of large numbers of refugees is often unpredictable and drawn out. Yet, the longer refugee camps persist, the more difficult it becomes for the refugees to reintegrate back into their home countries. International assistance for repatriation, by itself, rarely speeds the process. The most effective international efforts are those that mediate peace processes and a respect for justice and human rights in the country of origin.

Because of slow progress in the prosecution of war crimes and in the development of a Rwandan policy toward the refugees - including amnesty - few refugees have opted to return home voluntarily.

While some 20,000 repatriated voluntarily at the beginning of the year, the flow has become a trickle this summer. Many refugees fear they will be incarcerated by government authorities for their involvement in the genocide. Others fear not being able to reclaim their land. And perhaps most importantly, they fear retribution by Hutu extremists also living in exile in Zaire.

Large-scale repatriation will probably occur only after the wounds of the genocide are fully and publicly addressed. Assistance is desperately needed in developing the lands in the east and northeast of Rwanda, where arable land is scarce and properties remain in dispute. There is a great need for public housing to accommodate returnees, as well as food aid to help stabilize the markets of post-crisis Rwanda.

The international community can best facilitate the return of refugees to Rwanda, and the ending of the massive relief operation, by supporting the work of the international tribunal currently seeking indictments against those leaders responsible for the genocide of 1994, which led to the deaths of over two-thirds of the national Tutsi population, as well as many of the moderate Hutu population.

This work depends on Western governments making good on pledges to provide funds and expert staff to support the investigations under way in Kigali.

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