Rwanda's Refugee Crisis Is Unique
The UN and the donor community need a regional plan to reverse the cycle of genocide
The recent murder of three Swiss Red Cross officials in Burundi should remind policymakers that this obscure little war is actually vicious enough to spill over and destabilize the region. But they should also be aware that there is a larger threat lurking in the camps for Rwandan refugees.Skip to next paragraph
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These camps could trigger a repeat of the 1994 massacre in Rwanda unless the international community helps the country and its neighbors deal with the scars of genocide.
This is probably the most urgent challenge facing the aid community, but you would hardly know it from listening to the United Nations and major donors. Rarely, in 20 years of covering the UN, have I seen so much desperation and so few ideas.
Over 2 million Hutu refugees fled Rwanda to neighboring countries in 1994, and 1.7 million are still there, despite extraordinary efforts to send them home. Social programs and schools in the camps have been cut. The refugees have been forbidden to work locally. Last August, the Zaireans even tried mass expulsion. All to no avail. The refugees won't budge. Only 27,000 have gone home so far this year.
Everyone agrees that this stalemate cannot continue. The camps are poisoning the entire region. They have enabled the Hutu extremists to collect their strength, filter arms to guerrillas in Burundi, and plant land mines in western Rwanda. Inside Zaire, the Rwandan Hutus have pushed up into Masisi, expelling local inhabitants and threatening one of the region's foodbaskets.
After spending $1.4 billion on the Rwandan emergency, with no end in sight, donors are in no mood to spend more. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has appealed for $288 million for 1996. As of June 13, it had received just $61.3 million.
The refugees won't go home, but they can't remain in the camps; rarely has the UNHCR faced a situation with so many dangerous consequences.
The problem begins with a profound misunderstanding. Donors insist on treating this like any other refugee movement. It is not. Normally it is the victims who flee; in this case the exodus was led by those who directed the Rwandan massacre in 1994. Although some of the more prominent have left the region, thousands of these so-called genocidaires are still living off international aid.
This creates a vicious circle. In the first place, it makes any Rwandan male refugee inherently suspect to the authorities in Rwanda. Out of 569 family heads who returned home in March, 105 were arrested and thrown into overcrowded jails on vague charges of "genocide." More than 68,000 people are now detained in Rwanda, and their mood is giving way to desperation. Eighty-six were reported killed during an attempted jailbreak in northwest Rwanda in April.
It is hardly surprising that the refugees are not returning. They will certainly not be welcomed in Rwanda until the killers in the camps are called to account. For two years the international community has tried to dodge this central fact. Left to deal with the problem, UNHCR and the Zaireans have taken 41 "intimidators" out of the camps. But few of them had any standing in the camps, and no attempt has been made to determine whether they were genocidaires, political leaders, or just plain folks who thought it was unsafe to return to Rwanda. To my knowledge, they have not been charged with a crime. As well as being legally questionable, this muddled policy has had no impact on repatriation.