Rwandan refugees pushed to return to a home they consider unsafe

Uganda and the UNHCR want nearly 18,000 refugees in Uganda – most of whom are Hutus – to go home by Friday. But few are complying, afraid the legacy of the 1994 genocide still lingers.

Walter Astrada/AFP/Newscom
This May 2009 photo shows Rwandan refugees in the Nakivale camp in Uganda. Some 18,000 Rwandan refugees in Uganda have been givena deadline for returning to their country, now considered stable by the international community.

At the Nakivale refugee camp, a vast stretch of rolling, fertile land in southwest Uganda, some 8,000 Rwandan refugees were recently given a deadline.

Claiming that Rwanda, 15 years after the 1994 genocide, is now safe for everyone, the United Nations and the governments of Uganda and Rwanda have encouraged all 17,000 to 18,000 refugees in Uganda to go home before July 31.

"We have agreed that the time is right," says Stefano Severe, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Uganda. "We have to bring this process to a close."

But many of the Rwandan refugees in Uganda – most of whom are Hutus who fled Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 Hutu-led slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus –­ are skeptical of the assurances given by the Tutsi-dominated government, and say it's not safe to return.

Jehozo Ishimwe is one of them. "I am not feeling OK," says Ms. Ishimwe minutes before she boards a bus destined for Rwanda. "To go and live under [President Paul] Kagame's government is the end," she adds.

Ishimwe, whose infant is strapped to her back, says that her father served in the army of the Hutu-led government that was toppled by Mr. Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels in 1994, and that her family members in Rwanda are frequently harassed by the new regime. During her most recent visit to Rwanda, she says, her older brother was arrested, prompting her to go back to Nakivale.

Asked why she'd decided go home again, she says: "I am going by force."

Officials have said the repatriation campaign is voluntary, but it is unclear what will happen after July 31.

The UNHCR says that anyone with refugee status can remain in the camp and receive benefits, though its offer of "facilitated repatriation," which includes free transport and nonfood assistance upon arrival in Rwanda, will end Aug. 1.

But those who refuse to repatriate before July 31 could lose their refugee status, according to Tarsis Kabwegyere, Uganda's Minister for Refugees. "When conditions no longer justify you being a refugee, then you can become a worker," Mr. Kabwegyere says.

Financial burdens fueling repatriation

For UNHCR and Uganda, the urgency fueling this repatriation campaign is partly financial.

"This community is still costing the international community and the government funds, which are not so easy to come by," says Mr. Severe.

In December, UNHCR requested $31 million to fund its operations in Uganda, but had to adjust to a $5.8 million shortfall.

Donor countries have also expressed uncertainty regarding future funding because of the global financial crisis, according to UNHCR deputy Uganda representative Nemia Temporai.

Supporting the Rwandan refugees costs the organization roughly $1.2 million per year, and maintaining an openended facilitated repatriation program adds to that cost. Kabwegyere says that his ministry's resources are also strained following in the influx of 40,000 Congolese refugees after fresh fighting broke out in Congo in August.

Uganda can no longer justify supporting Rwandans, Kabwegyere says, since their homeland is stable: "You can be the most humane person in the world, but there are limits."

The push to repatriate Rwandans is consistent with UNHCR's regionwide pro-repatriation agenda, says Moses Okello, head of research and advocacy at the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project.

"UNHCR is facing serious funding problems, and these repatriation exercises are a response to that. It is consistent with their global strategy," says Mr. Okello.

Fifty thousand Burundian refugees in Tanzania were scheduled to head home in June, following a decision to close a major refugee camp. But that deadline has now been extended after the refugees resisted.

Okello said the push to repatriate all Rwandans was potentially premature: "Even if the genocide was 15 years ago, there are still tensions in Rwanda that would make it uncomfortable."

Land issues delay return

Officials suspect many refugees are hesitant to go home because life in the camps has become relatively comfortable. In all Ugandan camps, refugees are given a plot of land, seeds, and tools.

By contrast, land pressures in tiny Rwanda are growing acute, and for many refugees, the land they abandoned at home has been taken over by other families.

"This is a hindrance in terms of returning to Rwanda, because there, people will be starting from zero," says William Chemalg, the top UNHCR official at Nakivale.

Rwanda's minister for local government, Protais Musoni, says his office would help people recover land abandoned years ago, but indicated people may be asked to share.

For Rwanda, the impetus to support repatriation is national pride, says Ignatius Kamali, the country's former ambassador to Uganda.

"We don't see any reason why we should have people living outside our borders," he says, adding that Kagame's government has stabilized the country to the point where it is no longer appropriate for a Rwandan to be labeled a refugee. He rejected the claim that returning Hutus face persecution in Rwanda and said people who cite fears of tribal tension "don't know the conditions at home."

Several refugees interviewed at Nakivale, who all openly resented Kagame, said they believed he favored the repatriation of exiled Hutus because he wanted his opponents within his jurisdiction.

Refugees rejecting government's offer

Mr. Musoni says the government will provide shelter, food rations for three months, and, though the program hasn't started, free education and healthcare.

But the refugees still in Uganda have not embraced the deadline. As of July 30, only 2,300 registered refugees had gone home, according to the spokeswoman for UNHCR Uganda.

Alphonse Hakazimana, who described himself as a political officer in the ousted Hutu government, has stayed behind.

When he fled the RPF's invasion, he says, he abandoned three wives, his children, and his homeland forever because, if he returned, officials would immediately identify him as a cadre in the genocide-era government.

"Everyone has to make their own decision whether to go home or remain," he says on a quiet dusty road in Nakivale. "But for me in particular, I cannot go back."

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