Rwandan Refugees Trek Home | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Rwandan Refugees Trek Home

The quickest and the fittest among them led the exodus. The first sign of Rwanda's long march of refugees was a single file of ragged but relatively healthy families, who stuck cautiously to the side of the road like people emerging into the light after a long night.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 25, 1996

Rwandan Refugees Trek Home

The quickest and the fittest among them led the exodus. The first sign of Rwanda's long march of refugees was a single file of ragged but relatively healthy families, who stuck cautiously to the side of the road like people emerging into the light after a long night. But the numbers quickly thickened, until they clogged the only main road coming from the lakeside border town of Gisenyi and the aid trucks could no longer get through, and walking against their tide became like trying to run against the flow of a marathon. Even a hard afternoon rain could not part them.

They were pushed along by a mass of humanity behind them, crushing through Rwanda's now open border with Zaïre. "We heard there was peace in Rwanda," said one woman, sitting down to rest at the roadside. Against the felt-green backdrop of Rwanda's pyramid hills and the shimmering waters of Lake Kivu, a city of 400,000 people was on the move with whatever they could carry, which is to say, a lot to lug but not much to restart a life. Mothers toted babies on their backs, and thin children not much older than babies shouldered bundles of wood. Thousands walked along on bare, blistered feet, stoically climbing Rwanda's seemingly endless hills and enduring the mud-red rainwater that ran down and swished between their toes. There was so little conversation, the procession so dreamy in the humid air, that the rare sob from a child pierced the mood out of all proportion. They stopped only in the evening and lit fires by the road, their drama soon enveloped by the perfume of burning eucalyptus leaves.

The sheer crush of people meant that the young Rwandan soldiers who watched them pass had no way to sift the killers from their midst. The refugee camps had been controlled by Hutu soldiers and militias, the same killers who orchestrated the 1994 slaughter that tried to wipe out Rwanda's Tutsi population. Refugees on the road said that as the camps emptied, the armed leadership had fled westwards, deeper into Zaïre. But the repatriation undoubtedly harbored a fair number of people who had joined the killing. Although the staggering numbers made it impossible to screen the returning refugees anyway, the Rwandan government made good on its long-standing position: that citizens who fled following the genocide and war should come home, to reconcile and rebuild.

Whether that is possible depends on the true nature of the Rwandan regime. "Yes, they can put all of us in jail," said one refugee, wearing a bathrobe over grimy pants to his homecoming. Since driving the Hutu militias out and halting the bloodletting in 1994, the Rwandan government has repeatedly argued that the country does not have Hutu and Tutsi people, only Rwandans. "It's a question you can no longer ask; our new ID cards tell only what commune you're from," said Lieut. John Unamunga, deputy commander of the national police school in the northern city of Ruhengeri, when asked whether Rwanda is filling its desperately undermanned police force with Hutus and Tutsis on a quota system. "The previous government promoted differences as a way of keeping power. But Hutus and Tutsis have the same culture, speak the same language, have intermarried. Once you've destroyed the documents that state the difference, you've virtually broken their whole system."

As a result, the government has argued that innocent refugees, almost all of whom are Hutu, should not fear retribution now that they are coming home. "Most of these refugees were innocent, they were taken by the wind," insists Lt.-Col. John Bagabo, who commands the police school. "In Zaïre, they were like prisoners of war. Here, many refugees have already come back to their houses, back to their families." In fact, Rwanda ripples with encouraging, if anecdotal, stories of neighbors renewing friendships, despite having once been hunter and hunted.

But not everyone believes that the Rwandan government and army should be taken at their word, or that killers and survivors can lie down together again. Although Rwandans and foreigners alike agree that dispensing justice is the key to the country's recovery from its collective trauma, there is still a strong feeling in parts of the diplomatic community that the Rwandan government is not disposed to mete it out by judicial means. "This is a hard-core military regime, don't kid yourself otherwise," said a top-ranking UN official based in central Africa's Great Lakes region. For evidence of their case, critics point to the almost 90,000 Rwandans crammed into jails on suspicion of participating in the genocide, most with little hope of a quick or fair trial.

Rwandans bristle at that characterization from the "international community," a term they load with derision in a country that teems with aid workers from overseas. The Rwandans argue that, however good the intentions, the humanitarian lifeline has impeded the country's recovery by continuing to feed and sustain the architects of genocide in camps along the border, at the expense of reconstructing Rwanda. "The world worries about our jail conditions while the survivors of genocide don't even have a meal," says Sam Nkusi, a lanky Rwandan-born Canadian who returned to the capital, Kigali, after the Hutu militias were driven out in 1994. Nkusi is a telecommunications engineer who, as the managing director of state-owned Rwandatel, has turned a shattered national telephone system into a functioning, profitable network. He speaks slowly and forcefully to articulate the frustration of Rwandans. "The camps were fermenting killers and everybody knew that," he says. "Their aim was simple: to keep those refugees there around them. We kept saying, most of these people are innocent of genocide and should come home and help us rebuild Rwanda. Yet the international community fed people in military uniforms with guns, who boast about how many people they killed."

Nkusi cites a list of reasons for the bitterness that he says Rwandans hold towards other nations. He notes France's ostensibly humanitarian intervention in 1994 that provided the cover for thousands of Hutu killers to escape Rwanda, a fact that effectively brought a Rwandan veto to the notion of any French-led mission to the current crisis. Nor has the United Nations been forgiven for pulling its peacekeepers out of Rwanda when the genocide of the Tutsis began in April, 1994. "We were very hopeful when the United Nations arrived the first time, but no one has forgotten that the first 100,000 who died were butchered in the presence of the United Nations," says Nkusi. The UN peacekeeping force, whose mandate the Rwandans refused to renew, left owing millions of dollars for its telephones and electricity, Nkusi says. "How can people trust the United Nations to punish killers when they won't even pay their bills?" he asks. "People here feel they were stupid and naïve to trust the international community to help them in the first place. It was our army which stopped the genocide. We must help ourselves."

Many Rwandans are also skeptical about the likelihood of justice being delivered by the United Nation's international war crimes tribunal, which was established in November, 1994, but is only now bringing its first cases to court in Arusha, Tanzania. And they remain unhappy that the tribunal's charter prevents judges from sentencing anyone to death if convicted. "Rwandans don't understand our processes," admitted one tribunal investigator in Kigali last week about the painstaking collection of witness statements. "They say: 'Everybody knows that a genocide occurred. What is it you have to prove ?' " Canadian judge Louise Arbour, who is the chief prosecutor of both the Rwandan and former Yugoslav tribunals, was also in Kigali last week to straighten out the tribunal's nightmarishly poor administration. But the perception remains among Rwandans that Arbour is preoccupied with the much-higher profile ex-Yugoslav tribunal at The Hague in The Netherlands.

Rwanda's relationship with the dozens of aid agencies that flocked to the country has been perhaps the most bruising of all its contacts with foreigners. Part of the clash was cultural. "Once the media left in 1994, aid workers were the only ones eating in the one or two restaurants in Kigali, driving around in their four-wheel drives, and talking about how they were solving Rwanda's problems," says Nkusi sarcastically. Although almost all aid organizations did eventually support the Rwandan government's call for international military intervention to clean the extremists out of the camps, they continued to channel food through the militias in many camps.

"The government was already making it tougher and tougher for us to cross the border when this rebellion started," said Philip Maher, a friendly Guelph, Ont., worker with World Vision Canada as he stood under a hot afternoon sun on the Rwandan side of the Gisenyi crossing last week before the dam broke. The Kigali government authorized only nine agencies to cross their border into rebel-held Zaïre during the current crisis. World Vision was not among them. "We should have thought more politically in the past, I guess," said Maher. He was referring to World Vision's decision to continue bringing five tractor-trailer loads of food daily into Mugunga camp, outside Goma in Zaïre, for about 18 months, even though the camp was controlled by soldiers and militias. Maher said the agency was helping feed 225,000 or more people every day, of which he estimated 20,000 to 40,000 were among the intimidators. "So that's a lot of innocent people who needed our help," he noted.

Aid workers insisted that the UN mission was still needed, even if the militias' grip on the refugees had been broken. Thousands more refugees had scattered and remained out of reach in the dense forest of Zaïre, still a black hole in the global village. And the first aid workers to penetrate to the back end of the bulge that was pushing into Rwanda said they encountered suspected cases of cholera, with no fresh water able to get to the rear. After days of talk about a "robust" UN mission, the focus was suddenly on humanitarian aid again. "Governments like when it's a humanitarian story, so they can just send us in instead," argued Dr. Leslie Shanks, a Barrie, Ont., volunteer for Doctors Without Borders. "Then everyone feels better. People can change channels. Next story." But last week ended with Shanks among those aid workers pushing deeper into Zaïre, where many suspect a coda to this tragedy is still to be written.

Maclean's November 25, 1996