Africana Plus

No 8 Mars 1995.2


Has the world forgotten ?

Since ethnic tensions boiled over in Rwanda, the total number of refugees and displaced persons in Africa has risen to over 20 million. In the past few years, civil war more than famine has caused the largest migrations, such as the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Burundians in 1993, and the flight of millions of Rwandans in 1994. The host country sometimes gets caught in the middle between opposing refugee groups, as has occurred in Rwanda's neighbours Zaire and Uganda.

But the media spotlight has already moved on to other hot spots in the world. War makes for dramatic coverage; famine and dysentery do not. The eyes of the world are no longer fixed on Rwanda, as they were during the weeks of massacre and civil war. And yet another tragedy looms: three million Rwandan refugees or displaced persons are being left to perish. This is no less of a crime against humanity.

The number of Rwandan refugees in neighbouring countries (Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi), along with displaced persons in southwestern Rwanda who are also in camps, is roughly equal to the number of people who are scattered throughout Rwanda, approximately 3 million. The refugees who have come back, numbering about 800,000, are almost exclusively former Tutsi refugees from Uganda, Burundi, Zaire and Tanzania. Vast numbers of Hutu refugees and displaced persons are holding back until they have received sufficient assurance that they can return, particularly concerning their safety and having a home to live in and land to farm.

Rwanda's leaders are concerned about the refugee problem. Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu wants to see the issue resolved as quickly as possible: They must come back home before living conditions in the camps deteriorate. International aid is going to dry up, and that is when soldiers from the old regime may find some malcontents to recruit, and move against Rwanda. A recent BBC news report showed armed men in training on the banks of the river Ruzizi that runs between Rwanda and Burundi, not far from the Kamanyola refugee camp with some 27,000 people. According to the BBC, these pictures are the first evidence that the refugee camps in Zaire are being used by Hutu militias to mount guerilla operations against the two neighbouring countries, something Zairian authorities have always denied. Mark Huband reported in The Observer that 800 tons of arms and ammunition arrived in Goma by air at the end of February, destined for 50,000 Hutu extremists living at the camp.

It is not enough just to want the refugees to come back: an atmosphere of security must be created so that they will feel confident enough to do so. Many have fond hopes of being able to go home and resume a normal life, but no one is prepared to offer any guarantees just yet. Last month, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) sent trucks to transport more than 4,000 refugees from Zaire to Cyangugu in Rwanda; however, no one was prepared to take the chance they might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. It is one thing for the government to tell the refugees they can come home, but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says it must back this up by protecting returning refugees against extortion, kidnapping and arbitrary arrest (the prisons are filled 10 times beyond capacity, with over 7,000 prisoners). The Rwandan Episcopal Conference had this to say to the country's authorities: The refugee problem merits the government's special attention. The government should do whatever is necessary to create conditions that will reassure them. Direct discussions with refugees ought to be pursued.

Inside the refugee camps, attempts to organize a return are physically and psychologically blocked by propaganda from Hutu extremists, and by what is left of the armed forces. The UNHCR has not yet been able to negotiate a provisional return of the refugees with the Rwandan government.

In the camps, the doctors are struggling to combat cholera and dysentery, but it is a losing battle. The town of Goma in Zaire looks like a scene from hell. People forced by their leaders to flee after being forced into committing crimes are now dying of fatigue, disease and perhaps also of despair.

In February, according to an official with Doctors Without Borders: It quickly became apparent that some of the people running Kibumba camp north of Goma had a massive fraud ring going, by means of force and intimidation. By fraudulent means, they could substantially inflate the camp's population and syphon off humanitarian aid for the benefit of certain heads of the milia or political officials. Says Alain Destexhe, Secretary General of DWB: Humanitarian aid to Rwandan refugees continues a vicious circle: the people become dependent on aid, which is now distributed by the same people who did the killing. They end up acquiring a certain legitimacy and are taking advantage of it in order to build up their strength to invade Rwanda. DWB requested and was granted a suspension in the census operations in order to beef up controls.

Millions of Rwandan refugees are facing the risk of starvation in the next few weeks. OXFAM and Save the Children recently announced an alarming drop in supplies of humanitarian aid. In the camps of Zaire, Burundi and Tanzania, rations have been cut by half.

The World Food Program (WFP) has told the media that the budget allocated for Rwandan refugees will soon run out. Already the complementary ration for children has dropped from 180 g per day to 20 g. Why can't more credits be allocated? Who is preventing it? Has the world forgotten the plight of the Rwandans? What will happen when the refugees have nothing to eat? They are bound to attack the local population for food. Are the refugees faced with only two choices: starving to death in the camps, or dying in Rwanda? What sort of aid does Rwanda need? To build new prisons? To help ensure that the persons responsible for the massacres are brought to justice, and given a fair trial? Or to bring pressure to bear on Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) so that the government will negotiate conditions that will allow the refugees to go home?

Rwandan children are the worst off of all the refugees. Before the war, there were 2,000 orphans in the country. At present, their numbers are estimated at over 100,000 in Rwanda alone, and at over 50,000 in the refugee camps of Zaire and Tanzania. Their physical existence is assured, even though food aid and sanitation have been reduced. Their most urgent need right now is for psychological help to recover from the traumatic experiences they have lived through. They have seen their parents, brothers and sisters killed; they have been struck, hurt, threatened; they have been separated from family and friends; many of them have lived for days among corpses or hidden in trees, experiences that have left painful though invisible scars and a deep emotional void.

Most of these children can never forget the past. It is part of their lives. To help them to come to grips with it and integrate what has happened to them is a task that the Integral Human Formation Institute (IFIH) of Montreal wishes to take on. The IFIH has given basic training to a group that includes a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa (White Sisters) and a Missionary of Africa (White Fathers) who have spent part of their lives in Rwanda. The group has been working for six months now in Switzerland, Belgium, France and Italy. Rwandans have also taken part in the institute's training sessions and are among the resource persons working in their native land. The program is only just getting off the ground. For the time being, it is responding to the most urgent needs, persons who are going back to the refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania in the near future. Even though their means are very limited, this team of shock absorbers wants to assist the healing process in Rwanda, in a specific and totally new context, by helping human beings put their lives back together.

The future of Rwanda will one day depend on its young people. Let us hope that when these young victims reach adulthood, they will not in turn become murderers.
But one thing is certain: half of Rwanda's population, or 3 million people, are homeless and landless. This is an intolerable situation that cannot go on indefinitely. Violence will break out once again unless action is taken, and soon.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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