Rwanda's P.S.-Imberakuri Party Leader Bernard Ntaganda in a Kigali courtroom on Monday, 07.04.2010. He had to ask to step away from the dock and sit down because he was weak from not eating.
Yesterday, I took the time to go through a research paper that delves into the situation of the Rwandan refugees living in Uganda. The title is, “A Dangerous Impasse: Rwandan Refugees in Rwanda” and the paper is available online. The paper is a final effort to address the precarious situation of Rwandan refugees who, as the paper alleges, have been ignored and abandoned by the rest of the world. Of recent, they face the threat of imminent “forced repatriation” back to a country that has denied them their citizenship and whose disregard for human rights is the reason they live in exile. Just as in the past, the Rwandan/Hutu refugees have no choice but to be “humbled and humiliated” and forced to return to a country whose government they consider both “repressive and illegitimate”. The work is of high quality and with detailed information as well as meticulous analysis on the current situation in Rwanda through the perspective/experience of the “invisible people”, mostly rural peasants who have encountered unspeakable suffering since the RPF took power; I highly recommend you read the paper.
Anyway, a friend suggested I go through the paper, after he read one of my emails protesting against the current detention and consequent torture of Rwandan opposition activists at the hands of an increasingly authoritarian RPF regime. The exact numbers of those detained is hard to establish as most of them are yet to be arraigned in court. Pictures of a frail, weak and emaciated Bosco Ntaganda, the leader of the opposition party P.S Imberakuri, surfaced on the internet. According to his testimony delivered in the Kigali court, Ntaganda is denied food, and kept in a dark dungeon surrounded by a pack of ferocious dogs. As a result of this inhuman treatment, he has started to lose his eye sight and is suffering from a mental breakdown. Another activist, Alice Muhirwa collapsed during the court session. She suffers internal wounds and needs urgent medical attention. Unfortunately, these activists have been denied the necessary medical care.
Alice Muhirwa outside the court after she collapsed. She suffers from severe internal bleeding.
I will discuss some of the key pertinent issues that the paper raises. But, like I said, I urge you to read the paper for a deeper and more contextualized understanding.
The end of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda resulted into a mass exodus of approximately 3 million Rwandan/Hutu refugees. The majority took shelter in the eastern region of the democratic Republic of Congo. About 600,000 of them fled to Tanzania and tens of thousands remained scattered around east and central Africa. The article notes that the first terrible mistake by the international community and the UNHCR was the failure to “distinguish genocidaires from genuine refugees.” The result of this tragic shortcoming continues to be felt to date.
In a nutshell, the failure to distinguish the genocidaires from the refugee situation has resulted into two major problems.
First, the refugee population even in absence of evidence was always treated as criminals who were running away from justice. This has resulted into the collective incrimination of all Hutu refugees and perpetuated “Hutu stereotypes”. Ironically, the government of Rwanda continues to bolster this stereotype claiming that all refugees should return and those who refuse are doing so because they have something to hide. The genuineness of Hutu refugees is questioned by the very institutions that have the mandate to protect them.
The second problem is that the international community has allowed for unconventional mistreatment of these refugees. Actions that out rightly defy the rights of refugees are pursued with the acquiescence of the UN. One particular action is forced repatriation. Generally, refugees cannot return to their homeland unless there is proof that the situation has changed since they left. However, in the case of Rwanda, regime change was always accepted as proof enough for situational change. This disregards the highly complex nature of the Rwandan problem—especially the question of ethnicity and citizenship.
As a result, Rwandan refugees have never experienced full protection. In 1996 the new Rwandan army invaded the refugee camps near the Rwandan/Congo border slaughtering tens of thousands of Hutu refugees. While hundreds of thousands were “successfully” repatriated, many more fled into the jungles of Congo where they died due to starvation or were killed by the RPF forces. The documentary Kisangani Dairies gives an account of these horrors.
During the same year, half a million Hutu refugees were forcefully returned from their camps in Tanzania. The repatriation process was handled by the Tanzanian army in liaison with the UNHCR. Several thousands were hit by cars or died by committing suicide to avoid the eventual return. Others trekked to Nakivale Refugee Camp in Uganda—where they remain to this day and are faced with yet another threat of forceful return.
The report further identifies other key problems associated with the refugee question. First is the worry that the Rwandan government uses the Genocide to meet political ends. In other words, the Genocide is used purposefully to oppress Hutu civilians through “collective assumption of guilt”. Hutus who dare challenge the government are immediately charged with genocide related crimes. The fact that all Rwanda opposition politicians have been charged with similar crimes adds weight to this testimony.
For instance, it has never been clear how many Rwandan/Hutu participated in the Genocide. The best estimates so far come from Scott Straus who predicts anything between 175,000-210,000. As is to be expected, the Rwandan government has given an inflated figure of 3 million Hutu. Given the fact that immediately after the genocide, close to a million people were incarcerated and that the Gacaca courts have prosecuted several millions, the claim of collective incrimination and the usage of the legal process (Gacaca) as a tool for oppression of Hutus has some strong merits.
Another point of contention seems has to do with access to equal justice. The refugees feel strongly that the lack of a legal mechanism for them to pursue cases against those who murdered their relatives undermines their equal status as citizens of Rwanda. On one side, crimes perpetrated against Tusti civilians are punishable while crimes committed against Hutu civilians are never discussed. As witnessed by the recent charges against Hutu opposition candidate, Madame Victoire Ingabire, even talking about these crimes remains criminal. According to the UN The estimates of Hutus murdered by the RPF range between 25,000-45,000—the number could be significantly higher if one is to consider the numbers of Hutu refugees massacred in Eastern Congo from 1996 to date.
Lastly, the report explores the question of citizenship. Rwandan Hutu feel marginalized (second-hand citizens). This is evidenced by their elimination and exclusion from the political process. Also, by a negligent legal system that only safeguards the interest of some. To use their words, the refugees believe that in Rwanda today, only Tutsi are Rwandans. The fact that Rwanda has banned ethnic identities is, a clear message to them that only Tutsi matters. The Hutu (as a group of citizens) have officially seized to exist and are no longer important. The new “Rwanda” identity is comprised exclusively of those Rwandans—mostly Tutsi and a few Hutu—who support the RPF regime. Anyone else is an enemy of the state, a divisionist or igipinga, rebel and will be dealt with. Also, important to mention is the extent to which rural life is tightly controlled in a way that many would call communist. The rural peasants have rules on what they can grow and are mandated to sell their produce through an RPF run “cooperative”. The cooperative sets levies and taxes (bribes or imisanzu) and dictates the prices for the produce. This is a very unpopular policy in the rural areas and ironically a anathema to free market principles that the government purports to practice. The reality of Rwanda, at least on the village level, is very different from that projected by the local and international media.
The report hopes that an amicable and durable solution will be found for the Rwandan refugees. It proposes resettlement to a third country but acknowledges that the resettlement of Hutu refugees on a mass scale has never occurred. On my part, I propose democratic reforms in Rwanda. It is very sad that people should run away from their country. Even sadder that they should be forced to return in absence of the necessary reforms for them to enjoy their rightful citizenship. With the conduct of the current government and its dictatorial stance, it is very unlikely that anything will change soon. However, we remain committed to fighting for dignity, fairness and equality in our motherland.