Refugees say too scared to return home
About 12 years after the genocide ended and with the return of peace under President Paul Kagame’s administration, the Zambian government is still grappling with the problem of convincing and repatriating more than 3,000 Rwanda refugees in the country.
Although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Zambian and Rwandan governments and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have made available US$300,000 for the repatriation of mainly Rwandan and Burundian refugees, the asylum seekers cite fear of persecution and a desire to pursue studies as some of the reasons for their reluctance to reunite with their families.
Joseph Karangizi, 42, married with four children, said Zambia was a safe haven for his family. He doubted the return of peace to his country in the aftermath of the 1999 genocide, which claimed more than 800,000 lives following civil strife between Hutus and Tutsis.
Karangizi, a former student at the country’s university who has been living in Zambia since 12 February 1994 and now a Lusaka-based businessman, claimed most of the Rwandan nationals preferred to remain in Zambia for fear of their lives.
He claimed most of the Rwandan nationals in exile have been linked to the genocide by virtue of their running away from Rwanda at the height of the civil war.
“We have heard about the peace process by the Kagame government, but the reports we are getting from home (Rwanda) say that most of us are now suspected of having participated in the killing of our people,” said Karangizi. “That is why we don’t think there is any guarantee for our safety.”
Isaac Mburunzinza, a former peasant farmer on the outskirts of Kigali, opts to remain in Zambia under refugee status rather than return home while memories of his butchered family of six children and a wife are still fresh and haunting him.
Mburunzinza, 44, a businessman living in Ndola on the Copperbelt region of Zambia and married to a Zambian woman, said it was by God’s grace that he survived the atrocities after his family was brutally killed during a church service in a rebel slaughter of people in his village.
“Rwanda will never be the same because our families were killed like rats and returning home would be suicidal for anyone. Reports from Rwanda indicate that most of us would be standing trial under Gatchacha (improvised kangaroo courts) for the suspected murder of our own people,” he said.
Alice Musona, who lost a leg and an arm, said although she was a student, she was forced to flee the country in fear.
Musona, who was studying electronic engineering at one of the technical colleges in Rwanda, said she would rather seek asylum elsewhere than return home and face “injustice”.
Although she missed her family, life was not the same in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and, despite repeated calls by the Rwandan government for its nationals to return home, many were looking for asylum in South Africa, Namibia and other countries to continue with their studies, said Musona.
However, the UNHCR and IOM have not relented in their quest to repatriate more than 5,000 Rwandan nationals back home under voluntary repatriation.
UNHCR spokesperson in Zambia Kelvin Shimo said about 3,407 Rwandan refugees out of 5,000 ‘ representing 5 percent of the refugee population ‘ were still living in the Mayukwayukwa and Maheba camps in western Zambia, while a small number lived in Lusaka.
Shimo told The Southern Times in Lusaka that 106 had been repatriated to Rwanda in 2003; in 2004 about 16 left for Rwanda, while 19 left last year and eight Rwandan refugees returned home early this year.
“The repatriation is ongoing. We continue to encourage the Rwandan refugees to be repatriated through information campaigns,” said Shimo, adding: “Since 2003, UNHCR has in place US$300,000 to cater for the repatriation of Rwandans and Burundians.”
IOM head of mission in Zambia Josiahs Ogina said 157 Rwandan refugees are said to have left the country out of the 5,000 population under the voluntary exercise and that IOM and UNHCR still collaborate to provide the needed assistance in terms of information and actual travel arrangements but that the decision to return rests squarely with individual refugees since the process was voluntary.
Ogina attributed the slow return of Rwandans to some changing their minds and subsequently failing to show up at the airport, forcing the IOM to refund airlines on “no-show” tickets.
“No particular problems are faced other than when those who had signed up for return fail to show up at the airport. IOM, however, has arrangements with the airlines on refundable tickets with such situations,” he said.
On the interest to return home between Rwandan and Angolan refugees, Ogina said the two countries have different levels of recovery from conflicts and that the refugees understood the level of peace attained in their respective countries to warrant their return voluntarily.
“It remains their choice to return now or later as long as there is an undertaking between the host government and original government with UNHCR providing the protection mandate.”
He explained that funding for the voluntary repatriation was cardinal to the success of the exercise, noting that the actual budgeting for the repatriation of the Rwandan refugees in Zambia from various parts of the world was ongoing.
He, however, ruled out a 100 percent success rate for those ready to return to their countries with voluntary repatriation.
Since 2000, Zambia has played host to more than 300,000 refugees ‘ 80 percent of them Angolans that sought refuge in the country after fleeing from the civil war in that country perpetuated by slain UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.
More than 190,000 Angolan refugees have since gone back home, either by road or by plane after being assured by the Luanda government about the return of peace to the oil-rich country and calls for elections later this year.
At the height of the refugee population, Zambia was faced with various problems, among them food, which forced the asylum seekers to live on half rations after the World Food Programme (WFP) faced a funding crisis.
The food situation has normalised in the camps and refugees have been placed back on full rations of 1,400 kilocalories per person although the WFP still needs US$1 million to meet the food demands.