Many Rwandan refugees continue to refuse returning home despite a UN decision to terminate their refugee status. They fear state reprisals but Kigali says only those with 'criminal records' aren't returning.

Fifty-one-year old Philip Gasamagera is a Rwandan refugee who has lived in Zimbabwe since 2004. He arrived from Tanzania fleeing from the possibility of forced repatriation to Rwanda, the haunted motherland he had also fled a decade previously during the 1994 genocide that left an estimated one million people dead. 

After arriving in Zimbabwe, he stayed at Tongogara Refugee camp for a few years, later leaving the camp to start a small business. Gasamagera, who today has a thriving retail business in Harare, lived in Zimbabwe with relative peace of mind until last year when President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new Zimbabwean leader, found a friend in Kigali, in the form of Paul Kagame.

Although, Kigali is accused of stifling the opposing voices, Zimbabwe and Rwanda decided to upgrade their bilateral relationship by establishing full diplomatic missions.

“The news made me lose sleep for many days,” Gasamagera told TRT World in an interview at his shop in Mbare, Harare’s oldest and busiest suburb. “That development puts our lives in great danger because Kagame is so vindictive that he will not rest until he has eliminated all his enemies, both real and perceived,” he said.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame arrives for a press conference in Kigali, Rwanda, a day after the country commemorated the 25th anniversary of Rawandan genocide on April 7 this year.
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame arrives for a press conference in Kigali, Rwanda, a day after the country commemorated the 25th anniversary of Rawandan genocide on April 7 this year. (AP)

Gasamagera, together with thousands of other Rwandan refugees in Zimbabwe, fear that with the new diplomatic relationship between Kigali and Harare, Kagame could try to influence Zimbabwean authorities to forcibly repatriate them to Rwanda.

“Under [the late] President [Robert] Mugabe, we were very safe here, but things have now changed for us because Kagame can use this new relationship to manipulate the [Zimbabwe] government to chase us away or even to unleash his hit squads on us,” he added.

Under Mugabe the Rwandan refugees felt safe. Mugabe even gave refuge to other victims of coups like former Ethiopian dictator Mengestu Haile Mariam

Kigali however believes that only the guilty ones have good reasons to avoid returning home. 

“Some of the refugees were tried in absentia and convicted by the Gacaca semi-traditional courts for their role in the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 in Rwanda, while others are fugitives yet to be put on trial,” wrote The New Times, a pro-government Rwandan daily that often reflects the thinking of Kigali.

“This group, according to previous testimonies from different refugees, has played a key role in discouraging the repatriation process, for they fear being brought to account for their crimes. They have instilled fear in some of these refugees feeding them lies that they would be persecuted once they repatriate.”

After Mugabe had been toppled fom power in November 2017, the new Zimbabwean leader – desperate for friends to huddle with in the face of international isolation – warmed up to Kigali, who Harare now sees as a role model, thereby creating the fear among the Rwandese refugee community in Zimbabwe. 

Rwanda opened an embassy in Harare last year; a gesture reciprocated this year when Zimbabwe opened an embassy in Kigali.

“I will rather die than going back to Rwanda for as long as Kagame and his people are still full in control… it is as good as committing suicide,” a Rwandan refugee who simply gave his name as Gahiji told TRT World in an interview at Tongogara Refugee Camp, some 420 km south east of Harare. “Only those with suicidal inclinations would consider handing themselves to those killers in Kigali,” Gahiji added, who is one of about 13,000 refugees from about half-a-dozen African countries living in the camp. 

The Rwandan genocide and subsequent civil wars forced more than two million Rwandans to flee the country. While over the years many have returned home, tens of thousands others like Gasamagera and Gahiji vow never to set foot in the tiny east African nation again.

There are an estimated 270,000 Rwandan refugees from the 1994 genocide that remain scattered in about a dozen major African refugee host countries - Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Malawi, the Republic of Congo, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

In April 1994, when Rawandan genocide was at its peak, dozens of Hutu tribe refugees walk south of Kigali to escape state-sponsered violence.
In April 1994, when Rawandan genocide was at its peak, dozens of Hutu tribe refugees walk south of Kigali to escape state-sponsered violence. (AP)

In the 1990s, the Rwandan military, under Kagame, who was then vice president in charge of the military, flagrantly carried out brutal attacks on Hutu refugee camps outside Rwanda where more than 200,000 people were killed. The refugees believe that these excursions by the Rwandan security forces never ended, only that the tactics were changed to smarter ones like the use of hit men to eliminate prominent figures abroad.

Complicated history

The Rwandan refugee crisis is convoluted as it has its roots stretching back to 1959 when a Tutsi monarchy was toppled in a revolution, resulting in more than two million people fleeing to neighbouring countries where they lived for 35 years, only to return after the 1994 genocide ended with a Tutsi government back in power. 

Most of these returning refugees of the 1959 exodus took over the land and properties abandoned by Hutus fleeing in 1994, making their return even to this day more difficult. In some cases, these Hutus that fled after the 1994 genocide had themselves taken over the land and other properties of the Tutsis that has fled the country in the aftermath of the bloody 1959 revolution.  

Because Rwanda is a very small country (only 26,338 square kilometres in size), there is not enough land for its 12 million-plus citizens, creating fierce friction between even members of the same tribes. The previous government of assassinated Hutu leader Juvenal Habyarimana had always insisted that there was not enough land to accommodate any returnees from the 1959 exodus. 

When the Tutsis gained control of the country through the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, there were reports of widespread retribution against the Hutus by the RPF military. 

On June 30, 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) invoked the Cessation Clause, which declared Rwanda safe for its citizens living as refugees across the world to return. The clause applies to those who fled the country between 1959 and December 1998. 

Under the Clause, United Nations member states hosting Rwandan refugees have to comply with the declaration, but actualities on the ground have always proved difficult for the implementation of this clause as the refugees stridently resist repatriation.

The UNHCR has been conducting ‘go-and-see’ tours for some refugees to Rwanda, to help them make informed decisions, but the hostile reception that they usually get ‘back home’ has made them feel unwanted, thereby emboldening their resolve never to return.

Because of this resistance, which has seen both the 2013 and the 2017 deadlines being ignored, most of the host countries are left with no option but to let the Rwandan refugees continue to live in their countries even when their status has become vague following the decision of the UNHCR to invoke the Cessation Clause. 

Mozambique, which has more than 2,000 Rwandan refugees, has in the past made clear its continued compliance with the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, in particular the commitment not to repatriate refugees against their will.

Zimbabwe’s Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare minister, Professor Paul Mavima, could not say what the fate of Rwandan refugees in Zimbabwe would be when TRT World sought his government’s position.

Other countries like Zambia, which is home to more than 4,000 Rwandan refugees, have started integrating them into their own societies after realising that they would not win the war to repatriate them. 

There have been cases of those who have returned to Rwanda facing an array of charges similar to those that most people considered renegades. The dragnet of charges range from “propagating the ideology of genocide, complicity in terrorism, sectarianism, divisive tendencies and attempts to sabotage the internal security of the State, creating an armed wing of a rebel movement; the use of terrorism, force of arms and other forms of violence with the intent to destabilise the constitutionally established government”, among others. 

The refusal of Rwandan refugees to repatriate is subject of a forthcoming book, Post-genocide Rwandan Refugees…Why They Refuse to Return ‘Home’: Myths and Realities, by Masako Yonekawa, a UNHCR field worker in the DRC. This book highlights the repeated refusal of post-genocide Rwandan refugees to return ‘home’ and why even high-profile government officials continue to flee to this day. 

“This resistance has taken place for a lengthy period in spite of the fact that genocide ended 25 years ago and the government of Rwanda and the United Nations have assured security in the country,” wrote Edward Newman, a professor at School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds in a preview of this upcoming book. 

“Based on interviews conducted with a number of refugees living in Africa, Europe, and North America, the book explains the high degree of fear and trauma refugees have experienced in the face of the present Rwandan government that was involved in the genocide and other serious crimes both in Rwanda and the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.”

{Note: In its previous version, the article said Rawandan President Paul Kagame was a product of bloody coup, which is factually incorrect. TRT World regrets the error}

Source: TRT World