Rwandan Refugees in Bukavu

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Rwandan Refugees in Bukavu


By: Jon Jones

Date: August 22, 1994

Source: © Jon Jones/Sygma/Corbis.

Aboutthe Photographer: Jon Jones is a photojournalist who has covered conflicts in places such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. He has been published in many major news magazines, including Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and Le Monde. This image is part of the collection at Corbis, a Seattle-based organization with a repository of over seventy million images. Sygma is a division of Corbis.


Shortly after the three-month Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority in 1994, approximately two million refugees fled Rwanda to the neighboring countries of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi. The large exodus, called the Great Lakes Crisis, occurred over several days in July 1994. There were very few resources available to provide the food, medicine, shelter, and latrines the large number of refugees needed. The majority of the refugees were Hutus fleeing the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an army that had entered Rwanda to end the genocide. The largest camps were found in eastern Zaire near the cities of Bukavu and Goma.

During the first few weeks of the refugee arrival in Zaire, Rwandans camped out on fields, at schools, on doorsteps, and in cemeteries. Many of the refugees arrived with only the possessions they could carry on their backs, and families were often separated amongst the dense crowds. Many refugees had injuries from the fighting in Rwanda, as well as injuries from the journey into Zaire. The camps were extremely dirty, and outbreaks of disease, particularly cholera, began killing refugees at the rate of 7,000 per week. The media coverage of the situation brought the issue to international attention, with United States President Bill Clinton calling the Rwandan situation the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation. Countries began sending large amounts of aid, enabling more than 200 relief organizations to rush in to start emergency relief operations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations agency that works specifically for the needs of refugees, began receiving more than one million dollars per month to expand its operations in Zaire. The United States military coordinated an international operation to move supplies and personnel relief into the Rwandan camps. The aid improved conditions in the camps, lowering the rates of disease and death.

Perpetrators and organizers of the Rwanda genocide were among the refugees, and they used the camps as a base to launch attacks against the RPF. As the camps became more organized, former Hutu leaders began to control the aid resources that were flowing in for the refugees. Many of the organizations working in the camps, including Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Save the Children, and CARE, began removing their aid workers, saying they could not ethically continue to provide aid that was being funneled to supporting the military objectives of the militant Hutus. The UNHCR maintained that the humanitarian efforts should continue, as the militants were a small minority compared to the thousands of men, women, and children relying on the aid. Smaller less experienced agencies began carrying out the humanitarian work left behind by the larger organizations. The UNHCR did report a decrease in the ability to achieve the humanitarian objectives efficiently. Simultaneously, pressure was mounting on the new government of Rwanda by the World Bank, which was withholding development funds to Rwanda until the Government repatriated the refugees.



See primary source image.


The Hutu militants had an interest in maintaining the refugee camps near Bukavu and Goma, as the refugees served as protection for their activities. The international community attempted to negotiate a solution to the problem, but no agreement to repatriate the refugees was reached. In the following years, clashes occurred between the Hutu militias and Banyamulenge, ethnic Tutsis who had been living as a minority group in Eastern Zaire for several generations. The government of Zaire refused to remove the Hutu militants from Zaire, refusing the request of the Rwandan government. These growing tensions eventually led the Rwanda- and Uganda-backed Banyamulenge to take over Zaire. In 1997, the new government of Zaire worked to disband the Hutu militias near Bukavu. With the protection of the Rwandan government, many of the Rwandan refugees were then able to return to Rwanda where they would continue to receive further assistance. Later, a second revolution occurred in Zaire, as the Rwanda and Uganda coalitions fell apart. Although many of the refugees returned to Rwanda, a solution between the Tutsi government and the Hutu militants was only partially reached several years later.

Many aid organizations, including the UNHCR have used the Rwanda situation as a basis for discussing the role of international aid in the context of ethnic violence and military zones. The UNHCR redesigned its policy to ensure that commitments made to future humanitarian operations are kept by the aid organizations involved, regardless of the adversity that might arise.



Khan, Shaharyan M., and Mary Robinson. The Shallow Graves of Rwanda. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The State of the World's Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Porter, Elisabeth J. Researching Conflict in Africa: Insights and Experiences. New York: United Nations University Press, 2005.

Umutesi, Marie B. Surviving the Slaughter: The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.


Gibbs, Nance, and Bruce Crumley. "Cry the Forsaken Country." Time (August, 1 1994): 28-37.

Perlez, Jane. "The World; Aid Agencies Hope to Enlist Military Allies in the Future." New York Times (August 21 1994): Section 4, p.6.