Rwanda: Is It Safe to Come Home Yet?

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Rwanda: Is It Safe to Come Home Yet?

Magazine article

By: Kitty McKinsey

Date: June 2004

Source: McKinsey, Kitty. "Rwanda: Is It Safe to Come Home Yet?" Refugees Magazine (June 2004): Issue 135.

About the Author: Kitty McKinnsey is affiliated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya. The UNHCR works to improve the safety and living conditions of refugees throughout the world and publishes Refugees Magazine.


The Republic of Rwanda, located in East Africa, is a land of tall mountains and deep valleys, with most of the country situated a mile or more above sea level. Ethnically, the country consists of an eighty percent majority of members of the Hutu tribe and a minority made up primarily of the Tutsi people. The country's economy is largely agricultural.

Rwanda's political history remained relatively placid for much of its history, but in 1973, a bloodless coup brought a new military leader to power. In 1978, he was elected president. In 1988, Rwanda became the new home of 50,000 refugees fleeing political violence in neighboring Barundi, and two years later forces consisting largely of exiled Tutsis invaded Rwanda, eventually forcing the adoption of a new power sharing agreement. Following this agreement, the United Nations installed a peacekeeping force in the nation to monitor the situation and prevent further violence.

In mid-1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Barundi died in a plane crash, and after rumors surfaced that the crash had not been accidental, civil unrest soon followed. The following day, the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and the Hutu militia seized control, setting up roadblocks and going house to house killing Tutsis as well as Hutu politicians deemed too conservative. As the killing spread, United Nations forces failed to intervene, concerned that such action would overstep their authorized role as monitors and peacekeepers. Facing little resistance, the massacre quickly spread.

By mid-May, the International Red Cross estimated that 500,000 of Rwanda's nine million residents had been killed, and by July the 100 days of slaughter were estimated to have taken 800,000 lives, with some estimates placing the total even higher. Fearing for their lives, Rwandans poured across the border into neighboring countries such as the Congo; more than two million Rwandans left the country, and many found themselves in refugee camps. Despite United Nations efforts, more than 100,000 are believed to have died of disease in the camps. Other refugees began new lives, taking whatever work they could find in order to survive.


            Rwanda: Is it safe to come home yet?

A decade after Rwanda's genocide, some refugees are only now learning they can go back.

By Kitty McKinsey

The date is etched firmly on Antoine Butera's mind: January 4, 2004. That's the day, more than seven years after he fled the ongoing chaos and slaughter of Rwanda's genocide, that news finally filtered through to the 56-year-old woodworker that it was safe to go home and search for his long-lost family.

Butera had spent those intervening years of exile hiding deep in the rain forests of the Congo river basin, eking out a solitary subsistence living as an odd-job labourer, literally cut off from news of any events beyond the nearest village clearing, fearing that the bloodbath at home continued unabated.

A chance broadcast by a United Nations station, Radio Okapi, picked up by a neighbour earlier this year, alerted Butera that things had in fact altered radically in Rwanda.

"It was the first time I heard there was peace," the grey-haired man with a grey-flecked beard explained recently as he waited patiently to board a truck taking him back from his long exile. "I was very happy. I prayed to God to show me a path to go home" to search for a wife and nine children who had remained inside Rwanda when he left in 1996 and of whom "I don't even know if they are dead or alive."

More than 2.3 million people had fled the tiny landlocked country at the height of the mass slaughter in 1994, and tens of thousands of others followed in the next few years as political and military instability continued. The great majority returned home by the end of 1996, but currently between 60,000-80,000 remain scattered throughout several neighbouring states. Most live in established refugee camps or are known to local authorities and are expected to be repatriated by the end of 2005.


But perhaps the most poignant histories are those of the "survivors of the rain forests" like Butera who disappeared into the interior of Rwanda's huge neighbour, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and are rarely heard from again unless and until, like some of the Japanese soldiers who staggered out of the Philippine jungles decades after the end of World War II, they suddenly and unexpectedly emerge from the triple-canopy foliage.

Survivors tell similar tales of harrowing escapes into the forest in the 1990s as they fled their towns and villages, a knife-edge existence for many years seemingly lost to the world, and even when news finally reaches them of peace in Rwanda, a reluctance sometimes lasting for years to return to a country where they might be accused of being accomplices to mass murder.

Many of those now repatriating had initially fled to border camps just inside Congo, but then trudged on foot deeper into the Congo basin in 1996, pursued by Rwandan and other military forces intent on taking revenge on the interahamwe and their followers. Untold thousands were killed or died of exhaustion and illness in a bloody chase across the waist of Africa.

Some walked for thousands of kilometres and, after months of wanderings, crossed the entire continent east to west and reached the Atlantic Ocean. Most settled in the interior where women gave birth by themselves in the forests and sometimes married local Congolese who could provide them with shelter and protection from rape. Many refugees became small-time labourers for local villagers. Some stayed in the forest, in homemade huts of twigs and leaves, foraging for berries and other fruits. Until word began reaching them that things had changed in Rwanda.


To try to bring closure to one of the last remaining threads from one of history's most traumatic and confused humanitarian crises, UNHCR recently launched a so-called mass information campaign to encourage remaining pockets of Rwandans to leave the forests. The U.N. Radio Okapi also beams similar messages which obviously have influenced some Rwandans like Butera, but is unlikely to persuade an estimated 17,000 and 30,000 hard-core interahamwe and their supporters still at large.

The refugee agency established a series of centres on the fringes of the forbidding interior to welcome the several hundred refugees who arrive each week from the forest. They are mainly women and children, most of these youngsters having been born in exile and never even seen "home." They are registered, provided with basic help and moved along a by now well oiled logistical train to transit centres inside Rwanda and then to their home communes.

Former Rwandan soldiers and interahamwe militias are separated out and sent for several weeks to a re-education camp where they are indoctrinated into the rules of the "new" Rwanda, with particular emphasis on the fact that separate Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities and mutual animosity are things of the past.

According to Brigitte Bampile, a nurse in the Congolese town of Bukavu who examines returnees, many of the women and children bear the marks of their harsh existence, suffering from malaria, respiratory infections, skin problems, sexually-transmitted disease and AIDS.

And they face other hardships once they get back to their ancestral homeland. Rwanda is the most densely populated state in Africa and one of the world's poorest countries. Ninety percent of the population live off the land, but there is not enough of it for everyone. Tens of thousands of people still need homes. Children born in exile often speak Swahili rather than the local language, Kinyarwanda.


And then there is the shadow of genocide hanging over everyone. "I was told if I came back to Rwanda, I would be put into prison, so I stayed over there," 32-year-old Sebastien Mazimpaka, a Hutu, said before he finally came back to Buremera in southwestern Rwanda, a mixed village of Tutsis and Hutus.

"It's good with the neighbours," according to Lorence Mwitende, a Tutsi neighbour. "But there are other difficulties, just to find something to eat is difficult." She may earn the equivalent of 34-50 U.S. cents a day as a farm labourer, but from that she must feed four children, often with nothing but leaves from a neighbour's manioc plants. Another child died recently because her mother couldn't afford a doctor.

Back at the Rwanda-Congo border, Antoine Butera has just crossed the frontier. In 1994 this ramshackle post and the military bridge across the Ruzizi River was clogged with tens of thousands of frenzied refugees trying to escape the carnage.

In direct contrast on this particular day, the small group of returning refugees is processed in less than one hour with no fuss or delay. An elderly aunt has met the UNHCR convoy with astonishing news. "I've no idea how many convoys she came to meet, but she was there today looking for me," Butera said. "And my whole family is alive and living in Kigali. All nine children and their mother are alive—10 people total!"

In the horror that was Rwanda, that an entire family survived could surely be considered a modest miracle.


In the months following the Rwandan killings, numerous foreign governments and aid agencies investigated the events. While the specific causes of the disaster, as well as the responsibility, remained in dispute, a consensus emerged that the Hutu actions constituted genocide, a crime punishable under international law. According to a 1951 treaty, genocide is any attempt to eliminate or destroy a particular ethnic group, race, or religious group; genocide was made a crime following the Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II. By targeting a specific ethnic group for murder, the Hutus violated this law.

Refugee families such as those who fled Rwanda often hope to return to their homeland. In 1996, almost half the refugees who left Rwanda returned home, though upon returning they found themselves facing further violence as the two ethnic groups continued to fight in the years since the original violence. Refugees fleeing their home country face numerous hardships in their new homes, often finding them-selves in unfamiliar surroundings, and frequently unable to speak the language or obtain employment. In some cases, refugees such as those leaving Rwanda find themselves confined to sparse, overcrowded camps, depending on the benevolence of aid agencies to remain alive.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of refugee life. Torn from familiar surroundings, children are often unable to understand the reasons for their sudden departure and the loss of friends and possessions. Hunger and health problems frequently combine with uncertainty and physical danger to produce tremendous stresses within families, although some families appear to be strengthened and drawn closer by the shared hardship.

As of 1998, the United Nations estimated that thirteen million individuals were living as refugees throughout the world. While some have begun new lives in new countries, others remain in limbo, existing in temporary shelter and waiting for the day they may return home to begin rebuilding their previous lives.

In 1999, the organization Human Rights Watch released an extensive report on the bloodshed in Rwanda. The report faulted the United Nations as well as the United States, France, and Belgium, each of which had troops in the country, for observing plans for the massacre and failing to take steps to prevent it. Only a handful of those accused of genocide were convicted, and as of 2005, Rwanda was enjoying a tenuous period of peace.



Dallaire, Romeo, and Samantha Power. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.

Gourevitch, Philip. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; distributed by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 1998.

Prunier, Gerard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.


"Rwanda: Genocide Suspects Who Confess to Go Free." The New York Times (Feb 17, 2004): A9.

Short, Clare. "The Lessons We Can Learn from Rwanda." New Statesman 132 (2003): 20-21.

Strauss, Scott. "Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwanda Genocide and the International Community." Political Science Quarterly 120 (2005): 348-350.

Web sites

Human Rights Watch. "History of Rwanda." 〈〉 (accessed July 12, 2006).

Public Broadcasting Service. "The Triumph of Evil; How the West Ignored the Warnings of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide." 〈〉 (accessed July 12, 2006).