US envoy visits Gihembe refugees, pledges advocacy to pacify DR Congo


Amb. Barks-Ruggles and Minister Mukantabana (R) during the tour of the refugee camp. (Theogene Nsengimana)

The american Ambassador to Rwanda, Erica Barks-Ruggles, has pledged her government’s support to ensure peace returns to eastern DR Congo so that refugees can return home.

Amb. Barks-Ruggles made the pledge to thousands of Congolese refugees as she visited the Gicumbi-based Gihembe Refugee Camp which has hosted the refugees for nearly two decades.

“We will work closely with partners such as the ICGLR [International Conference on the Great Lakes Region] and others to see how peace can be restored in the DR Congo so that you can repatriate. However, as long as there is no peace in DR Congo, we will always keep on supporting you in education, health and other needs,” she said.

The envoy added that her government has continued to resettle some of the Congolese refugees, and that, last year, 3,000 were successful resettled in the US.

“Those who were resettled can testify that their lives have changed. But there is no better home than one’s motherland. Although we are resettling some of you, we will always make advocacy so that peace can be restored in DR Congo to enable your repatriation,” Amb. Barks-Ruggles said.

The envoy, who began her new role three weeks ago, was accompanied by the Minister for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, Seraphine Mukantabana.

Refugees raise concerns

In an interaction session, the refugees were allowed to raise their concerns, and the majority cited the high population in the camp and rights to further education for their children.

Jean Nsengimana, the president of the committee of parents in the camp, said the households have remained in the same three-by-four m-tre houses for almost 20 years, yet they have been growing.

“We are getting new family members (children) while the size of houses remains the same. Even those who want to expand their houses are not given tents. We need urgent support,” he said.

Jeanne Kampire, a resident of the camp who completed secondary education with the financial support from the Buffett Foundation and the government, appealed for support for students that complete high school to be able to get tertiary education.

“We are glad that the Government of Rwanda granted us the chance to study up to the ordinary level. However, it would be better if we are given a chance to join the 12-Year Basic Education as well,” Kampire said.

Addressing the refugees, Minister Mukantabana said there is no need for them to expand their houses but rather it was better to identify those who have attained adult age among household members to be assisted to have their own houses.

Concerning education, the minister said there are negotiations between the Ministry of Education and the UN High Commission for Refugees to see how students from refugee camps can be integrated in national schools to pursue further studies.

Located in Gicumbi District in the north of Rwanda, Gihembe Refugee Camp was established in December 1997 to host the survivors of Mudende massacres.

Mudende was a refugee camp in north-western Rwanda hosting Congolese refugees from eastern DR Congo, who were between August and December 1997 attacked by armed militiamen.

Currently, 99 per cent of the 14,798 refugees in Gihembe camp are survivors of Mudende massacres.

Over 93 per cent of refugees surveyed in Gihembe are not willing to return home, citing concerns over insecurity and a fear of persecution based on their ethnicity, as well as lack of guarantees that they would recover their land and other property once they have returned home.