As Rwandans celebrate International Refugee Day today, under the theme ‘One Family Split by War Is One too Many’, Marie Chantal Ingabire is especially thankful to be celebrating the day in her country. For only a few years back, the 33-year-old was languishing in Zambia. She only returned to Rwanda in November 2011.
Life in exile
“I was born in Gisenyi but during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi I was staying in Cyangugu with an aunt. When the killings started I fled with my aunt to the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had completed senior two so when we reached Congo, I studied until senior four. But around 1998 the war in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) forced us to move from place to place, first Bukavu and then Uvira,” Ingabire narrates.
In 2000, she left her aunt and moved in with her partner, a fellow returnee and former FDLR rebel, 43-year-old Jean Marie Bizumuremyi. They have been blessed with two daughters and a son.
“Because I had a DRC residency permit I started selling foodstuffs to travellers to make some money. As life became harder because of all the rebel activity I decided to move to Zambia in 2008 with my children. My partner stayed back since he was with the FDRL rebels and it was harder for men to get DRC documents in DRC,” Ingabire reveals.
“Reaching Zambia, the Rwandans there welcomed me and my children and collected money to help me start a small business. I owned a small retail shop that allowed me to feed my family and afford school fees for the children. Taking care of three children singlehandedly while working was hard,” she recalls.
During her exile, despite the harsh conditions, she refused to contemplate returning home because of the negative stories that she was told about the living conditions in Rwanda.
“I asked myself, if I go back, what kind of life would I live? I had not completed school. I believed that it would be hard for me to get a job, look after my family or even go back to school,” Ingabire reveals.
“It was my partner who encouraged me to return home. He asked me to come back home to raise our children together instead of shouldering the burden alone. He had also returned and given up the life of a rebel.
In November this year I will mark two years. There are still challenges but I’m happy to be home,” Ingabire discloses.
The journey back home
“Unlike others I was not facilitated to come back. My three children and I had to travel by road for eight days from the Lusaka to Kigali via Dar es Salaam,” Ingabire explains.
The 2,173 km long journey home took a toll on all of them.
“My children were not used to this kind of journey and neither was I. We were sick for close to a month and adapting was hard because we were living in Kanombe at my partner’s relative’s home. When we got better, my husband also fell sick and was hospitalised for months at Kibagabaga Hospital. When I went to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs two months later to seek assistance I found the process too tiring. Especially because I had to take care of my husband too,” Ingabire explains.
“It was a challenge to take care of my husband in another person’s home. Eventually I used the little savings I was left with to look for a cheap house, which we found in Nyabisindu, Gasabo District”, she says. The family lives in a three-roomed house that costs them Rwf 35,000 in rent per month.
Reunited with her family and settling in
“Although I learned that my father had been killed with five other siblings, I was consoled by the fact that I was reunited with my mother and my four younger siblings after almost 17 years. Before coming back home we would communicate by phone but seeing them made coming home worth it. The most disturbing thing is the inability to help them financially yet I’m their eldest sister. This bothers me all the time,” says Ingabire.
“I never have encountered problems with my neighbours since settling in. The main challenge is surviving on my partner’s meagre earnings. The limited amount he makes is used for upkeep and the children’s school fees and scholastic materials,” she explains.
She adds, “The children go to a public school in Giporoso, Remera. However the distance to their school is long but I can’t switch schools because it would cost us more money, which we don’t have now. It would mean buying them new uniforms and other requirements yet we don’t have money for that now.”
Ingabire has only positive things to say about her local leaders.
“The local leaders have helped us a lot in acquiring documents. Currently we all have medical insurance and we only pay some of the fees because my partner and I don’t have a permanent job,” she explains.
Currently, her partner works in Huye, Southern Province.
“I’m part of the team constructing the Huye Taxi Park. I have to get money so that my wife can get something to do. Today we are encouraged to be job creators and not job seekers so I’m hoping to get enough capital for my wife to start a small business since her passion is doing business”, Jean Marie Bizumuremyi told this reporter by telephone.
How returnees are reintegrated in the community
In 2012, Rwanda, through the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR) with One UN in Rwanda, launched the Sustainable Return and Reintegration for Rwanda Returnees.
Jean Claude Rwahama, the Director of the Refugee Affairs Unit in MIDIMAR said that they work in collaboration with the local leaders to integrate returnees in the communities.
“When we receive returnees from different points of the country, we work in close collaboration with UNHCR to facilitate the transport from the transit centres where they are first received to their former villages or communities of origin. The local leaders in the communities are informed prior to the arrival of the returnees so that they can start any kind of preparation to welcome them to their respective communities,” Rwahama explains.
He adds, “Leaders are also supposed to integrate returnees and involve them in the social and economical programmes available. We also have the monitoring visits which are usually done by the integration officers to see how the returnees are being involved in these social and economical programmes.”
Based on the Rwandan Repatriation Statistics from July 2012 to June 13th, 2013 Rwanda has received close to 8,462 returnees. The majority of Rwandans repatriated are under the age of 18.