Paul Vicent Rukonji is part of the refugee generation that has repatriated to their homeland after living for decades outside Rwanda. He was born in 1959, at a time when genocide had sprouted in the country, forcing some of his family and relatives to flee to neighbouring Uganda and eventually settling in Tanzania where they found a sense of security, albeit for a short season.
Rukonji was among the 50,000 Rwandan refugees who were expelled from Tanzania in 2006. This he said was a very difficult time.
“I was very hurt and confused at this time. I had settled down in Tanzania, with a great job as a historian at a popular university, I had a Tanzanian wife, had four children and I felt safe. But I had to leave the country because I was Rwandan: I left them behind,” Rukonji said.
Living in a foreign land was not enough. A time had come for Rwandans to return to their now peaceful and stable homeland—Rukonji was not isolated from the flow of change.
“When I left Tanzania, I travelled with so much pain because I had no family, or relatives left in Rwanda.
“I did not have where to go, who to ask for and who to welcome me back since the remnants of my relatives who remained after 1959 had mostly been massacred during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi,” Rukonji said adding that, “…and I was scared of the unexpected.”
However, it was not all gloom for this returnee.
“Nothing can explain the feeling of setting foot in Rwanda; after a few metres on Rwandan soil, my heart was warm and I felt at home immediately,” he said.
According to UNHCR, over 32,000 Rwandan refugees have returned since January 1st, 2009. From 2002 to date, 146,438 refugees have returned to Rwanda. The government provided settlement land, houses and other incentives to those who had left everything behind while returning.
Rukonji said he received Rwf200,000 to bring back the rest of his family from Tanzania. He is now settled in Nemba, a modern village in Bugesera District of Eastern Rwanda. He is a professional farmer as well as the Rwanda Patriotic Front Chairman in Nemba village that contains over 1000 families living in modern houses.
“There is no government that empowers its people like ours. Even though we were successful and worked hard in the countries where we came from, we never earned the respect we deserved. But when we are her, we feel one as Rwandan,” Rukonji explained.
The government of Rwanda has worked closely with UNHCR in an aggressive information and sensitisation campaign carried out by the media to convey the human concerns of potential returnees. An estimate of 70,000 refugees currently live abroad—majority are in Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville and Southern Africa.
However, of the 55,000 refugees currently in the country, 53,000 live in three camps: Kiziba camp (Karongi district), Gihembe (Gicumbi district), and Nyabiheke camp (Gatsibo). Other 1,900 live in and around Kigali.
The larger group of Rwandans in exile is continuously sensitized on key issues which matter to them, namely; land restitution, social issues such as; access to education and health, livelihood opportunities and security.
By focusing on the socio-economic progress made by Rwanda over the last 17 years, that highlight the existence of national poverty-reduction strategies such as EDPRS and Vision 2020, Rwandans are appealed to return to their home country and contribute to the further development of the nation.
Since 1993 when UNHCR (United Nations Humanitarian Commission for Refugees) opened its first Kigali office, its mandate under its Statute ensures the protection, assists and pursues durable solutions for refugees.
According to a UNHCR press statement, “providing humanitarian assistance and international protection to nearly 55,000 refugees residing in Rwanda (97 percent of which are from DR Congo), has facilitated the return and reintegration of Rwandan returnees and furthered the development of the asylum system in Rwanda.”
Rukonji says this is a, “message of hope.”
“All Rwandans must wake up and work hard because we must match all our efforts and develop our country. Just like Julius Nyerere said, ‘as Africans we must refuse; to be pushed anywhere and to push others away’: this is a statement that every Rwandan and African should respect,” Rukonji said.