If you have never experienced life as a refugee, you cannot come close to appreciating the shame that it is. I’ve ever lived that life, having only in my late years regained my ‘statefulness’, and think I have an idea of what it is.
That is why my heart bleeds every time I hear refugees recount their conditions in exile.
What is even more hurt-wrenching is that many of these refugees choose life in exile over reasons they don’t comprehend.
Or if the reasons are clear, the forces behind those reasons are not. Most often, however, they’ll have been gung-hoed into exile by politicians whose intentions are simply to ride on their backs in pursuit of opportunistic ends.
In Rwanda, the former was the case in 1959, the latter the case in 1994.
In 1959, it was clear that the colonial state machinery, using nascent nationalists seeking to gain from a divided people, deliberately ripped up the state of Rwanda to re-engineer it into a country whose leaders would always be at the mercy of the colonial master.
The disowned Rwandans knew their lives were in peril unless they fled.
In 1994, it was also clear that the indigenous state machinery herded all the citizens they could get out of the country. Yet, did the citizens know they had no obligation to follow the leaders?
While these leaders took everybody with them purposely to empty the country and deny legitimacy to the incoming Rwandans, victims of the 1959 upheavals, the 1994 citizens who were innocent didn’t know they had no reason to flee.
The different circumstances that led to those two eruptions and their repercussions are far more complicated than the above passing explanation, of course, but many exposes from experts are available. What consumes my curiosity is why refugees resulting from such upheavals choose to live in denial.
Apart from refusing to face the reality of their new circumstances, they do not take time to scrutinise the reasons which force them to remain in exile.
For example, in our case in 1959, we refused to admit the fact that we were refugees. We saw this as a temporary interruption in our lives and that we’d soon be back in our country.
This led to an existence that would have been comical if it hadn’t been life-threatening. I remember that when charity organisations provided us with seeds so that we could grow our own food and feed ourselves, we first put ash in the ground so that the seeds would not germinate.
And what was that in the service of? We were not supposed to waste our time because soon we were going to be back in our country.
35 years later, I used to chuckle whenever I thought back and remembered how – when the charity organisations’ ration-taps dried – we used to literally beg for food from the refugees who’d been wiser!
These were a tiny minority, though, and we were forced to go and labour for food in the fields of the natives.
That is why I was filled with grief when I heard an interview BBC journalists had with Rwandans in refugee camps in Malawi and Uganda, in the Kirundi/Kinyarwanda ‘Imvo n’Imvano’ programme of last Saturday.
Asked why they were not willing to return home despite the efforts of the leaders back in their country, some of the refugees gave reasons that would’ve made me laugh if I’d not understood the horror of their implications.
For information, Rwanda has been sending delegations to different camps to persuade all refugees to return home. To reassure them of its goodwill, Government has been inviting representatives of these refugees to first visit and check out the state of their country.
Many have responded positively and accepted to board the planes that the Government has collaborated with UNHCR to put at their disposal for voluntary repatriation.
Still, a number are intransigent and their reasons range from the laughable to the absurd.
Sample these. A clearly illiterate old woman: “I know I didn’t participate in the 1994 Genocide but there is no democracy in Rwanda.
If Kagame can imprison a White man, imagine what he could do to a poor old woman like me who can’t read or write.” A fellow who must have belonged to the Habyarimana elite: “Yes, I’m innocent but instead of going back to Rwanda I’d chop up my family and throw them into the river and then commit suicide.”
Pressed for reasons, he mumbled something about there being no liberty to spit in the streets. And a litany more.
Oh, miserable Rwandans! What happened that we should be reduced to this? Imagine the embarrassment to all of us when some of our compatriots exhibit such self-scorn.
Surely, Rwandans are not incapable of engaging in ideological or intellectual contestations. They are capable of opposing a government on principles. Hopefully, they’ll slowly come round and think straight.
Even then, our leaders sure have an uphill task. Luckily, all indications are that they are equal to it.
On this day when Rwanda was granted independence, let’s ponder over the abyss into which our colonial and immediate post-independence leaders hurtled us.
And on the ray of hope that has sprung from that abyss.