The refugee life that inspired the resilience of the RPF

After the political and military failure by the UNAR party and the Inyenzi movement to facilitate the return to Rwanda of Tutsi who had fled from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the refugee communities focused on the struggle for survival and integration in their host countries.
RPF members chant the party slogans at a past party congress in Kigali. (File)
RPF members chant the party slogans at a past party congress in Kigali. (File)

This is the third part of a 6-article series extracted from one chapter of Jean-Paul Kimonyo’s forthcoming book on Rwanda after the Genocide:

After the political and military failure by the UNAR party and the Inyenzi movement to facilitate the return to Rwanda of Tutsi who had fled from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the refugee communities focused on the struggle for survival and integration in their host countries.

Small, informal groups met for political discussions, but these were of no consequence. The early stages of refugee living conditions within the various camps were relatively similar, whether in Uganda, Burundi, Bibwe in Congo or even Nyamata in Rwanda, to certain extent.

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The refugees were settled in inhospitable regions, sometimes in insalubrious forests with wild animals. They were seen off with a few months’ food assistance, after which they were expected to fend for themselves.

In general, they survived by cultivating for the neighborhood population, who were themselves very poor.  In addition to these very harsh circumstances, having to eke out a living by tilling the land accentuated the sentiment of loss of status and humiliation for a people coming from a society in which pastoralism was the more valued lifestyle.

In Congo and Burundi, the Rwandan refugees were allowed to settle permanently in the camps to which they had been assigned, and they could then support them according to their needs, thereby gaining a measure of stability.

In Uganda, however, the authorities limited the perimeter of the camps, and with the pressures of each new wave of exiles, a part of the refugee population would be moved into the hinterland, away from Rwanda.

A number of families would thus be displaced many times over a five-year period. Such displacements were traumatic, because they forced the refugees to abandon the fields they had began to cultivate and the homes they had began to build, and have to resettle in new areas, in extremely difficult conditions, with little building material or food and no infrastructure.

Many refugees were only able to settle permanently in the second half of the 1960s, when they were able to begin cultivating their own fields and stop living in huts, and their children began to attend school in classrooms, rather than in the shade of trees.  

Refugee families some of them of a higher social and educational status had settled in urban centre such as Bujumbura or Goma, where they formed relatively strong, mutually supporting urbanised communities.

By contrast, refugees in Uganda, who had been settled far from easily accessible urban centres, continued to live in isolation and in great poverty even if conditions did vary from one camp to another. It was not until the 1970 that camp-dwellers began to get exposed to the outside world, with the younger refugees using their access to high school education to try and intergrate into the social landscape of the country, often seeking to pass for nationals, even going as far as changing their name.

In Burundi and Congo/Zaire, the other two major Rwandan refugee centres, more refugees attained social success and positions of influence, and the most committed of them emerged and became the informal spokespersons for the refugees. Their action generally consisted interceding with the authorities of the host countries to push for better treatment of the Rwandan communities, with a view to facilitating integration.

A case in point was the role played by Barthelemy Bisengimana for the benefit of the refugees in Congo.  Bisengimana was Congolese of Rwandan origin (born in Cyangugu, Western Rwanda) who was President Mobutu’s Principal Private Secretary from 1969 to 1977.

In 1972, under his instigation, the political bureau of the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution voted a law granting Congolese nationality to all nationals of the then Rwanda-Urundi who had settled in what was then Belgian Congo. Under this law, all persons of Rwanda culture, refugees included, living in Zaïre, were to enjoy the rights of citizenship.  

Some of them benefited from the 1973 process of zairianisation by acquiring legal rights to plantations and ranches which had belonged to Belgian settlers. Other cases include the first generation of Rwandan university graduates whom the 1959 revolution had blocked at the Lovanium University of Kinshasa, by preventing them from returning to Rwanda, and who were subsequently integrated into the top Zairean civil service after working several years as highly paid expatriates.

At the end of the 1970s, Uganda, Burundi and Zaïre hosted the greatest majority of Rwanda’s exile community. These three countries hosted masses of poor refugees living in or near camps upcountry, as farmers and herders, as well as urbanized population many living in slums working essentially in the informal sector, especially in Zaire and Burundi. During these years, and despite differences in conditions in host countries, for the majority of Rwandan refugees, the priority was survival as well as individual and family development.

The economic crisis of the 1980s, which affected the regional countries that hosted the refugees, challenged the arrangements which the first generation of educated refugees had succeeded in exploiting: employment in the public sector, opportunities in formal and informal private sector, and teaching.  

Socio-economic restrictions went hand in hand with the social and political crises which affected the communities to different degrees.

Thus, in Burundi, the nationalistic turnabout of President Bagaza in 1979 gave the signal for a hardening of access to employment in the civil service, post-primary education for foreign students, most of the victims being Rwandan refugees.

In Zaire, there was the “doubtful nationality” crisis following the change in the nationality law of June 1981, amending the preceding 1972 law and stripping Zairean nationality from Rwanda refugees and colonial period migrants who arrived after the creation of the Congo Free State in 1885.  

As a result of the informality prevailing in the country, the law had little significant effect on the refugees, but it did generate a social malaise and an upsurge in anti-Rwandans xenophobia.

There were signs of anti-Rwandan sentiments at the University of Kinshasa and in political circles, especially in rural areas in Northern and Southern Kivu provinces. Ironically, the Kinyarwanda-speaking non refugee Zaïrean communities were most affected. 

The single most significant event that triggered the armed mobilisation of Rwanda refugees to return in their country was the persecution campaign against Rwandan refugees and kinyarwanda-speaking communities living in Southern Uganda, and the way the Rwandan government reacted to it.

This campaign was launched in October 1982 by President Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC).  

The Banyarwanda were accused of collusion with a guerilla warfare led by Yoweri Museveni, a Muhima from Nkore, but also at local level, where the aim was expelling the refugees from the camps in order to take the land that they occupied.

After the February 1982 failed attempt to have all Rwandan refugees living outside return to their camps, the regime decided to use force, and mobilized the army as well as the people living in around the camps, with orders to expelling all Banyarwanda across the Rwandan border, refugees as well as older migrants, and in some cases, Ugandans of Rwandan culture.

According to some sources, the violence left one hundred dead, with 35 000 people seeking refuge in former camp sites, where they were subsequently besieged, while 40 000 fugitives attempted to cross the border into Rwanda.

Those who succeeded in crossing the border were detained in camps on the Rwandans side, but a group of 8 000 to 10, 000 persons were blocked in a narrow strip of no-man’s land between Rwandan soldiers on one side, and the those of the UPC on the other.

Rwanda had closed its border in November 1982. Before, a small number of refugees was able to cross into Rwanda and was held in retention camps by the army for days without food and water while groups of men were taken away and never returned. Faced with such an ignominious situation, some older refugees elected to commit suicide while younger ones returned into Uganda or in the no-man’s land.

The group remained in this no-man’s land « rotting there » for months, with support from the Red Cross, dying slowly of infectious diseases and despair. Among the 35 000 people blocked in the camps in Uganda, many young people managed to slip away and join Museveni in the bush.

The Kigali government explained its refusal to grant asylum to these Kinyarwanda-speaking people, a large number of whom were Rwandan refugees - arguing that it could not admit Ugandans, Kinyarwanda speakers or not.

The persecution of Rwandan refugees had the opposite effect from that anticipated, for it led to more and more young Rwandans joining Museveni’s resistance movement, following precursors such Fred Rwigema and Paul Kagame.

For second-generation refugees born or bred outside Rwanda, these persecutions were the first violent and large-scale exactions they had directly experienced and they were to generate the impulse to an armed return to Rwanda.

Dr Jean-Paul Kimonyo is the author of another book, the English version, Rwanda’s Popular Genocide: A Perfect Storm, is to be published soon. 

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