Refugee defies odds to help others return home from DRC camps

Simon Singirankabo’s story is not different from those of other refugees. For close to 20 years, he lived as a refugee in different camps in DRC, and found himself drifting further and farther from Rwanda. Having first settled in Bukavu in South Kivu Province, the farther he went, the harsher life became.
Singirankabo with his wide family immediately after returning home. BELOW. Newly repatriated refugees talk to their colleagues at  Nkamira Transit Centre  The New Times/Jean d’Amour ....
Singirankabo with his wide family immediately after returning home. BELOW. Newly repatriated refugees talk to their colleagues at Nkamira Transit Centre The New Times/Jean d’Amour ....

Simon Singirankabo’s story is not different from those of other refugees. For close to 20 years, he lived as a refugee in different camps in DRC, and found himself drifting further and farther from Rwanda. Having first settled in Bukavu in South Kivu Province, the farther he went, the harsher life became.

His latest home was a makeshift hut in Kasai Oriental Province, a village located 250 kilometres from the Provincial Capital, Mbuji-Mayi.

There are close to 3,000 Rwandan refugees in Chabobo, Rusuku and Katcha camps.

Refugees living in the three camps in Kasai claim they never got any support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),for all the years they have stayed there. For survival, Singirankabo says, they worked on locals’ plantations.

“We never got any support from UNHCR. All they gave us was a certificate proving we were refugees. Only a few of us managed to lease small pieces of land from the Congolese,” he said shortly after being repatriated on Tuesday.

Efforts to verify this claim were futile by press time.

Singirankabo, together with his family of 11 children and two wives, were part of the 77 people who were received ion that day. Fifty six of these lived in a refugee camp while others lived in villages.

Plotting repatriation

Like the other refugees, Singirankabo said he had for years heard all sorts of stories about the ‘desparate’ situation in Rwanda from some ‘ill-intentioned’ people. The distance between them and Rwanda did not make things any easier.

“For the longest period of our life as refugees, communication (with people back home) was difficult. The only information we got was from third parties - people who, for fear of justice forwhat they did in the country, fear to return. These would feed us lies, saying that we would be killed upon returning to Rwanda,” he said.

Despite this misinformation, he says, he remained optimistic that one day he would make it back home.

“With 11 children and two wives, you can only imagine what one goes through to provide for them, especially with no assistance to speak of. The area is also prone to all sorts of diseases and at least two people were sick in my household at any given time,” Singirankabo, who called on other refugees to return home, said.

Eventually, they started communicating with relatives in Rwanda.

“What we learnt from them was that there was no insecurity and that there were thousands of returnees who had come and had been fully reintegrated.”

“I started looking for ways to bring home my family and also mobilised colleagues but the biggest challenges I faced now was the means to bring home my family.”

Singirankabo, through relatives within the country, later got connected to the Minister of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, Seraphine Mukantaba, whom he says he personally spoke several times. This brought renewed hope. 

“My communication with the minister also gave me courage to openly speak to my fellow refugees about coming back home. I mean look at me, a poor refugee living in a remote village in DRC speaking to a minister! I started mobilising colleagues to repatriate and some started registering,” he said adding the mobilisation started three months ago.

“Most of them were willing but there is a group of people which is  not willing to repatriate and prevent others to do so. During the mobilisation, I realised that actually many refugees want to come home.”

Getting arrested

As Singirankabo continued mobilising refugees to repatriate, Congolese officials and some influential Rwandan refugees started threatening him, saying that he was betraying refugees, by encouraging them to come to a country where they would be killed on arrival.

 He said he was arrested but later released after the intervention of Rwandan embassy in DRC.

“Those whom I suspect played a role in the Genocide and are afraid of facing the law once they come home said I was betraying them by talking to the enemy, I was beaten up and harassed,” he said.

Despite the reprisals, he said he continued the mobilisation until over 50 people registered.

“UNHCR supported us to repatriate, but not until we walked for two weeks to Mbuji-Mayi where we got a flight to Goma, we are now happy as we are in our own country.”

“And since we have contacts of those we left there, we will continue advising them to return home, we agreed we will keep in touch,” he said, adding that now they have first-hand information, it will be easy for them to convince the rest to come home, because they are leading a deplorable life anyway.

Other returnees

Most of the returnees were either born in refugee camps, or left the country when they were quite young with little or no memory of the country.

“I am very delighted and blessed to be in Rwanda; I have for the biggest part of my life led a bad life, as a refugee, I have starved, I have never been happier and I hope my life will change for the better now that I am home,” said Esperance Nyirahagenimana, 25, who said her family lived in Kimbogo, in the former Cyangugu Prefecture.

The returnees are currently at Nkamira Transit Centre and, according to the centre’s management returnees only stay at the facility for less than a week before they are dispatched to their respective villages with support package.

However, those whose homes are nearer were registered and assisted to reach their home.

According to Frederick Ntawukuriryayo, the in charge of Communication and Public relations in the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, the ministry will provide them with food and other essentials to keep them going for three months.

“For those still in Kasai and in other camps, we will keep mobilising them through the media and other ways to encourage them to voluntarily repatriate as soon as possible,” Ntawukuriryayo said

On June 30, this year, the UNHCR invoked the Secession Clause on Rwandan refugees, implying that there was no reason for Rwandans to remain refugees.

The clause terminated the refugee  status of all Rwandan nationals still under the UN protection in countries of asylum, leaving refugees with three options, including voluntary repatriation, seeking local integration or seeking renewal of refugee status for those still in need of international protection.

Since its invocation, scores of refugees have returned from countries, including Malawi, Uganda, Burundi, DRC, UK, Belgium.

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