The Return to my motherland

Final episode (continued from last Sunday) As I said earlier, Uganda had perhaps the harshest refugee laws in the region in the 60s because refugees were confined to designated refugee camps, and the refugee status was transferred from  generation to generation in such away that children born in Uganda from refugee parents were themselves considered refugees.

Final episode (continued from last Sunday)

As I said earlier, Uganda had perhaps the harshest refugee laws in the region in the 60s because refugees were confined to designated refugee camps, and the refugee status was transferred from  generation to generation in such away that children born in Uganda from refugee parents were themselves considered refugees.

Only one important benefit of this status was that it gave children access to the United Nations aid, the UNHCR scholarships in particular, which allowed students to escape the camps and find schools in urban areas in Uganda like Kampala, or even abroad.

However, this and the resulting success of many tutsi students brought about resentment and discrimination among Ugandan nationals and institutions. As was evident in schools and work-places, Rwandan refugees were most often discriminated against. And this is how I left my family in Uganda six years later.

First of all, I gained admission into a Secondary School in Kampala after my successful Primary Leaving Examination. Success number one, countered by obstacle number one: my father could not afford the money for the list of requirements on the admission letter; books, stationnery, uniform etc…, let alone the school fees per se.

Not to worry, I told my parents and myself, God will provide. Natives of Nshungyezi had extensive banana plantations on the other side of the main road opposite the refugee settlement. This is where refugees, children and adults, laboured for food or in some cases, for money.

Day after day I toiled in these plantations, sometimes weeding , other times fetching water and other times digging, so much so that at the end of two months, I had gathered enough money for my transport to the school in Kampala, but not even half of the amount that was required as school fees for a single term.

I decided that I would go to Kampala, join the rest of the Senior One class (S1) on the opening day, and then stay as long as it took the school administration to find me out and show me the door for not paying the fees.

There was a reason behind this seemingly foolhardy decision though.

Later on in life, I told myself, I would be able to explain to anybody who cared to know, that my education had stalled, at least, at Secondary School leve1, just because I could not pay my school fees.

This was my way of thinking at the time, not knowing that miracles never cease to happen. Despite the fact that the term had run for nearly a month, the school administration had not called in the school fees defaulters.

Then one morning, we were all summoned (the defaulters) to the Assembly hall to explain ourselves. Most students said that their parents would pay at the month end without fail; and those were allowed to go back to their classes.

Out of about thirty students who had been summoned, only six of us, all Rwandans, remained in the hall. Deep inside me, I was saying goodbye to my secondary school days.

Mr. Brian Kavannagh, a short, kindly Irish headmaster, looked at us enquiringly.

One boy among us by the name of Gasangwa Donat, explained that he had been told that his fees would be paid by the Ministry of Culture and Community Development.

This was the Ministry through which UNHCR channeled its aid to refugees.

“Those of you whose fees will be paid for by the Ministry, put up your hands,” said the headmaster.

All the boys put their hands up. My head in turmoil, my whole body so tense, I also put up my hand when the headmaster was saying that we should give him our names.

After he had taken our names down we were told to go back to our classes; and two weks later, the list of UNHCR scholars was on the notice board, and yes, my name was on it. If I committed a mortal sin, mea culpa! (To this day, I remember Gasangwa as the hand of God).

In 1974, I had just completed my A level and my scholarship was steadily coming in. But, obstacle number two, I was refused admission at Makerere University, and I was not the only one.

There were many of us who shared the same fate. We were not admitted not because our results were terribly inadequate, but because we were Rwandan nationals - refugees. Results like ours were reserved for nationals.

Otherwise how could I have been admitted to another University of an equal if not higher standing?

The admission was a result of four identical copies (save the adresses) of one letter I had sent to four different University institutions. After a month, I had given up all hope; but when the admission finally came, to my amazement, it was from none of the Universities I had applied to.

This is why to me, I considered then, and still consider today, my admission to this University which is situated somewhere in the River Niger area of West Africa, as yet another act, or rather a stroke of the hand of God.

At the University, I had met another Rwandan refugee named Paul, who had also come from Uganda, and had been just a couple of months before me.

Later on in the year, we were joined by yet another two and that made four of us - a nice, tight little group which met quite often on evenings to discuss matters of common interest.

We also later learnt that there were other Rwandans in various other Universities in the country, and soon, we had become a small community with common interests and concerns.

However, in 1979, the year most us gaduated, we came face to face with the most daunting problem of them all - the question of the next course of action. Where do we go from here?

We had quite often discussed this matter among ourselves, and we knew that we shared this obstacle with many of our brothers in diaspora. Rwanda, our motherland, thanks to the powers that were, did not want us back.

(At one time, Habyarimana had likened Rwanda as a glass full of water in which an additional drop would overflow.) Uganda, our country of exile was not an option; it was still fresh from a war against Idi Amin, a tyrant whose anti-Rwandan sentiments were legendary, and it is as well we decided not to go back there. Just two years later in 1982, nearly fifty thousand Rwandans were expelled and sent back to Rwanda by force by yet another anti-Rwandan dictator who succeded him, Milton Obote.

When most of us graduated that year therefore, we all decided to stay put and seek employment from a country which was more than willing to accommodate us. And so we did.

In 1990, we had heard from the media (print and electronic), that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group, composed mostly of descendants of the 1959 refugees, invaded northern Rwanda in a bid to secure their rights (and ours), to return to their homeland.

To be candid, I took the news with mixed feelings. On one hand, I supported the move wholeheartedly; but on the other hand, I feared for the worst because I couldn’t help but remember the reprisals against the Tutsi civilians in Rwanda all those years, every time the rebels attacked and failed.

I told myself that if the attack failed this time, our future held no other hope but statelessness.

It was not until July 1994 when we heard that the RPF-Inkotanyi had swept across the country and stopped the genocide which, after so many years of planning had at last been implemented in April that year.

That victoy was followed by repeated calls from the new government extolling all Rwandans to return home.

Sometime in the morning of February 1995, the Boeing 747 of the Ethiopian Airlines made a last circle over Kigali, as it prepared to land and we were soon taxiing at the then Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport.

Ten to fifteen minutes later, a throng of passengers were filing through the arrivals. At the immigration desk, a lady officer smiled at me as she held out her hand for my Passport.

I gave her my famous Geneva Convention Travel Document, which had served me as a Passport for 21 years. The officer leafed through it, looked at the many foreign visa stamps in it, then looked up at me, smiled and said:

“Are you a returnee”? My mouth fell open, then quickly closed again. I thought she was going to say refugee.
“Welcome to Rwanda,” she continued, “but I am afraid you will have to leave this behind.” As I continued to look at her, she went on to explain.

“From now on, you are at home, in your country. Should you need to travel abroad again, you will be given a passport.” The way she said this, so nicely and matter-of-factly made me feel so touched and grateful I could have embraced her on the spot.

Two days after, I was on the way to Ruhengeri. That very day of my arrival, which was Saturday, I had been fortunate to be invited to a wedding party at which I met several people I knew in Uganda.

From them I was able to learn that many of my relatives were already in Kigali, including my brother Mwamba, whom I had last seen in Burundi such a long time ago.

I fail to find words to explain how I felt at that moment; it was as if I had been relieved of a very heavy burden, I felt such an indescribable feeling of joy and happiness that left me almost confused.

Mwamba on the wheel of his Toyota Carina, we had just negotiated the hilly corners of Shyorongi when to our left he showed me the River Nyabarongo, a huge, long serpent snaking its way eastwards towards the Akagera.

That is all I remember. I must have fallen asleep because, some time later, Mwamba had stopped the car on a hilltop and was gently shaking my shoulder, pointing at something in the distance.

When I finally could focus my bleary mind and sight, I saw what he was trying to show me. There, at the horizon, stood in its glory and splendour, Mount Muhabura, the extinct volcano barely five kilometers from my native village of Kabere.

Then I knew I had reached home, sweet home.