Even in the hothouse of humanity’s worst evils – in the midst of genocide and chaotic displacement – love can find itself.
Gilles* had fled the mass killings in Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1994 with his wife, mother and brother. In 1996 they ended up in a refugee camp in the Central African Republic (CAR) capital of Bangui, from where he was taken back to Rwanda. His wife remained in the CAR.
“Every chance I got, I wrote messages to the Red Cross which was reading out messages from refugees separated from their family on their radio station. It was a simple sentence to her. One sentence: ‘I’m still alive, know that I am still alive – if you are.’”
“Six years later, we met again in Kigali, she had met people who had heard my message.She traced her way back to the shop I had opened,” he says.
While the couple’s reunion lasted, the one with their country did not: “After two years I saw too many suspicious people coming into my shop asking questions about my family: ‘What [ethnicity] are you? What are you doing here? Where have you been?’ We understood them to be government intelligence agents, or thugs looking for people they could brand génocidaires,” says Gilles.
Then Gilles was tipped off – people were coming for him. Gilles was shot at inside his shop: “When they shot at me, I ran. I ran from hospital to hospital and then I ran straight to South Africa. I didn’t stop running.”
It was an eight-month journey to Cape Town via Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“I was interviewed by the Department of Military Intelligence when I returned to Rwanda from the CAR. They wanted to know which refugee camps I had been living in. Which forests I had fled through and what I had seen there. The Rwandan Patriotic Front were bombing camps in the DRC, attacking even the hospitals and maternity wards in the camps. I saw all of this. And they suspected I had seen this, that is why they were coming after me,” says Gilles.
It is this sort of retribution that Gilles alleges, does not make Rwanda a safe place for refugees, and especially for Hutu refugees, to return to. For refugees like Gilles, president Paul Kagame’s Rwanda is a place of revenge, rather than reconciliation. They are adamant that with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announcing the revocation of the refugee status for Rwandans, and a June 30 deadline for their return, they will not be safe in their homeland.
Almost a ghost
Virginie* was 19 years-old when the killing started in Rwanda in 1994. She had left her boarding school in Butare to go home for the holidays, “It was for a short time, for three or four days, I didn’t think I would be going cross-border to cross-border,” she says of her subsequent forced journey that began after people started “disappearing” and bodies started piling up in the streets.
Her journey lasted over two-and-a-half years and ended with Virginie living and working in Cape Town where she is raising her three children and completing an honours degree in social work.
At the beginning, over a three-month period of displacement in Rwanda, Virginie says she was raped three times. Seeking refuge in Gitirama football stadium with other members of her family, her brother “disappeared” with others, “because he looked like a Tutsi”.
Of mixed Hutu and Tutsi parentage, Virginie says her journey took her from Rwanda to Burundi, where she was forced into marriage, and then on to Tanzania and Mozambique over a two-and-a-half year period before finally arriving in South Africa.
The cumulative effect of this experience, says Virginie, is that “you are almost a ghost”. “You are not dead, but you are a ghost among the living. All your values are taken away from you. I’ve always thought of myself as intelligent, strong – I am completing my degree now, but… Living under a plastic sheet [in refugee camps] people kick you when they want. You are surrounded by a fence, you are a prisoner in a sense, but you are not legitimately in a prison.”
For Rwandan refugees like Virginie, personal histories mean the various realities and fantasies created to sustain themselves appear as second epidermis woven over their bodies: cells are made of displacement; murder; rape, sometimes more than once; death; crimes against humanity; crimes of war, and of peace – cells divided only by the lines of trauma sustained.
Identities shift and change – sometimes to protect oneself from what one has experienced, at other times, from what one has done.
The former is evidenced often during interviews with Rwandans. Haunted eyes, tears, anger, paranoia about how much personal information would be made public, and exasperation that they are being “forced” back to the homeland they fled by the very UN agency mandated to protect them.
The Con understands that for the refugees who participated in the killings, the Rwandan government hopes their return will lead to a final resolution of a genocide that heralded a death toll estimated at 800,000 since 1994. Thousands more killed in the years afterwards as displacement into neighbouring countries led to further conflict.
Wary refugees, who spoke to The Con, suspect that this return is merely a cloak for further persecution of Hutus. Many expressed concern about the increasingly authoritarian bent of president Paul Kagame’s government and his attempts to silence any criticism from outside the country.
Jean-Paul*, aged 54, works as a teacher in Cape Town: “When I left Kigali, the rumours were spreading that the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front was killing all the educated Hutus, so we fled. Now Kagame is afraid of the educated Hutus outside the country because we can think, we can be critical and we cannot be controlled. He is worried about his reputation internationally.
“If peace is to militarise the country, then there is peace in Rwanda, but there is no freedom. In Rwanda, if two Hutus are speaking you have to speak loudly so that people hear you and do not accuse you of conspiracy against the government,”Jean-Paul adds.
In Rwanda, says Virginie, Kagame’s government is intent, not on reconciliation, but on persecuting Hutus and creating a revisionist history that excludes Hutu deaths following the bloody massacres of 1994.
“In Rwanda, my story is not important. It must not be told or heard, because it implicates both Hutu and Tutsis in murder … I don’t care if you are Hutu or Tutsi, but I do care that people have killed and hurt each other on both sides. For me the hardest is to never get closure. Death is part of our lives – you can’t run away from it – but just see the kinds of deaths we saw; it’s just inhumane. We bury people, but bringing a machete to bury people in mass graves is another story,” Virginie laments.
That Kagame, a former guerilla leader, is attempting to portray a one-sided version of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the deaths that followed for years after, is a common accusation made by refugees and exiles interviewed by The Con.
What the Kagame regime seeks to do, they say, is cover up the human rights violations and atrocities committed by his RPF, inside refugee camps in the DRC following the 1994 killings and displacement of people.
Litany of horrors
A 2010 United Nations Mapping Report of the DRC that tracked events in the region from 1993-2003 noted that refugee camps for fleeing Hutus set up in the DRC close to the Rwandan and Burundian borders, were used by ex-Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR)/Interahamwe as training camps and bases to launch raids into Rwanda.
Likewise, the report documents, Kagame’s RPF, which now controls the national army, were also involved in raids and attacks on these camps. The mapping report details over 600 incidents of crimes against humanity, or violations of international law.
The report mentions incidents like that of October 21, 1996. The RPF and its allied militia attacked the Lubarika camp “killing an unknown number of Rwandan and Burundian refugees” as well as Congolese civilians, and “forced local people to bury the bodies in four large mass graves.” On the same day, “soldiers also burned 30 refugees alive in a house in the village of Kakumbukumbu, five kilometres from Lubarika camp.”
Again on the same day, an attack on the Luberizi refugee camp left 370 refugees dead, according to the UN report. “The soldiers threw the bodies of the victims into the latrines. They also killed several dozen people [refugees and Zairians] at the villages of Luberizi and Mutarule. After the killings, the bodies of over 60 victims were found in houses in the two villages,” the report states.
Francois* had fled to the Katare refugee camp in the DRC and says it came under attack by the RPF twice in November 1996.
“They bombed us the first time and we buried over 200 dead. The second time, we fled and ran into the forests of the Congo. I was separated from my family, others were led away by ‘guides’ but were killed. If I go back to Rwanda, I am afraid that what I witnessed and experienced of the RPF in the DRC and in the refugee camps, may be held against me. I am afraid for my safety because of what I know,” he says.
There is deep concern among Rwandan refugees that the political situation in Rwanda is not conducive to their safe return and proposed new lives there after the June 30 deadline.
“Only one genocide”
The Rwandan High Commissioner to South Africa, Vincent Karega, disputes the notion of the “second genocide” and is adamant: ”There was one, and only one genocide in Rwanda: against Tutsis. We cannot invent another one to create a comfort zone for [those] guilty [of genocide] to accept reconciliation,” he said.
Karega disputes the allegations of war crimes against Rwandans in refugee camps, as stated in the 2010 UN mapping report. He calls it “propaganda” by some non-governmental organisations with “hidden agendas” bent on releasing “politicized reports”.
“To dismantle camps in the DRC where more than one million civilians mixed with 60,000 former soldiers and militia who used civilians as shields could not happen without some bloodshed on either side. However, there has never been a policy, or purpose by the RPF army, the national army later, to kill one ethnic group – or revenge for the survivors of genocide [sic],” says Karega.
Callixte Kuvaro, chairperson of the South African-based Rwanda Platform for Dialogue, Truth and Justice says: “Rwanda is not a free country. If you are Hutu, you are persecuted. Political opposition is not allowed. Those who try to organise politically, or are critical of the government, are branded génocidaires, and are arrested and detained for long periods. Also, people disappear, and are never found again.”
Kuvaro and several others cite the examples of the RPF government refusing to register other political parties, like Frank Habineza’s Democratic Green Party before the 2010 elections, as an example of this clamp-down. The body of Habineza’s vice-president was found decapitated in the build-up to the 2010 polls.
Then there is the case of Victoire Ingabine, chairperson of the Unified Democratic Front (UDF). She is currently appealing an eight year sentence for inciting revolt and genocide ideology and forming an armed group. She was arrested before the 2010 presidential elections which meant that UDF was not allowed to contest.
Karega denies allegations that Kagame’s regime was clamping down on opposition in the country. Defending the country’s judiciary as “transparent”, Karega says Ingabire was in jail “after a court process that her proved collaboration with the genocide militia still in the Democratic Republic of Congo forests threatening to attack Rwanda”.
Karega urges refugees to return: “Staying in foreign countries as proper immigrants is fine, but living on refugee status while the country is safe – that is a problem. It sends a wrong signal [to the world] and it is not a status to be proud of.”
Salim Bavugamenshi, chairperson of the Rwandan Refugee Community in Cape Town, says that the standards used by Western governments and the UNHCR to gauge whether Rwanda is a functioning and tolerant democracy are dubious: “People see that Rwanda has economic growth and that the streets of Kigali are clean and they say everything is okay. But this is not how we measure democracy. This is how Europeans and Americans who have no love for the people of Rwanda measure democracy. Democracy is about freedom, not about economic growth,” he says.
Despite being held up by the West as a paragon of democracy, especially the former governments of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and the Bill Clinton in the United States, ,allegations that Kagame’s regime is becoming more authoritarian, mount within Rwanda. As do accusations that it is a military power-broker sowing instability in the region: a recent UN Nations report fingered Kagame’s regime for supporting the M23 rebels in eastern DRC.
Refugees allege that Western countries, especially the UK and US, have allowed the guilt of ignoring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, to cloud their vision of Kagame – effectively allowing him to become increasingly authoritarian in the process.
Says Kuvaro: “The US and UK use the token of the genocide to project Kagame as this great man who has reconciled the country. He is supposed to be our Mandela. But Mandela did not persecute the whites; he did not suppress dissent, or go after innocents. Clinton and Blair, who is a special advisor to Kagame, feel guilty because they stood back and watched the murders. Now they turn a blind eye yet again.”
It is these sort of conditions that make returning to Rwanda an unbearable thought, for people like Virginie, who has lived in South Africa for 16 years and has tried obtaining permanent resident status in South Africa. But she is yet to “even receive a reply [from the department of home affairs] to say that they received my application”.
“Believe me when I say this,” she says, “home is home. I see people leaving Cape Town to go home for the holidays in December and it hurts me. There is nothing worse than not having a home – but the conditions at home at the moment… it must be a last resort if I have to return.”