Last Updated: Friday, 27 November 2015, 12:04 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Rwanda

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Rwanda, 1 January 1997, available at: [accessed 29 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Approximately 257,000 Rwandans were refugees at the end of 1996: an estimated 200,000 in Zaire, about 50,000 in Tanzania, some 5,000 in Uganda, and 2,000 in Burundi.

Rwanda hosted about 20,000 refugees, including some 15,000 from Zaire and approximately 5,000 from Burundi.

An estimated 1.3 million Rwandan refugees repatriated during 1996. Many of them returned under controversial circumstances after more than two years in exile. The massive and much-awaited refugee return was officially welcomed by the government and many in the international community.

The size and suddenness of the repatriation, however, posed enormous resettlement and reintegration challenges in a society where ethnic tensions lingered in the aftermath of the country's 1994 genocide.

Pre-1996 Events Rwanda has a history of bloody conflict between the ethnic Hutu majority – estimated to be about 85 percent of the population – and the ethnic Tutsi minority. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled the country during the 1950s and 1960s and remained refugees for more than 30 years, one of the longest exiles in modern African history.

Rwanda's Hutu-dominated government refused throughout the 1980s to allow Tutsi refugees to return en masse, arguing that Rwanda was already overpopulated. An army composed primarily of Tutsi Rwandan exiles invaded Rwanda in 1990, drawing world attention to the plight of Rwandan refugees.

By 1993, Rwanda's civil war had uprooted some 900,000 persons within the country. The government and the rebels' political arm, known as the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), agreed to power-sharing, a joint military, and the repatriation of refugees and resettlement of displaced persons.

The country's extremist leaders attempted to remain in power and sabotage the peace accord by launching a well-orchestrated campaign of mass murder in April 1994 to eliminate all real and perceived political opponents nationwide. Politically moderate Hutu and the country's entire Tutsi population were targeted for extermination.

During three months of wholesale slaughter, up to a million persons, overwhelmingly Tutsi, were massacred by the military, by civilian militia under the control of extremist politicians, and by other civilians acting under the direction of government officials. Human rights investigators and legal experts, including USCR, characterized the mass killings as "genocide." The massacres were "unprecedented in the history of the...entire African continent," a UN human rights report stated.

The RPF's military, known as the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), responded to the genocide by launching a military offensive that toppled the old government in mid-1994. The RPF installed a multi-ethnic, multiparty government. Leaders of the defeated extremist government fled into exile, joined by 1.7 million or more Rwandan Hutu who fled with them. Some refugees fled because they feared retribution by the rebels. Other refugees were forced by their own extremist political leaders to leave Rwanda. Nearly a half-million persons were internally displaced.

The combination of genocide, civil war, and massive refugee exodus left Rwanda a shattered, traumatized country during 1994-95. More than 40 percent of the country's estimated seven million people were dead or uprooted. The UN stationed some 5,500 peacekeeping troops in Rwanda. Some 120 civilian UN human rights workers monitored conditions, and more than 100 international relief organizations operated there.

During late 1994 and throughout 1995, more than 700,000 long-time, "old caseload" Tutsi refugees returned to Rwanda, confident that the new government would welcome them. Many Tutsi returnees no longer owned land and settled on property vacated by "new caseload" Hutu refugees. Approximately 20 percent of the Hutu refugee population also trickled back to Rwanda, joining the four million Hutu who had not fled the country. Most internally displaced Hutu also returned to their homes during 1995.

By the end of 1995, an estimated 1.5 million Rwandans – overwhelmingly Hutu – remained refugees, primarily in Zaire, Tanzania, and Burundi.

General Conditions in 1996 Living conditions in Rwanda improved by some measurements and deteriorated in other respects during the year. A crucial issue of debate among Rwandans and international observers was whether conditions in Rwanda were adequately safe for refugee repatriation and resettlement.

Security incidents occurred with disturbing frequency. Soldiers and militia members of Rwanda's exiled extremist regime regularly infiltrated border areas to destabilize the country. They assassinated local government officials and murdered civilian survivors of the genocide. Some 98 infiltrations reportedly occurred in the first half of the year.

The government's Rwandan Patriotic Army responded to the infiltrations by conducting aggressive security sweeps in rural areas, resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties, according to UN human rights workers. Crimes motivated by banditry, land disputes, and post-genocide revenge also occurred.

Nearly 230 survivors of the 1994 genocide were killed during 1996 in more than 60 attacks, according to UN human rights investigators. Infiltrators killed nearly 300 persons in the first 10 months of the year. RPA soldiers were linked to 340 killings during one four-month period, UN investigators concluded. Scores of additional murders remained unsolved. Landmine incidents were a growing menace throughout the year.

At the start of 1996, some 60,000 Hutu were imprisoned without trial on suspicion of participating in the genocide. An additional 30,000 persons were placed in overcrowded jails during 1996. Despite training new police and judges, the justice system struggled to address the workload. The country counted only 16 practicing lawyers and 150 prosecution investigators to handle the more than 90,000 cases.

The government enacted a new penal code that allowed the first genocide trials to begin late in the year. Concern over arbitrary imprisonment and the crippled justice system, however, drew consistent criticism from international human rights organizations and deterred many refugees from repatriating.

By other measurements, conditions in Rwanda were calm and improving. Large areas of the country rarely experienced security incidents or serious human rights violations. More than 100 UN human rights observers remained in Rwanda and reported that they were "encouraged by the large number of reconciliation and reintegration meetings being held at the commune level."

Rwanda's young government became more organized, and local markets thrived. Schools and health clinics operated.

UN agencies participated in the construction of more than 10,000 new houses. Thousands of other homes were constructed without assistance. The government announced plans to build up to 250,000 new homes to accommodate returning Tutsi and Hutu refugees. Officials said they intended to create 240 new villages in 11 prefectures to house 120,000 landless Tutsi families. Authorities requested international assistance to construct or repair more than 2,000 school classrooms.

Some 100 international NGOs operated in the country. International donors pledged some $500 million for housing, justice programs, agriculture, social services, and other development projects. The United States pledged $140 million to Central Africa in November, with most of the money earmarked for Rwanda.

Repatriation Planning Rwandan officials expressed eagerness for large-scale repatriation of the predominantly Hutu refugees, and regularly invited the refugees to return. "I would particularly like to ask the refugees to return home, to tell them we await them, that they should stop living in misery in camps and humiliation of exile," Rwanda's president stated in a national radio broadcast during the year.

Government policy stipulated that returnees who found their homes occupied by squatters would be able to reoccupy their homes within 15 days. Authorities formed a National Emergency Committee to oversee repatriation programs. Each prefecture established a repatriation reception committee composed of security officials, health and housing officials, UNHCR, and WFP. Each prefecture's repatriation committees included five subcommittees to address security, transport, food, health, and social integration issues.

International agencies and diplomats also attempted to encourage repatriation. UNHCR established transit centers in border areas capable of accommodating up to 45,000 returnees per day in anticipation of a large repatriation. USAID Administrator Brian Atwood traveled to the Rwanda region in early 1996 and stated, "I would say to the refugees in these camps that it is safe to return."

U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated later in the year that "refugees should be encouraged to return voluntarily to Rwanda, which we believe most can now do safely."

Some refugees and international observers insisted that repatriation conditions were dubious and that many Rwandan officials were not fully committed to the return of the refugees. They charged that government-sponsored radio broadcasts sometimes characterized refugees as murderers, and that many returnees were unable to reclaim their homes and property despite national policy. Rwandan government officials placed restrictions on UNHCR's mass information campaign meant to inform refugees about conditions for return.

Only 30,000 to 50,000 Hutu refugees officially repatriated in the first half of 1996. Repatriation rates from Zaire and Tanzania during May to July were the lowest in more than two years, UNHCR reported. Events in the second half of the year created massive returns, however.

Repatriation from Burundi Approximately 100,000 Rwandan refugees repatriated from Burundi in three waves during the year.

About 15,000 returned during the first quarter because of violence in their camps in Burundi. Continued threats to refugee safety in Burundi prompted UNHCR to intensify its efforts to encourage voluntary repatriation. About 170 refugees conducted a tour of three Rwandan prefectures in May and met with the Rwandan prime minister.

The second wave of repatriation occurred in July, when some 15,000 were forcibly returned to Rwanda. UNHCR protested that Rwandan soldiers colluded with Burundian troops to force the repatriation. Many refugees charged that Rwandan troops entered Burundi during the operation. Two refugees arrived in Rwanda dead after suffocating in overcrowded trucks. Another returnee died after being detained by Rwandan authorities – local officials implicated in the death were reportedly arrested. Less than two weeks after the forced repatriation began, virtually all returnees had returned to their home areas.

The third wave of repatriation occurred in August, when 60,000 or more refugees repatriated. Some appeared to be returning voluntarily, others involuntarily. A fleet of more than 120 trucks operated by IOM provided the refugees with transportation from their camps in Burundi to a transit center in southern Rwanda, and then to their home communes.

Although returnees received a two-month food supply, returnees at two locations in southern Rwanda suffered malnutrition in November. Relief workers were in the process of establishing new nutritional centers to combat the malnutrition.

About 2,000 returnees from Burundi were arrested by Rwandan authorities in the final half of the year for alleged complicity in the 1994 genocide, UN human rights observers reported.

Mass Repatriation from Zaire More than 700,000 Rwandan refugees repatriated from Zaire during the year.

Rwandan officials, UNHCR, and many others in the international community placed a priority on encouraging voluntary repatriation from Zaire to Rwanda during 1995-96, in part due to their desire to eliminate the security risk that the militarized refugee camps in Zaire posed to the region. Many aid workers argued that extremist leaders in the Zaire camps were blocking many camp occupants who wished to return home.

In August 1996, the governments of Rwanda and Zaire agreed to a strategy of rapid and total repatriation. UNHCR responded by stating that it would not participate in a forced repatriation. Few repatriations occurred, in any case. During the first nine months of 1996, fewer than 10 percent of the Rwandan Hutu refugees in Zaire returned to Rwanda.

In October, an outbreak of civil war in Zaire, which engulfed Rwandan refugee camps there, produced what UNHCR described as the "largest and swiftest" repatriation in memory. About a half-million Rwandan refugees returned home during a four-day period in mid-November. Most returnees repatriated on foot, jamming the main Rwandan highway from the border. The sea of humanity stretched nearly 100 miles during the height of the return.

The orderliness of the trek home surprised many observers, who expected epidemics and violence, or other signs of tension with so many people on the move. Relief workers established eight way stations along the first 30 miles of highway to supply water and sanitation facilities as returnees walked past. Assistance to the refugees along the road was deliberately minimal in order to encourage families to return rapidly all the way to their home areas.

Tens of thousands of additional repatriations by Rwandan Hutu occurred during December, as Zaire's civil war continued.

An estimated 20,000 Rwandan Tutsi refugees who had lived in Zaire for decades also repatriated during the year. Some sources estimated that approximately 720,000 Rwandans of both ethnic groups returned from Zaire during the course of 1996.

Soldiers conducted virtually no screening or security checks of the returning population until after they returned home – a change from previous practices. Authorities required all returnee families to register with officials in their home communes. Most families received a one-month food ration after registration. Most refugees returned in relatively good health, according to a UNHCR nutrition survey.

The majority of the returnees lived in small towns or rural areas – only 30,000 were expected to settle in Kigali, the capital. A preliminary UNHCR study conducted in November indicated that 7 percent of the returnees surveyed found their homes occupied by squatters. About 4,300 members of the country's former army were among the returnees, according to UN workers.

The scale and rapidity of the repatriation caused several thousand children to become separated from their parents. ICRC and other relief agencies were continuing family tracing activities as the year ended.

UNHCR officials announced that they were "elated" with the repatriation from Zaire. "We have been planning and waiting for this to happen for two years. Now that they are coming in such numbers...we are determined to help them resume their normal lives," UNHCR stated. The U.S. Department of State's Special Coordinator for the region expressed amazement at the massive return. "It almost strains credulity that so many people could come back home with so much emotional baggage and have so few [violent] problems" so far.

Some other observers were less sanguine. One human rights agency criticized the November repatriation from Zaire and warned of unsafe conditions in Rwanda for returnees due to "nonfunctioning judicial systems and continuing military attacks on civilians." By year's end, Rwandan authorities arrested and detained about 700 of the new returnees from Zaire, according to UN human rights monitors. Some reportedly requested detention to protect themselves from retribution for the 1994 genocide.

As the year ended, international relief and development agencies warned that Rwanda would require immediate humanitarian relief as well as long-term development assistance to cope with the consequences of the massive repatriation from Zaire.

Repatriation from Tanzania Relatively few Rwandan refugees repatriated from Tanzania during the first 11 months of the year. That suddenly changed in December, when Tanzanian authorities, citing relatively safe conditions for repatriation inside Rwanda, expelled some 470,000 refugees. As many as 100,000 returned to Rwanda in a single day.

The majority of returnees entered Rwanda on foot, and then walked or received truck transportation to their home areas. Most returnees from Tanzania lived in eastern Rwanda and traveled shorter distances to their homes than did the returnees from Zaire. Rwandan government officials handled the logistics of the repatriation influx and restricted NGO participation in the exercise.

Authorities screened and registered returnees in their home areas, rather than at the border. Some 2,500 returnees from Tanzania were in detention at year's end, held on suspicion of participation in the 1994 genocide.

Zairian Refugees Political and ethnic conflict in eastern Zaire forced as many as 25,000 Zairian refugees into Rwanda. Most were ethnic Tutsi. Zairian authorities collaborated in the violence and attempted to deny citizenship to Tutsi even though many of them had lived in Zaire for generations and previously had legal citizenship.

Prior to March, the Rwandan government considered Tutsi entering from Zaire to be Rwandan refugees who were repatriating. Many were transported to southeastern Rwanda for resettlement. In late March, Rwandan authorities suddenly changed the classification, declaring that Tutsi fleeing into Rwanda from eastern Zaire were Zairian citizens who would be considered refugees during their time in Rwanda.

Of the 25,000 Zairian refugees in Rwanda by mid-1996, some 15,000 lived in a refugee camp, while up to 10,000 others reportedly lived on their own in Rwanda's border area. UNHCR protested that the Rwandan government's insistence on placing the refugee camp directly on the border put the refugees in danger of attack from Zaire. UNHCR refused to provide assistance to the camp because of its dangerous location. The camp's poor sanitation and minimal services led to malnutrition and the deaths of several children in mid-year.

Conditions at the camp subsequently improved. Rwandan officials belatedly agreed to relocate the camp. It is believed that several thousand of the refugees returned to eastern Zaire before year's end, leaving an estimated 15,000 in Rwanda.

Burundian Refugees Civil war and politically motivated ethnic violence in Burundi pushed several thousand Burundian refugees into southern Rwanda during the year. The eruption of civil war in Zaire late in the year forced additional Burundian refugees into Rwanda from their camps in Zaire. The overwhelming majority of Burundian refugees were ethnic Hutu.

Rwandan officials established a camp for the refugees less than two miles from the Rwanda-Burundi border. Conditions at the camp were poor. UNHCR complained that the camp's proximity to the border posed a security risk to the refugees. Refugees and independent human rights workers reported that the refugees faced harassment, intimidation, and regular threats of expulsion by Rwandan troops. Nearly 400 refugees were repatriated to Burundi in September. Rwandan authorities described it as a voluntary repatriation; other sources viewed it as a forcible return.

Up to 5,000 Burundian refugees remained in Rwanda at the end of 1996.

USCR Actions USCR conducted two site visits to Rwanda during 1996 to assess conditions for repatriation.

In June, USCR published a report, Masisi, Down the Road From Goma, that assessed the condition of Zairian refugees in Rwanda and the reasons for their flight. The report found that the camp for Zairian refugees lacked sanitation and medical facilities and was located on volcanic rock, which made digging for latrines and water difficult.

"Rwandan officials and UNHCR should move the new refugee camp in Rwanda to a location that is safer and more conducive to humanitarian assistance," USCR's report stated. "A new camp site should provide adequate water supply, storage, and improved protection for the refugees." The camp was subsequently moved to a more appropriate site. The report also indicated that many Zairian refugees and Rwandan returnees from Zaire disliked their resettlement sites in southeastern Rwanda. Many of them left the area's inhospitable climate and poor services.

USCR participated in a U.S. congressional subcommittee hearing in December regarding the refugee situation in Central Africa. USCR recommended that "the international community should place a priority on addressing acute needs inside Rwanda as that nation absorbs the return home of...refugees." USCR's public testimony at the hearing warned, "The United States and other donor nations cannot turn their collective backs on Rwanda at this critical moment. Rwanda is attempting to get back on its feet.... The international community must invest in the ability of Rwandan society to reintegrate itself."

USCR recommended a rapid expansion of the UN human rights monitoring program in Rwanda, and urged Rwanda to "adhere to appropriate standards of evidence" when arresting suspects in the genocide. USCR stated that "Rwandan national officials should personally visit returnees in every commune to gain their confidence and assuage their fears."

USCR's congressional testimony concluded, "Despite all they have endured, Rwandans are being asked – and expected – to live together again. It will be hard. Some problems are predictable."

USCR conducted two public briefings and numerous private briefings about humanitarian needs inside Rwanda. The agency provided analysis that helped the U.S. Justice Department decide to continue granting Temporary Protected Status to Rwandan nationals in the United States.

USCR hosted three briefings by Rwandan government officials to facilitate dialogue with international NGOs about problems in Rwanda.

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