Kangura No. 02

Rwandan Refugees Struggle to Return Massively to Their Country

By Gilles Toupin

The tragedy of Rwanda’s political exiles is one of those human dramas that rarely makes it into the headlines. Who is interested in the oldest, most numerous and most forgotten refugees in Africa? According to the exiled opposition, there are two million uprooted people. According to the Government in Kigali, this figure has been largely exaggerated. The issue is daunting but marginal when compared to the major questions currently being discussed on the international scene. Moreover, this problem has been going on for such a long time (30 years)! Nothing in the regional complexity of this small corner of Africa is significant enough to attract the attention of the western world.

Nevertheless, for Mr. Claude Rukeba, a Rwandan refugee in Montreal for the last three years, holding a degree in criminology from the University of Oslo, the struggle to allow Rwandan exiles the right to return has been the fight of a lifetime.

At the end of last year, he went to Kenya to bury his father, François Rukeba, who at the time was the chairperson of the Union Nationale Rwandaise (UNAR, outlawed since 1964). Claude Rukeba is basically ensuring the interim management of the party until the central committee elections, which will be held this year. It was in this capacity that he was called upon to testify last February at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva on the issue of Rwandan refugees.

“What we are asking of the Rwandan Government,” says Mr. Rukeba, “is the recognition of our political party and a round table with President Juvénal Habyarimana’s current government on the issues of national reconciliation and the return of refugees. We also wish to see the return of the king (Kigeli Ndahindurwa V), exiled in Nairobi, and the organization of a referendum on the monarchy. UNAR firmly believes that the king should be above all political haggling.”

According to Mr. Rukeba, the Rwandan Diaspora has sought refuge in Kenya, in neighboring Burundi, in Tanzania and in Zaïre. Some one hundred Rwandans live in Quebec of which approximately fifty live in Montreal.

Rwanda has a presidential regime, but political life within the country has been subjugated to the law of the single party, the Mouvement National Révolutionnaire pour le Développement (M.R.N.D.). The Head of State, Major General Juvénal Habyarimana, who obtained his position through a coup in 1973, was elected for the third consecutive time on 19 December 1988, receiving 99.8% of the votes.

As in neighboring Burundi, an inter-ethnic cycle of violence has marked the country’s history. Governed since the fifteenth century by “divine monarchies,” bred from a specific group of princes by blood (Bahindiro), a king (Mwami) wields most of the power. The royal caste comes from the Tutsi ethnic group (which represents today approximately 12% of the Rwandan population). The Tutsis, who allegedly descended from the Nilo-Hamites, came from the north of the equator and are accustomed to a pastoral lifestyle. The Hutus, of Bantu origin, are described as farmers and, although they represent the overwhelming majority in Rwanda, they submitted to Tutsi rule for centuries. A third group, the Twapygmy, warrior huntersis not very large. It goes without saying that these racial classifications are contested by many Rwandans who attribute them to the Belgian colonizers’ will to divide a population, which had been living together for thousands of years, in order to achieve their political goals.

Since the creation of Rwanda in 1959, rivalries between Hutus and Tutsis have caused many massacres and nameless atrocities. Thus, the Hutu majority took control of the State through the “manipulation of the Belgian government at the time,” claims Mr. Rukeba. “Today, the country is governed according to the laws of ethnic percentages.”

According to Mr. Rukeba, it is high time old ethnic rivalries were set aside and everyone worked together for national reconciliation. “Mr. Habyarimana’s regime is a real apartheid system,” he said. “The government has imposed a 5% quota on Tutsis serving in the civil service. Aside from a single officer, the Army has no Tutsis. Moreover, every Rwandan citizen has to carry an identity card on which the ethnicity of the bearer must be mentioned. We strongly object to this idea of identity cards, as they are used for repression.”

Mr. Rukeba goes on to say, “[a] Tutsi citizen has no political right, no freedom of expression. He does not even have the right to read the newspapers published by his compatriots in exile. Nor does he have the right to receive visits from family members coming from abroad. The government has repeatedly said that there is no place in Rwanda for the two million Rwandans in exile.”

The country’s difficulties also compound the political problem of the refugees. Rwanda faces a series of structural problems. As far as trade is concerned, the country depends on Kenya and Tanzania for its exports and supplies because of its geographical location. Rwanda is landlocked: it is 2,220 kilometers away from the Atlantic and 1,200 kilometers away from the Indian Ocean. A great part of its economy is based on the price of coffee on the world market, which is currently very low. Moreover, the country’s demographic pressure (256.5 inhabitants per square kilometer) makes it one of the most densely populated nations in Africa.

In August 1988, fourteen delegations of refugees met in Washington. The meeting’s report stated the Rwandan Government’s refusal to engage in dialogue with the refugees. Nevertheless, in April 1990, Kigali announced the creation of a committee to study the problems of refugees. Mr. Rukeba explains: “The Government is aware of the fact that this problem is a threat. There is some degree of hope but we must not deceive ourselves. Kigali’s maneuver could be another attempt to soothe international opinion that is increasingly sensitive to the problem. In April, Rwanda and Uganda will meet to discuss the issues of refugeesthose who wish to visit their families, those who wish to seek asylum elsewhere, and those who wish to remain in the refugee camps. Since 1959, the majority of Rwandan refugees are still living in refugee camps. For us, any ratification of the resolutions adopted by the Ugandan-Rwandan committee will be invalid if no refugees, the main parties concerned, participate in the negotiations.”

Mr. Rukeba mentions notably that in February 1962 the Rwandan Government had accepted the repatriation of the refugees during a reconciliation commission set up by the United Nations. Thirty years later they are still in exile. The solutions proposed are judged unacceptable by the opposition in exile. In fact, Kigali advocates individual repatriation on request—which can be granted or refused—integration into the asylum country and the granting of visitation rights. The refugees, however, aspire for unity through national harmony and putting an “end to ethnic and regional balancing act in schools and the various public and private sectors so that citizens will be considered only on the basis of their rights, liberties and competencies, and not on the basis of their ethnic or regional origin.” In other words, the refugees want their country and “the right to return and to receive all the rights of citizenship with no distinction.”

For Kigali, there are two options: individual return or naturalization in the country of exile.

In all, international or public forums, the Rwandan Government has always expressed its concern for the problem of Rwandan refugees.

Nevertheless, according to the Rwandan Ambassador to Canada, His Excellency Joseph Nsengiyumva, “a realistic and humane solution to the harrowing problem of the refugees” must be considered in the historical and economic context of this small African country.

“Rwanda is a small country, hardly bigger than Gaspesia,” says Mr. Nsengiyumva, with a population density of “260 inhabitants per square kilometer. The demographic pressure makes it difficult to find any solution to the refugee problem. It’s a bit like when you go to the cinema,” explains Mr. Nsengiyumva, “and you find the door closed because the theatre is full. You are not going to say that you were refused entrance, but rather that there was no more space!”

Another major problem facing Kigali is the poverty of Rwanda itself. The Ambassador affirms that it is a country that has been classified as one of the poorest in the world, and is operating a subsistence level economy, essentially dependant on the agricultural sector where 95% of the population works. The Rwandan economy, like that of other African countries, has seen no growth and the future seems grim.”

Furthermore, political considerations should not be overlooked. According to Mr. Nsengiyumva, the Union Nationale Rwandaise (Rwandan National Unity) party, headed by Mr. Claude Rukeba, in view of its desire to establish a parliamentary monarchy in Rwanda, is “an offspring of the Rwandan feudal system, which is remembered with fear.”

It was back at the dawn of mankind that the fight started “between the farmer and the cattle-breeder, he explains, between the Hutus’ hoe and the Tutsis’ cow. The latter, although in the minority, won and established a political system based on the monarchy, the exclusive preserve of important Tutsis families, the majority of Hutu harvesters were completely politically and socially enslaved.”


Mr. Nsengiyumva continues: “The white colonizers found in Rwanda a stratified society and used the existing feudal system as an indirect administration to get the population to do the chores at the time. Thus, the little people had to suffer from the double colonization of ethnic Tutsis and of the Belgian colonizers. The two colonizers were completely swept out during the fight for independence in 1962.”

It is understood that that is when the problem of Rwandan refugees arose. Some “wanted to see Rwanda accede to independence under a monarchy in which the Tutsis ethnic minority (14% of the population at the time) held all the power. Others, those who triumphed, were in favor of a political system based on political parties and democratic elections. The Republic was proclaimed, and the monarchy and feudal system were forever abolished.”

The “partisans of the old orderwent into exile or adopted a strategy of terror from the neighboring countries in a bid to regain power.”

“There was, recalls Ambassador Nsengiyumva, a ministry for refugees until 1966.those who wished to return did so with the assistance of the Government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (H.C.R.). Though the massive return has ceased, the procedure of individual return through the H.C.R. channel is still in effect. Refugees are to this day still returning to Rwanda.”

Today the Rwandan government is trying to find a solution “through the international instruments Rwanda has adhered to.” It has taken “the necessary steps to allow those who wish to visit their families to do so. Individual return through the H.C.R. channel is still possible.”

Unrealistic Aspirations

The Habyarimana Government nonetheless feels that there cannot be, as UNAR has demanded, “a massive and uncontrolled return of all the refugees. That is unrealistic,” affirms Mr. Nsengiyumva, “because of the country’s physical constraints and poverty Rwanda’s initial approach was to negotiate with the countries that have taken in the refugees to see if they might consider naturalizing those who wished, because none should be forced. Thus, in the hope of maintaining national and regional security, the Rwandan government wishes to put an end once and for all to the Rwandan refugee problem by allowing them to return individually or to be naturalized.”

Ambassador Nsengiyumva concludes: “At this time, we are in the process of working out negotiating with Tanzania the details of installing a million Rwandans there. Now is not the time to commit ourselves to take on an additional 200,000 people who have been living outside the country for the last 25 years.”