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Return to Rwanda

By Charles Onyango-Obbo
Four years after the genocide and one year after the massive repatriation of refugees, Rwanda is struggling to regain its equilibrium, but the country remains deeply scarred. The Red Cross in all its facets is working to help Rwandans recover from the worst effects of the conflict. Yet, the looming possibility of further strife demands that the Movement consider whether its efforts are leading to true stabilization and reconciliation.

The ride to Muyaga, Butare prefecture, southern Rwanda was bumpy and winding. The village to which we were headed was so remote that the sight of a car can still cause panic. On seeing our vehicle one village boy rushed to his father and clung to his leg for dear life.

It seemed an unlikely place to find something of interest. But there was: a rice-growing project of the TARATABARA Association, funded by the Swiss Red Cross. Here, since August 1997, the Rwandan Red Cross through the International Federation has been providing equipment, seeds, chemicals and follow-up to the project.

After several weeks of rain, much of the rice fields were waterlogged. But the drizzle and cold couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Kassia Kanyamibyako, 60, a member of the association. “We have worked together on small village projects before,” he explained. “However, this project with the Red Cross is the best, because they have provided us with things we would never have been able to afford on our own: hoes, manure, seeds and other things.” It is also the biggest project the community has ever worked on together.




Coming home

There are still many vulnerable people in Rwanda. It was never going to be easy resettling and reintegrating millions of internally displaced persons and refugees who have returned to Rwanda after fleeing the 1994 war and genocide. Nevertheless, by early 1996, humanitarian aid agencies began to feel that they were starting to get on top of the crisis. The November 1996 rebel offensive in western Zaire (renamed Democratic Republic of Congo in May 1997) stalled the process. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees abandoned camps in Zaire and north-western Tanzania and set off on foot on a tortuous journey home.

The influx created pressures everywhere. At the Kacyiru Orphanage in Kigali, according to Mukansoro Odette, the officer in charge of tracing, the number of orphans and children separated from their families rose to 3,500 in December 1996, its highest ever. Since 1994, 6,800 children have passed through the centre, whose programmes are presently supported by the Rwandan and Belgian Red Cross Societies.

The statistics are impressive. By November 1997, 6,518 of the children had been reunited with their families or placed with foster parents. Two hundred and eighty children aged between one-and-a-half and 18 years remain at the centre.

Ms Mukansoro knows most of them by name. Not surprising. “Some of them come here when they are too young and can’t tell you their names, so I give them their new names,” she says. The children who remain have cried as often as they have seen the lucky ones reunited with their parents, leaving them behind. As we approach one of the houses for children of around three years of age, they rush to meet us. This is not just child’s play. It is an emotional race. The fastest ones get to grab a visitor’s hand, and to declare that he or she is their “papa” or “mama”. All the little boys are wearing matching blue cotton shorts and shirts marked with the logo of the Ame-rican National Basketball Association champions, the Chicago Bulls.

The difficulties notwithstanding, the scale of settlement programmes and the reunions of unaccompanied children with their families in Rwanda has been a leap as high as that of the Chicago Bull’s star guard, Michael Jordan. Roberta Martinelli, the coordinator of the ICRC’s tracing activities in Rwanda, says it is the Movement’s largest tracing of unaccompanied children in the world since 1945.

Since 1994, 118,322 Rwandan children have been registered inside and outside the country as unaccompanied. By end of November 1997, 51,047 had been reunited with their families. Some 12,000 were reunited by the ICRC, the rest by local and international NGOs also involved in tracing.

Ms Martinelli says 19,000 new and past cases remain to be solved. Not all of them are unaccompanied, however. Because both the children and their parents or relatives must freely agree to get back together, several children who have refused to be reunited with their families are still in the net. Otherwise, Ms Martinelli says, 10,000 serious cases remain to be solved.

Together again

The camps are emptying, though. To the west of Kigali, Runde children’s transit camp, minded primarily by Concern and the UNHCR, held over 1,000 children at one point after the November 1996 repatriation, according to Bernard Barrett, the ICRC’s information delegate in Rwanda who has visited it many times. A year later, it holds less than 200. “An empty camp is a good sign,” Barrett says. At the end of the morning of 10 December, Runde prepared to lose one more resident: 15-year-old Innocent Sibomana.

An ICRC crew arrived to take Sibomana to his mother, Felicite Mukankuranga, in Nyamirambo, a crowded poor suburb of Kigali. Sibomana last saw his mother and siblings in the Congo in 1994 when they were separated. He was taken in by an aunt, who abandoned him in late 1996. He found his way back to an orphanage, and had arrived in Runde two weeks earlier. Either because he was a recent arrival, or perhaps because the other children no longer wanted the pain of acknowledging any of them departing camp, Sibomana left Runde without much fanfare.

We drove in silence up to his mother’s house in Nyamirambo. Sibomana was confused by the surroundings. It is unlikely that when he left it three years ago, it was as dilapidated. His mother rushed and clutched him in a firm hug. “Sibo, Sibo, you are the one...” she kept repeating as she circled him, clapping her hands in wonder. A stream of relatives, mostly his aunts, kept emerging and hugging Sibo. Tears welled up in his eyes. But he didn’t cry. Tears were in his mother’s eyes too. But she didn’t cry openly either.

A neighbour, still in a kind of daze from losing most of his family in the genocide, came by. “I had my boy, he was younger than Sibo. He disappeared,” declared the middle-aged man. An ICRC officer brought out two photo albums of unaccompanied Rwandan children. The village gathered to look through the pictures. The first album published in May 1997 contained pictures of 208 children. As a result, over 100 of the children had found their families by November. The latest has 440 pictures of infants separated from their families in the repatriations to Rwanda since November 1996. The children, most under six years of age, are too young to provide their full names, the names of their parents or their places of origin.

Hoping to locate their families, the ICRC, with the help of UNICEF, distributed 2,500 copies of the album throughout Rwanda, to various local bodies, health centres, churches and organizations involved in tracing and family reunions.

It was a mixed day. The man didn’t find his child in the album. Sibo was reunited with his mother, but tears were not too abundant. It was a summary of Rwanda. A country where half the people have lost everything, where half have salvaged something, where some people have stopped shedding tears, and where everyone — including the NGOs — need to get on with life and the urgent business of the day.


Awaiting justice

There are over 127,000 genocide suspects de-tained in Rwandan prisons. Arrests have increased since repatriation. Returnees are now estimated to comprise about 20 per cent of prisoners. On average, every month, the Rwandan courts dispose of about 20 to 25 cases. However, for most of 1997, on average 1,000 new suspects were detained each month. Though that is far higher than the 240 people accused of genocide who have so far appeared before the UN International Tribunal on Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, over the last two years, human rights monitors estimate that at the current rate it will still take over 300 years to deal with all suspects in detention. Unless, of course, they are released under some amnesty programme.

A recent limited release of 2,100 suspects, some because they were old, others because they were sickly, and a couple because they were children, provoked an angry demonstration from genocide survivors. They carried some of those released back to the jail, and some had to be taken into safe custody by government officials to prevent mobs from lynching them.

All this means that the ICRC will be doing detention visits in Rwanda for a while. The organization carries out 160,000 visits to people in detention throughout the world, 127,000 (three-quarters) of them in Rwanda, according to Dominique Dufour, ICRC head of delegation in Kigali. Dufour says that as 1997 drew to a close, the ICRC was providing 57 per cent of the normal and high-protein food for prisoners in Rwanda, and a good part of the medicines. Francisco Otero y Villar, the ICRC’s coordinator of the programme, explains that the ICRC visits 17 of the 19 prisons in Rwanda. In nearly all of these prisons, in addition to providing food and medicines, the ICRC has made improvements in water, toilets, kitchen facilities, and distributes soap and detergents among other supplies.

In order not to concentrate solely on the prisons, the scheme provides clean water to the communities in the environs of the detention centres. Villar says conditions in the mainstream prisons have improved considerably as a result of the programme. In addition, the ICRC and Rwanda’s national utility Electrogaz recently in-augurated the Rwampara pumping station, which provides water to
the Kigali districts of Nyamirambo, Kimisange and Gikondo. The project involved the rehabilitation of five springs, the installation of two new pumps, and delivery pipes. The pumps are now capable of producing 35 cubic metres of water per hour, compared to 15 before the programme started.

The Red Cross has not been able to work freely everywhere it would have wanted. Because of insecurity in the northern prefectures of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi, and the killing of two Rwandan Red Cross workers there recently, the Movement’s activities in the area are limited. This is partly because the leadership of the rebels is not known, and humanitarian agencies as yet have no one to talk to and seek guarantees about the safety of their operations.

Rebuilding the National Society

Another casualty of the insecurity is the rebuilding of the Rwandan National Society, which fell apart during the genocide. Grassroots is uneven, with relatively less progress being made in parts of the north. Augustine Rugasana, who heads the Rwandan Red Cross’s Development Programme, says the Society has re-established itself and has an executive and assembly in all the country’s 12 prefectures. In a peaceful prefecture like Butare, unlike uneasy Ruhengeri, structures down to all the communal committees have been re-established and are active.

After the genocide, explains Adjakly, one of the reasons it took some time to begin rebuilding the Rwandan Red Cross was “because everyone considered themselves vulnerable. It was difficult to ask them to help, because they were vulnerable too.” In November, development activities were put on ice, and all hands moved to deal with the crisis caused by the massive return of Rwandan refugees.

Today, Rugasana declares triumphantly, the Rwandan Red Cross has a membership of 40,000. Of these, 5,000 are from the youth section, organized in some 84 schools. From the schools, the students are reaching out to young people who are not in formal school.

The good sign here is that compared to a year ago, the Red Cross is doing more of the type of business it hasn’t done in Rwanda in recent years. Eleventh December in Butare was day four of the community-based first-aid project. There are eight days to go. Today the trainees are learning about sexually transmitted diseases. They have sat in the room all day; one of the women has brought her little baby along.

Supported by the Federation and Rwandan Red Cross, the project is run exclusively by Rwandans. It used to be that Red Cross members learnt first aid, and then sat back to wait for an accident or disaster. The National Society decided to broaden the support its members give to their communities by teaching them leadership skills, preventive health, how to develop and manage development projects, and offer more medical assistance beyond first aid. The first group of 12, one from each prefecture, each went back and taught other members of the community. And the chain is supposed to carry on from there.

At Remera Training School, Mbogo, Kigali Rural prefecture, the Federation and National Society have a school project for the purchase of furniture for sale, and kitchen supplies for the preparation of tea. In Rutobwe, Gitarama, it is a project to do with an item that would have looked very cynical to spend money on two years ago — bread.



Is it enough?

In all these examples, the case can be made that it has paid off, however modestly, to be in Rwanda. If the
harvest is good next season, the TARATABARA Association members will be lenders, not borrowers. If
the trend continues, the Kacyiru Orphanage in Kigali will be less busy than it is today, and the polythene tents at Runde children’s transit camp will have been dismantled. And, hopefully, the community-based first-aid project will not be busy ministering to wounded and hungry people in a refugee camp.

There remains, however, good reason for nail-biting too. Since November 1996, the government estimates that up to 1.2 million Rwandans have returned home. The many more mouths to feed, the insecurity in the north which has traditionally been Rwanda’s bread basket, and heavy rains which are affecting crops, have combined to ensure a serious food problem for 1998. Already, prices for potatoes in some parts of the country have gone up by as much as 300 per cent.

There will be a large food deficit. This requires a more creative grassroots response. After the breakdown of the Rwandan Red Cross in the 1994 genocide, the opportunity should have been taken to rebuild the National Society from the bottom up. The current top-down approach of rebuilding the Rwandan Red Cross seems a little too old fashioned. The risk here is that the tone is set from above, and the development of local chapters are held hostage to the pace and needs of the national, not local leaderships.

The Movement in Rwanda should have done a little more to focus attention on the logic of the housing programmes, with such impersonal structures, built so close to each other. There is still time to encourage a shift to spending aid money building infrastructure and social services in designated areas, and allowing the people some freedom to build their homes in the style that they like.

Finally, there is a clear lack of confidence-building programmes and creative projects that help the process of national reconciliation. In real terms, the prospects for stability in Rwanda have diminished over the last two years. How much do Red Cross programmes contribute to stabilizing communities? Does it make sense to do all the work that NGOs are doing in Rwanda today, if it will all go up in smoke tomorrow?

In countries like Rwanda, which have gone through a genocide and are still teetering on the brink of civil war, humanitarian organizations need to ask themselves some very serious questions. Is it enough to bandage the wound and keep the flies away, or rather should something not be done to heal the wound and prevent it ever arising again?

Charles Onyango-Obbo
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Editor of the Ugandan newspaper The Monitor, based in Kampala.

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