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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 is Editor of the Ugandan newspaper The
Monitor, based in Kampala.
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