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Once in a lifetime

by Abbas Gullet

When Rwandan refugees abandoned their camps in Tanzania, fearing an enforced repatriation, Federation delegate Abbas Gullet found himself in the midst of the exodus.

The meeting room was filled to capacity on that Sunday afternoon in November 1996. UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Sergio de Mello announced that the Tanzanian government had decided that the security situation in Rwanda had improved sufficiently for all refugees to return home by the end of the year. He informed us that this decision had the support of UNHCR and asked for understanding from all the organizations concerned. He requested assistance with educating the refugees with a view to a peaceful and orderly repatriation.

At the time there were four refugee camps in Ngara, namely Benaco, Lumasi, Musuhura for Rwandan refugees and Lukole for Burundian. The International Feder-ation and the Tanzanian Red Cross managed Benaco and Lukole. In preparation for the repatriation, UNHCR asked us to set up three way-stations to assist the sick, elderly and lost or unaccompanied children and to provide first-aid and water points. Within three days this was done and an emergency team put in place comprising health, sanitation, water, logistics and security personnel.

Things did not go as planned. The refugees learned of the government’s decision through the local and international media even before it could be officially disseminated in the camps. Stirred up by their leaders and fearful of an enforced repatriation, the refugees took to the road, heading in the wrong direction — away from Rwanda.



Hasty departure

It was early afternoon of Thursday 10 December. I was paying a regular visit to Lukole camp, when I learned that some Burundian refugees had just arrived from Lumasi, after being attacked by Rwandan refugees leaving the camp. I decided to go to Lumasi to see what was happening. Driving through the back roads, I saw a thin line of people walking through the forest into the interior of Tanzania. A few hid or ran away when they saw me.

As I approached the camp, I could see a number of huts had been abandoned, while others had been burnt. The drive through the camp that had hosted 110,000 individuals confirmed my first impressions. At least 40 per cent of the camp was empty. I asked some refugees who were packing their belongings where they were going. They didn’t know, but probably Kenya or Malawi, countries they believed to be sympathetic to their cause.

I immediately called my counterpart at UNHCR to inform him of what was happening and went on to Benaco, the largest of the camps, to assess the situation. From a bustling “metropolis” of 200,000 people (with a population density of Paris), the camp had become a ghost town. The residents had obviously left in a hurry, grabbing what possessions they could and leaving behind what they could not carry.

During the “mopping up” operation in the camps, which took place over a period of six days, 30 Tanzanian Red Cross volunteers and two Federation delegates found children and sick and elderly people who had been left behind by relatives in the panic to leave, too frail to take part in the exodus. Many dead bodies were also found.

Team response

From Lumasi junction overlooking Musuhura and Benaco camps I could see a chain of human beings over 10km long stretching along the main road. It was about 6.30 p.m., the sun was setting, and there I stood in the midst of hundreds of men, women and children, young and old, some on bicycles, others on wheelbarrows, carrying their worldly belongings on their heads, the numbers gradually swelling to their thousands. I had never seen anything like it in my life.

Many came up to ask me to fill their jerrycans with water. Thanks to a radio handset that I had with me, I was able to call our base station and ask our standby emergency team to organize four water tankers, each with 10,000 litres, to deliver water to the site and to bring along a generator, as we had convinced the refugees to stop and spend the night there. By 7.30 p.m. there must have been 200,000 refugees gathered in this one place, camping in the cold only a few kilometres away from the shelter of their huts or blendes. We worked all night long, distributing water to all those in need.

Meanwhile the authorities in Tanzania had ordered the army to stop the refugees and redirect them to Rwanda. Chaos and confusion ensued, as by this time many refugees had walked some 60 to 100 km in the other direction and now had to be physically escorted back by the military and police. Some took ten days to walk to Rwanda.

In the crowd, I saw a colleague who had worked with us as a computer expert. He was walking back to Rwanda and asked me for a ride to the border. I wanted to say yes, but I looked at the thousands of people walking, the children, the mothers, the elderly who needed transport as well, and knew I had to say no.

Our team at the way-stations and water points had to work 24 hours a day for about 14 days over a stretch of nearly 100 km. A thousand people a day passed through our way-stations, with minor injuries, exhaustion and illnesses — some women even gave birth.

There were also incidents of refugees fighting among themselves. One night, a colleague and I found a body by the roadside covered in blood. We stopped our vehicle. I thought he was dead. But on closer inspection I saw his hands and legs move and I shouted back that he was alive. The man tried to speak to me, but I could hardly hear him as his head and several parts of his body had been slashed with a machete. Ten metres away lay another badly injured man. We sent them to the hospital, where our surgical team was waiting for them. Both men had immediate surgery and both survived. I was glad to have played a small part in saving the lives of these two individuals, without giving a thought to who, how, why or when.

There were difficult moments certainly during those two weeks, and our resources and energies were stretched to the limits. But for all of us it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We could not have done what we did without the team of dedicated people supporting us.


Abbas Gullet
Abbas Gullet was the Federation head of sub-delegation in Ngara at the time of the events.

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