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The Returnees’ Plight
By David Zarembka

Last year on November 26 I was at Kagarama Church in Kigali, Rwanda, attending services when I noticed that Josephine Mukangoga was not in the choir. Josephine is a lead AVP facilitator and the accountant at the Friends Peace House for the AGLI programs. She is also a loyal member of the choir. The next day I asked her why she was not in church and she replied that she was visiting her mother. She proceeded to tell me her story.

In 1959, when the Belgians were still the ruling colonial power in Rwanda and the first violent conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu had begun, Josephine’s parents, who were children at the time, fled east into Karagwe District of Tanzania. Her mother lived there for nearly five decades raising her family. Then in November 2006 she and two of her children and their families, as part of 60,000 Rwandans and Burundians refugees, were expelled from Karagwe District with one day’s notice and forced to return back into Rwanda. They had to leave behind everything that they could not carry. Much of what remained was then looted by her Tanzanian neighbors. The Rwandan Government sent these returnees to a resettlement camp in Nemba next to the Burundian border. There is one bus from Kigali each day making only one round trip to Nemba. So Josephine had gone to visit her mother, brother, and sister that Sunday.

While the conflict within Rwanda is between Hutu and Tutsi, their neighbors outside the country see them both as “Rwandans.” The Tutsi in Karagwe District had fled Rwanda from 1959 to the early 1960’s and were put in their own refugee camps. The Hutu who fled in 1994 during the genocide were placed separately in their own refugee camps. But when both groups were recently expelled, about 258 families, mutually suspicious of each other, were resettled together in Nemba. Josephine asked me if AGLI could support some AVP workshops in Nemba in order to teach the two groups how to solve problems peacefully so that they could build their new community together without hostility and possibly violence. AGLI agreed to do four basic and two advanced AVP workshops in Nemba.

On March 23, 2007, when I next returned to Rwanda, I visited the second of these AVP workshops. Nemba is in a remote area, high on a ridge overlooking the river that was the boundary between Rwanda and Burundi. Because there was no water, it has been uninhabited, except for the grazing of cows,. The World Food Program was bringing a water tanker to the site each day to fill up two gigantic canvas “jugs” and the people then came to them to draw water as if they were going to a spring. The people live in small huts covered by plastic to form the walls and roof. The only use of these “huts” was to sleep at night and store a few personal items. The school was built of poles covered with plastic; they are now beginning the construction of a brick school house on the site. When I arrived in Nemba, Josephine introduced me to her sister. Her mother had returned to Tanzania temporarily to see if she could dispose of any property which remained.

The AVP workshop was being held in a very small room with only partially filled mud walls, and again a plastic tarp roof . The twenty participants and three facilitators barely fit. I sat down with the participants and had a discussion with them as they began their lives all over again in this new, bleak environment. In Tanzania most people speak Swahili, the widely promoted national language. It is in Tanzania that I learned my Swahili. So I was very surprised to see that only one man was fluent in Swahili. Another older man began speaking in Swahili, but quickly reverted to Kinyarwandan. None of the women were willing to speak in Swahili. This indicated that these Rwandan refugees had been totally isolated from Tanzanian society during the decades they were in the refugee camps there. This confirmed my observation that refugees in another country have few rights and their refugee camps are nothing more than prisons without walls. One of the women commented that they wished to have more contact with Rwandans since the language and culture had changed since they fled Rwanda.

When I spoke to Josephine and the other AVP facilitators, they told me that AVP was accomplishing what we had hoped. The two suspicious groups were beginning to accept each other, to see each other as human beings, and were learning how they could resolve the many conflicts inherent in building a new community peacefully through discussion and negotiation. Due to the need and success of this small project, AVP-Rwanda developed a proposal to do the same six AVP workshops in six other resettlement villages in eastern Rwanda. This proposal was funded by the Drane Family Fund of the New Hampshire Foundation. As I write this report the AVP workshops in these six camps have just begun. Let us pray for these returnees as they begin life anew and wish them peace and prosperity as they build their communities.

David Zarembka is the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams and lives in Lumakanda, Kenya, with his wife, Gladys Kamonya.