Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rwanda: The long journey home for terrified refugees

Ivone Mukunakoze fled the Rwandan genocide in 1994 expecting a better life in the Democratic Republic of Congo; instead, she spent years on the run as rampaging militias terrorised areas of eastern DRC.

Eventually, she settled in Gatoyi village, Masisi area in North Kivu Province, controlled by the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda [FDLR].

The group is the main target of a joint military operation launched in January by DRC and Rwandan forces. The operation, observers say, has considerably weakened the rebels and created an opportunity for many Rwandan refugees to consider returning home.

"I feel safer now that we are clear of the combat zone," she said at a transit centre in the provincial capital of Goma, where she waited to be registered for repatriation. "I have no fears in going back to Rwanda as I have done nothing wrong there."

She left Gatoyi before her husband, who stayed behind to sell their belongings, after the FDLR assured her a safe passage out. "I am sure they were FDLR," she said. "They came with us to make sure we weren't robbed by bandits on the way."

Officials of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), however, said the FDLR had blocked civilians from leaving the area. Serge Balaga said the rebels were holding some civilians hostage in the forests.

"There are testimonies to that," the Goma-based official said.

The FDLR is largely made up of Rwandan Hutus who arrived in the DRC after the genocide in Rwanda, although some 30 percent are now believed to be Congolese Hutus. Aid workers say the group has since committed many atrocities against civilians.

Since 13 February, for instance, it has carried out numerous attacks in Masisi, Lubero and Walikale areas, sparking a new wave of displacement. According to UNHCR, 3,000 people were displaced in Remeka village, some 20km south of Masisi, following a recent attack.

Using firearms and machetes, they also attacked Kipopo and Kamuobe near Masisi, and Kanyatsi and Busigho near Lubero, killing civilians and raping women.

Army optimistic

Since January, 580 Rwandan refugees have gone home via the transit centre at Goma - a much higher number than the 160 recorded this time last year. The returnees include FDLR family members.

"This is an indication that the people want to go home rather than face the conflict here," Balaga said. These included fighters.

"Since the [joint military] operation began, we have gone from 40 to 400 repatriations [of demobilised rebels] per week," said Bruno Donat of the UN Mission in DRC (MONUC). The mission provides some support for the joint operation.

Among the returnees are 1,103 combatants and their families - almost as many as the combined total of those who returned throughout 2008.

With the FDLR weakened, the DRC army is upbeat, saying the job of routing the rebels is almost done. "The FDLR structure has been largely destroyed and their forces broken up," joint forces commander Lt Gen John Numbi, said. "There is nowhere they can go now."

This week, the Rwandan army started pulling back, with military trucks crossing the border back to their barracks on 25 February. The trucks were followed by foot soldiers.

Still, aid workers said, the humanitarian situation in North Kivu remains desperate. According to UNHCR, some 850,000 people are still displaced, including 250,000 who fled since August. Many have experienced displacement several times.

During a recent visit to the volatile North Kivu province, the top UN official in DRC, Allan Doss, urged all FDLR fighters to put down their arms and return home.

"The FDLR have to understand that there is no room for them on Congolese soil," he said. "Many thousands of civilian refugees have taken the path of return ... I urge the fighters who remain in the DRC to follow their example and take the way back."

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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