In April 2005, thousands of Rwandans moved south into neighboring Burundi. According to some reports, they are fleeing to avoid being summoned to appear at Gacaca – Rwanda’s village courts set to try hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects.
The Government of Burundi says some five thousand crossed its border. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees puts the number at just over seven thousand. Media reports also claim about one thousand fled to neighboring Uganda and Tanzania.
The Rwandan Council for Refuges says it does not have any statistics.
Apart from the question of how many people have left Rwanda, the real question is perhaps why? Is it because of Gacaca? This is denied, by some of those who fled.
Some of them say they fled because they heard rumors the Rwandan government is planning to massacre them, with the help of local officials.
“We’re not happy with our leaders”, says Papius Hakizimana one of the people who fled to Burundi. “We hear they’ve distributed identity cards different to ours. Some say they have special bangles and necklaces too, to make it easy to distinguish Tutsi from Hutu. I don’t know how our leaders could have thought of that idea”, he concludes.
But local government officials deny this. They believe those who crossed the border are being manipulated by others who fear Rwandan justice will pursue them for alleged crimes in the 1994 genocide. Local leaders say such people are looking for a way to convince the rest of the population to join them in fleeing, so as to make it difficult to identify them.
Those who fled are currently staying in various reception centers in northern Burundi. The UNHCR provides food, water and other emergency supplies.
Towards the end of April, Rwandan and Burundian authorities met in northern Burundi to find a solution. Together, they now visit the reception centers to meet those who fled, and try to convince them to return home. Some agree to return, but others do not.
Those who return now say they feel safe back in Rwanda. Some even volunteer to return to the camps in Burundi with Rwandan officials, to try to persuade neighbors to come home.
Ansila Mukantagara says she fled to Burundi after a relative convinced her that their village would soon be attacked, and people would be thrown in the river to drown. “I left my two sons and came with some of my grandsons but others remained at home,” she says “When I arrived here, I realized there was no reason to leave my home so I decided to return,” she explains.
Local government officials insist Rwanda is safe and believe most of those who fled the country, at the onset of Gacaca, will soon return. “We believe some of those fleeing have been accused of crimes and are using others as human shields. But once they understand there is no reason for them to leave home, they’ll return,” says Martin Masabo the mayor of Kibingo district bordering Burundi.
According to the Rwanda National Council for Refugees, by the beginning of May 2005 over one thousand two hundred people had already returned. But some flatly refuse to do so.
“I think these people who are going back will die. They have less than seven days to live,” exclaims Papius Hakizimana.
“Even those living in Rwanda are not truly resident. They’ve brought a lot of their belongings to Burundi, so they can come and go at any time,” adds 18 year-old Marie Joseline Uwizeyimana.
For the Rwanda National Council for Refugees, such opinions are not helpful.
“The problem is, some people are holding them back” observes Innocent Ngango Executive Secretary of the National Council for Refugees. “We explain about how safe it is to return. But when we leave, others convince them it is dangerous to return. The reasons for staying appear to change every day, because those others keep telling them new things”.
If so, how can this problem be resolved by Rwanda and Burundi?
Some say in time the ‘long arm of the law’ will solve the problem, and that if some of those fleeing have things to hide and deserve to face the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha, Tanzania, then that’s where they’ll end up.
“Even some of the people who fled to the USA and Europe have been extradited. That’s the way it works at Arusha. We should make a list of the names of people accused and send it to Burundi for extradition, or so they can be tried under Burundi law”, says Martin Masabo, Mayor of Kibingo district.
So far, legal authorities in Rwanda have not named any genocide suspects among those who recently fled the country.
But if, in time, they do provide such names, how might Burundi respond?
“We have an agreement with the Rwandan government: if there is evidence someone has committed a certain crime, we’ll arrest them and hand them back. We are determined to help the Rwandans in this affair”, says Didas Nzikoruriho, advisor to the Burundi minister of Local Government.
It is not easy to know if, or when, Rwandans who fled to Burundi will return, not to mention those who fled to neighboring Tanzania and Uganda.
It is also difficult to assess exactly how many people are planning to leave Rwanda, or have done so already.
But if it’s true that the exodus and rate of return is being manipulated, by people who fear Gacaca and justice, it seems clear that reconciliation in Rwanda, at local level, still has a long way to go.