Refugee return: Who are these people?

This is perhaps the most explosive political issue in the Kivus at the moment: The return of some 50,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, where they fled between 1994-1996. Most of them are from the highlands of Masisi, and their return has heated up tempers around Goma, as many politicians and locals claim that these are not Congolese Tutsi but Rwandan newcomers who have never lived in the Congo. In addition, many claim that the CNDP operations (and the Kimia II operations led by ex-CNDP soldiers) have displaced locals (mostly Hunde and Hutu) from lands that the returnees will now occupy.Is this true?

There are mounting indications that the returnees are not from the areas they are returning to. These kinds of investigations are difficult to conduct – locals always have plenty of reasons to want to smear the returnees for fear of having to cede their land to them, or because of ethnic antagonisms. Plus, the fact that many returnees don’t speak Swahili or French is not always a sure-fire way of knowing they aren’t Congolese, as some communities in Masisi really only speak Kinyarwanda (although almost everybody, especially the men, will have working knowledge of Swahili).

So what do we know? Well, according to diplomats and researchers who have recently been to Bwiza and Kitchanga, where many returnees are arriving, say that many – perhaps up to 20-40% – are Hutu. Almost none of the people in the UNHCR camps in Rwanda are Congolese Hutu. Also, many of the local Tutsi and Hunde are reporting in private that they don’t know these people and that they are Rwandan, that they don’t know their way around and admit that they are Rwandan. Many of them have Rwandan IDs – which in itself is not proof that they aren’t Congolese, but raises questions – and have come with large herds of cattle that, according to some analysts close to the CNDP belong to affluent members of the Goma and Kigali elite.

This has created serious tensions. One researcher reported that locals are being forced to sell or relinquish land to the newcomers and the ex-CNDP soldiers. “Reportedly in Matanda, all Hutus were forced by these armed herders to simply relinquish the land that they had purchased.” This has, of course, exacerbated anti-Tutsi sentiment amongst the local population. While Kabila’s government seems to think that this is the price to pay for peace – they have turned down offers from UNHCR to help register the returnees – it seems foolhardy to think that this won’t lead to further ethnic violence and massacres as we have seen in the past. People like General Janvier of the APCLS militia are already using the Tutsi return as a rallying cry for recruitment.

Another delegation recently visited Kitchanga and concluded that many of the returnees are Congolese Tutsi who had been settled in the Gishwati area. There may be a link to the Gishwati forest, where the Rwandan government and US conservationists are engaged in a major effort in reforestation. According to the Great Ape Trust, the US organization backing the project, “It is about the people of Rwanda and improving their lives and livelihoods. This collaborative effort will reduce poverty’s threat to conservation by improving water quality, controlling floods, promoting ecotourism and enhancing local employment.” It will also provide jobs, prevent land slides and attract tourism.

But reports in the media suggest that 5,000 families (25,000 people?) will have to be moved, all to save 14 chimpanzees. Is it possible that some of these families went to the Congo?

Some organizations like Pole Institute have sought to calm tempers, suggesting that politicians are hyping up the presence of Rwandans for political gain. They visit the border crossing, as well as the IDP camps where the returnees are supposed to be located and conclude that the 12,000 returnees are probably only a small fraction of that and are mostly Congolese. While I appreciate Pole Institute’s accurate reporting on other issues, I think they may have gotten it wrong on this one. Several other delegations that have visited the same areas have come to contradictory conclusions – even the Tutsi local chief in the Bwiza camp says that 5,000 refugees have returned recently. Internal reports by UN officials as well as human rights group also indicate that many of the returnees are not Congolese; the fact that there are many Hutu present amongst the returnees is another indication that there Rwandans may be returning – to my knowledge, there are very few Congolese Hutu refugees in Rwanda and almost all of those in the UNHCR camps are Tutsi.

I am aware of the trenchant anti-Tutsi sentiment that is ever-present in the Kivus. That, however, cannot be an excuse for taking these allegations lightly.