'I try to stay unknown as much as I can' - Portrait of a Rwandan seeking refuge

"I moved to another town, but they followed me. So I moved again. I was told that the soldiers, who were living in my brother's house, had held my younger brother for a week before releasing him. I moved even further away."

 

Victor* (32) used to have five brothers. Since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda he now only has two. Last year, when he tried to reclaim a house owned by one of his deceased brothers, he was threatened by soldiers and even jailed. He gave up and moved away from his town. But that was not enough. One day, he was ambushed and shot at. So he fled and headed - on foot - for Burundi.

"My father was also killed in 1994, so I was left with only my two little brothers: one two-years-old, the other eight. We went to live with my aunt. She took care of us and financed my studies. After graduation, I got a job and built a home in which the three of us could live. I like watching football, though I'm not skilled at playing it myself. And I enjoy hanging out with my friends," Victor's face breaks into a wide smile. "Especially when their children are around."

Threats Victor is talking while lying down in his small corner of the shelter he shares with four other men within a massive, noisy hangar made of plastic sheeting suspended under a tin roof, housing 70 people in the Musasa refugee camp in northern Burundi. He has made a divider out of some material he found to set out his part of the four by five metre space.

"The house of one of my brothers was seized when he died," he said. "Last year I tried to reclaim it and took the case to court. But justice was not done. Instead, they jailed me for a couple of days. I brought up the issue during a public meeting after which some soldiers threatened me, saying they would hurt me and my family."

Moving on "I moved to another town, but they followed me. So I moved again. I was told that the soldiers, who were living in my brother's house, had held my younger brother for a week before releasing him. I moved even further away. I attended community meetings where people were claiming that I belonged to the party created by the former president. I tried to ignore the rumours and just kept on working and moving on with my life."

Ambushed
"In November, my colleagues and I went to another town by car to take care of some paperwork. On our way back we saw a car on the side of the road. It seemed to have technical problems, so we stopped to offer help. Suddenly, some men got out of the car, pointed their guns at us and started shooting. One of my colleagues died, another was seriously injured. They didn't try to steal anything. The others and I managed to escape."

Leaving Rwanda "When we got back, the police interrogated me about the incident. They were hostile, saying it was my own 'fault' as 'I was supporting a political party with ethnically-based ideologies'. I felt my life was in danger, so I needed to leave Rwanda. I couldn't take anything with me as it would raise suspicion. All I have from my old life is a copy of my diploma and a list of phone numbers."

Walking for hours Sudden, heavy rain batters against the hangar's tin roof, making a deafening noise. Victor has to lean over to make himself audible. "I walked for six hours. In Burundi, a family was kind enough to take me in. Two days later I started walking again and after 15 hours I arrived in Musasa camp. Luckily, someone offered to let me stay in his shelter until I received an assigned space and could get food and other items."

Still afraid "I try to stay unknown as much as I can. I don't speak to many people, I'm afraid that too many details about my life will reveal my identity. There's always a possibility that there are infiltrators in the camp who want to track down people they're looking for or want to eliminate. I can't return to Rwanda after all that has happened. If I don't get refugee status, I will try to hide in Burundi, or try to get into another country."

MSF in the Musasa camp In Musasa camp, where approximately 15,000 Rwandans are staying, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) runs a health clinic where its staff treats both Rwandans seeking refuge and Burundians from the area. The MSF team of two international staff and 65 Burundian and Rwandan staff members are seeing 2,000 patients per week. The team treats patients for respiratory tract infections, malaria and tuberculosis as well as other ailments. MSF also collaborates with another organisation to provide mental health care to patients who need it.

* For safety reasons, the name of the man portrayed in this article has been changed.

Rwanda: Haunted by past violence It has now been twelve years since the 6 April 1994 rocket attack on the plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents sparked a cycle of violence known to the world as the Rwandan genocide. Approximately 800,000 Rwandans were massacred in only three months time. The majority of the victims were members of the country's Tutsi population.