Sheer fear forces Rwandans to take flight

This is not the first time that masses of Rwandans have fled their country in recent years. In May, 2005, 10,000 Rwandans crossed the border into Burundi and spoke of discrimination, death threats and killings. After transfers to different sites and attempts to persuade them to return, the Burundian and Rwandan governments forcibly returned thousands of people, an act which violates the international legal principle that no one seeking asylum or refuge may be returned to face persecution.

 

This is the story of only one of the 20,000 Rwandans who have fled to northern Burundi over the past six months seeking safety. They speak of threats, intimidation and assassinations; they tell our staff stories about themselves, relatives or neighbours being abused, picked up by uniformed men and disappearing. It is the intense fear of persecution that compelled them to leave everything they have behind, and it is this same fear that keeps them from returning home.

Haunted by past violence It has now been 12 years since the April 6, 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, the majority of the victims were members of the Tutsi population. People lost their sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers; children were orphaned.

Many who escaped death fled, or went missing. While some of the main suspects involved in the genocide are being tried by a central court, local tribunals have been created by the government to pass judgement on other suspects involved in the violence. These "gacaca" tribunals, adapted from the traditional village justice system set up to solve local conflicts and disputes, aim to bring reconciliation between assailants and survivors.

A distant hope However, the fairness of the gacaca tribunal procedures has been criticised, and some Rwandans have told MSF staff that they did not get an opportunity to speak in their own defence, and spoke of violence and acts of intimidation.

Whether they are guilty or innocent cannot be decided by MSF. The Rwandans have told stories of being sentenced to dig up bodies and wash bones. They also describe attacks, disappearances, arrests, being held in prison without official papers and being told that "the country belongs to the Tutsis."

Fair treatment seems to be a distant hope for many Rwandans.

"We had to unearth corpses of 1994 genocide victims. One day, I accidentally broke a bone and was beaten severely. After a couple of days, the police arrested a [Tutsi] man in my village. He was carrying a spear and said 'the time was over for the Hutus'. They released him the next day. I was afraid and fled with my husband and our four children. We could not bring anything with us."
- Rwandan woman (36)

Against their will This is not the first time that masses of Rwandans have fled their country in recent years. In May, 2005, 10,000 Rwandans crossed the border into Burundi and spoke of discrimination, death threats and killings. After transfers to different sites and attempts to persuade them to return, the Burundian and Rwandan governments forcibly returned thousands of people, an act which violates the international legal principle that no one seeking asylum or refuge may be returned to face persecution.

Waiting for asylum Now, 20,000 Rwandans who have fled to Burundi await their fate in two refugee camps located in the Ngozi province in northern Burundi: the Musasa and Songore camps. The camps' inhabitants have to survive in overcrowded conditions, where the current rainy season has turned the soil to mud and brought a steep drop in the temperature. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not believe there are "readily apparent, objective circumstances giving rise to exodus" from Rwanda, so the asylum seekers will not automatically ("prima facie") be granted refugee status.

Refugee or immigrant As a result, the Rwandans who left their homes and walked or swam their way across rivers into neighbouring Burundi are going through a process of having their status defined one by one.

The assessment is done on the basis of interviews conducted for 30 to 45 minutes.

So far, 52 Rwandans have been granted refugee status and 1,200 of them have been rejected. Those who were accepted as refugees were transferred immediately to the southern part of Burundi, far from the Rwandan border. Those whose cases were rejected are now considered immigrants. They are to be sent back to Rwanda by the government of Burundi where few organisations are able to effectively monitor their return and their reintegration.

"I'm confused and desperate. I know it's impossible for me to return to Rwanda, but that's difficult to deal with. I don't sleep at night. I feel like a stone, I don't know what to do."
- Rwandan woman (25)

In the week of May 8, around 1,000 Rwandans were sent back to Rwanda - voluntarily, according to the UNHCR. It is probable that the UNHCR and the Burundian government will facilitate the return of additional volunteers in the weeks to come, as well as those people who were rejected as refugees.

MSF active in the camps In Musasa camp, where approximately 15,000 Rwandans are staying, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) runs a health clinic treating both Rwandans seeking refuge and Burundians who walk up to five or six hours to reach the clinic. The MSF team, comprised of two international staff and 65 Burundian and Rwandan staff, treats 2,000 patients per week. In Songore camp, where an estimated 4,500 Rwandans are living in a camp originally built for 800 people, MSF helped to build latrines.

"We're worried about the health of the people in the camps," says Banu Altunbas, Head of Mission for MSF in Burundi. "In the daytime when it's sunny, the temperature can reach 26 degrees Celsius, but at night it can feel as cold as six degrees.

"Among the Rwandans we treat in our clinic in the Musasa camp, most come in with fever, respiratory tract infections or diarrhoea. There's a constant threat that epidemics could break out.

"But we're also worried about the people who will be denied refugee status and be brought back to a country from which they fled out of fear."