Home > 1994 from Rwanda, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Zaire > Refugees start long trek back

Refugees start long trek back

July 28, 1994

by Guy Dinmore, Reuter News Service
Published: Thursday, July 28, 1994

Tarania Mukandekezi lost her father, grandfather, a brother and sister to cholera in the refugee nightmare of Zaire.

Now she is starting the long trek back home in the hope that Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi communities can bury the past, along with the dead, and live together again.”In Goma we were hungry and had no food. Many of us have died. We were 10 and now we are six,” she said Tuesday as she crossed the border into Zaire, eight days after they had fled Rwanda’s civil war.

“We heard on Radio Rwanda it was safe to go back. The United Nations told us to go. We believe the assurances,” she said, balancing her few belongings on her head.

No men have survived in her family. Mukandekezi, 18, was with her sister, three infants and her grandmother Nyiramadonda – a frail woman leaning on a cane who said she did not know how old she was.

They fled two weeks ago from their farm in Ruhengeri, about 40 miles from the border with Zaire, as the rebel forces of the Rwanda Patriotic Front advanced with mortar fire.

They witnessed the slaughter of members of the Tutsi minority by soldiers, civilians and militia in a genocidal campaign orchestrated by the Hutu government after unknown forces assassinated President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6.

“My Tutsi neighbors were killed by my Hutu neighbors,” said Mukandekezi, whose family are all Hutu. “We can live together again. We are all Rwandans,” she said.

In Goma they found shelter in a mosque, but cholera decimated their numbers.

The feared Hutu militia, known as the Interahamwe (those who fight together), are terrorizing Hutu refugees in Zaire, telling them the RPF will kill those who return to Rwanda and killing those Hutus suspected of sympathizing with the RPF.

“The Interahamwe said the RPF will tear out your eyes and cut your throat. They say they will kill you if you can read or write,” said Fidele Twahirwa. “It’s propaganda. We don’t believe it,” he added.

“If they think you are an RPF sympathizer or you support the RPF, then they kill you with machetes and knives. Some have grenades,” Twahirwa said as he and his brother, sister-in-law and two infants registered at an RPF checkpoint before continuing their jouney.

Twahirwa said he was a Hutu moderate and a member of an opposition party that had also been wiped out by the former government.

He fled the capital Kigali when the massacres began in April. His wife and children ran to her parents in Butare, and he does not know if they are still alive.

“The Interahamwe are afraid of witnesses to the massacres going back to Rwanda and giving information,” Twahirwa said.

He sold his radio in Goma in exchange for food but had also heard that the United Nations was encouraging people to return. He estimated that 10 percent of the refugees around him in the Virunga area had died of cholera.

The rate of return appeared to be picking up Tuesday but is still a fraction of the estimated 1.2 million refugees in the Goma area.

A U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees worker said he counted about 800 crossing at the main Goma-Gisenyi border post between 6 and 10:30 a.m.

But many hundreds of refugees are slipping uncounted across the border through banana plantations and forests.

Those who take the main road are guided by well-disciplined RPF soldiers into a compound where two men at desks take down their name, age, place of origin, profession and number of family members.

The RPF, knowing it cannot rule a country without people, is trying to assure the refugees they are safe. But war criminals, they say, will be brought to justice.

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