Rwandan refugees flee from repatriation

Tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees have abandoned their camps in Tanzania, dashing hopes of an orderly return home of the country's refugee population by the end of the year. By yesterday evening more than 35,000 refugees had fled into the interior in order to avoid being sent back to Rwanda.

Having fled their camps in north-western Tanzania, hordes of Rwandan Hutus are now heading south, perhaps in an effort to gain entry into Zambia or Malawi. Earlier this month, Tanzania informed the Rwandan refugees they must return home by the end of December.

"They do not want to return to Rwanda at all," admitted a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). "We have offered them assistance to return to their camps but they have rejected this."

Heavily armed Tanzanian troops moved into the area around the camps yesterday but it was unclear whether they would try to prevent the remaining refugees from escaping into the Tanzanian interior. More than half a million Rwandans, members of their country's Hutu majority, have been living in Tanzania since 1994. They fled their country as Tutsi rebels advanced to halt the genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus perished.

Officials are blaming the exodus on intimidation by the Hutu extremists known as the Interahamwe. These extremists fear reprisals or prosecution for their role in the 1994 genocide if they return home under the current Tutsi-led regime.

The flight of refugees marks a severe setback for the UNHCR which has been predicting the return home of all Tanzania's Rwandan exiles by the end of this month. Despite protests from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, the UNHCR decided to comply fully with the Tanzanian government's repatriation programme.

"We are not forcing anyone out," Musa Abirga of the refugee commission in Ngara said, "but we want to facilitate those who want to return."

A UNHCR official told The Independent earlier this week there were signs most refugees in Tanzania wanted to go home. The voluntary return of more than 4,000 Rwandans this month led the agency to believe that all the refugees would leave of their own will. A further 10,000 indicated they would be going back to Rwanda this weekend, once the distribution of food in the camps around Ngara had been completed.

It now appears the UN agency badly misread the signals. It was presumed that after the return home of more than half a million Rwandans from eastern Zaire last month, their counterparts in the Tanzanian camps would follow. But the refugees in Zaire were forced out by Rwandan-backed rebels who broke the power of the Interahamwe in the camps. No such neutralisation of Hutu extremist power has taken place in Tanzania. The first intimations that the repatriation programme might not run asplanned came earlier this week when 15,000 Rwandans left their camps in north-western Tanzania after a propaganda campaign by Hutu hardliners.

There is little doubt that the scare tactics of the Interahamwe have succeeded, though it is difficult to gauge how much coercion the refugees are being subjected to. Rwandans interviewed by The Independent at Lumasi camp near Ngara insisted they would stay in Tanzania.

"We're not going back," said Jean Twagirayezu. "I heard that all the refugees in the Zairean camps were killed when they got back to Rwanda.

When told that most of those from the Zairean camps had safely returned to their homeland, Mr Twagirayezi replied that he had no need of such information. Rwanda's government wanted to kill all Hutus, he said. If the camps were shut down, he and his family would spend Christmas hiding in the forest.

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