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This week, the governments of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) signed a Tripartite Agreement, setting the stage to help more than 50,000 Congolese refugees return home after living in camps in Rwanda.
Consultant Steve Hege and I are currently on mission in the DRC, where we’ve been looking into the situation for returning refugees in North Kivu province. Before arriving, we heard that there were already some people who spontaneously returned to the area without assistance – from both inside and outside the UNHCR camps. More alarmingly, we also heard that there were large numbers of Rwandan citizens arriving to the DRC, who claimed to be returning Congolese refugees.
If true, ethnic tensions created by the presence of these Rwandans could jeopardize the official returns through the Triparite Agreement. This is especially of concern given the history of Rwandan involvement in the conflict in eastern DRC and the widespread anxiety that the former CNDP rebel group is seeking to reconfigure the demographics of North Kivu.
In North Kivu, Steve and I made several field visits to Masisi and Rutshuru territories to see the situation first hand for ourselves. In Kahusa, we interviewed a number of individuals who claimed to come from the refugee camps in Rwanda. However, they did not speak either Swahili or French (widely used throughout eastern DRC) and the local traditional chief could not vouch for their claims of having fled from the locality in 1994.
We also met a curious character named Mike. Mike spoke perfect English, and said he fled the Congo when he was 10 years old. He told us that he was the representative of those Congolese refugees who had returned from the camps spontaneously, and were now living in Kahusa. A number of men were clearly instructing Mike in Kinyarwanda to tell us certain elements of his story. Mike showed us a list of names that he was rewriting after UNHCR asked for proof of their refugee status. He was supposedly matching the names of individuals to the camps in Rwanda where they had lived, but it looked as though he was just adding the new information himself rather than consulting with any returnees. UNHCR has already tried to verify some of the names from people like Mike, with the lists in the camps in Rwanda. Less than 5% have matched thus far.
In addition to the situation in Kahusa, in nearby Kirolirwe the local people told us that there is an area inside the Virunga National Park called “Coline Banyarwanda.” This roughly means “the hill of those who come from Rwanda,” a name which would not be given to Congolese Hutus or Tutsis, who are commonly referred to as “Rwandophones” and not “Banyarwanda.”
I am concerned that conflict over land and resources will become increasingly problematic as long as these clandestine arrivals from Rwanda continue. In Bwiza and Matanda, we talked to local credible sources who also confirmed the presence of large numbers of Rwandans claiming to be Congolese refugee returnees. In Bwiza, a large group of Rwandans who recently arrived to the DRC are living illegally in a settlement inside the Virunga National Park, and are being protected by the local authorities, who told us “there would be war” if anyone tried to move them from this land. Bwiza produces over 20 tons of charcoal per week from the trees of the park, which roughly totals around $10,000 a month. In Matanda, we heard that armed cattle herders from Rwanda were occupying land by force.
It’s important to note that these tensions are taking place in zones that are controlled by the former CNDP rebel group, who are clearly protecting these Rwandans. And although UNHCR and the Congolese government have made some efforts to investigate this population and clarify their status – most notably through plans to create community reconciliation committees that can assess whether or not a returnee is who they claim to be – the fear is that as long as the CNDP remains in control in certain areas , these structures will be co-opted.
Before the Tripartite agreement is fully implemented, it is critical for international donors and UNHCR to pressure the governments of Rwanda and DRC to resolve the status of new arrivals from Rwanda, and to look towards implementing stronger verification mechanisms to regulate all future population movements.