January 3, 2003

TANZANIA: Last group of Rwandans leaves

The last of more than 500,000 Rwandans in Tanzania have returned home, marking the end of one of the most dramatic refugee exoduses in the turbulent history of Central Africa, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on January 3.

A final group of 3,200 refugees crossed the border into Rwanda from Tanzania on Dezember 27, said UNHCR spokesperson Ivana Unluova. Only around 100 refugees remained in the refugee camps in Tanzania, and another 50 in various prisons in Kagera Region.

They were the last of 535,000 Rwandan Hutus who fled in mid-1994 as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front overran the country, putting an end to mass killings by Hutu extremists that left at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.

An estimated 1.3 million Rwandans fled to what was then eastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), while more than half a million escaped to Tanzania, UNHCR said. In Zaire, tens of thousands perished in a cholera epidemic that swept through huge, makeshift refugee camps near Goma in the summer of 1994.

Most of the refugees went back to Rwanda from both Zaire and Tanzania in 1996. However, at the onset of last year, Tanzania still hosted an estimated 24,000 Rwandans, in addition to more than 400,000 from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In September 2002, Rwanda, Tanzania and UNHCR reached an agreement to repatriate the remaining Rwandans by the end of the year. During the final weeks of 2002, officials from the UN agency worked around the clock to register those rushing to sign up for return ahead of the 31 December deadline.

On December 21, a Ugandan minister had said her country will not accept Rwandan refugees who have left Tanzania seeking asylum. "Under our guidelines, we should not accept these people, because they have asylum protection from Tanzania," it quoted Christine Amongin Aporu Akol, the minister of state for disaster preparedness and refugees, as saying. She told reporters at a Kampala news conference on Monday, December 16, that at least 3,000 Rwandan refugees, already granted asylum in Tanzania, had crossed into Uganda.

A Ugandan humanitarian official, who asked not to be named, told IRIN on Thursday, December 19, that these Rwandans were seeking refuge because they knew that Uganda gave refugees land to farm, and because they wanted to avoid property disputes on returning to their own country. He also said the refugees were trying to avoid the forcible repatriation from Tanzania. The refugees are in a temporary camp at Nakivale, southwestern Uganda, some 20 km from the border with Tanzania.

A public information officer at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kampala, Bushra Malik, told IRIN that as at the end of October there were 18,821 Rwandan refugees in Uganda, and that only some of these had come from Tanzania. (United Nations, New York / IRIN)

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