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Lost children on trek back to Rwanda

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Kibungo, Rwanda

The young Hutu boy looked lost and confused as a tall soldier of the Rwandan Patriotic Army ambled over, hit him on the back with a stick and told him to keep up with the flow of 300,000 refugees streaming past toward their homes Dec. 19 after more than two years in exile in Tanzania.

"They must move on," said the soldier standing in the shade of the trees along the Rusumo River marking the border between Rwanda and Tanzania. "These refugees always want to stop. We will not allow it. This time, they go back to their homes."

Farther down the road, the same boy, seven-year-old Sibimana, and a tired woman, 28-year-old Muvindimwe Immaculee, stopped at a water tap to fill their gourds, anticipating the 30 kilometer climb out of the Rusumo Valley that they face before boarding trucks to take them to home villages.

"I don't know this boy," she said. "He ran into my dress as we were running from the soldiers in Tanzania when they stormed our camp. He keeps looking up at faces to find his mother. He doesn't know his home village."

At the turnoff to Nosho, nine kilometers within Rwanda, a group of refugees gathered inside a hut to seek shelter from lightning that hit trees nearby. They spoke of brutal beatings by the Tanzanian soldiers on Dec. 15 in Benaco, the largest camp in Tanzania. The 25 families on the porch had lost a total of 17 children, aged five to 12, in the chaos at the camps. "They forced us to move without our belongings," said 43-year-old Mois Rwankimba. "I jumped down a slope and lost my two sons in the crowd of people."

From the camps in Ngara, Tanzania, and throughout the 60-kilometer route to the awaiting trucks in Rwanda, returning refugees are making a swift and difficult trek escorted by armies from both countries. This operation is the latest return of nearly one million Hutu refugees who fled to neighboring countries after the 1994 genocide. In August, 85,000 returned from Burundi, and last month over 500,000 refugees returned from Zaire.

Significant here, as opposed to the return of refugees from Zaire and Burundi, is the absence of international relief agencies that would normally help orphans like Sibimana find their parents.

In mid-December, the government of Rwanda restricted access to a 60-kilometer route from the border into Kibungo, the nearest large town. They have only allowed the Rwandan Red Cross to station people along the route to care for the sick and a few representatives of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to manage the truck fleet. Similar restrictions were placed on the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, the U.N. Human Rights Mission and the World Food Program.

Underlying the restrictions are deep feelings of mistrust of the international community, which have developed within the government since the arrival of over 150 relief agencies after the genocide of 1994. They have frequently been seen as protectors of the militias who commanded the killings and later controlled the camps in Tanzania and Zaire.

"We do not need these unnecessary people that slow the flow of refugees. They are hindering progress and causing more problems than solving them," said Dr. Ephraim Kabayija, the presidential adviser on repatriation and senior government official in charge of operations.

Radio Rwanda, a government-owned station, reported Dec. 11 that confusion among the international agencies had made it necessary to take control.

"Can you believe that there were three different agencies fighting over rights to the same orphans," said Rumanzi Protais, a Kibungo official at the Nyakirambi Transit Center near the border.

"That is nonsense," said Willa Addis of CONCERN, an Irish nongovernmental organization responsible for care of children in transit. "We all have areas of expertise that allows us to respond to the situation in a coordinated way. We provide care for unaccompanied children. Other agencies transport them and trace their parents."

In Gisenyi, when 500,000 refugees returned from Zaire last month, Food for the Hungry International, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, established a transit site where parents could go to look for their lost children. Despite attempts by the military to close the site because it slowed the refugee flow, the agency was able to reunite with relatives more than 1,000 of the 4,000 children found along the road. Nearly 2,000 others were later traced and reunited with relatives in their home villages.

UNICEF and other agencies for unaccompanied children urged the government to allow a similar center in Kibungo. By Dec. 18, the government began to ease its restrictions. More than 800 orphans were identified by CONCERN and were transported to a center in Kibungo for tracing by the British Save the Children Fund.

The prefect of Kibungo, however, at a coordination meeting Dec. 18, hinted at his belief that agencies have other agendas. "You believe we are incompetent," he said. "You think that we don't know what you are doing. We have the capabilities here with our own Red Cross. We do not need to involve those with other motives in our affairs."

Meanwhile, the refugees continue to move along the road in the restricted zone with little aid. The very old and weak and young children have started to fall out of the general flow. In the truck-loading area of Rwantero, soldiers force refugees onto the next available truck without regard to destination or location of other family members.

On Dec. 18, two women gave birth in the rain of the trucking area after two days and 60 kilometers of hurried travel. In the absence of agencies to aid them, the women and newborn children were transferred out of the zone by truck mechanics allowed in to fix broken trucks.

Near a water point in Rwantero, members of the Rwandan Red Cross were caring for 17 orphans found on the road. They asked if any vehicle could take them to a center in Kibungo. "We are overwhelmed," said Muvwandimya, the local Red Cross coordinator. "The Federation of the Red Cross has provided vehicles, but they are not enough."

There are 200,000 more refugees expected during the next week from the camps near Karagwe in Tanzania. "The system of care for vulnerables is going to be taxed to its limit," said Eric Showell, field operations manager for Food for the Hungry International. "We will have a huge task ahead of us to deal with thousands of orphans appearing in villages throughout Rwanda."

Ephraim Kabayija said the goal of the government is for all refugees from Tanzania to be home by Christmas. Unfortunately for some, like Sibimana, they may not all be in their own homes.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997