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DRC refugees head to Rwanda fleeing latest unrest

June 24, 2012

KIGEME, Rwanda: On the hillside hundreds of people are felling trees and flattening the ground to make space for new tents, while others are hanging up their washing.

Kigeme camp in southern Rwanda, which for a long time housed Burundian refugees, reopened on June 10 to take in some of those fleeing a new wave of unrest in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Two weeks later it is already home to some 2,500 people.

“We’ve speeded up the work on the camp,” the official in charge of Kigeme, Emmanuel Niyibaho, told AFP.

The refugees are arriving from Nkamira transit centre in northern Rwanda, which has been completely overwhelmed by the latest refugee influx.

Designed to take a maximum of 5,400 people, Nkamira now holds 12,000, crammed into a former dairy and under tents supplied by the UN refugee agency.

The refugees started to enter Rwanda in April when a mutiny within the Congolese army caused the latest outbreak of violence in a chronically unstable region.

At the height of the exodus, between 800 and 900 a day were crossing over. Although that tailed off to 100 or so per day, numbers are now rising again, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says.

Massive population displacement has long been a feature of life in eastern DRC, a region that has for decades been hit by rebellions, civil war, regional conflict and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

But Rwanda, which before the start of this latest crisis already played host to 56,000 refugees from DRC, had not seen any fresh arrivals for at least the past three-and-a-half years, UNHCR spokeswoman Anouck Bronee said.

Most of those who have fled this time around say they were being persecuted because they speak Kinyarwanda, the language spoken in neighbouring Rwanda.

Many complain of being preyed on by soldiers of the regular Congolese army, whom they accuse of raping and looting, on the grounds that they are from the same ethnic group as the mutineers.

The figure behind the mutiny — although he denies it — is Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel who was integrated into the Congolese army in early 2009. A Tutsi, Ntaganda has benefited from the complicity, or possibly even the support, of Rwanda, according to Kinshasa and to Human Rights Watch.

Kigali denies the charge.

The abuses “are always committed by the government troops,” according to Divine Uwimana, 36, who says she represents the refugees at Nkamira. Uwimana said she had not been attacked but that others were raped.

A girl of 16 from Masisi, one of the regions where the mutiny started, told AFP she had fled in April after being raped by government troops.

“Where we lived at first there were just the mutineers. Afterwards they were fighting with the government soldiers and the government soldiers stayed and they started raping us,” she said quietly.

“My mother was raped too. She hasn’t been able to walk since.”

In the past few weeks the fighting has moved north from Masisi, and the UNHCR says refugees who have arrived more recently have complained of abuses committed by several different parties.

Rebels and militia have been preying on civilians in DRC’s volatile Nord-Kivu province for years.

They include Rwandan Hutus from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose leaders fled into DRC after the 1994 Rwandan genocide by majority Hutus which ended in its victims, the minority Tutsis, coming to power.

There are also the Mai Mai, originally a self-defence militia that developed an anti-Rwanda agenda after Kigali sent troops across the border in a drive against the FDLR in 1996.

Furaha Murekatete said she fled the conflict along with her husband and their three children aged between one and four. But even before the latest violence flared, she said she was persecuted by her brother, a Mai Mai who wanted to kill her husband because he is a Kinyarwanda speaker.

Celestin Mutabazi, 65, said he ran from the FDLR. “They started to take our animals. Those who went to work in the fields started to disappear.”

It was the second time he had fled the Rwandan rebels, the father of four said. The first time was in 1995, and he stayed in Rwanda for seven years.

Seventeen years later, “It’s still the same problem — the same people persecuting the same people for the same reason.

“If we hear that peace has returned, we’ll go back home, but we don’t know when exactly,” he said.

Preparations are under way in Kigeme to receive the next batch of refugees. But even Kigeme only has the capacity to take in half of those who have streamed into Nkamira since April.

- AFP


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