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Refugee return: Reasons to worry

There are increasing worries about the return of the Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda. UNHCR officials have indicated off the record that they are alarmed by « the complete lack of transparency in the return of refugees. » They confirm that some 12,000 may have returned to the Congo in the past months, although few appear to have come from the refugee camps that they manage. This means that the refugees are either Congolese Tutsi who were living amidst the civilian population, of whom there are quite a few, or Rwandan citizens. Congolese officials who have tried to interview returnees have been rebuffed by ex-CNDP units.

Many of the refugees come across the border in Kibumba, where it is easy to cross the Rwandan border on market day (most have Congolese voter ID, which are valid national IDs). A friend who was recently there said there are around 100 people who cross twice a week these days. From Kibumba, minibuses take them to the Masisi highlands. It isn’t clear whether this operation is all organized by higher powers, or just the individual initiative of the refugees who are tired of living in camps in Rwanda.

These refugees are apparently returning mostly to the areas around Kilolirwe and Kitchanga, in the Masisi highlands. But some are also some going to « frontline » areas, places with heavy CNDP deployments along the frontlines with FDLR or other rebels. It is in particular these groups who have sparked accusations that the CNDP are engaged in demographic engineering in North Kivu, stretching the boundaries of the territory where the Tutsi traditionally lived. It is difficult to confirm these allegation for now – but what is clear is that thousands of cows have also crossed the border in recent months and that some of these refugees are busy herding and protecting these cattle.

This return has sparked wild rumors and allegations from other communities, who think the Tutsi are engaged in expansionism. The Hunde, whose chiefs traditionally ruled over most of Masisi territory, are particularly angry, which has led some to sympathize with Colonel Janvier, a « son of the soil. » Some of these rumors are very wild indeed – there is no indication that more than several hundred Tutsi would come back to Walikale territory, for instance, where traditional chiefs have banged on about 40,000 arriving. But there is definitely some movement going on – another friend was in Rubaya (in south-central Masisi) last week and saw many young Tutsi in military fatigues in the local population. This was a place completely deserted of Tutsi this time last year (it was on the frontline between PARECO, FARDC and CNDP). Interestingly, Bosco Ntaganda was also in Rubaya a few days ago, chaired a meeting on how Hutu and Tutsi should share the land there, obviously an issue that would come up if there are a lot of new arrivals.

The main problem is that we don’t know who these refugees really are, where they are going, and what kinds of claims they have to the land on which they settle. A UN team will be going out soon to investigate; let’s hope they come back with some good research.

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