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La Tribune franco-rwandaise
Actualités, opinions, études, analyses, diplomatie et géopolitique de la Région des Grands lacs.


La Tribune Franco-Rwandaise #Rwanda, #RDC

By Stephen Windsor and ChrispinMvano. Stephen Windsor has volunteered and worked in refugee protection and education in Uganda since 2009 and in development projects in eastern DRC since 2012. Chrispin Mvano is a journalist and analyst with ten years of experience in eastern DRC. This piece demonstrates the need for accessible refugee legal protection structures to ensure basic rights are upheld, violations monitored, and parties held accountable. There is currently no accessible refugee legal aid body in eastern DRC.

Since December 2013, the Congolese government’s Commission Nationale des Refugiés(CNR), with support from UN Refugee Agency, has identified and registered 241,626 Rwandan refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).[1] Most of the recently registered refugees fled Rwanda in 1994 following the genocide against Tutsi or are the children of that group.

Between 1994 and 1996, more than two million Rwandan refugees settled in camps on the DRC-Rwanda border and were the centre of a massive international aid effort.  Members of the former Rwandan Armed Forces (ex-FAR) and the Interahamweinfiltrated the refugee camps, which they used as bases from which to conduct raids into Rwanda. Attempts to demilitarise the camps failed. In 1996, Rwanda formed an alliance with the Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo-Zaire(AFDL), invaded the DRC and destroyed the refugee camps. At that time, the majority of the refugees returned to Rwanda, although a significant number fled to other areas of the DRC.

Most of the Rwandan refugees that remained in the DRC have not received protection or assistance since then. Many live in remote parts of eastern DRC, in places like the mountains and forests of Masisi, Walikale and Shabunda. They often live in areas outside the control of the Congolese army, which are not easily accessible by service providers.

Since 1996, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has preferred to work towards ‘voluntary repatriation’ as the durable solution for Rwandan refugees. In the DRC, this means that UNHCR helps Rwandan refugees to return to Rwanda if they want to do so, but that the vast majority of Rwandan refugees in the DRC are not assisted by UNHCR, even according to their own number. According to UNHCR’sGlobal Trends 2013 there were 50,736 Rwandan refugees in the DRC in 2013, of these they helped just 7,222. For 7,199, that assistance took the form of help with returning to Rwanda.[2]

The policy of not assisting refugees who choose to remain in exile is unusual in the region. The 8,404 Rwandan refugees in the Republic of the Congo were all assisted by UNHCR, even though only 64 returned home. Similarly, although only 414 Rwandan refugees returned home from Uganda in 2013, UNHCR assisted all 14,684 Rwandan refugees that it recognises.[3] Although UNHCR faces allegations of responding inadequately to other countries in the region, it is clear that the discrepancy between the number of refugees acknowledged and the number assisted are most stark in the DRC.

If the 2013 numbers revealed a problem in that the majority of Rwandan refugees were not assisted, the figure of 241,626 Rwandan refugees that has emerged after the recent work of the CNR and UNHCR suggests that the number of unassisted and unprotected Rwandan refugees in the DRC is actually much higher.

Since 1996, what attention that has been given to Rwandans who fled Rwanda in 1994 and have remained in the DRC, has been focussed on the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is estimated to have between 1,500 and 4,000 combatants.[4] Considering that 241,626 Rwandan refugees have recently been identified and registered in relation to the estimated number of FDLR combatants, it is unlikely that the majority of Rwandan refugees in the DRC are closely related to, or dependants of, FDLR combatants. However, throughout the last twenty years they have been mixed with combatants. Indeed some look to the FDLR for protection because they do not have any alternatives.

The failure to separate Rwandan refugees from combatants has had grave consequences for Rwandan refugees and for people in the DRC generally. The existence of combatants, who had committed genocide in the refugee camps constituted one reason for Rwanda’s initial invasion. And that invasion in 1996 has been a key cause of conflict and instability in the DRC.

Because some have looked to the FDLR for protection, Rwandan refugees have been targeted by Congolese armed groups seeking to retaliate against the FDLR and drive them out of the DRC. Armed groups like Raia Mutomboki, created with the specific goal of forcing the FDLR out of the DRC, have been responsible for massacres of Rwandan refugees.[5] The FDLR has retaliated by attacking Congolese civilians. Thus the failure to separate combatants from refugees and the failure to provide Rwandan refugees with protection and assistance has not only made these populations vulnerable, but exacerbated ongoing cycles of violence in the DRC.  

The following are four testimonies from Rwandan refugee women who live in Masisi, DRC:


I first came to Congo as a refugee in July 1994. I was 22 years old, and I fled with my parents and relatives. When we arrived we stayed in a camp called Kalehe near Bukavu. We remained in that camp until it was attacked and destroyed by Rwandan soldiers in 1996.

After that we fled into the forest. Most of my life since then has been spent on the move. Since 1996 the longest I have stayed in one place is four years – that was in Ufamandu-Mangunubude, until we were attacked by Raia Mutomboki. In that attack Rwandan soldiers came speaking Kinyarwanda and telling the local population to kill us. And when we were attacked we saw Rwandan soldiers fighting alongside Raia Mutomboki.

The reason why we have to keep moving is we keep being attacked. Sometimes it is by Rwandans, sometimes by Congolese.

When we stay in the forest we can go days and even a week without eating. When we are in villages, sometimes I can work in the fields of local people, and they give us some food.

I have five children, the oldest is 18 and the youngest is six. It has been very difficult for them to study. I rarely have money to send them to regular schools, and if I do, it may be just for one trimester in the year. We refugees have started our own schools, which are for two days a week and are free, but they aren’t adequate and are often interrupted by war.

Since 1996 we haven’t had any assistance from UNHCR, any government or NGO – when they come they come to help Congolese, not refugees. If they come to a village, for example, they will ask for a list of local people who should receive assistance, and we aren’t included because we aren’t local people.

One day I would like to go back to Rwanda but right now that is not an option because I wouldn’t be safe there. I hear on the radio of people being arrested or killed, and I have relatives who have gone back to Rwanda and been arrested and taken to prison. But the biggest is reason is how can I go back to Rwanda when the Rwandan government is sending soldiers to kill us and inciting Congolese people to kill us? [6]


I came to Congo as a refugee when I was just nine years old. I came with my parents and we stayed in a camp called Nyangezi.

When Kagame’s soldiers came and destroyed the camp I became separated from my parents and I have never seen them since, I don’t know what happened to them.

After the camp was destroyed I fled into the forest, and then I was taken in by a Congolese family. I stayed with them until Kagame’s soldiers arrived and told Congolese that anybody who is caring for a Rwandan refugee will be killed along with the refugees. After that, they abandoned me.

That was in 2000, I then fled and looked for other Rwandan refugees. I found other Rwandan refugees in the forest, in Ramba, in Walikale territory.

In Ramba, I asked for a field to use and I survived by cultivating yams and beans. The war was there, but we would run into the forest and then return again. In 2006, I got married to another Rwandan refugee. My husband is not a soldier, he is a cultivator.

In 2010, we were forced to flee Ramba when Kagame’s soldiers gave money to aBatembo armed group and attacked us in the forest. That fighting was very bad, many people died – there were three groups attacking us, Raia MutombokiMai Mai Gideon and Kagame’s soldiers.

After Ramba, we fled up to a place in Walikale called Ntoto. In Ntoto, I developed a stomach problem which hasn’t gotten better up to now. We stayed in Ntoto until 2013.

We had to run again in 2013, because we were attacked again by Raia Mutomboki. Because of that attack I was separated from my husband and I haven’t seen him since. Usually when we are attacked there is nobody who helps us, but in Ntoto we were allowed to run into a MONUSCO camp. But after some time MONUSCO left, so we left also.

I have four children. The oldest is eight and the youngest is one year and one month. My oldest child was able to study for free at a Congolese school for one trimester at the end of the last school year, he will continue in the first year of primary school when school starts next month. But I have never been to school for even one day, I don’t know how to read or write.

I would like to return to Rwanda one day – Congo is not my country. But I can’t go back to Rwanda yet. It would not be safe for me to go back. I hear news on the radio from Rwanda and on the BBC, from people in Rwanda and from Rwandans who have returned to Congo, that Kagame kills people or imprisons them when they go back to Rwanda. I think I could go back if Kagame is willing to talk with refugees and allow us to live in Rwanda peacefully.

But I don’t have trust that this war will end. I just want people to know how we are suffering, and God will help us. After talking to you I’m going to go back to church to pray.[7]

Uwimana [8]

I arrived in Congo as a refugee in 1994. At that time I was 21 and I came with my mum, three brothers and five sisters. We fled Rwanda because of war. We had heard that the FPR was killing people, cutting pregnant women open, and cutting other people and removing their insides.

In Congo we first stayed in a camp called Inera. There we received some small assistance and could get some food by working for Congolese people.

In 1996, the camp was attacked by Rwandan soldiers and destroyed. My mum and my five sisters were captured by Rwandan soldiers and I have never heard what happened to them. I fled with my three brothers, and spent the next nine years moving from place to place frequently, because we would be attacked by Rwandan soldiers. I know they were Rwandan soldiers because sometimes they would take hostages and then the hostages would escape and tell us. Other times someone would be taken to prison in Rwanda, but when they got out of prison they would tell us that it was Rwandan soldiers who had taken them.

After Inera we went to Kahuzi, then to Mushunguti, then Ziralo, Biriko, Bunyamulimbwa, Busurungi, Yerusalem, Mianga, Malembe, Mole, Chamaka, Mabimbi, Masisi-Mibalaka, Walikale, Kalehe, and Masisi-Mibalaka again.

We moved often. I would wake up and we were being attacked again and more people were being killed, then we would run to another place.

Many people have died from not getting food or medicine. One of my brothers died from cholera. I became separated from my other two brothers when we were running and I don’t know what happened to them. I had two children in my first marriage and both have died due to sickness and not eating well, as did many other refugee children. And my husband died in Malembe from meningitis, as we couldn’t get any medicine.

In 2002, I married again. Since marrying again I’ve lost two pregnancies, one child has died from sickness and two have survived. The oldest is now seven and a half and the second is six. Neither of them have started going to school, as we don’t have money for them to study and we are always moving.

My second husband is still with me. He is not a soldier, he is a civilian. He used to be able to work in people’s fields, but he can’t now because of stomach ulcers and kidney problems.   

We stayed in Mibalaka from 2005 up to 2008. In 2008 we had to flee when we were attacked by the Congolese and Rwandan armies during the Umoja Wetu operation. After Umoja Wetuwe were attacked during Kimia II and Amani Leo.

We didn’t have protection. MONUSCO didn’t provide us with protection. Sometimes the FDLR can provide us with protection but they have limited capacity.

Since 1996 we have got international assistance on only one occasion. In July 2013, ICRC gave us some small assistance in the form of flour, oil, salt, a cooking kit and some clothes – ICRC did not discriminate between refugees and nationals.

I’d like to return to Rwanda but not yet. We hear on the radio – like on BBC and Voice of America – of people being taken to prison, like Victoire Ingabire, and of kidnappings. Some people flee Rwanda and come here to Congo and tell us about insecurity in Rwanda and hunger.

I have some hope now, because sometimes people visit us and because we aren’t deep in the forest like before. But I have doubts because Kagame has given money to a Congolese armed group called ‘Kasongo’ to attack us. We are afraid because if someone wants to kill us, they will kill us, we don’t have any protection.[9]


I fled Rwanda in 1994 when I was 14 years old. I came to Congo with my mum, four brothers and three sisters, after my father was killed – he had been a teacher.

In Congo we first stayed in a camp called Ruvungi, near Uvira. In the camp we got some assistance and could work in Congolese people’s fields to get food.

In 1996, Rwandan soldiers attacked and destroyed the camp. My sisters all died during the attack. I fled with my mum, my brothers and other refugees. We ran into the forest, up to Shabunda. The journey took four months. We would sell clothes and other items to get food. When we didn’t have things to sell we started getting sick due to hunger, for example, the problem where your legs swell up.

Soldiers were following us all the way, from about 20km behind. When we reached Shabunda we went into the forest and waited until they advanced past us towards Kalima. I know the soldiers were Rwandan because they spoke Kinyarwanda and when they killed people in Shabunda they would leave bits of paper on the dead bodies where they wrote in Kinyarwanda things like ‘we’ve killed you’, ‘you thought you could run’, ‘we’ve taken all your things.’ Not everybody died by bullets, some by machete, some were drowned.

After that we stayed in Shabunda for seven years. During that time, two of my brothers were killed by Rwandan soldiers. In 2002, I married another Rwandan refugee. My husband made a living by cultivating, he was not a soldier. Together we had four children.

One day when we heard people saying that Kagame’s soldiers and Rwandan soldiers are coming, we fled Shabunda to Bunyakiri and then Walikale.

My mother was killed there. Soldiers from the Kimia II operation threw her into water. My remaining two brothers were killed with machetes in Walikale. After that we began caring for two children whose family had been killed.

After Walikale we continued moving to Masisi, then to Katogi.

My husband was killed in March this year, when I was seven months pregnant. He had gone to sell flour and was killed by soldiers.

My children haven’t started to study yet, but the two orphans were studying at the beginning of the last school year, they didn’t study beyond that though because we were unable to pay the school fees.

Since the camp was attacked and destroyed we haven’t received any assistance. ‘Premiere emergence’ came to write things, but they didn’t give anything.

I’d like to be able to return to Rwanda. But I have heard from people who have gone back that it is difficult to get food, that people are killed while fighting over fields, some mothers are arrested and imprisoned when they go back, also the government tells people what to cultivate. I fear all of this, but if there is peace in Rwanda I would return.[10]

UNHCR’s failure to protect and assist Rwandan refugees in the DRC has been a humanitarian catastrophe. The connected failure to separate Rwandan refugees from combatants has exacerbated armed conflict in the DRC. Even without the pull of protection and assistance, 241,626 Rwandan refugees have stayed.

A new policy is needed. Identifying and registering Rwandan refugees is a step in the right direction. It must be followed with a coordinated strategy of refugee protection, assistance and separation from combatants. It may have to involve Rwandan refugees moving to safer and more accessible regions of the DRC. If ‘voluntary repatriation’ remains the overall objective and Rwanda is safe to return to, protection and assistance are necessary not just for humanitarian and peace-making reasons, but also in order to rebuild trust. Without trust, refugees are unlikely to believe anyone trying to convince them that it is safe to return to Rwanda.

Given the nexus between the failure to protect, assist and separate refugees from combatants, and war in the DRC, the cost of interventions to support Rwandan refugees should be considered in light of the money consumed by UN peacekeeping missions in the DRC. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (MONUSCO) budget for July 2014 to June 2015 is $1,398,475,300.[11] MONUSCO’s predecessor the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo spent $8.73 billion between August 1999 and June 2010.[12]

Refugees like Shukuru-Marie, Jacqueline, Uwimana and Immaculee deserve better than indifference. Separating Rwandan refugees from combatants and providing them with protection and assistance is important not just for humanitarian reasons, it is a critical part of peacemaking in the DRC.

[1] UNHCR, ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo Fact Sheet,’ September 2014.

[2] UNHCR, UNHCR Global Trends 2013: War’s Human Cost, 20 June 2014,  Annexes,Table 5.

[3] Ibid., Table 5.

[4] For recent estimates of the number of combatants in the FDLR see Michelle Nichols, ‘Military threat to push FDLR rebels in Congo to disarm: U.N.’, 7 August 2014(accessed 8 October 2014); Jonathan Beloff, ‘Rwanda ponders own security while FDLR remains a strategic threat,’ 5 June 2014, available online (accessed 8 October 2014).

[5] See Jason Stearns et al, ‘Raia Mutomboki: The flawed peace process in the DRC and the birth of an armed franchise,’ Rift Valley Institute – Usalama Project, 2013, available online (accessed 4 December, 2014).

[6] Interviewed in Masisi, DRC, on 25 August 2014.

[7] Interviewed in Masisi, DRC, on 25 August 2014.

[8] An alias has been used at the interviewee’s request.

[9] Interviewed in Masisi, DRC, on 25 August 2014.

[10] Interviewed in Masisi, DRC, on 25 August 2014.

[11] Available online (accessed 4 December, 2014).

[12] Available online (accessed 4 December, 2014). 

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