The long wait: The Rwandan refugees in Zaire

Rwandan refugee camp in Goma, Zaire
Rwandan refugee camp in Goma, Zaire (© Eric Beauchemin)

In the wake of the genocide in Rwanda in the spring of 1994, hundreds of thousands of people fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo or Zaire, as it was then known. Most of them wound up in refugee camps near the eastern Congolese city of Goma. They would spend months there, living in appalling conditions. They knew that there was no future from them there, but they were unwilling to head back home. 

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: November 13, 1995


Seven months ago, I went to Goma Zaire to report on the Rwandan refugee crisis. Relief workers were saying they had never seen anything like it before. I certainly hadn’t. Endless columns of people suffering from shock, exhaustion and the early stages of cholera and dysentery were staggering to the camps, dozens of kilometres from Goma. Many would stop for a rest among the bundles that lined the road every 10 metres or so, sometimes a solitary bundle, sometimes a row of them, lying neatly side by side. I felt ashamed. Here we were driving at only 30 kilometres per hour and still I couldn’t count fast enough. 500 bodies in the first 10 minutes. I gave up when I suddenly realised what everyone there already seemed to know: the Rwandans had left their country in sanctuary, only to find another type of hell in Goma Zaire.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The Long Wait”.  The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Katale refugee camp is 1.5 hours drive from Goma. From a distance, it almost looks picturesque. The surroundings are green. There are hills and trees to the one side and to the other a dark brown lava bed dotted with thousands and thousands of white and blue tents. Get a little closer and the beauty vanishes. Katale camp is a volcanic waste land. The ground is infertile. The volcanic rock makes the heat even more unbearable than it is. It is Mars on earth. It is also home to 200,000 Rwandans, one of the biggest camps for Rwandan refugees in Zaire. They ended up here last July, escaping the genocide and the fighting. Many were killed along the way, and many died on the so-called safe side of the border. Actually, it wasn’t much safer than in Rwanda. Zairean soldiers, who haven’t been paid in years, took just about everything the Rwandans had: money, clothes, furniture and weapons. Then came the epidemics of cholera and dysentery.

Children suffering from cholera or dysentery
Children suffering from cholera or dysentery (© Eric Beauchemin)

But many did survive, including Mr. Muhantware, a 55-year-old French teacher, that is until the events of last year.

I have been here since July of last year. EB: Where do you come from in Rwanda? I’m from the prefecture of Gisenyi. EB: So, right next to the border. Close to Gitarama, a long way from the border here. EB: What happened in your village in Rwanda? It was war. We were attacked by the Inkotanyi, the rebels belonging to the Rwandan Patriotic Front. It was basically a war between the Tutsi and the Hutu. Back in 1959, Tutsi had taken refuge in Uganda. They received training there and then they attacked Rwanda. So there was a war between the Rwandans and the refugees from Uganda. Rwandan troops didn’t have enough arms and so they lost. That’s why we were chased out of our country. We didn’t go because we were scared. Some of our cousins were killed by government soldiers. Those of us who are still alive are alive because we fled. Those who stayed were killed. EB: How long did it take you to get here? It took us four days because we came on foot. EB: Was it difficult? So difficult. It was so difficult. We walked entire nights. We were exhausted. We were starving. It was unbelievable. We took old people and children on our backs, and we had nothing to eat. It was unpleasant. We suffered a lot, really a lot. EB: Did you also see something of the massacres? Yes, yes. We were escaping. We had to hide along the way. We saw dead people along the way. Yes, dead bodies. That’s what we saw.

Some of the refugees still hadn't received plastic sheeting for their huts
Some of the refugees still hadn’t received plastic sheeting for their huts (© Eric Beauchemin)

When the 200,000 Rwandans arrived last July, there was no water, no sanitation, no stores, no roads, no tents, nothing, except the burning sun and the heat. Now, clean water is available, but refugees spend most of their time trying to get it. Relief agencies like the Dutch branch of Médecins sans Frontières have built toilets and roads. More are planned. And the refugees have tents covered with plastic sheeting provided by the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But all of that doesn’t make Katale look anything like home. Katale is a hot, dusty and depressing place, so depressing that most media organisations have dumped the Rwandan refugee story. I decided to go back to see what was becoming of these refugees, the 2.5 million Rwandans dispersed in camps in Zaire, Burundi and Tanzania. I also wanted to make sure this time that the refugees emerged as more than just a huge mass of nameless people escaping one of the most perverse spectacles this century: the massacre of 1.5 million people in 3 months, one in five Rwandans. The majority of the dead were Tutsis who used to make up about 15% of Rwanda’s population. Most of the Hutus like the Muhantwares survived the genocide.

There are 15 of us, including myself and my wife. All the kids are mine. 20. 24. He’s 24 years old, and the youngest one is 11. EB: I understand that you also have five orphans who you’ve adopted. Yes, I adopted them because they were my neighbour’s children. When I fled Rwanda, they came with us. EB: Why did you have to take them? Because their parents were killed? Their parents died before the war. EB: Are you happy here with the family? He should be very happy because he doesn’t have any family. He doesn’t know he’s an orphan. I adopted him when he was a baby. He didn’t get to know his mother or his father. He thinks I am his father. I haven’t told him he’s an orphan because it’s no good. He would be sad. It’s not a good idea to say it. I found him in an orphanage. I did it because I am a good Christian. The fact that I already have a big family doesn’t matter. Clément is small but my kids are getting old. My wife cannot have any more children, so she is also happy to have him.

I had wanted to go into the camp at the crack of dawn when the family awoke to spend an entire day with them. But relief workers told me it was out of the question. The first cars don’t go into the camp until 8 o’clock in the morning and they’re gone by 6 p.m. because of the curfew in the camp. Violence is reportedly a regular occurrence at night, and aid workers have had to be evacuated on a couple of occasions. The relief workers are concerned about the security issue, as it’s referred to, and they take no risks. Westerners always have a car in the vicinity in case of a sudden outbreak of violence, and they are supposed to be in constant radio contact. I was given a radio and a guide, Théoneste, a Rwandan refugee in his early 20s. By the time we arrived at Katale camp at 9 o’clock, the mother was already preparing lunch.

EB: What are you doing? She said that before cooking the beans, you have to remove the pebbles and all the rotten beans. Rotten ones, rotten ones, together with pebbles. EB: Where do these beans come from? These are part of the aid distributed to the refugees. EB: Are the beans of good quality? She said they are not good. You cook them and cook them, but they are never cooked. They are not good. They are old. That’s what she said. She said she has to cook these beans all day long: 12 hours. Normally when the beans are good, it only takes 1 to 3 hours. The beans here, we eat them to survive.

EB: All the cooking you do here is with wood. Where do you get the wood? It’s in the forest which belongs to the Zaireans over there. It’s very far away, about 15 kilometres. It takes 3 hours to walk there and 3 hours back. EB: And what time do you leave in the morning? Some people leave at 4 o’clock in the morning and come back at 11 o’clock or noon. You can’t carry too much. It’s too tiring. Those who try cannot make it back here. People can only take small amounts of wood because it’s too far away. EB: Who goes to get the wood? Usually it’s the children and adults. Old people can’t because it’s so far away. The young people who get wood are all over 15. 15 to 25 is the right age. EB: One of the daughters has just come back from the food distribution site. She had to wait for about 3.5 hours to get the food. What did you get? She said she got some flour, corn oil and corn kernels. EB: And this is for one person? This is for a family of five, and it’s supposed to last for four days. She has to go back in four days to get more. EB: But there’s hardly anything here. Yes. We try to live with this. We eat very little. We drink water and we sleep, like refugees everywhere.

You see, it’s simply not enough for five people. It’s not enough. We don’t have enough to eat. I mean, look at what we get. It’s really not enough. It’s not even enough for one meal for five people. All we’re eating is maize, maize flour, corn kernels, corn oil, everything is made of corn. And on top of that bad corn. Like I said, there are problems both in quantity and quality. EB: What about fresh vegetables? Do you get any fresh fruit or vegetables? Well, if we had money we could buy them, but we don’t get that here in the camp. You can get vegetables and fruit at the market. The people who don’t have enough money go and work the land for Zaireans. In exchange, they get some vegetables. But for those who aren’t strong enough, they just have to eat this.

Dead child on a pile of corpses awaiting burial
Dead child on a pile of corpses awaiting burial (© Eric Beauchemin)

If we don’t have money, we die of hunger. People who eat vegetables have money. It’s only the rich who eat well. We as refugees, we can’t work. So how can we get money? It’s not enough. You have seen it with your own eyes. It’s not enough. That’s why the refugees haven’t got it easy.

EB: He’s just put the maize in the water and he’s stirring it around, mixing the maize with the boiling water.

At noon, we the young people retire to one of the Muhantware family’s four small tents, while the husband and wife went to another. It wasn’t exactly haute cuisine. In fact, it was one of the blandest meals I’ve ever had. Everyone dug in, took a handful of maize meal and some beans. I tried to eat but couldn’t, really, and everyone laughed. Yes, we’ve been eating this every single day for the past seven months twice a day, they say. And for breakfast we have maize soup. It’s better than nothing, but not much better. As they constantly say: we’re not living, just surviving.

EB: Are you the one who always has to wash the dishes? No. I’m not the only one. My sister does it when I’m not here. EB: Is it difficult to clean without any running water? It’s not hard to clean this. EB: And where do you go get the water from? We go get water not too far from here. It’s in the neighbourhood. EB: How often do you go and get water? We go and get water very often. Each day, we use around 5 jerry cans of water. A person can only carry 1 jerry can. EB: Are you using ashes to clean this because you don’t have any soap? We have soap, but to get our pots and pans really clean, we also use ashes.

Zairean soldier checking the ID of a refugee selling soap
Zairean soldier checking the ID of a refugee selling soap (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: How do you get information about what’s going on in Rwanda? Well, there are those who escape and come here.  And we ask them what’s going on in Rwanda. They say it’s going badly in Rwanda. That’s what they always say. Even Rwandan radio says this. It tells us about conferences and the things taking place in our country, but the RPF only gives out positive news about itself. They are liars. They say if we come home, they won’t do anything to us and we will be welcome. But according to our information, the opposite is the case. It’s the opposite. They are lying. They treat the Hutus very bad. EB: Do you still speak a lot about what happened in Rwanda? Yes, we talk about it but who listens. We complain all the time. We are not in our own country. We are so poor. We have nothing to eat. You see the sun here? The sun heats the plastic covers on our tents and it really gets hot. The sun beats down so hard here that you can go crazy. You see this ground there? It’s not fertile. Nothing grows here. It’s just volcanic. Do you think this is a normal life? It’s a wretched life. We wanted to go back to our country, but we can’t. That’s why we ask other countries to intervene, to improve our lives and most of all to help us to return to Rwanda. EB: What do you need to go back to Rwanda? What I want is an agreement between the RPF and us. But the RPF has categorically refused. It’s against us. EB: But that’s not true. The RPF has invited you to come back. The RPF wants us to go back and it kills those who go back. They kill us because they are against Hutus. In Rwanda, there were two ethnic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Tutsis have won for the time being. That’s why they are chasing the Hutus away. EB: But there are many Hutus who have gone back to Rwanda and are now living safely. That’s not what we heard. We are outside the country. But we have heard that some of them, intellectuals in particular, have been killed. Old women and illiterate people can return, but intellectuals are killed. EB: And that’s why you’re afraid to go back. Yes, that’s why we are afraid of going home. We are afraid that we are going to be killed because there is no rule of law in Rwanda now. That’s why we ask the major powers to try and make the RPF see reason. Otherwise, the international community should try to see what it can do so that we can go home and live in peace.

Orphans awaiting in the hot sun
Orphans awaiting under the hot sun (© Eric Beauchemin)

The heat wasn’t making it any easier to discuss the matter with Mr. Muhantware. But I was surprised. I hadn’t expected a man with a degree in French to simply repeat all the arguments used by the extremist Hutu militia leaders to dissuade their people from returning home. I tried to explain that I had just spent a week in Rwanda, speaking to many people, and it really was safe there. But I obviously wasn’t to be trusted. His initial impression must have been confirmed when we were joined for the second time that day by le responsable, one of the camp leaders. He had appeared half an hour after I arrived that morning, inquiring what the mazungo – the white man – wanted. When he left in the morning, le responsable issued a stream of instructions in Kinyirwanda, the national language. And my heart sank. How could I ever portray the reality of life in the camps if minders were going to tell people what to say. This guy was most likely one of the Hutu militiamen who controls the camps and their inhabitants, one of the men believed to have planned and helped carry out the genocide. No one knows how many militiamen there are in the camp. But they fled Rwanda along with the rest of the mostly Hutu refugees and the Hutu government. That afternoon le responsable was determined to convince the Muhantware family not to believe anything I had to say about Rwanda. Because I hadn’t spoken to their government in exile, he said, I was nothing more than a stooge of the RPF rebels, never mind that most everyone else in the world recognises those rebels as the legitimate Rwandan government. The responsable said they, the refugees, could not possibly return because there were no schools. When I said I had visited some school, he responded “we can’t go back because there are no secondary schools or universities open”. And on and on it went, countering every piece of tangible evidence I could think of that demonstrated that life was slowly returning to normal in Rwanda. After 1.5 hours, I finally gave up. This man would never listen.

The Muhantware family just sat silently as we argued. They had treated him with great respect when he arrived and bowed, not exactly the most common of gestures in Rwanda, when he left for a meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Yet another one, he sighed. After that, Mr. Muhantware and I returned to the only possible safe subject: the heat.

Our huts are covered with sheeting and that makes the huts extremely hot. It’s hot here anyway and on top of that, there is the sheeting. It makes it really hot. EB: You’re not used to this heat. No, we are not because at home it is cool, a bit cool. EB: During the afternoon it’s impossible to sleep here because it’s too hot. No, we can’t sleep here. You can’t. EB: So, what do you do all afternoon? We doze off here on these make-shift benches. You are here. You can see for yourself. We are burning up here. You can’t sleep. You are a witness. Can you sleep in this heat? EB: No, it’s impossible. You see it. You feel it too. It’s really hot. We can’t sleep. EB: How do you feel as a father that your family is forced to live in conditions like this whereas in Rwanda you had fairly good living conditions, you had a fairly good salary, a nice house. A refugee has no choice. We are forced to live miserable lives. That’s the fate of refugees. What more can I say? I can’t do anything. I can’t do anything to improve our living condition. What I want is to return home in peace. That’s what I would like. EB: Do you feel discouraged at times? Yes, I am discouraged. The talks with the RPF on our return to Rwanda are not making any progress. They are placing obstacles for us. They are not taking the initiative to announce steps to make us feel welcome.

By this time, I was becoming convinced that the Muhantware family wasn’t really interested in returning home, despite the litany of justified complaints about life in the camp. Here was a family of intellectuals by Rwandan standards, yet all they could do was repeat the reasons given by the Hutu militiamen for all refugees to remain in exile. Today, they are actively dissuading the refugees from returning, by spreading stories about refugees who have returned and been killed or had their eyes gouged out by soldiers of the new government army. The Rwandan government admits that there have been isolated cases of revenge attacks by soldiers and other survivors. The umbrella organisation for Rwandan human rights groups says that while there have been violations, they are far less widespread than the Hutu leaders in the camps claim. But if the Muhantware family and the other refugees were as innocent as they said, they probably ran a greater risk of dying of disease in the camps than in Rwanda. The Rwandan government and the international community are only interested in prosecuting the killers, those who planned or participated in the genocide. And with at least 150,000 of them on the loose, it’s likely that only the real genocide leaders will ever face trial. But he insisted, despite considerable curiosity about what was actually happening in Rwanda, that it was not safe for him to return. I had had enough. We went on a tour of the camp.

Abandoned child
Abandoned child (© Eric Beauchemin)

The microphone, the headphones, the mazungo. It was a spectacle no one wanted to miss. Within minutes I felt like I was in the arena of a Roman coliseum. Spectators were not awaiting the lion, but they were all closely observing this mazungo who was interviewing one of their own. Our first stop was one of the schools, well, what they call a school. No roof, no building for that matter, no chairs, no books, no paper, no pencils. A few teachers and some of the pupils had tiny pieces of cardboard to practice writing letters. Most didn’t. The teachers and the hundreds of pupils just stood as the trucks bringing in food aid roared by towards the food distribution site a few hundred metres further.

They see the trucks going by. They are distracted. They have no roof over their heads. How can they possibly learn? But that’s how things are here.

Within minutes, I was surrounded by hundreds of children shouting “mazungo!” It’s the traditional greeting children in Rwanda seem to reserve for white people, but my traditional greeting – a smile and a wave – just encouraged these kids to get closer and before I knew it, I was enveloped in a crowd of pushing and shoving kids. They had to pull out sticks to make some space and restore order. The kids, they said, had become accustomed to receiving handouts from mazungos. All I had to give were my hands and I spent the rest of the afternoon touring the camp with at least one or two children clutching on. New kids kept joining me as we went from the school up to the distribution site and then down the abattoir where 30 or so cattle are slaughtered every day for the few who can afford meat in this boom town of 200,000. Katale also has several field hospitals and clinics set up by aid agencies, which are the only source of employment in the camp itself. And it has of course two sprawling open air markets as well as many cafés. Like all the other cafés, the one we ducked into was just a shack where beer and soft drinks were for sale at prices most of the refugees could not afford. It was Mr. Muhantware’s first beer since his arrival 7 months ago, and he and his daughter savoured the lukewarm fizz. Over the second bottle, I tried again to break through the guardedness I’d felt all day long. But it was no go. He even did his best to avoid a fairly innocuous question about the reported violence in the camps at night, which aid agencies say regularly claims lives.

Violence? I’m usually with my family. No, there is not violence every single night. There was one incident. It was when the Zaireans attacked us. It happened only once. Otherwise, no, there was no violence.

She got no further in explaining that Zairean soldiers harassed them quite frequently. He issued a quick shush and that was the end of it. I still was amazed that this educated man was prepared to accept the camp leaders’ apparent code of silence, that he was prepared to accept this miserable life when his home and within a few months a regular pension check would await him in Rwanda. I found his reasons for staying in the camp just as unclear as when I arrived. Was it really fear of the new Rwandan government? Was it the Hutu militiamen’s control over the camp? Or had this man perhaps also participated in the genocide like so many others in the camp?

Corpses awaiting mass burial
Corpses awaiting mass burial (© Eric Beauchemin)

Mr Muhantware, like the rest of the refugees, knows that there’s no future in Zaire. The Zairean government and the people living in the surrounding area want them to go back. And yet, despite everything, they’re prepared to stay, even five years if that’s what it takes.

It would really be bad. We wished it wouldn’t take more than two months for them to agree on our return to Rwanda. Everything must be organised for me to go back home. I’m prepared to wait for five years if that’s what it takes. But five years is a long time. It’s hell here. We think we will be killed if we go back to Rwanda. We’d prefer to stay here rather than to be killed. I can hold on for five years if that’s what it takes. Five years.

It’s a bad life but at least we are alive. I would rather live than die of hunger. You are asking me questions I don’t like. You ask me if I’m prepared to endure all these hardships for five years. But what do I prefer? I prefer to stay in these bad conditions rather than die. I would rather have a bad life than to die.

“The Long Wait” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Mark…