Rwandans who fled persecution in 1960s returning at last from Uganda

September 18, 1994|By Alan Zarembo | Alan Zarembo,Special to The Sun

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Bread loaves, foam mattresses and plastic water jugs are stuffed in the aisle and under the seats. Dance music squeals from a single speaker as the bus rumbles through Uganda toward the border.

Many of the 56 passengers have been waiting three decades to return to Rwanda.

In the early 1960s, tens of thousands of Tutsis fled north into Uganda to escape Hutu killers. Since last month, hundreds a day have been going back. Many were born in Uganda and only know Rwanda from their parents' romantic tales.

"Everyone who reaches there finds a job and house," said James Mukyezi, a 29-year-old cobbler, seeing Rwanda's lush mountains for the first time as they slip past the bus windows.

The slaughter of up to a million Rwandans and the exodus of 1.4 million more into Zairian refugee camps has, in a sad irony, turned the country into a land of opportunity. The migration exemplifies the struggle for wealth in poor African countries. Empty homes and deserted pastures are the spoils of genocide.

One bus rider, set to stake his claim in Rwanda's future, asks: "If we do not go back, then who will be the country?"

Ugandans also are pleased. Many see the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as the end of competition with refugees for land and jobs. Outsiders often have been scapegoats there.

"People say, 'You are Rwandan. Why don't you go? You are squeezing us,' " Mr. Mukyezi says. "You can feel it in your heart you should go."

His plan is typical: the head of the household goes alone to find a job and house and then summons his family.

The migrants travel by foot with cows, in rented minivans stacked with furniture and on buses like this one, which started hauling people to Rwanda in late August. The cramped 8-hour ride between capitals -- Kampala and Kigali -- costs $17. Service is to increase from three times a week to every day to meet the demand.

Entrepreneurs like Fidel Kayumba, 40, bring boxes of candles and batteries -- rare commodities in Rwanda. His wife, Juliet, 32, carried a bag full of clothes. It is her first time in Rwanda.

Her husband hitched a ride to Kigali in July, the same week the RPF took the city, and was eager to show his wife the house he had claimed a mile and a half from town. The furniture is gone and the windows broken. Blood streaks across one wall.

Mr. Kayumba plans to look for cousins who remained in Rwanda after it obtained its independence from Belgium in 1962, but he realizes they are probably dead, slain with other Tutsis in door-to-door killing sprees.

His father and brothers have been walking for days from Uganda, joining the thousands herding cattle across the border. Many are squatting in Akagera National Park in the country's northwest. Kigali is full of people who do not speak French, the national language.

The new Rwandan government has pledged to return land and homes to the legitimate owners or heirs. "People are moving into whatever they can find. But the government is watching closely and will settle disputes," says RPF Lt. Wilson Rutaysire.

Conflicts are bound to arise when the Hutu refugees in squalid Zairian camps pour back to Rwanda. Ill feelings already are stirring.

"The RPF is taking our houses for all their friends," says one Hutu in Kigali whose home was taken over. "People are afraid. When you scream too much you meet big problems."

He called the new returnees "strangers," an accurate description for those who only know Rwanda from childhood memories or have never been there.

Many gave up jobs in Uganda to return to their promised land.

"A job is not everything. It is better to have a country," says Alfred Kugera, 40. An electrician who made $170 a month in Uganda, he said he has been promised work at a telephone company in Kigali.

Mr. Kugera was 7 when his family left their burning village. Three uncles were slain. He was separated from his parents and ran for five days with his brothers and sisters. The survivors were reunited in a Ugandan refugee camp.

As many as 70,000 Tutsis fled into such camps between 1959 and 1964 as Belgium transferred power to Hutu rulers. The camps have evolved into permanent villages, but most of the next generation went to school and moved to the cities. Still, they grew up believing Rwanda was their home.

In 1982 and 1983, Ugandan forces and youth gangs evicted about 80,000 people of Rwandan descent, killing their cattle, burning their homes and seizing anything of value. Mr. Kugera remembers bandits taking his parent's tin roof.

To escape persecution, several thousand Rwandans, mostly Ugandan-born, joined Yoweri Museveni's guerrilla army and helped him overthrow the Ugandan government in 1986. About 7,000 Rwandans deserted in 1990, helping themselves to Ugandan weapons and lorries on their way to invade Rwanda as members of the RPF.

Many Ugandans cheered on the RPF in hopes that with an RPF victory, Rwandan refugees would leave.

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