Great Lakes refugee crisis

Great Lakes refugee crisis

The Great Lakes refugee crisis is the common name for the situation beginning with the exodus in April 1994 of over two million Rwandans to neighboring countries of the Great Lakes region of Africa in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. Many of the refugees were Hutu ethnics fleeing the predominantly Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded to end the Rwandan Genocide. However, the humanitarian relief effort was vastly complicated by the presence among the refugees of many of the Interahamwe and government officials who carried out the genocide, who used the refugee camps as bases to launch attacks against the new government led by Paul Kagame. The camps in Zaire became particularly politicized and militarized. The knowledge that humanitarian aid was being diverted to further the aims of the genocidaires led many humanitarian organizations to withdraw their assistance.

The conflict escalated until the start of the First Congo War in late 1996, when RPF-supported rebels invaded Zaire (soon thereafter, the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the refugees were repatriated.


The categories Hutu and Tutsi have an origin in pre-colonial Rwanda. However, with the arrival of the Germans in about 1900, and particularly after the arrival of the Belgians in 1920, the categories began to "rigidify" and become thought of as ethnic. The modern history of Rwanda has in many ways been one of tension between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi "ethnic" groups. While there has been much scholarship about the emergence of these separate ethnic identities, particularly though the colonial governance structures, before and after independence in 1961, people within Rwanda acted within the parameters of the Tutsi-Hutu division. Regardless of the historical validity of the division, Rwandans in the late 20th century acted as if they were real.

Belgium began to withdraw from Rwanda in 1959, and in 1961 a Hutu-dominated government was established. This replaced the colonial government of Belgium, which had ruled through a favored Tutsi royal family. One of the consequences of the Hutu victory was sporadic attacks against Tutsis that led to over 300,000 Tutsis fleeing the country over the next several years. Anti-Hutu attacks in neighboring Burundi by the Tutsi-led government there led a renewal in attacks against Tutsis in Rwanda in 1973, resulting in even more refugees, many seeking asylum in Uganda. The land of these hundreds of thousands of refugees was subsequently claimed by others, creating another politically charged issue. By the 1980s, the Rwandan government of Juvénal Habyarimana claimed that the refugees could not return because there was no room in the country, which was already the most densely populated on the African continent.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rwandan exiles formed political and military alliances, particularly in Uganda. The leader of one of these was Paul Kagame, whose family had fled to Uganda during the violence of 1959. In 1985, Kagame helped formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an armed group aligned with the National Resistance Army (NRA), a Ugandan rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni. Kagame became the head of NRA military intelligence and a close ally of Museveni. In 1986, the NRA rebellion succeeded and Museveni became President of Uganda. Museveni then supported a failed RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1990, as both a reward to an ally and in the hopes that the large Rwandan refugee population in Uganda would return home. The invasion, and the subsequent occupation of parts of the northern prefectures of Byumba, Umutara and Ruhengeri, internally displaced many Hutus and heightened ethnic tensions.

The 1993 Arusha Accords attempted to offer a diplomatic solution to both the RPA threat and the internal tensions, but it was not implemented. Ethnic tensions became even greater following the murder of Burundian President Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, in October 1993, an event that sparked the Burundian Civil War in which large numbers of both Hutus and Tutsis were killed. Hutu militants, known as Interahamwe, and elements in the government in Rwanda began to plan a genocide to rid the country of the Tutsis. The assassinations of President Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi on 6 April 1994 became the pretext for the start of the Rwandan Genocide, which resulted in the deaths of over 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, over the next three months. Most murders were carried out by, with the cooperation of, or in the absence of protest by Hutus who lived in the same communities as their victims.

The RPF advance and Hutu exodus

At the beginning of the genocide in April 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front began an offensive from territory in northern Rwanda that it had captured in previous fighting and made rapid progress. Hutus fled the advancing RPF forces while, behind the advancing front line of fighting, 600,000 Tutsi refugees, some of whom had been in Uganda since 1959, began to return to their homeland. The reasons for the flight of the Hutus were varied. Many simply were trying to avoid the renewed fighting, while some feared reprisals. The Hutu government and the Interahamwe administrative structure also spread panic among the populace in the hopes of causing as many refugees as possible. The rationale for this was, given that the Hutu militants had to flee the vengeance of the RPF, a large number of refugees could be used as a massive human shield in the countries offering refuge. In practice, RPF conduct and treatment of civilians during their offensive generally complied with internationally-agreed codes of conduct and no systematic retribution was reported.

The result of both the natural flight and Hutu militant campaign of panic was dramatic. An estimated 500,000 Rwandans fled east into Tanzania in the month of April. On 28—29 April, 250,000 people crossed the bridge at Rusumo Falls into Ngara, Tanzania in 24 hours in what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency called the "the largest and fastest refugee exodus in modern times". As the Tutsi entered Rwanda the Hutu rebels fled into Zaire for fear that there would be a genocide against themselves in retaliation to the murdering of 800,000 Tutsis. Approximately 90,000 Hutu militia fled into the jungle. From that time to now many have been killed or have surrendered due to the increased military resistance from the DRC and the UN. In thirteen years the number of Hutus in the jungles of the Congo have been driven down to around 15,000. The UN is encouraging surrender and has started a voluntary program that lets Hutu militia surrender. Their weapons are destroyed and they are sent to a rehabilitation center before being sent to their homes in Rwanda. The program attracts 60-90 militia a day. The apparent organization of this Rusumo evacuation is seen as evidence that the collapsing government was behind the large refugee outflows. By May 1994, a further 200,000 people from the provinces of Butare, Kibungo and Kigali-Rural had fled south into Burundi.

As the RPF captured the capital of Kigali, the military of France set up a safe zone in southwest Rwanda in June 1994 in what was dubbed "Opération Turquoise". It was ostensibly done to stop the genocide, but the French forces prohibited the entry of RPF forces that were already stopping the genocide and the Hutus who fled there included militants and members of the ousted government, as well as Hutu civilians. The French soon ended their intervention, leading to the flight of 300,000 people from the Zone Turquoise west towards the Zairean town of Bukavu in July and August, while a further 300,000 remained in internally displaced person camps. On 18 July 1994, RPF forces captured the northwestern town of Gisenyi and declared a new government with Paul Kagame as president. Gisenyi was the center of the provisional government and its fall caused over 800,000 Rwandans to cross into Goma, Zaire over four days in late July. This outflow was also highly organized, with administrative structures simply transferred across the border.

By the end of August, UNHCR estimated that there were over two million new Rwandan refugees in neighboring countries. These included 1.2 million in eastern Zaire (850,000 at Goma, 332,000 at Bukavu and 62,000 at Uvira), 580,000 in western Tanzania, 270,000 in northern Burundi and 10,000 in southwestern Uganda. As 800,000 had been killed in the genocide itself and a further 1.5 million were internally displaced, over half of the national pre-genocide population of seven million had been murdered or forced from their homes.

Emergency relief

In the first week of July, deaths among the refugee community were occurring at a rate of 600 per week, and two weeks later had reached 2000 per week as the refugee population increased and the health situation worsened. Mortality rates reached a height during a 24-hour period in late July when the death toll near Goma from cholera, diarrhea and other diseases was 7000. Over 50,000 people died, mainly from a cholera epidemic that swept through the camps. The refugees near Goma were located at Mugunga on a plain of volcanic rock, which was so hard that the French troops and aid workers were unable to dig graves for the bodies that began to line roads. The situation led the UN Representative to Rwanda Shahryar Khan to call the camps a "revision of hell".

The international media coverage of the plight of the refugees eventually led U.S. President Bill Clinton to call it the "world’s worst humanitarian crisis in a generation" and large amounts of relief was mobilized. Attention quickly focused on the refugees around Goma. Over 200 aid organizations rushed into Goma to start an emergency relief operation comparable to that seen in the Yugoslav wars. Until December, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) received over $1 million monthly. The resources dedicated to the refugees led to a rapid drop in the mortality rate in late 1994. The American military formed an emergency logistical operation, based out of Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, to ferry supplies and relief personnel to the crisis regions. While several humanitarian organizations expressed concern about mixing the military in humanitarian operations, it quickly became clear that only the military could create large centralized logistical support with the speed and scale needed to alleviate a massive humanitarian emergency, a lesson perhaps reinforced by aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the resulting tsunamis.

The humanitarian situation was not as acute in the other nations bordering Rwanda, though still very challenging. Tanzania had a number of refugee camps that had been created for the civilians fleeing the onset of the Burundian Civil War. Most of these Burundians had returned to their home country by 1994 so Tanzania had the infrastructure to handle the initial influx of Rwandan refugees. However, facilities there were also eventually overwhelmed by the sheer number of people fleeing across the border, requiring emergency humanitarian intervention.

Interventions by particular nations

The UN, in the absence of any serious military aid from the US, was forced to open its communication pathways wider than before and urge other countries to join the efforts. The US agreed to support these efforts with finance and some equipment. Early in the relief process, US relief planes began to drop large food packages from the air in hopes of alleviating the suffering in the camps below. Instead, the opposite occurred, as people were slaughtered by mobs trying to reach the precious food. Due to the perils of such chaos in the refugee camps, the US refused to bring its aid closer to the ground, and, as time went by, dysentery and cholera began to spread rapidly through the crowded refugee camps, ultimately killing tens of thousands. Soon, the problem was exacerbated as rain began to fall and many people contracted septic meningitis.Facts|date=February 2007

By then, France had established a field hospital at the area of Lake Kivu in an attempt to help the large numbers of refugees. Some of these refugees were Interahamwe leaders and members of the government who fled the country fearing retaliation from the RPF. To aid the ground forces, Israel conducted the largest medical mission in its history, and, although their supplies were not as abundant as those of the other forces, their all-volunteer force of military surgeons was composed both of specialists and sub-specialists, including well-known surgeons. The two units established a unique and constructive method of operation which relied on France's abundant medical supplies and Israel's medical expertise.Facts|date=February 2007

The Netherlands had sent a small contingent of mostly medics and nurses, which was beneficial for rehabilitation efforts and ambulatory care after patients left the French-Israeli medical quarters. CARE Deutschland supplied ambulances, and Merlin of Ireland supplied trucks and heavy equipment to distribute food and supplies to the refugee camps. Working together, these two units are credited with curbing the death toll in the area of Lake Kivu, near Goma, Zaire.Facts|date=February 2007

Militarization of refugee camps

As the initial acute humanitarian crisis was stabilized, aid workers and others began to raise concerns about the presence of armed elements in the camps. Soldiers of the former Armed Forces of Rwanda ( _fr. Forces Armées Rwandaises, ex-FAR) and the Interahamwe militia created armed outposts on the outskirts of the refugee camps, while the camps themselves came under the control of officials of the former government. Humanitarian workers reported that former government officials, especially near Goma, were passing out large amount of money to the militia to control the refugees on their behalf. Rather than being destroyed by their overthrow by the RPA and their flight, it quickly became apparent that the old government was using the refugee camps as bases for a planned overthrow of the new government. Those refugees who tried to protest were either beaten into submission or killed.

As the former government solidified control of the camps, they also began to control the distribution of the aid being given by the humanitarian agencies. The relief operation began to be accused of "feeding the killers", causing a crisis of conscience among the agencies, who began to leave what some have called "the messiest humanitarian quagmire ever". While UNHCR funds relief operations, it depends on contractors to actually carry out the funded activities. The first to leave was long-time UNHCR contractor Médecins Sans Frontières, who stated that "this humanitarian operation was a total ethical disaster" as it rewarded those responsible for the genocide rather than punishing them. Another reliable UNHCR contractor, the International Rescue Committee, then left stating that "humanitarianism has become a resource and people are manipulating it as never before. Sometimes we just shouldn’t show up for a disaster." These two organizations were joined by Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE, completing the departure of the largest and most professional humanitarian aid organizations upon which UNHCR relied heavily. A secondary reason given by some of these organizations is that they hoped that this dramatic action would prompt the international community to disarm the camps.

While UNHCR found contractors with lesser reputations to carry out its relief work, it resulted in a noticeable drop in the quality of the relief operations. Despite repeated calls by the UN for international intervention to separate the armed elements from the civilians in need of assistance, there was little response. Of over 40 countries that UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali approached to provide peacekeepers, only one replied affirmatively. The UN eventually resorted to hiring Zairean soldiers to provide a minimum level of security, a situation that everyone realized was far from ideal. In light of their abandonment by its trusted partners and the insecurity, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata was asked why UNHCR did not simply leave as well. She replied:

There were also innocent refugees in the camps; more than half were women and children. Should we have said: you are related to murderers, so you are guilty, too? My mandate — unlike those of private aid agencies — obliges me to help.

Both for those organizations that left and that stayed, the post-Rwandan Genocide refugee crisis became a watershed event that prompted an extensive reevaluation of their mandates and procedures, and the relative ethical cases for abandonment and continuing aid were hotly debated. At the same time, France and the World Bank withheld development aid from the new government of Rwanda until the refugees were repatriated, prompting accusations that the donors were simply repeating the cycle of poverty that had led Rwanda into crisis originally.

The forgotten years

Despite the increasingly troublesome situation, the attention of the world turned elsewhere after the immediate crisis had ended. Funding levels for relief fell from the beginning of 1995. Hampered by lack of international interest and decreasing funds, the UN went from discussing methods of separating fighters from civilians or moving the camps farther from the border with Rwanda to increasingly desperate ideas, such as cutting off relief to the camps or a limited forced repatriation in clear violation of refugee law.

The Hutu militants in the camps were very aware that the camps provided both protection and resources for their military activities. They thus had an interest in keeping the camps where they were, in effect making the refugees semi-hostages. Rumors of Tutsi retributions and an impending second genocide also convinced many Hutu refugees that they should not return. The obvious candidate to impose order was the Zairean government of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. However, Zaire was a large and weak state, which did not have firm control of the eastern regions that were on the opposite side of the country from the capital. It has also been noted that Uganda and Zaire had unfriendly relations. Mobutu would not have been pleased by the emergence of a Rwandan government that was allied with Uganda and may have hoped that the Hutu militants could rid him of the new government of Paul Kagame. Documents belonging to Hutu fighters show that Mobutu allowed the militants to ship large amounts of arms into the country. The only other option with international credibility was a multilateral intervention led by the UN, but it quickly became clear that few nations were interested in what seemed certain to be a difficult and bloody operation in a remote African region.

As deadlock was reached in international political and military efforts to resolve the crisis, the tempo of attacks based out of the camps, mainly in Zaire, across the border into Rwanda increased. The RPF became increasingly vocal in its condemnation of UNHCR, which it saw as aiding its enemies, and demands that the attacks be stopped. Nevertheless, no action was taken.

The fact that the refugee crisis could not continue indefinitely was emphasized in January 1996 when Burundi closed the two camps within its borders and told the refugees that they should return to Rwanda. The refugees instead began to trickle across into Tanzania until Tanzania closed its Burundian border in April after its refugee burden reached 550,000. Burundi, then in the midst of a civil war, had been stressed by the demands of the refugees but was also influenced by a desire not to antagonize the new government of its neighbor to the north.

Outbreak of war

The crisis became increasingly unstable as it continued into 1996. The Hutu militants in the camps, now well organized, began to expand their activities from raids into Rwanda to attacks on the Banyamulenge ethnic group in eastern Zaire. The Banyamulenge were ethnic kinspeople to the Tutsi, having migrated from Rwanda over a century earlier. Rwanda began to secretly ship weapons across the border to arm the Banyamulenge in their fight against the exiled Rwandan Hutus, resulting in a low level conflict in the Zairean provinces of North and South Kivu. While details are unclear, sometime during this period Rwanda, with the support of Uganda, began to plan the creation of a rebellion led by Laurent Kabila.

In October 1996, a Zairean government official based in Bukavu declared that the Banyamulenge would be forced to leave the country, apparently as an attempt to end the conflict between them and the Hutu militants. This led to an uprising of the Banyamulenge in the Kivus, who were now well-armed by the RPF, and an exchange of mortar fire between the armies of Zaire and Rwanda across Lake Kivu. With a speed that many observers found suspicious, Kabila found himself head of the well-supplied rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire (AFDL), which included the Banyamulenge militias. This new conflict came to be known as the First Congo War. At the time, Rwanda officially denied any connection to the new rebel group.

The first objective of the AFDL was the clearing of the string of rebel camps along the Rwandan border, setting the stage for what has been called one of the most bizarre and macabre situations of modern times. As the AFDL captured a series of Kivutian border towns in November 1996, the Hutu militants herded the refugees into Mugungu, creating a teeming mass of around half a million people who were prohibited from returning across the border by Hutu forces arrayed facing the border. The Hutu resistance was broken after the RPF swung southwest and flanked the Hutu force. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled back into Rwanda as the aid organizations and foreign countries stood impotent to affect the course of events.

Tens of thousands of refugees also moved further into Zaire. Some of these were officials and soldiers associated with the genocide and their families, but most were simply swept along in the giant waves of people. The AFDL and Rwandan RPF forces pursued the militants eastward and tens of thousands of refugees are thought to have died of violence, exposure to the elements, and starvation in the jungles of eastern Zaire.

In December 1996, the government of Tanzania announced that the 550,000 Rwandan refugees it was hosting must return and forcibly emptied the camps over the next few months. By the beginning of 1997, the vast majority of refugees who had fled in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide has returned. The refugee crisis precipitated by an internal genocide had been ended by a new war.


The AFDL continued its offensive until it reached Kinshasa and overthrew the government in early 1997. Mobutu fled the country and soon died in exile. Laurent Kabila named himself the new president and changed the name of the country to "the Democratic Republic of the Congo". However, the relationship between Kabila and his Rwandan and Ugandan backers turned sour. An attempt by the two states to overthrow Kabila in late 1997 grew into the Second Congo War, the world's deadliest conflict since the Second World War. While peace was officially declared in 2002, ethnically-inspired violence continues to afflict the Kivus.

Rwanda continues to struggle with the aftermath of genocide and large-scale forced migration. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and community gacaca courts exist to punish those who planned and carried out the genocide, but the scale of violence forced the Rwandan people into an occasionally uneasy coexistence. The Rwandan government has been generally credited with encouraging economic development and national reconciliation, though it has also been criticized for oppression of its critics.

The outside world, at the time focused on the wars of the former Yugoslavia, turned its attention away from the happenings of central Africa. The exception was the international humanitarian aid community and the United Nations, for whom the Great Lakes crisis was an agonizing dilemma that has been the topic of extensive analysis and ethical arguments. As a result, UNHCR reworked its procedures to try to ensure greater international commitment in its interventions.

Further reading

*Des Forges, Allison (1999). "Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda". New York: Human Rights Watch.

* Pottier, Johan (2002). "Re-Imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

* Umutesi, Marie Béatrice. "Surviving the Slaughter: The Ordeal of a Rwandan Refugee in Zaire". Translated by Julia Emerson. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. ISBN 0-299-20494-4.

* Waters, Tony (2001). "Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan". Boulder: Westview.

External links

* [ "Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects"] in Steering Committee of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, [ "The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience"] , "Journal of Humanitarian Assistance", March 1996
* [ "Refugee tide into Rwanda overwhelms aid workers"] , "CNN", 17 November 1996
* [ "Heart of Darkness"] , "Refugees Magazine", issue 110, 1997
* [ "State of the World's Refugees 2000", Ch. 10 "The Rwandan genocide and its aftermath"] (PDF), UNHCR
* [ "Sharing the Security Burden: Towards the Convergence of Refugee Protection and State Security"] , "Working Paper No. 4", Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, May 2000
* [ "UNHCR’s Relief, Rehabilitation and Repatriation of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire (1994-1997)"] , "Journal of Humanitarian Assistance", 8 April 2002
* [ "Mirroring Rwanda's Challenges: the refugee story"] , "Pambazuka News", 2004
* [ "Conventional Wisdom and Rwanda's Genocide: An Opinion"] , "African Studies Quarterly" (1997 by Tony Waters)
* Tom Casadevall of the United States Geological Survey; [ "The 1994 Rwandan Refugee Crisis: Cultural Awareness in Managing Natural Disasters" (1h28m streaming video)] . Lecture given at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on vulcanology around Goma (undated)

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