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Some of the mass graves at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali

Some of the mass graves at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali

Called, somewhat fondly I might add, the “land of 1,000 hills” by its natives, Rwanda lies snuggled between Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The well-manicured terrain (at least what I saw in Kigali and along the road to Byumba) belie the fact that this country was witness to the massacre of more than 800,000 people in a 100 days—people who happened to belong to the wrong tribe or sympathized with the wrong tribe. In the following years, in excess of another 200,000 were killed, more often than not, mercilessly.

But that’s not where the story of Gihembe Refugee Camp begins. It began in 1937 when the Belgians “imported” about 175,000 Rwandans into North Kivu in order to farm the land they had appropriated from Hunde and Nyanga communities who lived there and who had refused to farm the land for them. The majority of these Rwandans were Hutu, but that would change in 1959 when Rwanda (and other African nations) began to seek its independence.

Between 1959 and 1964, the formerly elite Tutsi were forced to flee Rwanda as the Hutu took over the power. By 1964, more than 100,000 Tutsi refugees found their way to the Congo, also settling mostly in the region around Lake Kivu. By 1990, nearly half a million Rwandans and their descendants were living in North Kivu.

The influx of these Rwandans grated on the native Hunde community who had lived there for centuries, but as long as Mobutu was in power, the tensions just simmered. In 1971, Mobutu granted blanket citizenship to all the Rwandans who had lived there since 1960. And, when he expropriated all foreign businesses in 1973, it was the Tutsi that benefited. As long as Mobutu was in power, all was well. That is, until 1981 when he reversed the citizenship law and required individual applications for citizenship for those who could proved their ancestry in the Congo back to 1895.

The Hutu and Tutsi were stripped of their citizenship and land. By 1993, tensions had reached a boiling point and Hunde and Nyanga mobs began to attack the Hutu and Tutsi, who in turn fought back with the help of the national army because they were still favored by Mobutu despite the loss of citizenship. Three years later, things got really complicated as the nation descended into war.

And it was the Tutsi, once again, who were forced to flee, this time back to Rwanda. The refugees fled to a camp on the DRC-Rwandan border created by the UNHCR in 1996 near a small village called Mudende. Between August and December of that year or perhaps the next (1997), the Rwandan Interahamwe, the group responsible for the Tutsi genocide, massacred an estimated 3,000 or more refugees in the camp.

The government of Rwanda and the UNHCR needed to do something before more people were massacred. By December of the year in which it occurred (refugees claim 1996, UNHCR, 1997), they moved the camp away from the border with the DRC and closer to the capital of Kigali in Rwanda.

Gihembe Camp by Wendy Karr Johnson

Gihembe Camp by Wendy Karr Johnson

Now, nearly 20 years later, more than 14,000 people still call Gihembe home, 99 percent of whom survived the massacres at Mudende. Most of these, 93 percent, find returning to the DRC impossible. Meanwhile, the United States, Finland and Denmark, the main resettlement countries for Gihembe, work toward welcoming as many Gihembe refugees as possible. In 2014, for example, 1,984 refugees departed for resettlement.

Unfortunately, the resettlement process is both complicated and extended, often taking up to three years to complete. While various agencies continue to work on improving these statistics all around, the people of Gihembe wait with varying degrees of hope.

Next week: Gihembe today.

For more information about what the refugees experienced at Mudende, an excellent academic article by Emily Lynch can be found here: Mudende 

Photos “waterlogued” by Frank Logue