Encounters with conflict and peace

The refugee crisis

"No one knows the exact number of Hutu who fled Rwanda in the summer of 1994, but the UNHCR after described this as the largest dislocation of a population its aid workers had ever witnessed.

Within a few days after it began, there were seven hundred thousand refugees in Goma and another four hundred thousand at other camps in Zaire. More than half a million more flooded into Tanzania. Another quarter of a million chose Burundi. These are all countries that have difficulty caring for their own people and they were immediately overwhelmed" (Stephen Kinzer)

Farmers, businessmen and teachers...

Fergal Keane
"As we came closer and closer, the air thickened and became foggy. Long lines of women and children filed along the roadway. The women carried piles of firewood stacked high on their heads. Beside them children struggled with branches and twigs that scratched along the ground, causing trails of dust to rise up behind them. I rolled down the window and heard a growing murmur of voices. It swelled as we drove to the top of the hill, until the sound resembled a great swarm of bees, into which had been mixed the noise of car horns and growling lorries.
Rwandan refugees
At the top of the hill we pulled in to the side of the road and I found myself looking down on the UN refugee camp at Benaco, the latest receptacle for the displaced of Rwanda. From the hillside the camp spread out before us in the dusk like a ragged flag. There were patches of white where the UN had erected feeding stations, innumerable squares of blue where plastic huts had been erected, and moving between and around them a great mass of brown figures. From my vantage point on the roadway the camp seemed to be a place of incessant movement. In the middle there was a main pathway, along which thousands of people were moving up and down in an orderly line.

As we drove down a track towards the UN main compound I noticed that the crowds were moving to and from a lake. They carried water in buckets, pails, plastic bags, anything that could be filled.
Rwandan refugees 1994
I had never seen so many people crowded into one place. The air was by now thick with smoke; my lungs began to heave, and I coughed constantly. Down in the heart of the camp, the noise that had seemed a murmur from afar had become a loud, declamatory roll that rose above the refugees and hung in the air with the smoke and the smell of displaced people.

Until a few weeks ago these people had lived and worked in Rwanda. They were farmers, businessmen, teachers -an entire society transplanted on to Tanzanian soil...

The people at Benaco were in a state of wretched poverty dependent on food hand-outs from the international community. They lived in plastic huts without sanitation, having lost their homes and land. Yet, as I moved among them, witnessing the squalor and desolation, I could not shut out the memory of Nyarabuye or the knowledge that among these huge crowds were thousands of people who had taken part in the genocide."

From Seasons of Blood. A Rwandan Journey. by Fergal Keane

Fleeing from more than revenge

Jean Hatzfeld
This is why, at the end of the Rwandan genocide, when two million Hutus so suddenly rose as one within a few days in the early summer of 1994 to begin their exodus, we understood that they were fleeing from more than the weapons and vengeance of the RPF troops. Without thinking it through clearly, we sensed that a psychological force much greater then the simple survival instinct was at work to impel that immense throng so powerfully towards Congo – abandoning houses, properties, professions, habits, all without hesitation or a backward glance.

Two years later those families returned from the refugee camps to their plots of land still bearing their collective guilt. Their sense of shame is haunted today by the dread of suspicion, punishment, and revenge, and it mingles with the Tutsis’ traumatic anguish and infects the atmosphere, aptly described by Sylvie Umubyeyi: “There are those who fear the very hills where they should be working on their lands. There are those who fear encountering Hutus on the road. There are Hutus who saved Tutsis but who no longer dare go home to their villages, for fear that no one will believe them. There are people who fear visitors, or the night. There are innocent faces that frighten others and fear they are frightening others, as if they were criminals. There is the fear of threats, the panic of memories.”

After a genocide, the anguish and dread have an agonizing persistence. The silence on the Rwandan hills is indescribable and cannot be compared with the usual mutism in the aftermath of war. Perhaps Cambodia offers a recent parallel. Tutsi survivors manage to surmount this silence only among themselves. But within the community of killers, innocent or guilty, each person plays the role of either a mute or an amnesiac.

From A time for machetes. The killers speak. by Jean Hatzfeld

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