Uganda - Creating a Refugee Crisis

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Although advances in communications technology are widely heralded as evidence of progress by the world community; major events of dramatic impact continue to occur virtually unnoticed. In October 1982, tens of thousands of people in southwest Uganda were uprooted and forced to flee their homes. Their plight is little known by the public due to the isolation of the areas involved, but its causes are familiar - greed, hatred among ethnic groups, hunger for power, and short-sighted politics.

In earlier times, national boundaries in Africa were of limited significance; such is not the case today, especially where those boundaries bear little relation to peoples' patterns of habitation. Thus individual ethnic groups can be found within the boundaries of several nation-states. Such is the case in the multinational area west and north of Lake Victoria.

The area of southwest Uganda near the border with Rwanda, largely the Kigezi and Ankole districts, is inhabited by people "of Rwandan origin;" although there are many distinguishable groups included in this description, the term "Banyarwanda" encompasses most of those uprooted since October.

Many Banyarwanda have always lived in what is now Uganda since shortly after it became a British Protectorate at the turn of the century. They and their children are Ugandan citizens under that nation's constitution. Since the 1920s other Banyarwanda migrated to Uganda to work as wage-laborers. Those economic migrants who came to the country before independence have legal claim to citizenship. Other Banyarwanda came to Uganda in the early sixties when inter-ethnic warfare in Rwanda caused tens of thousands to flee. Many of these refugees, who were assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), lived in refugee settlements at Nakivali, Oruchinga, and the Fort Portal area; some gradually integrated into Ugandan society, often with the encouragement of the Ugandan government. In all more than a million Banyarwanda live in Uganda; less than 100,000 were refugees who fled Rwanda from 1960-1972.

The Precipitation of Crisis

Anti-Banyarwanda sentiment is not new in Uganda, although it has varied in intensity for decades. Ugandan leader Milton Obote ordered the registration of all "people of Rwandan origin" in 1969, in what many believe was a first step towards their expulsion. The takeover of the Ugandan government by Idi Amin in 1972 precluded implementation of the expulsion. For this reason many Banyarwanda welcomed the arrival of Amin and identified with his government. After Amin's flight from the country in 1979, this identification provided a basis for anti-Banyarwanda sentiment. Steps were taken by Obote and others to assure that the Banyarwanda were not allowed to vote in the elections of 1980 which resulted (many believe through vote fraud) in the return of Obote to the presidency and control of the government by his party, the Uganda People's Congress [UPC].

Since that time, the anti-Banyarwanda sentiment of the UPC has been openly expressed. Some officials have blamed atrocities of the Amin regime on the Banyarwanda and have accused them of being in the forefront of illegal anti-government activities since the elections. Most knowledgeable observers, however, dismiss these assertions as attempts by Obote and the UPC to make the political opposition scapegoats for the barely functioning economy and massive inflation. The Banyarwanda's Catholicism is also a factor causing friction in their relations with the UPC.

By early 1982, close observers, including foreign diplomats and UNHCR officials, expected a major action against the Banyarwanda by the UPC and its members in government. In late spring, UNHCR's representative in Uganda, Tom Unwin, protested impending government action to force many Banyarwanda (whether refugees or not) into the refugee settlements established in the 1960s. This protest, apparently accompanied by pressure from other international sources, averted the confrontation.

The threats and inflammatory rhetoric of the UPC and government officials continued, however, but what happened next took many international observers, including UNHCR, by surprise.

In late September 1982, officials of the government and UPC, including cabinet-level ministers and members of Parliament, approved a large-scale, centrally orchestrated displacement of Banyarwanda. Affected were those who had always lived in Uganda as well as refugees who had arrived in the sixties - citizens and non-citizens alike. Beginning on October 1, teams of local officials, members of the "youth wing" of the UPC, and special forces of the police attacked Banyarwanda homes. These were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable as the mud walls were pushed in or the corrugated metal roofs were stolen. Even homes on the perimeter of long-established refugee settlements were destroyed.

Intimidation of the people, accompanied by beatings and a number of killings, precipitated large-scale displacement. By October 2, Banyarwanda were streaming from their homesites, some into the established refugee settlements and some across the boarder into Rwanda. Although allowed to take what possessions they could carry, most were taken from them at the numerous roadblocks manned by members of the Special Police Force and the UPC youth wing. Local inhabitants were prevented by the eviction teams from giving or selling water, food or shelter to those in flight.

Most entered Rwanda on foot. Caught unprepared, Rwanda officials arranged for trucks to transport the refugees to camps. Those who fled to the established refugee settlements within Uganda waited in fear of the government's next actions. By November 1, potential displacement was so large that Rwanda closed its border.

Developments in Rwanda

UNHCR appealed to the international community for financial assistance; many countries made substantial contributions. However, credit for averting disaster is due to the fortunate presence of highly capable voluntary agency personnel from Catholic Relief Services and Oxfam (U.K.) in Rwanda at the time of the crisis, as well as the enlightened response of the Rwandan government. Food and shelter were supplied rapidly, and two refugee camps were established to house the 44,000 refugees who crossed the border before it was closed. One at Mehega initially held approximately 13,000 cattle herders, along with 50,000 head of cattle. Another at Kanyinya held some 30,000 agriculturalists; it constituted the third largest "city" in Rwanda.

Enormous numbers of cattle died due to lack of forage, and since late January, many of the herders at Mehega have moved to the Lake Nasho area in the south with their remaining herds. The refugees at Kanyinya are being moved to a tented camp at Kibondo. The numbers are relatively stable, although small numbers of refugees move back and forth across the border at isolated points.

A physical tragedy has been avoided, but the situation is tragic nonetheless. Thousands of refugees have lived in structured camp facilities for half a year. They have lost their land and possessions. The conditions under which the refugees live in Rwanda are crowded and difficult, and there is little constructive activity to occupy the months. Traditional family roles have been disrupted: women no longer have a hearth to maintain, and extended family relationships cannot be maintained in the regimented living situation. Finally, most have been expelled from the only homeland they have ever known.

Rwanda's ability to maintain the refugees even in these marginal conditions is tenuous. A country the size of Maryland, it has 5.5 million people and is the most densely populated country in Africa. Its ability to meet refugee needs from its own resources is limited. The environmental devastation wrought by refugees' cattle is substantial on land which regenerates exceedingly slowly. The nation's ethnic balance is delicate, and the political problems created by the presence of this large refugee population is significant. Yet Rwanda is in some ways a captive in this situation - it is landlocked and largely dependent on transit through Uganda for imports and exports.

Developments in Uganda

Most of the 35,000 displaced Banyarwanda who remained in Uganda fled to existing refugee settlements and joined an equal number who had been in the settlements since the 1960s. Although the majority arrived in October and November, others in smaller numbers continued to arrive for months thereafter. Those at Merama Hill did not join a pre-existing settlement: they encamped within several hundred yards of a bridge to Rwanda, having arrived at the border just after it was closed by Rwandan authorities.

When UNHCR's Unwin vigorously protested the displacement to government officials and received some international media attention, in early October, he was ordered expelled by Ugandan authorities. They relented, however, upon learning that he would be departing shortly as his tour of duty was nearing completion. His replacement designated by UNHCR has not yet been accepted by Uganda, and therefore no new refugee assistance contacts have been negotiated. The Roman Catholic Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), formerly in charge of food distributions at Ugandan camps have discontinued their activities until UNHCR comes to an agreement with the government. The Catholic order justifiably fears reprisals from the predominantly protestant UPC if they continue their work unauthorized. At the time of this writing, we were unable to find out if or from whom refugees in Uganda were receiving food.

For the displaced Banyarwanda still in Uganda, life is difficult. The system of supply is weaker than it is for those now in Rwanda, although there is less regimentation in the Ugandan settlements. Physical deterioration of the land is substantial. Children's education has been disrupted, a tragedy that may never be fully rectified.

However, the most notable of the settlements' characteristics is fear. As one expert on refugees in Africa noted in March, "I have never seen a group of refugees more afraid for their safety." Ugandan internal security police are routinely present in the settlements and UPC officials hold key positions in settlement administration. The international presence is exceedingly limited: there are no representatives of UNHCR, UNICEF, or international voluntary agencies present on a full-time basis, and no U.S. agency has any presence. The most effective "outside" presence at the settlements is that of the White Fathers who continue to provide medical and educational assistance even though their food assistance programs have been disrupted, perhaps temporarily. Oxfam (U.K.) has provided medical assistance at Merama Hill.

In October 1982, when the displacement began. President Obote was out of the country. Upon his return he issued public statements (characterized by some as being primarily for international consumption) calling for a return to law and order and constitutional rights which he claimed protected citizen, alien & refugee alike. However, actions taken by the government, or those it has failed to take, cast doubt on the credibility of those statements. Official statements characterized the displacement as a local misunderstanding which led to some fighting between a group of refugees and some of the indigenous inhabitants of the area. In the aftermath of the fighting, some refugees fled the area in fear. The government of Uganda acted swiftly to restore law and order in the area and ensure the security and welfare of refugees.

In fact, onsite observers, including these writers, confirm the absence of constructive actions by the Ugandan government. Although official representatives of Rwanda and Uganda met at Gabiro, Rwanda, in late October and agreed to an initial plan to resolve the crisis, there was no noticeable fellow-through on the part of Uganda. In actuality, a team appointed by the president traveled throughout southwest Uganda in a "mopping up" operation which resulted in additional displaced Banyarwanda fleeing to the settlements, particularly to those at Fort Portal. Government officials have openly discussed declaring some areas inhabited by Banyarwanda as new national parks in order to require further displacement of large groups.

The government has taken no steps to punish the evictors, even though they are well-known, nor those who have taken possession of the land, homes, cattle, and other belongings of the displaced Banyarwanda. Nor has it moved to compensate the displaced for their losses. The conclusion of most observers, including these writers, is that, whether or not the president initiated the displacement, the government countenanced the harsh treatment of this group which is part of the political opposition.

Recent Developments

Uganda re-entered discussions with Rwanda and UNHCR at Kabale, Uganda, in early March 1983. That it did so many be due to constructive pressure from certain governments, particularly Western European, and to the international embarrassment caused to the Ugandan government by the divergence of its statements and actions, the very useful intervention of the UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, and the facilitative efforts of UNHCR.

A joint communique issued on March 11 committed the two governments to certain actions intended to lead to a resolution of the Banyarwanda tragedy. The provisions on balance seem to favor Uganda at Rwanda's expense, but, coupled with the recent agreement by Uganda to provide additional land to relieve overcrowding in the current refugee settlements in Uganda, the agreement represents progress. It remains to be seen if Uganda will honor either of these agreements.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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