Thought and Ideas
For Rwandan refugees, there was no other place like home
Posted Sunday, September 29 2013 at 01:00
Anniversary. October 1 will mark 23 years since Rwandan refugees living in Uganda attacked the Kagitumba border post to force their way back home after many years in exile. The war would last four years (1990 to 1994) and it would forever change the political and social configuration of the Great Lakes Region. In a five-part series starting today, Faustin Mugabe takes us back to the events preceding the 1990 attack, the planning, first days of the war, and the eventual victory.
A refugee is a title no one wants because living in a refugee camp is demeaning.
However, since 1959, many Rwandans, especially the Tutsi, became refugees and lived in camps across the globe until 1990 when Uganda acted as the biblical Mount Sinai to the Israelites.
In fact, Rwandans were also referred to as the ‘Jews of Africa’ because of the way they left their country and spread across the sub-Saharan region and beyond but more so in the Great-Lakes region.
Also, the life and character of Major General Fred Rwigyema, the man who led the refugee’s journey back home, was similar to the Biblical Moses who led the Israelites from exile in Egypt back to Israel. Both men fought for and defended their people while in exile and both never reached home alive. Both men stood at the hill, saw home and there they died.
Although Rwigyema commanded the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) also known as Inkotanyi (Tough Warriors/strugglists) from Uganda which set the historical ‘military journey’ that returned refugees home on October 1, 1990, after the 1959 civil strife in Rwanda that led to Africa’s earliest largest refugee explosion, it should be noted that the first time Rwandans had attempted to return home by force of the arm was in March 1961 when the refugees mostly from Uganda organised the Inyezi (guerrillas) but failed.
The second attempt was in July the following year which was also a fiasco. The most serious attempt was on Christmas Day 1963 in which the Inyezi from Burundi tried but it was also a debacle. This was followed by two other botched attempts in July and November 1966.
Nevertheless, the plight of the refugees running away from Rwanda’s first genocide was a matter of concern for Uganda.
In 1959, a Ugandan politician made a ‘Pan-Africanist and humanitarian statement’ about the Tutsis refugees. MP Milton Obote (Lango constituency) while discussing the issue of Rwandan refugees entering Uganda, on February 29, 1959 on the floor of Parliament, said: ‘With 6.5 million people, Uganda is under populated. I want the door open for Batutsi to come to Uganda,’ according to the monthly Legislative Council (LEGCO) of February 1959.
However, after the May 24, 1966 Buganda Crisis, security in Uganda was at a knot-tight level, especially in central, west and south-western regions. When Amin captured power, the dream of every Rwandan refugee returning home was dented though not shattered as some even joined the notorious State Research Bureau. Due to Amin’s brutality, it was impossible to embark on such risky mission.
When Juvenal Habyarimana became president in 1973, he was a close ally of Amin. Officials from the government met regularly, especially in Kabale, to discuss security matters concerning the common borders of their countries.
The formation of the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), a guerrilla movement led by Yoweri Museveni to fight Amin in 1971, was a blessing all Rwandan refugees across the globe were to cherish years later.
In 1976, Museveni recruited Fred Rwigyema into Fronasa who fought in the 1979 liberation war as well as the Luweero war of 1981 to 1986. When Amin was toppled in 1979, Rwandan refugees in Uganda formed an organisation called Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU), to keep the refugees together.
When NRA captured power, influential refugees in army led by Rwigyema radically caused the change of Ranu’s vision and mission and in December 1987, the RPF was formed in Kampala with Rwigyema as its first chairman.
When National Resistance Army (NRA) captured power on January 26, 1986, the authorities in Rwanda started watching events in Uganda with suspicion.
In March 1990, President Habyarimana visit Uganda to allay fears about the possibility of refugees forcing their way to Rwanda by the gun. His fears were indeed genuine, it was not in doubt that the refugees in the NRA wanted to return home by December 1986.
On Sunday, October 7, 1990, NRA Chief Political Commissar (CPC), Lt Col Serwanga Lwanga while addressing the press about the RPF issue at Mbuya Army Headquarters, said: “It was agreed that after the NRA struggle, all refugees would be screened out of the army. Upon capture of state power in early 1986, the exercise should have taken effect in December that year. But before that arrangement could be effected, by the end of August, the northern insurgency started.
The NRA then being a small force against such a huge threat these troops were kept in the national army.” The Weekly Topic of October 8, 1990 quotes Lt Col Serwanga.
If these refugees had been demobilised from the army, would they have returned to the refugee camps? The answer is obvious and Rwandan government had good intelligence on that.
By mid 1986, a movement front called Rwanda National Liberation Movement (RLNM) was formed with its leader John Vienne Karuranga though based in Brussels in Belgium, had contacts in Kampala. Another movement known as The Organisation for Total Liberation of All Rwandese, also opposed to the Kigali government, had its headquarters in a European capital.
In a telephone interview with a Kampala newspaper, Telecast, Karuranga was quoted as having said: “All diplomatic ways will be devised to make Rwanda government allow Rwandese now living in exile return home. We have no intention of using the guns to achieve this. But if someone stands in our way, when time comes for us to go back, there will be no other alternative, but use the force of arms”.