US and UN treachery in the African Great Lakes Region: Why Rwandan refugees refuse to go home

Two and a half million Rwandans fled in all directions in 1994, many into Tanzania, but by far the greatest number into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). – Photo: Jeremiah Kamau, Reuters

by Ann Garrison

The term “United Nations” in front of the UN’s various humanitarian agencies is deceptive. It implies that they’re funded by the UN’s general budget and therefore are politically neutral. In fact, however, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) are all donor dependent, primarily on the EU and other European nations, who look out for their interests and those of the US. 

Masako Yonekawa’s book “Post-Genocide Rwandan Refugees: Why They Refuse to Return ‘Home’: Myths and Realities” addresses US responsibility for the Rwandan Genocide and ensuing Congo Wars, and the UNHCR’s brutal bias in favor of the US and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) during and after the 1990-1994 Rwandan Civil War.

Background

A Rwandan Tutsi monarchy and aristocratic class of cattle owners ruled over peasant Hutus for centuries in Rwanda before the Hutu population rose up in 1959, leading to Rwanda becoming a republic in 1961. During and after those years, the Tutsi aristocrats fled, mostly to Uganda. There they regrouped, raised an army, and then returned to reclaim what they considered their birthright, starting the 1990-1994 Rwandan Civil War. Since seizing power, President Paul Kagame and his government have pretended to lead a miraculous ethnic reconciliation, but Tutsi elites are in fact back in power, as evidenced by Wikileaks.

From October 1990 to July 1994, Kagame commanded the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the military arm of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), until it seized power. Kagame claimed to have ended the final 100 days of massacres known as the Rwandan Genocide. This has been disproven, however, by many sources, including UN investigator Robert Gersony’s report and Judi Rever’s “In Praise of Blood: Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.” The RPF’s crimes before, during and after the genocide have been well documented but never prosecuted because the US is complicit and Rwanda is a prized US client state.

Kagame was the power behind the presidency from 1994 to 2000, when he formally assumed the office. He secured his hold on power with a series of preposterous elections, then got Rwanda’s parliament to pass a constitutional amendment allowing him to circumvent term limits and remain in power until 2034. He has ruthlessly served US interests by invading and occupying the resource-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo and by dispatching Rwandan “peacekeepers” elsewhere on the African continent. Last February, against the will of the African Union, he called on the US to “intervene” in Ethiopia and offered to send Rwandan troops.

Rwandan refugees refuse to repatriate

Throughout that time, Yonekawa writes, “Rwandan refugees have refused to repatriate to Rwanda due to the fear of and trauma associated with the RPF as a result of its agenda in the Great Lakes region, partially or fully backed by the US government.” 

Most of these Rwandan refugees are from Rwanda’s majority Hutu population, who fled as Kagame’s Tutsi army advanced on Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Two and a half million Rwandans fled in all directions in 1994, many into Tanzania, but by far the greatest number into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Hundreds of thousands of them were massacred by the invading Rwandan army, whom US troops and corporations assisted with training, logistics and satellite intelligence. Three hundred thousand more struggled through the Congolese jungle seeking refuge, with the RPA in pursuit. Pierre-Claver Ndacyayisenga tells this tale with vivid detail in “Dying to Live: A Rwandan Family’s Five-Year Flight Across the Congo.” 

Rwandan Hutu refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Needless to say, they didn’t want to go home, and many more Rwandans have struggled to secure refugee status and citizenship in host nations, from 1994 to now. They know that many Rwandan Hutus who returned or remained in Rwanda have been imprisoned, killed or consigned to agricultural labor, in many cases on land they once owned. Word of the RPA’s massacre of eight thousand “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDPs) at Kibeho, Rwanda, in April 1995 terrified the refugees in neighboring countries.

Tanzania and other host countries sometimes took harsh action to be rid of Rwandan refugee burdens, but forcible repatriation also served Rwandan and US interests. Kagame’s Rwanda needed agricultural labor, and the reestablished Tutsi elite didn’t want educated and skilled Rwandans to gather outside its borders, where they could tarnish the country’s reconciliation facade or even organize to return, as they had. The US made sure that the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda put many of the latter behind bars and failed to prosecute a single Tutsi.

The US wanted whatever was good for Kagame and the Tutsi elite because it had chosen them to invade DRC, oust Mobutu, displace France as the dominant power in the region, and steal DRC’s abundant resources for various corporate interests. Polishing Kagame’s image, and that of Rwanda rising from the ashes, also provided cover for US involvement in the war that had led to such a staggering loss of life. 

The invasion of DRC 

In 1996, a new military force emerged in DRC calling itself the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). It was made up mostly of invading Rwandans, but with a Congolese leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who gave the invaders a Congolese rebel facade. Ugandans and Burundians joined that invasion, but Rwanda was in the lead by far. Yonekawa writes:

In exchange, US corporation Bechtel, which designed and built projects for mining companies, became first in line to win contracts.

“Washington’s support of the AFDL was made clearer by Kabila’s deals with US companies,” writes Yonekawa. “One was Bechtel, which provided satellite data by drawing up a master development plan and inventory of the country’s vast mineral resources for the DRC, and provided high-tech intelligence for the AFDL at no charge. Bechtel commissioned and paid for US National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellite studies of the DRC and for infrared maps of its mineral potential. Some of these satellite data gave Kabila useful military information before the fall of Mobutu. In exchange, Bechtel, which designed and built projects for mining companies, became first in line to win contracts.

“Another deal was with the American Mineral Fields (AMF) headquartered in Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. The AMF signed a US $1 billion contract with Kabila to explore cobalt and copper deposits in exchange for providing funds for the war. 

“Moreover, military contractor Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest providers of products and services to the energy industry, reportedly constructed a military base on the Congolese-Rwandan border, where the RPA has trained. At the beginning of the war, the US embassy in Kigali was heavily involved in helping establish joint ventures to exploit coltan – a fact omitted from official reports.”

The Eurocentric United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

At the beginning of her book, Yonekawa explains that the UNHCR has been Eurocentric and political since it was created in 1951:

“(T)he 1951 Convention [Relation to the Status of Refugees] was Eurocentric, with chronological and geographical limitations in the aftermath of the Second World War. Western countries were not interested in non-European refugees, but ‘since they [Western countries] were using the United Nations as the means for dealing with their own problems, they were obliged to make at least some apparent concessions to universality.’ 

Refugees were killed, however, once on the road; village chiefs were ordered to assist the military in ‘cleaning the road.’

“The 1967 Protocol amended this Convention, expanding its scope as the problem of displacement spread around the world. This expansion was crucial because ‘the United States perceived refugee problems in developing countries as sources of instability which the Soviet Union could exploit for its own advantage in extending hegemony in the third world.’ The presence of the UNHCR was intended to partially block Soviet power in Africa and Asia during the Cold War. As a consequence, Western governments regarded assistance to refugees ‘as a central part of their foreign policy towards newly independent states.’”

The UNHCR and Rwandan refugees

Fast forward to the UNHCR’s service to the US and Kagame’s Rwanda with regard to Rwandan refugees, who were, again, mostly Hutus who didn’t want to go home for obvious reasons.

Yonekawa herself worked with Rwandan refugees for UNHCR for 10 years during the 1990s and then again in 2007. “After my retirement from the UNHCR,” she writes, “I began working as a researcher, using my field experience to explore questions that had long troubled me.”

She recounts many stories of refugees’ desperate efforts not to go home, and some of the worst are those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

“(F)rom December 1996 to September 1997, under the guise of a ‘rescue operation,’ the UNHCR attempted to repatriate refugees from northwestern DRC to Rwanda. Reportedly, the AFDL set a deadline for the UNHCR to start on 1 May 1997 to search and repatriate refugees within 60 days. 

“The UNHCR went to remote villages to look for refugees, even threatening them that it would send Kabila’s soldiers to repatriate them to Rwanda. Local villagers were informed not to help the refugees but to get them to leave the forest and come out onto the road to make their way to Rwanda.’ 

Rwandan assassins shot dissident journalist Charles Ingabire dead after he fled to Uganda and repeatedly asked the UNHCR to arrange asylum in a third country.

“Refugees were killed, however, once on the road; village chiefs were ordered to assist the military in ‘cleaning the road,’ which was to remove bodies and bones as well as other indications of killings, such as clothes, cooking utensils, from the roadside. The UNHCR’s sole option was to ‘return to an uncertain and dangerous situation in Rwanda’ because ‘staying in DRC meant almost certain death.’ Yet, the people who ordered the killings of refugees were in Rwanda. 

“Finally, after having failed to locate the whereabouts of refugees who were in hiding, the UNHCR initiated a system of paid compensation of 10 US dollars per one refugee for any Congolese who brought them in. This became one of the most lucrative activities in the area, as hunters arrived with flyers from the UNHCR demanding that the local authorities help them in their work. When a villager refused to deliver the refugees he had hosted, hunters of refugees threatened that they would get Kabila’s soldiers to kill the villager and his family.”

There are many more harrowing accounts, including those of refugees who were told to gather for food distribution and then summarily massacred by Rwandan troops. Another is that of dissident journalist Charles Ingabire, who fled to Uganda and repeatedly asked the UNHCR to arrange asylum in a third country until Rwandan assassins shot him dead while he and a friend were having a drink in a bar in Kampala. After that the UNHCR finally arranged political asylum seeker status in Sweden for two more Rwandan journalists, Didas Gasana and Charles Kabonero, but that wasn’t the end of Kagame’s war on journalists, including a Rwandan Norwegian blogger who was deported to Rwanda with the blessing of Human Rights Watch.  And not a word from the UNHCR. 

US responsibility in the Great Lakes regional power dynamics and Rwandan refugees

The last chapter of Yonekawa’s book, before her concluding remarks, is “US Responsibility in the Great Lakes Regional Power Dynamics and Rwandan Refugees.” For many this will no doubt be the most interesting, and I highly recommend getting the book even if you only have time to read this one chapter and skim the rest. It’s full of damning detail about US interests in DRC; French and US competition; US interference at the UN; US complicity in the forced repatriation and massacre of Rwandan refugees; and the US elites’ early steps, taken in the 1980s, that led to the ongoing catastrophe that DRC is today.

And it’s all painstakingly documented. At times Yonekawa has footnoted sources for every sentence in a paragraph. She substantiates a lot of US treachery that I’ve always suspected but never precisely confirmed.

Masako Yonekawa is a former head of the UNHCR Field Office in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is now a researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan. In 2021 she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize  for her sensitivity to the plight of Rwandan refugees and for her books “Post-Genocide Rwandan Refugees: Why They Refuse to Return ‘Home’: Myths and Realities” and “Repatriation, Insecurity, and Peace: Case Study of Rwandan Refugees.”

Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for promoting peace through her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. You can support her independent journalism on Patreon. She can be reached on Twitter @AnnGarrison and at ann@anngarrison.com