Prior to the events of late 1996 the Rwandan refugee situation had altered little; nearly 1.8 million Rwandan refugees still resided in neighbouring countries and the prospects for their voluntary return seemed slight.
Several attempts had been made by the Zairean authorities to encourage repatriation by preventing movement and trade into and out of camps and by the rounding up of groups within the camps and their forcible placement onto buses. In August 1995, for instance, such operations achieved the repatriation of approximately 15,000 refugees. However, the use of force was opposed, principally by UNHCR, and the overall impact on the numbers repatriating was not substantial.
In North and South Kivu there was increasing hostility towards the Tutsi Banyarwanda by the autochtones (people of Zairean origin) and the Hutu refugees in the camps. First in the Masisi area of North Kivu and subsequently in the Rutshuru area, fighting led to hundreds of deaths and large-scale population displacement. The Government of Rwanda perceived the violence against these Tutsi as a second genocide.
In Rwanda itself, central and eastern areas of the country enjoyed comparatively secure and stable conditions, though killings of survivors of the Genocide did take place.
The west of the country was much less secure. Here a cycle of attacks (killings, ambushes, placing of mines, etc.) by Hutu militia operating principally from Zaire and security operations (and reprisals) by the Rwandan Government army (RPA) produced high levels of insecurity. At the Roundtable meeting in Geneva in June 1996, the US representative identified the Interahamwe and the FAR (the army of the previous regime) operating from camps in Zaire as the principal source of insecurity in the region and signalled a desire for a more concerted effort to overcome the stalemate.
In Burundi, the situation was more volatile and the levels of violence much higher. In March 1996 the Security Council shied away from sanctioning the deployment of a UN force to protect relief workers and signal the resolve of the international community. A series of high-level visits to the country were undertaken by prominent US and EU officials. Strenuous mediation efforts by former President Nyerere of Tanzania appeared to be achieving real, though fragile, progress in June 1996, when the President and Prime Minister both agreed to a statement in Arusha.
At the same time, the long-awaited report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into the October 1993 assassination of President Ndadaye was presented to members of the Security Council. Press reports of the leaked contents featured the name of former President Pierre Buyoya. On 25 July, following a creeping coup, former President Buyoya asserted military control over the country. The governments of the region were robust in their denunciation of the coup and signalled their determination to see compliance with the Arusha Statement by agreeing to impose a total economic blockade on Burundi until Major Buyoya returned the country to constitutional rule.
The uprising by the Banyamulenge in South Kivu, the formation of the Allied Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) including Banyarwanda and other anti-Mobutu groups in North Kivu, and the rapidity of their military victories, took the international community by surprise.
The extent to which the ADFLs strategy of taking the key towns in eastern Zaire conformed to the objectives of the Government of Rwanda (by forcing the displacement of the refugees from the camps around Uvira, Bukavu and then Goma either deep into Zaire or back into Rwanda) led many observers to conclude that the ADFL were supported by the Government of Rwanda. However, such links continue to be stoutly denied by Kigali.
Whatever the truth, the result was a massive humanitarian crisis as relief agencies were forced to withdraw expatriate personnel and most refugees were forced to move away from the camps and their sources of clean water, shelter and food rations.
Until the start of the military aerial reconnaissance flights by the US and British airforces, information on the location of the refugees was minimal.
Agencies whose expatriate personnel had been evacuated from the camps with the advent of the fighting were unable to obtain access to the affected population as a result of a varying combination of insecurity and the ADFL policy of preventing access.
In addition to the broad concern among the agencies at the health implications of the (apparent) lack of access to food and safe water, some agencies also suspected the ADFL of substantial human rights abuse. These concerns led to calls for a multinational force (MNF) to intervene, which were quickly supported by the French and Spanish Governments and the European Commission, but the response from many other key states was cautious. Concerned at the delay, the Canadian Government offered to lead such a force and this resulted in the proposal finally receiving support from the US, the UK and others.
Reconnaissance teams and preparatory were deployed to the region by several governments and the US and British airforces were tasked with the vital aerial reconnaissance role.
Agreement on the precise mandate of the MNF was not reached until 13 November when it was finally decided that it would not include disarming the militia present among the refugees. In a move that may well have been prompted by the realisation that the militia would not be tackled by the MNF and that their position might be frozen or even strengthened by the MNF, the ADFL (allegedly supported by the RPF) confronted the FAR and Interahamwe forces to the west of Mugunga camp on 14 November and forced them westwards and thus away from the approximately 500,000 refugees congregated in and around Mugunga camp.
Either because they had been freed from the control of the FAR/Interahamwe or because of the threat of attack from ADFL forces if they moved westwards, this massive group of refugees headed back into Rwanda.
Aid agencies which had built up capacity to intervene in North Kivu were able to respond promptly and worked with the Government of Rwanda in assisting movement further back into Rwanda and providing shelter and basic needs assistance. Even though a very substantial number of refugees remained unaccounted for in eastern Zaire (a much disputed figure ranging from 100,000 to 600,000), the massive repatriation from Mugunga saw a waning of support for the MNF and proposals to scale down the intervention.
These proposals were further scaled down in the face of ADFL opposition to an intervention. Eventually, even the proposal to airdrop relief supplies by the MNF to groups of refugees on the ground was discontinued. The Canadian government formally wound-up the MNF structure at the end of December.
The conflict in eastern Zaire continues, and ADFL forces presently dominate most of North and South Kivu. However, the capacity of the ADFLs logistics systems to cope with further advances westwards appears limited. The Zairean Army has heavily reinforced Kisangani and there are reports of support being provided by mercenaries and foreign troops. A counter-attack is apparently underway at the time of writing. At present approximately 250,000 Rwandan refugees are settled in the new camps.
In addition, tens of thousands of Zairians have been displaced by the fighting. Several agencies, including UNICEF, WFP, ICRC, ACF and LWF, are being allowed access to these populations by the Zairian authorities though relief efforts are considerably hampered by restrictions and logistical difficulties. UNHCR is attempting to negotiate mechanisms for the voluntary repatriation of the refugees. The fate of the missing 350,000 (the approximate figure implied by subtracting from the initial refugee population in eastern Zaire the numbers who repatriated and those in the new camps) is not known. Some observers explain the discrepancy in terms of inflated initial estimates of the refugee population in the original camps around Goma and Bukavu, whilst others explain it in terms of population dispersal in densely forested areas and high mortality rates resulting from the forced displacement.
Following the mass repatriation from Mugunga camp in mid-November the situation of the 600,000 refugees in Tanzania was brought into sharper focus. Pressure on them to repatriate was increased by a declaration from the Government of Tanzania that all Rwandan refugees should repatriate by the end of the year. Whilst a significant proportion indicated a desire to repatriate following the events of mid-November, others were unwilling.
In mid-December, during operations to encourage and facilitate repatriation, a large group attempted to move further into Tanzania but were prevented from doing so by the Tanzanian Army. Following these events, all but a small number returned to Rwanda during the last two weeks of 1996.
The influx of 1.1 million returnees during a period of 6 weeks has placed enormous demands upon the Government of Rwanda, which has given top priority to their successful re-integration. The international community has given, and continues to give, substantial support to these efforts, providing and committing substantial resources for assistance to a range of needs including additional food aid, housing, agricultural rehabilitation and human rights monitors.
The success of the reintegration programmes are critical to Rwandas future. The returnees will most probably have included substantial numbers of Hutus involved in carrying out the genocide and a larger number who are opposed to the Government of Rwanda. The commitment by the Government to bring those involved in planning and carrying out the 1994 genocide will place additional burdens upon the already critically overburdened prison and justice systems. The capacity of the Government to maintain security in the country will probably also come under strain.
The recent killing of three Spanish aid workers in Ruhengeri, allegedly by Hutu extremists, may be a pointer to future forms of insecurity.
In Burundi, the situation appears to have worsened since late 1996. The international focus on events in eastern Zaire diverted attention from the activities of the Burundian authorities who have been engaged in regrouping populations, purportedly for their own security, but focusing solely on Hutus. Details of substantial human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict received little attention. The displacement of the refugees from the camps in South Kivu resulted in the return of some 80,000 Burundian refugees, but this has been into the highly insecure western areas of Burundi.
The routing of Hutu opposition party (CNDD) bases in South Kivu by the ADFL has forced CNDD to relocate inside Burundi, and levels of violence have increased still further. The activities of humanitarian agencies remain largely confined to Bujumbura, their activities hampered by the non-arrival of key items, whose exemption from sanctions was agreed in late 1996. Burundis future prospects are unclear.