In April 1994, long-standing tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, the two main ethnic groups in the African state of Rwanda, exploded when the plane of Juvenal Habyarimana, the Hutu president, was shot down. 
A Hutu militia - along with thousands of ordinary Hutus - massacred more than 800,000 Tutsis.

But when the exiled Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) returned to the country as many as two million Hutus, fearing reprisals, fled across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo)

Sixteen years on, many of those Hutus want to return home as part of a reconciliation and repatriation programme sponsored by the UN and the Rwandan government. 

But what sort of welcome awaits them? Sorious Samura followed some refugees as they returned to Rwanda.

Most refugees in the United Nations refugee transit camp in Goma, in the eastern DR Congo, are Rwandan Hutus who fled Rwanda in 1994, following the victory of the invading Tutsi-led rebel force, the RPF.

They were joined by some of those responsible for the genocide of Tutsis, including the Interahamwe, a Hutu paramilitary organisation which continues to fight and still poses a threat to the Rwandan government.

Many of the refugees are traumatised by years spent struggling to survive in the forests of the DR Congo.

But now they have decided to return to Rwanda.

"I heard that Rwanda was peaceful now. My sister came here and told me about it and that's when I thought about going home," explains one of the refugees.

Another says: "We were hearing from people that if you go back you will be killed, but we looked into it ourselves and realised it wasn't true. In fact they were welcoming people, not killing them. That's why I decided to return."

'I didn't kill'

Vestine says she just wants to go home and does not know anything about the genocide

Vestine was just 16 when she fled Rwanda with her family over 15 years ago.

Many of her family members, including her father, died during the ordeal and she has not seen any of her family since 1997.

"I didn't know where my mother had gone. That's when a Congolese man abducted me. Soon after I got pregnant with my first daughter," she says.

The man married Vestine, but after all five of her children were born by caesarean section, he asked her to leave.

"He spent all his money on looking after me after each operation and complained about how I always needed a caesarean section when other women were giving normal births. That's why he told me to leave, so he could marry someone that will give birth normally.

"With God's help I will get back to my country, back to my home. That's all.

"I don't know anything about the genocide. I didn't kill anyone or steal from anyone. I just want to get back to my home, to my family property with my children," she says.

Violence crossing borders

The arrival in 1994 of two million Rwandan refugees, along with the formation of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (known as the FDLR) from the remnants of the Hutu Power movement, led to a period of bitter conflict in DR Congo, in which an estimated 5.4 million people, mainly civilians, have been killed.

"Things in the Congo are the way they are now because of what happened in Rwanda and the subsequent wars. Since they came it's now our villages and forests that are faced with all this insecurity and violence," one Congolese man says.

"Rwanda has got to show that they want the refugees back, then they will go. You have to remember these refugees committed genocide, they don't want to face the people they offended," another explains.

There are an estimated 35,000 Rwandan refugees remaining in the DR Congo and about 5,000 armed combatants from the FDLR.

'A better place'

The transit camp is the first step in the refugees' journey home

For the refugees returning to Rwanda, a transit camp, run jointly by the UN and Rwanda's National Commission for Refugees, is the first stop on their journey.

It is not home, but for many it is the first time they have set foot on Rwandan soil in more than 15 years.

"I feel very happy. I haven't eaten in a very long time. We lived in a camp and I just said we have to leave and go to a better place," says one of the returning refugees.

Another talks about her live in DR Congo: "We lived in the forest, often [with] no food, no salt - we got to the point of eating snails.

"Our husbands would be with us and would go looking for food and disappear the whole night. Say 50 husbands would leave but only 25 would come back, the others would have been killed.

"Around then I was allowed to stay in a village called Kanyanzuki but there were people that would come, take our clothes, undress us and take our clothes. That was last year. They would take cooking pots, all the utensils. They would rape women and beat up men, kill some of them with spears."

Competition for land

Vestine had to wait at the transit camp for four days before the transport left for her region.

She did not know the whereabouts of her family and was returning alone with her children, hoping to reclaim her father's land.

But in the most densely populated African country competition for land is great.

That competition fuelled the country's ethnic conflict and, with thousands of refugees returning every year, it is still a potentially explosive issue.

When Vestine finally reached her father's land it was clear that someone else was living in her father's house.

"There's nothing I can do about it. Maybe the person living here will be kind enough to let us stay. If not there's nothing I can do. I'm happy to be here though," she says.


Vestine was eventually reunited with
two of her brothers

The last time Vestine was in her village, neighbours were murdering each other.

"People took machetes and clubs, traditional weapons, and killed their Tutsi brothers because of their ethnicity," the chief of Vestine's village remembers.

In a village of 2,000 people the chief says that 205 Tutsis were killed, leaving just 45 survivors who continue to live there with their children.

As for the killers, the majority of them also continue to live in the village.

"Most have finished their sentences and have come home, but they live with those they wronged. They asked for forgiveness and entered what we call the Unity and Reconciliation programme. It starts an exchange of dialogue," the village chief explains.

"The perpetrator will go to the survivor and repent for his sins, ask for forgiveness, and try to be available for those they wronged, helping them. If there's work that needs to be done for example, they try and help."

Unity and reconciliation

The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission has been at the heart of the country's effort to overcome the legacy of the genocide. It has embraced a policy of community building through dialogue, and has turned to a number of traditional practices to facilitate this approach.

One such practice is the return of community mediators, like the village chief. His role is to oversee local disputes and to try to resolve problems within the community, promoting dialogue and community participation.

One of the men from the village who participated in the genocide says he blames the government of the time.

"There was a bad political regime in power. They weren't good and they told us that we must kill the Tutsis. So we followed and killed them, and those who didn't kill were threatened with the machete, and that's how I came to commit the crime," he says.

Like most of the genocide perpetrators in the village, he confessed to his crimes, thereby receiving a reduced sentence.

"These days I feel like I have no problem because I co-habitate well with people and the survivors. We work together, we inter-marry, we take each other to hospital. We really have no problem," he says.


Seraphine says she has forgiven those who killed her family

Seraphine is a survivor of the genocide.

She was ten years old when the killing began, and of her family of 12 she lost all but one brother.

Most of those responsible for the deaths of her family members confessed to their crimes, and have since returned to the village.

Seraphine lives side-by-side with the very people who killed her family.

"Every year when the remembrance week starts in April, the places on my body where they cut me with the machetes start swelling up. I usually have to be hospitalised due to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder," she explains.

Seraphine recently received compensation from her attackers, as ordered by one of the local Gacaca courts - the traditional community-based tribunals that were set up by the government to deal with the overwhelming backlog of cases.

"I attended the hearings and spoke out against the perpetrators. They accepted that they had killed, and after confessing they asked for forgiveness. Here, we live well together because they sought forgiveness, and God's word says that those who ask you for your forgiveness, you should give it," Seraphine says.

"We have forgiven them. Those that return from their sentences, we welcome them without problems. If there is a drink we share. If there is food we share. That's how we live together. I have forgiven them from the bottom of my heart."

This episode of People & Power first aired on January 27, 2010.

Source: Al Jazeera