Tens of thousands of Congolese Tutsi refugees living in Rwanda for more than a decade are preparing to return to North Kivu province. But longstanding and unresolved tensions over land threaten to upset their homecoming.
More than 53,000 registered refugees have been living across the border since the chaos surrounding the 1997 ousting of President Mobutu Sese Seko by Rwanda- and Uganda-backed rebels.
“Land issues are going to be one of the major hurdles to return,” said Masti Notz from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in North Kivu. Almost 800,000 people are internally displaced in this province.
Land has been at the heart of much of the violence in the Kivu provinces. Too many people, too little accessible land and huge mineral wealth below the surface have been a toxic combination, often resulting in conflict.
In January 2009, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a Tutsi-led rebel group, agreed to integrate its fighters into the national army and went on to sign a formal peace deal two months later.
The return of the Rwanda-based refugees and their safety in DRC was one of the main demands of the rebel group turned political party.
The February signing of a tripartite agreement between UNHCR, Rwanda and DRC began the process that will lead to their return. But some, like Antoinette Mukamu, who fled to Rwanda in 1996, did not wait for organized repatriations to start.
“We understood there was peace,” said Mukamu, whose home village straddles North Kivu’s Walikale and Masisi territories. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that about 80 percent of the refugees are from North Kivu where rebel groups have long fought the government and each other.
The region is still far from peaceful as the army continues to battle the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a rebel group founded by Hutus who fled to DRC after the 1994 genocide.
This insecurity, coupled with rumours of a hostile reception from former neighbours intent on hanging on to land abandoned when the refugees fled DRC, has left Mukamu afraid to go home. She’s now living in the Kahe camp for the internally displaced in Kitchanga, a town in North Kivu’s Masisi district.
“My family has a field in our village, but I don’t know the situation with our land,” said Mukamu.
Dieudonne Kanyamugengu, from Rutshuru district, came back from Rwanda with his brother and his cows for “food and peace”. He returned to his village, but retreated to Kahe camp after a fight with his Hutu neighbours over land. “I’m not safe there,” he said.
Jules Mbokani, coordinator of a Norwegian Refugee Council project to provide information, counselling and legal assistance to the refugees, has received many such reports of returnees in limbo.
Photo: Lisa Clifford/IRIN
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“People have been returning since September 2009 but many haven’t arrived back in their original villages, because of conflicts over land and security,” he said.
Most land in DRC is allocated by customary chiefs who administer it under customary law. This conflicts with those who hold formal land titles allocated under the 1973 Land Act, according to which the state owns all land.
In Masisi, where many of the refugees are heading, up to 60 percent of the land is set aside for cattle, creating tension between pastoralists and agriculturalists.
Compounding the problem are wealthy speculators, who bought – or took –land abandoned by those who fled during the wars. They then formed large plantations – shutting out former residents. With little prospect for employment in DRC’s destroyed economy, landless people struggle to survive.
Land issues are also contributing to Masisi’s simmering ethnic tensions. The region is home to the Twa, Hunde, Hutu and Tutsis, who have a history of clashes dating back generations.
A Hunde man who refused to give his name because of fear of retribution said he could live with the Tutsi returnees but only if they laid down their arms.
“That’s the main problem. These people always have guns with them,” he said.
And the question of who owns the land in Masisi? “The land belongs to the chief,” he said.
That chief is Sylvestre Bashali, a Hunde. He says “it requires a big effort” for Hunde to live together with Tutsis and local residents are afraid of “war and confrontation” when the refugees come back. “Because the CNDP has guns there is fear,” said Bashali.
For its part, the CNDP says concerns about the returning refugees are being exaggerated. Desire Kamanzi, a former CNDP leader, blames extremist politicians for fanning ethnic flames.
“Deep in the population people are not worried,” said Kamanzi. “This problem is political. People don’t want to get into wars for nonsense issues.”
However, CNDP president Philippe Gafishi admits negotiations over the returnees and where they will live are not straightforward. “Sixteen years on, people who are living on the land will not be happy to leave and we have to sensitise them. But we think they are ready to welcome back their brothers and friends.”
But the growing dominance of the CNDP on the North Kivu political and military landscape is causing concern in some circles.
In Masisi, CNDP flags still flutter over key towns and the group continued to collect taxes and control economic activity well after making peace with Kinshasa.
Although Gafishi insists the parallel administrations are now gone, CNDP soldiers – though nominally integrated into the army – are posted in key farming and cattle areas in Masisi and Rutshuru and the command structures of the ex-rebels remain in place.
On a recent trip to Masisi, Refugees International advocate Camilla Olson found the CNDP firmly in control – in some cases pushing out other ethnic groups through intimidation tactics.
“Some of the traditional leaders we spoke to have fled to Goma because they feel so unsafe or marginalized,” said Olson.
Added into the mix is concern about the nationality of the refugees, with speculation in Masisi and elsewhere that many are actually Rwandans.
It is up to the Congolese government to verify their identity. But Felix Musanganya from the government’s National Refugee Commission believes it should be Rwanda’s responsibility. He also wants Rwanda to provide a total figure of the number of refugees coming back to DRC.
“It’s important to clearly identify the numbers, because it will cause suspicion if more than the official number comes back,” he said. “People will not understand. They will think they are Rwandans.”
Addressing land disputes is traditionally the work of customary chiefs but with tensions high, analysts say other mechanisms are needed.
UN-HABITAT, the UN Human Settlements Programme, thinks mobile land mediation teams are one solution, with IDPs and refugees as the primary target. Since September 2009, a team of six mediators has dealt with 450 cases in North Kivu alone – about 20 percent of which have been solved.
Olson points to local “pacification” committees as another way of diffusing tension. The committees were stipulated in the 2009 peace deal and are intended to facilitate returns. Among other tasks, they can mediate in land conflicts and should include local authorities, customary chiefs, civil society representatives, refugees and IDPs and UN agencies.
“If we can be proactive, we can set the stage for positive returns,” said Olson.