NAKIVALE, Uganda (AP) — Leodegard Kagaba lifted his shirt to reveal an ugly scar on his belly left by a bullet that nearly killed him. Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, he said, attacked him after accusing him of participating in the 1994 genocide.
“I have many scars, even in my heart,” he said. “The people who put those scars on me still live freely in Rwanda.”
Now nearly two decades later, Kagaba and many of the other 9,000 Rwandans in this camp of 68,000 African refugees say they are troubled by the looming prospect of forced repatriation back to Rwanda. Hutu refugees say they fear reprisal attacks by Tutsis inside Rwanda. During the 1994 genocide, at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a campaign of mass murder orchestrated by Hutu extremists.
After the genocide, hundreds of thousands of Hutus — some charged with participating in the genocide, others simply afraid of reprisal killings — fled Rwanda and sought refuge across East and Central Africa.
Many ended up in a sprawling settlement in western Uganda that some now regard as their home for life. Here, in a place called Nakivale, amid green hills reminiscent of their ancestral land, the Rwandans have access to pasture for their cattle and many have set up successful businesses selling groceries or farm animals.
Rwandans who spoke to The Associated Press said the political climate in Rwanda discourages them from leaving Nakivale. At least 92 percent of all Rwandan refugees in Uganda are Hutus, according to U.N. refugee agency.
Kagaba, an ethnic Hutu whose father and siblings were killed in 1994, said he would be harassed or worse in Rwanda because he witnessed atrocities committed by the Tutsi soldiers who came to his village looking for genocide suspects.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame — an ethnic Tutsi — dismisses allegations that his country unfairly targets Hutus, saying those who played a role in the genocide should face the law. Kagame encourages a gospel of unity that disregards ethnicity.
But groups such as Human Rights Watch — which the government openly spars with — have long accused Rwanda’s government of using a genocide ideology law to target the regime’s critics. Independent journalists who have written critically about the history of the genocide have been threatened with jail terms. Many have fled.
Rwanda’s government said in a statement Friday that “Rwandan refugees who hesitate to return home either lack enough information on the current situation in Rwanda or have developed significant ties with host countries.”
The 8,000 Rwandans who arrived in Uganda before 1998 have until the end of June to return home voluntarily. Uganda, which hosts the highest number of officially recognized Rwandan refugees, has published lists of those who are expected to return home soon.
In Nakivale, the Hutus who fled Rwanda at the end of the genocide spoke of a persistent witch-hunt, saying sons can be harassed for their father’s crimes. Their grim opinion of life in Rwanda is reinforced by the accounts of refugees who returned to Rwanda and fled back to Uganda, saying they had been jailed on trumped-up charges and even tortured.
Some of the refugees freshly arriving from Rwanda claim persecution and want political asylum, said Lucy Beck, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Uganda.
“It’s still a country producing refugees,” Beck said of Rwanda. “There is a large amount of fear (in Nakivale), and it’s not helped that refugees have gone and come back again.”
Belonging to a family seen in the community as having participated in the genocide carries a lifetime stigma, some refugees said, equating a Hutu’s return to Rwanda to committing suicide. Some Tutsi families are still eager to exact revenge on neighbors they believe killed their relatives, said Rajab Simpamanuka, a Hutu refugee who has lived in Nakivale since 2001.
In January, after his mother died, he briefly considered sneaking into Rwanda for the funeral but was advised against it. Instead he gathered some relatives and friends and performed a parallel ceremony in Nakivale.
“The family you come from is still a problem to this day,” he said. “If you return home, they will say the son of so-and-so is back. And the police will come for you. You can pay for your father’s sins. I still like my country, but I will go back only if there’s a change of government.”
Hamida Kabagwira, a Hutu refugee, said she won’t be forced to return to Rwanda.
“If they want it, they will have to come here and kill us. I will never find peace in Rwanda,” said Kabagwira, who was recently reunited with her husband, Shaban Mutabazi.
Mutabazi, who said he spent 16 years in a Rwandan jail for alleged genocide, fled to Uganda in January after serving his sentence because “after that everyone in my village saw me like an animal.”
UNHCR opposes forcible repatriations but is powerless to stop them. The agency favors solutions such as integration and naturalization for those who have lived in Uganda long enough, said Beck. A decision to forcibly evict refugees would be the responsibility of Ugandan officials, she said. About 90 percent of refugees don’t want to return, she said.
Moses Watasa, a spokesman for the Ugandan department that manages refugees, said his office can’t be expected to rely on the refugees’ opinion of safety in Rwanda and that input from Rwanda’s government and the international community would be crucial. “They would go back if their home areas are deemed safe,” he said.
Some refugees are taking precautionary measures such as avoiding their beds at night.
“I don’t really go to sleep these days,” said Ephraim Rutabingwa, a Hutu refugee who bears a deep scar on his forehead, the mark of a machete that he says was wielded by a Tutsi neighbor in 1996. He wants the U.N. to help refugees find safe haven in another country.