Farmers market in Uganda

KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–Rather than relying on dwindling food rations in refugee camps in Uganda, many Rwandan women have planted gardens to feed themselves and sold extra maize, cassava and potatoes in local Ugandan communities. This has provided them with a measure of sustainability.

Now, official efforts to repatriate Rwandan refugees from Uganda–15 years after the genocide–are threatening that fragile financial security. As refugees abandon fields and gardens in the camps in the southwestern part of the country, many have been left vulnerable to hunger and poverty, refugee advocates here say.

“There is a real chance of disempowering Rwandan women when they return home,” said Moses Crispus Okello, head of research and advocacy at the Refugee Law Project, a nongovernmental organization in Kampala.

Although the U.N. has stated that returning to Rwanda should be strictly voluntary and that growers should be left to finish their work, many refugees have reported that they have been forced to either flee the camps or return to Rwanda by the target date of July 31. Uganda, Rwanda and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees set the deadline in April in a tripartite agreement.

“We’ve had discussions with the Ugandan government and said they should be left to cultivate,” said George Kuchio, senior protection officer at the U.N.’s office for refugees in Kampala. “They shouldn’t be stopped from cultivation and can remain here.”

Kuchio added that he knew there were many rumors in the camps. “And we’ve been discussing that with the Ugandan government,” he said. “I know there has been a lot of pressure from Rwanda on the refugees to go back.”

Land to be Taken Away

Although the U.N. refugee agency says it will continue giving food rations to Rwandan refugees who stay, the Rwandan and Ugandan governments have both said that food assistance and land will be taken away from refugees that remain past July 31.

Land formerly used for farming by Rwandan refugees in the settlements will most likely be redistributed to refugees from Congo, Sudan and other countries.

About 20 Rwandan refugees per day are fleeing the camps to avoid returning home, according to Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister.

Depending on their crops, some growers have been forced by the July 31 deadline to give up halfway through the growing season, while those with ripe crops say they have not had time to find buyers.

Refugee advocates say some buyers are exploiting the deadline turmoil by offering rock-bottom prices to Rwandan refugees.

The agreement between Uganda, Rwanda and the U.N. refugee agency also says that the refugees may not be assisted in their return home if they stay past July 31.

But by July 21, with the deadline approaching, only 4,045 refugees had gone home, according to Kuchio. This is only 22 percent of the U.N.’s registered Rwandese population in Uganda.

Meanwhile, many refugees who tried to return to Rwanda have been forced back to Uganda because they were unable to cope with the hunger and loss of livelihood in Rwanda, advocates and local press reports say.

Kuchio said that returning refugees are given a reintegration package of seeds, buckets, saucepans, plastic sheeting and food rations under a repatriation agreement crafted by Uganda, Rwanda and the U.N.

Food Rations Too Small

However, refugee advocates from the Refugee Law Project are concerned that the food rations are too small and not enough to last the refugees for the three to five months while they plant new crops and wait for the harvest.

“It takes time for the seeds to mature. The food issue wouldn’t be a problem if they were given enough facilitation to last them until they plant crops in Rwanda,” said Salima Namusobya, head of the Kampala-based Refugee Law Project’s legal aid and counseling department. “They wouldn’t mind that they had left behind food in their gardens.”

Some human rights advocates fear for the status of Rwandan refugees in Uganda after the Rwandan government returned 504 refugees living in Burundi by gunpoint last month, violating international law.

In response, Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, issued a press statement to Tanzania and Uganda, urging them to avoid a similar situation, since both countries are also currently attempting to repatriate Rwandan refugees.

“Both countries need to end their threats and clearly explain to the refugees what options are on the table,” she said in the statement. “Refugees do not lose their status as refugees simply because their camps are closed and they should not be forcibly returned to their countries.”

During the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, 2 million Rwandans fled the country to neighboring Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the Congo, the refugees were a highly destabilizing force, with many members of the Interahamwe–the Hutu paramilitary organization that carried out the genocide–fleeing into the eastern Congolese forest.

In Uganda by contrast, most of the refugees, mostly ethnic Hutus, fell into the hands of humanitarian aid planners.

They settled primarily into U.N.-run camps in the Isingiro and Hoima districts in southwestern Uganda, about a five hour drive from the Rwandan border.

Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in Kampala, Uganda.

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