Odette Bayagambe, 39, had always considered Tanzania her home, until the afternoon of August 9, 2013 when Tanzanian security operatives attacked her home and forced her to leave the country.
“I had just taken goats to graze,” she says. “As I stood in the middle of our banana plantation, four Tanzanian soldiers came to our home and shouted at me, ‘RudiKwenu’ [Kiswahili phrase meaning ‘Go back home’]”.
She was forced out of Tanzania, leaving behind 30 goats, land plots, a three hectares cassava plantation, a banana plantation, and her house and all other properties.
Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete had ordered all “illegal immigrants” be expelled with due effect. Thousands of people from neighboring Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi have lived in Tanzania for decades. Others have a long ancestral linage.
Following Kikwete’s directive, more than 14,000 Rwandans were kicked out of the country, indefinitely. Many were not given the opportunity to pack their properties or sell them.
Tanzanian security operatives stormed the villages,smashed the houses, burnt some of them, looted properties and mercilessly beat up many.
Those who managed to escape, abandoned everything; land, houses, animals, plantations, businesses, and left without bidding farewell to neighbors and friends.
Some bribed officers not to be tortured. The rest were rounded up and forced into trucks, drove them off and dumped them at the Rwandan border.
Tanzania’s action sent shock waves in the neighboring countries. Many wondered how Tanzania lost a camaraderie spirit.
Rwanda responds to the influx
In Rwanda, pressure was mounting. Government quickly set up a transit camp at Kiyanzi in Eastern Rwanda, with necessary facilities such as shelter, food and water, to accommodate the returnees.
Villagers signed up to volunteer setting up the camps. Others donated money, food items and clothing in big numbers.
About 9,000 families were helped locate their ancestral relatives. “We also provided them with a three months’ food package; beans, rice, maize, salt, cooking oil and boxes of compact rice for the children and the elderly,” says Séraphine Mukantabana, Rwanda’s Minister for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR).
Over 5,000 families remained in the camp, including Bayagambe’s. Government continued supporting them. Life was not the same anymore. Those who joined their relatives have managed to cope up, somewhat. Those in the camps cursed, but the government says camps are temporary.
On June 28, at a community gathering, with hundreds of villagers and local authorities in attendance, 40 families, including Bayagambe’s, had not prepared themselves for a big surprise.
The Minister of Local Government, James Musoni, called each family and handed them keys to magnificent fully furnished houses. Each house costs Rwf12 million (about 20,000USD). An average Rwandan lives in a house of one million, slightly more than 1000USD.
These houses have massive living rooms, two furniture bedrooms, an equipped kitchen, a store, and an attractive tilled washroom. They have access to utilities, electricity and clean water. President Paul Kagame pledged Rwf480 million (about 700,000USD) to help build these houses.
Returnees adjust to new lifestyle
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Bayagambe, with her four children, days after she occupied the house, sits on a bluish carpet laid at a veranda of her new home, enjoying the cool breeze blowing uphill from the curvy valley of Kicukiro district, on the outskirts of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
She takes a rest while listening to local pop music playing on a local radio station. She keeps receiving flashbacks of the horror in Tanzania.
She feels somehow lonely. Her husband escaped the operation and stayed in Tanzania, although both have managed to keep contact. But it’s a completely new life.
Indeed, her heart is torn apart, with divided sentiments. One heart in Rwanda, another in Tanzania. “I have not yet felt at home here, but partly enjoying the peaceful Rwanda,” she says. “I hope I will eventually feel at home as a Rwandan.”
Understandably, though, like thousands of others, starting a new life from scratch is an excruciating experience, especially in the land scarce Rwanda. There is no enough land for cultivation especially for those who are farmers.
Florence Uwayisaba, the Vice Mayor in charge of welfare in Kicukiro district, says the district has allocated start-up capital of Rwf100, 000 (about 150$) to help run small business and earn an income.
Community members have also donated food to the families. Each family is getting 50kgs of beans, 25kgs of rice, 25kgs of corn flour and cooking oil.
Neighbors regularly visit and give them comfort. “They are nice people,”says Pacifique Munyaneza, 23, Bayagambe’s neighbor. They don’t speak fluent Kinyarwanda, but “We visit them and chat in Kinyarwanda,” he adds.
Children have also started going to school. “There is no problem at school. I play with other children”, says Bayagambe’s14 years old daughter, AminataYampiriye, who goes to a nearby primary school.
Dismas Habimana, 47, is a father of two, whose wife and children still live in Tanzania. He raised cows and wonders what else he will be doing to earn a living.
“I had 120 cows, and I left all of them in Tanzania”, he says, from his temporary shelter at Ruhashya sector, Huye district, a two hours’ drive south from the capital Kigali. He has heard that his uncle who stayed back is looking after the cows.
Meanwhile, more families are being settled across the country, according to MIDIMAR. “We have given them shelter at the sector headquarters as we complete more houses by August”, said Jacqueline Uwamariya, the executive secretary of Ruhashya sector of Huye district.
Four families, including Habimana’s, have been living here at Ruhashya sector headquarters since January from the Kiyanzi camp.
Here, community members also contributed 1.5 tones in beans, rice, Irish potatoes, mattresses and clothing to support the four families. Authorities of Ruhashya sector are looking for land to allocate to them so that they can cultivate.
“I have asked my wife to come and join me here, but she refused”, says Habimana.
Like many, Dismas Habimana says going back to Tanzania is not an option. He has already acquired a Rwandan National Identification Card and plans to marry another woman if his wife insists on staying in Tanzania. “What else can I do?” he regrets.
By Didier Bikorimana