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Rural poor Rwandans forced to leave their homes

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afrol News, 12 June - The Rwandan government has violated the basic rights of tens of thousands of people by forcing them to abandon their homes in rural areas and move to makeshift dwellings in government-designated sites, a report released yesterday charged. The resettlement policy however meets international support and understanding.

The government's massive plan to reorganise life in the rural areas, known as the National Habitat Policy, decreed an end to Rwandans' customary way of living in dispersed homesteads. "Many homeowners were forced to destroy their own homes and many families lived for more than a year in hovels made of sticks, mud, and banana leaves," however the US based group Human Rights Watch concludes in a new report. 

The National Habitat Policy, ordered by the government, which took power after the 1994 genocide, required all Rwandans living in traditionally scattered homesteads throughout the country to live in government-created villages, called "imidugudu". Its intention was to boost long-term agricultural production and, in some cases, to ensure security against Hutu rebels, among them many who participated in the anti-Tutsi killings.

According to the Rwandan government, the intention is to move away from dispersed habitat, which uses too much space, and to promote a habitat in villages, which are easier to equip with basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, schools and health centres. One of the criteria of settlement in those new villages is multiethnicity, as a part of the government's action towards political and social rehabilitation. 

The programme was also designed to accommodate an influx of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees, many of whom had lived in nearby countries for decades, after the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) chased out the former Hutu-dominated government in the aftermath of the genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were killed. International donors mostly support the government in this policy, believed to promote reconciliation, production, poverty alleviation and security.

However laudable the goals, in reality tens of thousands of peasant farmers, including many Tutsi widows and orphans, have been forcibly displaced into new settlements which often lack basic housing materials and infrastructure, according to the 91-page report, 'Uprooting the Rural Poor in Rwanda.'

Some who resisted the plan were punished with fines or jail terms, the Human Rights Watch report says. The report claims that, from early 1997 through the end of 2000, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans living in Kibungo, Mutara, Kigali-rural, and Ruhengeri provinces left their homes for the sites. Ninety percent of Rwandans live in the countryside and are supposed to be affected by the policy. 

- The Rwandan government has caused terrible suffering for the poor people out in the hills, said Alison Des Forges, Senior Advisor to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "It has also made many people angry at a time when opposition political movements are growing among Rwandans inside and outside the country." 

Indeed, the report noted that extremist Hutu rebels have tried to increase popular resentment and fear of the imidugudu, distributing commentaries accusing the Kigali government of building "concentration camps" designed to eventually eliminate Hutu residents.

The policy has affected both the minority Tutsi, the people targeted by a genocide in 1994, and people of the majority Hutu ethnic group. The genocide and a simultaneous war between the then government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front left many widows and orphans. According to the report, many households headed by these women and children have suffered most from the enforced relocation. 

Commenting on the absence of substantial protest against the relocation, one Tutsi widow told Human Rights Watch researchers, "You can't expect us to sleep with an empty stomach and then have the strength to complain." Using the Kinyarwanda term for the government-designated sites, she continued, "We need to deal with living in the umudugudu just like we deal with losing members of our family." 

According to Human Rights Watch, "Many donors knew money given to resettle refugees who returned from exile beginning in 1994 also facilitated the rural reorganization that forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, but they continued nonetheless to deliver millions of dollars of aid." The group states its scepticism towards this aid.

- While implementing the relocation, government authorities ordered landholders to divide their lands with returnees or even to cede them all their fields, the group claims in a statement. "Those who gave up all their land moved to the government-established sites where they now have only small gardens. In some cases, military officers or businessmen with government connections have appropriated large holdings of land from the poor, a practice purportedly justified by the supposedly greater productivity of larger holdings. The government is now focusing on reforming landholding rather than on forcing further villagisation. It is proposing to eliminate all the small holdings of millions of poor farmers and is seeking international funding to pay for this."

- Making agriculture more productive is imperative, but progress towards that laudable goal must not be made at the expense of the human rights, said Des Forges. "Donors seeking to support beneficial change in Rwanda must consider how proposed reforms will affect the lives of all Rwandans."

The Rwandan government, on the other hand, has insisted throughout the process that people are not supposed to be forcibly dispossessed of their homes, but its "consistent failure to sanction such actions by local authorities clearly indicate approval," according to the report. Internally, the country's Catholic bishops have privately protested the use of force in moving people to the new villages and the press has occasionally published accounts of abused individuals. The national commissions on human rights and unity and reconciliation have however remained silent.

The government's openness about the habitat policy however has secured international cooperation. The UN development agency UNDP understands the policy as an integrated part of the economic and social rehabilitation of post-genocide Rwanda. A 1999 UNDP policy paper praises the government on this policy and recommends that an "additional effort has to be deployed to make the inhabitants aware of all the advantages that can be derived from such a system, because it is not easy to change their habits overnight." 

- The inhabitants in these villages not only learn to live together but also have basic infrastructures, like water, schools, health care, closer to them, UNDP explains the advantages of the habitat policy. "The idea of regrouped dwellings in 'imidugudu' should go hand in hand with the establishment of socio-economic infrastructures (water, schools, health centres, markets). The regrouped habitat would also solve problems such as distributing plots of land to families without land, ensuring security for persons and goods, promoting socio-economic development, etc." 

Also the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which coordinates UN funding in Rwanda, is heavily involved in the habitat policy. According to an internal UNHCR report, the agency by late 1999 had been "providing the materials or building 98,447 houses in 252 settlement sites and in scattered locations all over Rwanda." The agency however does not want to have an opinion on the policy, but refers to its obligation to provide shelter for returning refugees.

The Rwandan Ministry of Lands, Human Resettlement and Environmental Protection reaffirms the rural reorganisation policy, saying "Imidugudu will [be] the only recommended and promoted form of settlement in rural areas." Although unyielding on the policy itself, most officials, including President Kagame, concede that there have been problems with its implementation. Kagame told donors in July 1999, "There have been a few setbacks during the implementation phase, which varied with local leadership. However, the experience has generally been positive and we shall correct the deficiencies as we move along."

Human Rights Watch however remains critical to the controversial resettlement policy. The organisation claims to document how the implementation violates several human rights of the Rwandan rural population, including the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence, the right to adequate housing, the right to secure enjoyment of one's home, the right to freedom of opinion and of expression, the right to property and the right to remedy.

Sources: Human Rights Watch, UN sources, IPS, Rwandan govt. and afrol archives

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