In the field
My job here is to monitor returnees. Now, poli sci 101 for those of you who haven’t studied refugee issues: when you are fleeing persecution, violence, food insecurity, etc. and you move to a different part of your country, you are called an “Internally Displaced Person” (IDP). Camps of IDPs do exist. There aren’t any in Rwanda because the security situation has calmed down, and people have gone home. When you decide to leave your country instead, you become an “asylum seeker.” After you are recognized by the asylum country and UNHCR as a legitimate asylum seeker, you become a “refugee.” In most cases, refugees are not permitted to live in the cities of the country of asylum, but rather, are moved to camps. Refuges are permitted to return to their countries of origin whenever they wish.
When a refugee returns to his/her home country, s/he must be repatriated. Once repatriated, the refugee is called a “returnee.”
UNHCR never helps or encourages people to leave a country, as it is not in their mandate. If someone wants to leave, they must go to a UNHCR office or to the border and inform officials. It is then that UNHCR can help. HCR handles asylum seekers, refugees, and the repatriation of returnees. Once upon a time, UNHCR handled both IDPs and refugees. Now, more of the IDP burden is being handled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
So. Back to the beginning. I am here chiefly to monitor returnees in two provinces: Gisenyi and Ruhengeri. Right now we’re trying to find 2004 and 2005 returnees. The administrative levels are: Federal, Provincial, District, Sector, and Cell. A cell is about 300 people. Our list of returnees includes their whereabouts (as told to us at the time of repatriation). We are to travel to the cells, check the accuracy of the list, and interview returnees to see how they’re coping. We’re kind of like parents looking after our kids.
The only problem is that finding an individual in this hilly, often remote area is like looking for a needle in a haystack. What’s more, families don’t share the same last name, so it’s not as if you can ask someone to point you in the direction of the Jones household. Vénantie UWIMANA could be the wife of Dieudonné HABYARIMANA, and they could be the proud parents of Claudine NYINAWUMUNTU, Patrick NYIRANIZEYIMANA, and sometimes children with a single name, like UGIYEKERA. So it’s almost impossible to find a single individual.
However, we don’t go alone. Upon arrival in a cell (which often takes hours to find, and don’t think that these are smooth roads with signs!) we seek the “responsable” (the French word for the person elected by the cell to lead and represent them), who helps us to find the returnees. At every step, in everything we do, we must work with local authorities. We are here at Rwanda’s invitation, after all. I am told that the authorities have strained relations with UN agencies for their inaction in 1994. I haven’t seen that at the local level, but it’s pretty evident in the government-influenced newspaper.
Of course, the responsable doesn’t have an office, so we have to find him at home. Then we face the challenge of finding someone who knows who the responsable is and where he lives. This process takes a few more hours.
If we’re lucky, we’ll find the responsable and he’ll know someone on our list. We then try to find their home and talk with them there. On good days, we’ll talk to three people. On bad days, we’ll find none, not even the responsable. It’s a process that requires patience.
It also often requires exercise, and it always requires a big bladder. (There are no toilets in the bush.) Once, our Land Cruiser could no longer handle the path, and we got out and walked two miles up a mountain before we came to a tiny shack made of straw and papyrus reeds.
The woman was alone with her two children. She hardly made enough money from her job as a field laborer to pay for food. One of her children, a 4-year old, stared blankly at me and my colleague, barefoot, wearing what could barely be called a shirt, and with dirty snot running over his lips and down his chin. The woman’s newborn, a couple months old, stared wide-eyed at nothing, and she didn’t seem to notice or mind that flies were sitting on her baby’s face.
She was unexpectedly shady. She hardly answered questions, and she never made eye contact. As it turned out, she is what we call a “recycle” case—she has come through Rwanda several times, and has collected aid from UNHCR (we give blankets, mats, kitchen sets, etc. See transit center post) at least twice—she registered under two similar names. Technically, it is illegal to present yourself more than once and collect more items—but a lot of people do it, creating a new name every time. They sell the items for more money, which they use to survive.
In this particular case, I didn’t know what or how to feel. Here was a woman who was so poor that she lived in a house that will not survive the rainy season, she could hardly feed her children, and she had rocks for chairs. We suspect that her husband is recycling through the system right now. Should I be angry that she’s profiting from UNHCR’s generosity? Should I accept that her poverty is so pronounced that her behavior is justifiable? In any case, we can’t and don’t do anything about it. But it’s a hard question to grapple with, and I haven’t really reconciled how I feel.