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UN Encourages Voluntary Repatriation of Exiled Rwandans - 2003-11-09

The U.N. refugee agency says it is making a final push to repatriate 80,000 Rwandan refugees living in exile in neighboring countries.

U.N. refugee spokesman Fernando del Mundo says these 80,000 refugees are believed to be all that remain of an estimated two million Rwandans who fled to neighboring countries in the Great Lakes region. He says this mass exodus occurred in the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"In the last several years, there have been dramatic improvements in the situation in Rwanda, and we feel that it is time to try and promote repatriation to Rwanda," he said. "As you know, a lot of people returned in 1996 - about 600,000 from the former Zaire and about 500,000 from Tanzania."

More than 800,000 people, mainly Tutsi, were killed by the majority Hutu during Rwanda's genocidal war.

During the past two years, as the situation continued to improve in Rwanda, the U.N. refugee agency organized returns from the neighboring countries, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania.

The current operation will focus primarily on repatriating refugees from the Congo and, for the first time, from Uganda.

Mr. del Mundo says the UNHCR has begun an information campaign in those two countries to get the Rwandans to register for voluntary repatriation. He insists that all returns will be voluntary and that no one will be forced to go back, as had happened in the past.

"There have been a lot of forced movement back," he said. "The massive returns out of the former Zaire, for example. This was carried out after the civil war broke out in 1996. Returns out of Tanzania later that year were also forced returns. This time, no. We are trying to promote this program and we believe that given the right information, a lot of people will go back."

Mr. del Mundo says he believes all but a few people who have resisted moves toward reconciliation over the years will willingly go home.

Under the program, Mr. del Mundo says the refugees will be transported to the Rwandan border, from where they will be taken to their home villages. He says they will receive household goods and a three-month supply of food from the World Food Program, to help them get started in their new lives.