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The Comfort of Strangers

Jinmi Adisa


Tanzania: Rendering Difficult Service to the Wakimbizi

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1. Arrival

  • 1 Wakimbizi is the Swahili word for refugee

1The build up of Rwandan refugees1 in Tanzania was very dramatic. Starting from April 1994, refugees began to arrive in large numbers at the Kagera region of North West Tanzania, which is an area of approximately 28 500 sq km between the shore of Lake Victoria and the Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi borders ; a distance of about 1 500 km from Dar-es-Salaam. Kagera region is divided into six administrative districts including the urban district of Bukoba, which serves as the capital. Three of the districts — Ngara, Muleba and Karagwe — were directly affected by the in-flow of refugees, but Ngara is where the bulk of Rwandan refugees settled (figures 2 and 3).

2The influx began with the arrival of 15 000 refugees between 6th and 20th April 1994. Subsequently, within a 24-hour period, between 28th and 29th April 1994, about 170,000 refugees crossed the Rusumo border area into Ngara in an unprecedented mass movement. A steady stream of refugees followed. As the unrest continued in Rwanda during the months of May, June and until mid-July, the rate of influx into Ngara varied from an average of 3 000 persons/day in May to 1 500 persons/day at the end of August (figure 4). Camps in Karagwe district were also receiving refugees but at a lower rate. By 26th August 1994, when a registration exercise was carried out, the caseload of refugees in Ngara was estimated at 348,673 and in Karagwe, 198 996. The unstable conditions in Burundi gave further impetus to refugee movements in September 1994 so that as the year came to a close the numbers had increased substantially (table 1). By 30th December 1994, the total refugee caseload in Kagera region was put at 602 471.

2. Reception : Emergency needs and material assistance

3The reception of the human horde was handled in a spectacularly successful manner. In normal circumstances, the unprecedented movement of people should have prompted épidémies, shortages of food, water, etc. and thousands of deaths. This did not happen. Lloyd Dakin, the Deputy Représentative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) attributed the situation to pure luck, but it was more a combination of fortuitous circumstances, international sympathy and intensity of focus.

Figure 3. Kagera region, Tanzania

  • 2 Interview, Dar-es-Salaam, 3 May 1995.

4The Burundi tragedy of October 1993 established the basis for the fortuitous turn of events. Following the assassination of Ndadaye, a Hutu, and Burundi’s first democratically elected president, there was an influx of refugees from Burundi into Tanzania. Assistance provided for the refugees from Burundi was inadequate because UNHCR was unprepared. “When they came,” confided an inside source who wished to remain anonymous, “there were no provisions, no foodstuffs or medicine and relatively few NGOs. The system did not have the capacity for effective response”.2 By the time the system had adapted to the demand and caught up with needs, the Burundi refugees had returned home.

Figure 4. Refugee influx, Kagera region [Source : UNHCR, 1994]

5The inability of UNHCR to cope with the Burundi refugees in Tanzania was because their programme of operations, before October 1993, was focused on three major repatriation plans.

  • repatriation of Mozambican refugees in line with the agreement made in the Treaty of Rome, 4 October 1992
  • repatriation of Rwandan refugees in view of the Arusha Accords of August 1993
  • repatriation of Burundi refugees immediately after the successful election that brought Ndadaye to power

6The three repatriation programmes required the close cooperation of government and NGOs for transport and logistic support, provision of farm implements, seedlings, etc. ; requirements that contrasted sharply with the emergency relief and provisions needed for material assistance for refugees in flight : The refugees due for repatriation were independent and self-sufficient and did not need direct assistance. On the other hand, UNHCR did not have the means to cope with the demands created by the Burundian influx. By the time they were organized enough to handle the situation, the refugees had gone home. At the time of the Burundi Emergency Relief Assistance in December 1993, there were between 250 000 and 300 000 refugees in Tanzania. By February 1994, the period preceding the Rwandan influx, the number had fallen to about 40 000. The bulk of the Burundi refugees had gone home.

Table 1. Kagera Region Caseload : Refugee numbers as at December 1994

Table 1. Kagera Region Caseload : Refugee numbers as at December 1994

7The ill-luck of the Burundians proved to be the fortune of the Rwandans. Food stock and medicine, originally envisaged for the Burundi Emergency Relief, were available for the Rwandans. A site for camp development near a lake in Kasulo village (Benaco) had been already located. A road construction firm operating under a European Union contract was in the area. The firm had heavy equipment, graders, bulldozers, etc., which were diverted to the task of camp construction. There was an easy access route to bring in food, water, staff and medicine.

8Refugee relief operations benefited from exposure via the international news media. All over the world, CNN and other television and print media outlets sensitized the donor community to the carnage and bitter feud in Rwanda. NGOs, anxious to ‘show the flag’ in fulfillment of their mandate, rushed in to provide relief operations. About 26 international and Tanzanian humanitarian agencies (see table 2) became involved. Inevitably, there were initial problems of coordination, overlapping roles and duplication of effort. Yet, in the circumstances, the result was remarkable.

9The refugees were processed and lodged in camp sites in Benaco, and eventually in Lumasi, Musuhura and Kitale, in a manner that minimized epidemics and kept the death rate down. Responsibility for food supplies rested with the World Food Programme (WFP), which provided a 3-week supply of food in advance up till May-June 1994 when supplies dwindled, causing fears of shortages. Water from the lake around Benaco was treated by OXFAM. The lake covered 68 per cent of total water needs and UNICEF complemented this requirement by constructing boreholes. Initially, refugees depended on local health facilities and the District Hospital in Murgwanza for referrals ; but this was soon reduced with the establishment of in and out-patient departments in the camps, the recruitment and service of Rwandan doctors and nurses to supplement NGO staff, and the setting up of a referral facility by the German Red Cross in Benaco. Emphasis was on curative health care. Measles vaccinations were given en masse, whilst preparations were made against a possible cholera outbreak with the completion of cholera isolation camps in August 1994. As the Rwandan refugee situation came under control and receded from CNN headline news and the focus shifted to the epidemics in the refugee camps in Goma (Zaire) some NGOs replaced experienced hands with less capable ones.

3. Impact on Host Communities

10Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the local communities in Kagera region were beginning to regret the negative consequences of their kindness. The registration exercise of July and August 1994 showed that the total refugee caseload in Ngara district was 348 673, compared to a local population of 186 105 ; refugees outnumbered the local population by 2 to 1. Yet the refugee burden continued to rise. This demographic imbalance had long-term implications for local ‘geo-politics’ as the political potential of the refugee presence began to take on a menacing appearance. The local population was overwhelmed by this suffocating presence and their initial concern for the plight of ‘strangers in distress’ began to give way to suspicion and resentment.

Table 2. Relief operations under UNHCR coordination

Table 2. Relief operations under UNHCR coordination

11This resentment grew as the refugee presence began to adversely affect different aspects of the local community : the environment, household food security, the infrastructural base, the social and health sectors, regional and district administration and security.

12Refugees impacted upon the environment in several ways. In transit, refugees camped in the fields of local farmers, cut coffee and banana trees to provide shelter and firewood and used local water supplies. Similarly, households in proximity to entry points and along transit routes had their fields damaged ; and refugees competed with local inhabitants for fuelwood, brush and water. The process of settlement in camps gave further impetus to the depletion of forest resources. Implementing agencies provided plastic sheeting for shelter but refugee households had to find other building materials and fuelwood. This engendered a carefree attitude as refugees gathered poles, firewood, timber, grass, animal fodder or whatever was available within walking distance.

13In consequence, the trees surrounding the Benaco camp in Kasulo were felled and trees and grass around Lumasi camp were also cleared ; while the area around Murongo camp was totally depleted of trees and brush. Areas up to 6 km around the camps were cleared of trees and many refugees walked about 8 kilometres a day to gather wood for fuel. The deforestation by the refugees increased soil erosion and aggravated the existing poor conservation practices of farmers, accelerating the process of declining land fertility and poor crop yields. Fields were overworked and overcropped. Overgrazed pastures exposed the soil to the elements. The immediate consequences of the environmental degradation were an increased potential for flooding and reduced numbers and species of wildlife. Deforestation also imposed an extra burden on the women and children in the local communities, as they had to travel much longer distances to collect wood and water for household use.

14Associated with this was the severe impact on food security. The decline in food production meant that the levels of food supplies in the area were hardly sufficient to cover needs. The damage to coffee and banana trees, as the refugees moved through villages and towns, worsened the situation. While the local inhabitants often fed or provided food to refugees as they moved through their villages, at times, the refugees stole what they were not given. In the camps, there was a high demand for locally produced foods such as cassava, bananas, potatoes and beans, however, food items provided by the relief agencies, such as maize and cooking oil were often sold by the refugees. This created a high inflationary situation in the local market as prices for bananas, potatoes and cassava rose by 300 per cent ; and beans to a lesser extent. Conversely, the price of maize and cooking oil fell. Gradually, the refugees began to dominate the economies of the districts ; local traders, sensitive to price fluctuations and profit potentials, began

15to transport beans from Karagwe to Ngara and export maize from Ngara to other areas. Government had to step in to prohibit export trade from and among the camp areas.

  • 3 Information Bulletin, UNHCR, Dar-es-Salaam, 16 (4 January 1995).

16The effects on the social and economic sectors were significant. Schools and hospitals along entry points and transit routes were used as lodgings by refugees, and suffered the consequent effects of ‘wear and tear’. Windows, desks and other furniture were damaged, while some were simply stolen. Refugees drew water from local wells and springs, many of which were overused and polluted. Refugee cattle had to be watered and in several instances they contaminated the water supplies. General concern that the movement of refugees would facilitate the spread of communicable diseases increased the need for health risk assessments and epidemiological surveillance. There was also pressure on health facilities. Local health centres and clinics were the fïrst points of reference for refugees and the district hospital at Murgwanza experienced increased admissions (figure 5). Drugs, which were already in short supply, became scarce. However, as relief operations got underway, UNICEF and various NGOs stepped in to facilitate the supply of drugs ; the UNHCR sub-office in Ngara strengthened its health and coordination unit, which reduced the demand on local health facilities. This timely intervention enabled camp authorities to contain an outbreak of cholera in November and December 1994.3

Figure 5. Refugee admissions at Murgwanza Hospital and number of refugees in Ngara district

17The same could not be said of the infrastructural base. The massive relief operation increased the pressure of transport on roads, bridges, ferries and airports in the Kagera region. Most of the roads which had been built for light traffic were already in a state of disrepair, their intense use to transport relief supplies hastened their total degeneration and small potholes grew into large craters increasing the danger of road accidents. The three airports — Mwanza and the Bukoba and Ngara airstrips — suffered the same fate. For instance, in May 1994, due to the slippery and water-logged condition of the airstrip, a military aircraft crashed into a house at the end of the runway in Bukoba airport killing several people.

18Administrative and managerial capacity at district and regional levels were overstretched. Resources meant for normal development requirements were diverted to cater for refugees. Civil servants themselves were assigned such extraneous duties as selecting camp sites, organizing, and coordinating the visits of a rising number of local and foreign dignitaries.

19Security costs associated with the influx of refugees also demanded attention. Regional and district officials had to tighten security in and around the camps, and maintain vigilance to pre-empt cross-border operations as the situations in Rwanda and Burundi failed to improve. Some of the refugees came into the country with stolen property, and therefore a search was required at the entry points. Vigilance around the camps was also necessary because of the proliferation of firearms, ethnic rivalries and the persecution of refugees by local inhabitants. These security considerations necessitated increased manpower, transport, financial support, supervision and operational facilities

20In addition, there was growing disaffection amongst the local population inspired by the feeling that they were becoming less and less important, with each passing day, in the affairs of their own localities. The mood was captured by the owner of a pub in Ngara :

  • 4 Author’s interview, Ngara, 8 May 1985.

The mzungus [white men — an obvious reference to foreign relief workers] are here to cater for refugee needs and as a consequence we suffer. Tunawahadumia wakimbizi katika mazingira magumuzane (We render difficult service to the refugees). How can anyone impress on us the need for kindness to strangers when these strangers put fire under our own houses. We now pay 20-30,000 shillings [between 33 and 50 US dollars] for rooms that used to be given free for lodgings. We see light and suffer the noise of generators used by the refugees while our houses are without light [electricity] in the night. Just as the mzungus are pushing up house rents by their extravagant nature, the refugees are pushing up food prices. We used to buy eggs for about 5 shillings, now a fresh egg costs 100 shillings and we pay 130 shillings for fried eggs. The refugees eat superior cow meat while we eat goat meat. How did they get the money ? They rustle, steal and commit robberies. What have we gained by being nice to others except penury ? Enὀugh is enough. They should go away.4

4. Host State Response : Unwanted guests

21The heavy refugee burden on local host communities and the wave of popular local resentment in an election year combined to force a radical shift in the Tanzanian attitude towards refugees. On 31st March 1995, Tanzania closed its borders. This step was an about-face to the generous refugee posture which had been in place since the 1960s.

22Prior to this, the Tanzanian government had always been liberal in its acceptance of refugees. Thus, Tanzania offered settlement opportunities to thousands of refugees from Mozambique, Zaire, South Africa, Namibia, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. In his Ujaama speech of April 1962, President Julius Nyerere explained that this was the outcome of a humanitarian concern. “No true African socialist can look at a line drawn on a map and say the people on this side of that line are my brothers, but those who happen to live on the other side of it can have no claim on me. Every individual on this continent is his brother.”

  • 5 Louise Holbom, Refugees : A problem of our time, Methuen, New Jersey, 1975.

23Brotherhood apart, Tanzanians saw refugees as a human resource whose settlement in sparsely populated areas could be instrumental in sparking economic development. Indeed, Tanzania set a precedent in Africa for international refugee settlement. She became the first African state to serve as a country of second asylum when she received 3,000 Rwandan refugees from Zaire in 1964.5 In 1978, the Tanzanian government approved regulations for the mass naturalization of refugees wishing to take Tanzanian citizenship.

24Against this background, the closure of the borders in 1995 was a telling indication that the new wave of Rwandan refugees was unwelcome. Several factors supported this change in orientation. First, even in the heyday of its liberalism, Tanzania had always been suspicious of the Rwandans. The Tanzanian government’s relationship with the former Rwandan government was generally lukewarm, because of the latter’s refusal to accept responsibility for its refugees. The Tanzanian government has been concerned that Rwanda wants to use Tanzania as a dumping ground for its excess population. Tanzanian government officials vividly remember President Habyarimana’s proposal in the mid-1970s, to settle about a million Rwandans in the Kagera region to provide labour as part of a scheme for building a hydro-electric power dam in the area.

  • 6 Author’s interview, Dar-es-Salaam, 3 May 1995.

‘These are funny people’, a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office argued, ‘How can a government be indifferent to a situation in which over three million of its people live in exile as refugees ? There is more to this than meets the eye. When you go there ask them why. We think that from time to time they deem it necessary to generate turmoil and conflict and throw some people out to stabilize the ratio of population to land’.6

25This suggestion had a touch of humour which concealed deep concern. Every single day that government officials are reminded of the presence of 600 000 or more Rwandan refugees in the Kagera region, they wonder whether it is not a consummation of Habyarimana’s plan.

  • 7 Nyerere is generally regarded as the Father of the Nation, and has criticized the incumbent leader (...)

26Other considerations have altered the Tanzanian attitude to refugees. The political complexion of the state has changed. The socialist doctrine of Ujaama has given way to a free-market economy and a structural adjustment programme has been implemented. The political idealism of African unity present at independence has waned ; there is no longer any apparent political profit in the ideal of being one’s brothers keeper. Internally, the leadership of Tanzania also changed. The former president, Julius Nyerere had the moral and political stature which allowed him to inspire the Tanzanian people with the validity his own ideals. The Mwinyi government did not seem to share those ideals and, in any case, could not force them on the Tanzanian people.7 The Mwinyi government had also come to the end of its statutory term ; President Mwinyi could not stand for re-election, scheduled for October 1995. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) had a split in the ranks and some influential ministers such as Mrema left to contest the national presidency on other platforms.

  • 8 Mwanachi (Mei 8-11, 1995).

27Electoral considerations apart, Tanzanians are concerned about the geo-political implications of the recent refugee movements and their likely effects on regional political stability. As an oasis of peace and stability in a fractious neighborhood, Tanzania is worried about the possibility of contamination. There have been reports of convoys and planes carrying arms to refugees in camps, and of military training at night in Lumasi camp by Hutu extremists under a Belgian mercenary.8

  • 9 Interview by the author, Dar-es-Salaam, 3 May 1995.

28The link between Rwanda and Burundi is another complication which propelled the Tanzanians to close their borders. Many Rwandan refugees sought refuge in Burundi after April 1994. Then the troubles in Burundi around March 1995, impelled them to try and find refuge elsewhere. In late March, the Regional Commissioner for Kagera, the Hon. P. Mangula, M.P., made an anxious telephone call to Dar-es-Salaam informing the government of an impending influx of about 100,000 Rwandan refugees from Burundi. The call, which was received during a cabinet meeting, induced panic.9 It did not take the government long to work out the arithmetic of security implications, the ecological impact, etc., and decide it could not accept any more refugees. It closed the borders. That desperate act demonstrated that the Tanzanian attitude towards refugees had come full circle. The host state had developed empathy fatigue.

5. Refugee Prospects : Repatriation or local resettlement

29The danger of the current trend in Tanzania is that refugees are being treated as an intolerable burden, in a total dependency context. The position of the Tanzanian government is that the refugees are ‘in transit’. They cannot stay in Tanzania. As such the government does not countenance long-term preparations or planning for their resettlement. Meanwhile, refugees are kept in a state of flux, in abject conditions, living from day to day, without purpose or productivity, or vision beyond the possibility of repatriation.

30At present, the possibility of repatriation appears difficult. Past history, the nature of the conflict and the experience of genocide in early 1994 have combined to make the possibility of Hutu resettlement remote. Hutu extremists in the camps encourage fear and suspicion and intimidate the refugee population to deter them from going back. The extremists in the Tanzanian camps are not national leaders like those in Zaire. They are regional and local leaders who were part of the previous political structure. They are antagonistic toward the current government in Rwanda. The Rwandan government, in turn, does not appear enthusiastic about the prospects of repatriation. Their position is that perpetrators of genocide must be apprehended and judged as part of the apparatus of repatriation and reconciliation. In the circumstances, the refugees feel that it is not safe to return. Hutu refugees in the camps allege that if they go back, all it would take is for one person to point an accusing finger to land them in overcrowded prisons and make them wards of a judicial system which is overburdened to the point of paralysis. Media reports of the recent Kibeho massacres are cited as evidence.

31An additional problem could arise if returning Tutsi refugees reclaim land and buildings. Rwandan land tenure in the period before independence was largely but not totally neofeudal. Several Tutsi households held 100 to 1 000 hectares with about 200 Hutu sharecropping tenant families. If an estimated 30 000 Tutsi refugee families returned and reclaimed their communal lands, there would be little for the rural Hutu refugees to come back to. In the urban centres a similar problem would occur, if the Tutsi returned and reclaimed their houses or commercial premises. In this context repatriation as a political currency may lack fundamental appeal.

32Two other options are available apart from repatriation : resettlement in a third country and local resettlement or integration. Resettlement in a third country would prove difficult. The history of such operations shows that it is only useful for a small number of refugees. Moreover, it is hard to perceive a situation in which any country within or outside the continent would agree to host vast numbers of Rwandan refugees.

33The most attractive option in the short term is local resettlement. A deconcentration of refugees through relocation into clusters of 4 000-5 000 in other parts of Tanzania has the distinct advantage of enabling them to become productive and eventually self-sustaining with a capability to contribute to the economic development of Tanzania.

34The position of the Tanzanian government is that resettlement in Tanzania is an escapist solution. Tanzanians argue that the best option is for the situation in Rwanda and Burundi to be dealt with urgently and that matters be put right to enable the refugees to return home. Currently, however, the most viable option is to resettle the refugees in Tanzania, until peaceful repatriation can be guaranteed in their homelands.


1 Wakimbizi is the Swahili word for refugee

2 Interview, Dar-es-Salaam, 3 May 1995.

3 Information Bulletin, UNHCR, Dar-es-Salaam, 16 (4 January 1995).

4 Author’s interview, Ngara, 8 May 1985.

5 Louise Holbom, Refugees : A problem of our time, Methuen, New Jersey, 1975.

6 Author’s interview, Dar-es-Salaam, 3 May 1995.

7 Nyerere is generally regarded as the Father of the Nation, and has criticized the incumbent leadership severely on this score. See various editions of Daily and Sunday News, Dar-es-Salaam, (30 October - 7 May 1995).

8 Mwanachi (Mei 8-11, 1995).

9 Interview by the author, Dar-es-Salaam, 3 May 1995.

Indice delle illustrazioni

Legenda Figure 3. Kagera region, Tanzania
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Legenda Figure 4. Refugee influx, Kagera region [Source : UNHCR, 1994]
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Titolo Table 1. Kagera Region Caseload : Refugee numbers as at December 1994
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Titolo Table 2. Relief operations under UNHCR coordination
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Legenda Figure 5. Refugee admissions at Murgwanza Hospital and number of refugees in Ngara district
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© Institut français de recherche en Afrique, 1995

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