Geraldine Mukakabego is 42 years old, and she has spent more than a third of that time in exile. Born in Sovu in what is today Southern Province, she was only a young woman when the 1994 Genocide broke out and forced her to flee to then Zaire. In 2002 she left for Zambia, where she became a lecturer at the University of Zambia and the Cavendish University.
A mother of two kids, the social scientist only came back to Rwanda in February this year. Asked why it took her so long, she explains that it was due to the lies spread by refugee leaders. "We were told that Rwanda was hell, that everyone who repatriated would be killed, imprisoned or at best live a miserable life," she explains.
She believed the lies, and even became so terrified that every time Rwandan officials visited her host country she tried to hide. "President Kagame came twice to Zambia when I was there. The first time I even fled to another province far from where I was living. The second time I stayed home but didn't leave the house the entire day," Mukakabego remembers.
It was only last year, during a visit of the Minister in charge of refugee affairs, Marcel Gatsinzi, that she had the courage to go to a meeting between him and the refugees. But she was still very distrustful. "I attacked him. I asked him why they were obliging people to always be on the road instead of letting them work for themselves," she says. This question was inspired by rumors that said that the government had established a weekly schedule from Monday to Saturday which people were obliged to follow; as it was told, Rwandans spent their week visiting prisoners, visiting genocide survivors, doing community work, etc., all prescribed by the government.
Gatsinzi obviously denied that this was the case, and his clear arguments started to sow doubt in Mukakabego's mind. Possibly the authors of those falsehoods sensed that, because she remembers that the meeting was quite a rowdy event. "There was a lot of tension, and some of the refugees were rather violent and insulted the Minister," she says.
As an educated person working at a university, Mukakabego herself was rather influential, and when talking to people who normally listened to her or ask for advice, she sensed the same confusion she had herself after the meeting. "I started to understand that there was a problem, and that our leaders had hidden intentions," she explains.
"I started to understand that there was a problem, and that our [refugee] leaders had hidden intentions."
That is when she decided to join a 'come and see' visit organized for refugees in Zambia, it proved to be a life-changing experience, already starting with the preparations of the visit. "In two days, I got my Rwandan ID and passport. The government paid for everything including the travel and the stay in the country," she says.
'They threatened to kill my son'
It was a four-day visit, after which the participants would go back to Zambia to share their experience with other refugees. Mukakabego spent some of her time to visit her family still living in Sovu. "It was emotional to see my mother, brothers and sisters after 18 years of not seeing each other and not even having been in touch," she remembers.
Being a social scientist, Mukakabego talked to people wherever she went. At the end of the four days, she had made her decision: she would not go back to Zambia. "I realized I had been ignorant about the reality in my motherland, the visit convinced me that Rwanda is a safe place," she says.
There was one big problem with her plan though, which was that her son and daughter were still in Zambia. Worse, once some of the leaders there learned that she wasn't coming back, they became angry. "They threatened to kill my son so that I would have to go back there. But with the help of the ministry, my kids were able to join me in May."
Having spent some time out of the influence of the refugee leaders, Mukakabego now understands that they are the main problem. "Some of the refugees in Zambia might be innocent, but there are also many of them who have participated in the Genocide. They are the ones spreading the lies, and forcing others to stay with them," she explains, adding that the solution would be to isolate those leaders, so that the others could receive the right information and come back.
And that is decision she encourages every Rwandan refugee to make. "Reconciliation with yourself, your family and neighbors, is a very important thing, not only for us but also for our region's stability," she observes. "You won't feel better anywhere else than in your country. People should come and be part of its development."