opinionBy Victor J. Visathan
Juvenal Habyarimana had long declared that Rwanda was like a glass full of water, which leaves no room for more water, by implication meaning that all Rwandans living out there in the world as refugees could never return home.
They were forever condemned to the deplorable life in exile.
It was around 1990 in the Niger area, that news started filtering in the print and electronic media, with headlines to the fact that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group composed of mostly descendants of the 1959 Tutsi refugees, had invaded northern Rwanda from Uganda in a bid to impose their rights, and the rights of all Rwandans for that matter, to return to their homeland.
I, like most of my compatriots we shared the predicament, took the news with mixed feelings.
On one hand, I supported the move without reservation; but on the other, I feared for the worst because I couldn't help but remember all those years in the past, the reprisals against the Tutsi civilians in Rwanda every time the rebels attacked and failed.
The outcome had always been an all out massacre of the so-called Inyenzi sympathizers, meaning, all Tutsis still within the country. Deep inside, I told myself that if the attack failed this time, the future held no other hope but statelessness.
At first, in order to keep abreast of events in my country, I had depended solely on foreign radio reports such as the BBC and newspapers from the British Council and the US Embassy. But later on, there came on the scene, Michel Nkeragutabara and Barthazar Nyirindekwe.
Michel had been a Tutsi 3rd year political sciences student at the one and only one National University of Rwanda, at the time. He had miraculously escaped death during the 1973 pogroms and had equally miraculously found his way to the Niger area in complicated circuits through different African countries.
He was then living on handouts from the UNHCR, so to say.
Nyirindekwe was a Hutu career diplomat who had fallen out favour with the then government because he had married a Tutsi wife.
He had also decided to flee the political scene at home, while the coast was still clear. He and his spouse had found asylum in the Niger area while their children were to school somewhere in Europe.
These two enormously contributed to enlighten me on events that had been taking place in my country during the period I had been away, especially, the later years of its political turmoil.
Sometimes, we would rendezvous at a conveniently chosen hotel where we would quietly talk undisturbed, or, since Michel was in the habit of occasionally staying at my residence, we would meet at my house in the evening and talk away until late.
While Michel mostly dwelled in his accounts on the daily hardships Tutsi students faced at the hands of fellow Hutu students, or sometimes on all sorts of indignities meted out on ordinary Tutsi businessmen by Hutu colleagues, Nyirindekwe would almost always expound at length and in great detail, on the entrenched witch-hunting and on how the genocide was hatched.
As an insider, Nyirindekwe knew what he was talking about. Such a pity he died. He was a living encyclopedia on Habyarimana's regime strategy of political machinations, and more.
Rwandans have a saying that even a common mongrel, once attacked and cornered with no other means of escape, it will turn round and bare its fangs, ready to fight.
In of 1959, thousands of Rwandans had scattered all over neighbouring countries in the region. Some had even gone as far as Europe and the Americas in order to escape the persecution of a hateful, ethnocentric administrative ideology.
By 1979 some of them had passed away, but their descendants lived on.
That same year, these descendants, cornered and driven against the wall by the persistent problems of refugees in their various countries of asylum, and the entrenched divisive and genocidal ideology in Rwanda, coupled with periodic massacres and the lack of any other avenues for peaceful political change in their native country, they formed a group they called the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity (RANU). The Alliance's objective was to mobilize other Rwandans wherever they were, into resolving these problems by themselves.
In 1987, this Alliance changed turned into the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), which later formed the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), a formidable force which, on October 1, 1990 descended on Rwanda in a campaign of national liberation.
It was not until July 1994 when news started filtering through the media that the RPF-Inkotanyi had swept across the country and stopped the genocide which, after so many years of planning had at last been implemented in April that year. That victory was followed by repeated calls from the newly formed RPF government, extolling all Rwandans to return home.
Sometime in the morning of February 1995, the Boeing 747 of the Ethiopian Airlines made a last circle over Kigali, as it prepared to land and we were soon taxiing at the then Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport. Ten to fifteen minutes later, a throng of passengers were filing through the arrivals.
At the immigration desk, a lady officer smiled at me as she held out her hand for my Passport. I handed her my infamous Geneva Convention Travel Document, which had served me rather well as a passport for 21 years.
The officer leafed through it, looked at the many foreign visa stamps in it, then looked up at me, smiled and said:
"Are you a re........."? my mouth fell open, then quickly closed again as she said returnee? I thought she was about to say 'refugee?'
"Welcome to Rwanda," she continued, "but I am afraid you will have to leave this behind." As I continued to look at her, uncomprehending, she went on to explain.
"From now on, you are at home, in your country. You don't need this anymore. Should you want to travel abroad again, you will be given a national passport."
The way she said this - so nicely and matter-of-factly made me feel so touched and grateful I could have embraced her on the spot. Two days after, I was on the way to Ruhengeri.
The very day of my arrival in Rwanda, which was Saturday, I had been fortunate to be invited to a wedding party at which I met several people I had known in Uganda.
From them I was able to learn that many of my relatives were already in Kigali, including my brother Mwamba, whom I had last seen such a long time ago. I was failing to find words to explain how I felt at that moment; it was as if I had been relieved of a very heavy burden, I felt such an indescribable feeling of joy and happiness that left me almost confused.
Big brother Mwamba on the wheel of his Toyota Carina, we had just negotiated the hilly corners of upper Shyorongi the to our left he showed me the River Nyabarongo, a huge, long serpent snaking its way eastwards towards the Akagera.
That is all I remembered on this journey so far. I must have fallen asleep because, sometime later, Mwamba had stopped the car on a hilltop and was gently shaking my shoulder, pointing at something in the distance.
When I finally could focus my bleary mind and sight, I saw what my brother was trying to show me. There, at the horizon stood, in its glory and splendour, Mount Muhabura, the extinct volcano barely five kilometers from my native village of Kabere.
Then I knew I had reached home, sweet home!