By Jacques Kahorha in North Kivu (AR No 240, 22-Dec-09)
Fears are growing that thousands of refugees, currently living in Rwanda, are being encouraged to return to their former homes in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, in order to bolster the ranks of militia groups in the region.
Villagers in the Masisi district of North Kivu, where the refugees are originally from and to where they are now returning, fear renewed violence if such returns are not carefully monitored.
They say that it has become impossible to tell who is a genuine returning refugee and, distrustful of interference from Rwanda, want to see a proper identification process set up.
But since many of the refugees settled illegally in Rwanda and did not formally register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, little is being done to address the problem.
Many of those coming back are thought to be of Tutsi origin - people who fled the area in 1994, when the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR, a predominantly Hutu militia group, extended their genocidal attacks to DRC.
In a report published in December, Human Rights Watch, HRW, alleges that former rebel commanders from the Tutsi-dominated National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, who have now been integrated into the Congolese armed forces, lie behind these returns.
The CNDP was established in 2003 by General Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi, in order to fight the Congolese military in the region. But he was subsequently ousted after falling out with a number of top CNDP commanders.
At the beginning of 2009, Nkunda was arrested in a joint operation between Congolese and Rwandan militaries, paving away for the signing of a peace agreement between the CNDP and Kinshasha.
As part of this agreement, a number of former CNDP commanders were drafted into the national army. But HRW claims that ex-rebels are now orchestrating the returns of Tutsi refugees - the suspicion being that some are being drafted into the ranks of the CNDP.
Anneke van Woudenberg, a researcher for HRW, said, "What worries us is that a lot of those who are crossing the borders are doing so in the early hours, before borders officially open. So it seems to be non-transparent or to go under the radar."
Many refugees interviewed by HRW cite similar reasons for wanting to come back to the area - most commonly to escape poverty and hunger, or to have access to better education opportunities.
"The fact that they are giving basically the same answer makes us think that they are being told what to say, or there's an agreed line on what they should say," Van Woudenberg said.
She added that it is also suspicious that many returnees have chosen to settle in camps in CNDP-controlled areas, rather than going directly back to their villages.
The repatriation comes as Bosco Ntaganda, a former CNDP commander who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, ICC, is believed to be heading Congolese army operations against the FDLR in North Kivu. He was instrumental in forcing Nkunda out of the CNDP in early 2009.
The UN says that commanders such as Ntaganda continue to retain the weapons that they amassed in the civil war, and that the CNDP remains active despite the integration of its senior officers into the Congolese military.
Safari Nganizi, a spokesperson for the Hutu ethnic group in Masisi, says that news of the return of Tutsi refugees has plunged the whole region into a state of anxiety.
"We have requested the government of Congo to take responsibility for this," Nganizi said. "We do not understand how people can leave a foreign country and cross borders without the intelligence, the police and the migration offices being informed."
Nganizi said that security in the region remains tense, since the FDLR and other militia groups are still very active in the mountains.
But not everyone agrees that the refugees are returning to the region to cause trouble,
Alexandre Gatemba, a Tutsi leader living in Masisi, said, "Rumours lie at the heart of this fear, but they are not true."
He added that many of these refugees, who illegally settled in Gishwati forest, just over the Rwandan border, have been forced to return home because of plans by the Rwandan government to restore the forest.
According to UNHCR, there are around 90,000 Congolese refugees currently living in camps in neighbouring countries - mainly Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
But, nearly a year after the signing of a peace agreement between the Congolese authorities and the CNDP, few steps have been taken to repatriate them.
Some months ago, customary chiefs from Masisi and Rutshuru met with UNCHR and MONUC, the UN peacekeeping operation in the country, to discuss repatriation, but the talks stalled over fears that Rwandan nationals might also enter the country.
"We have asked UNHCR to help us with the registration process of those refugees in order to be sure who is a Congolese refugee and who is not," said Pierre Claver Sebisusa, a customary chief from Busanza.
Azarias Ruberwa, a lawyer from the Banyamulenge ethnic group and president of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, RCD, says that he would welcome the identification process if it could facilitate the repatriation of Congolese nationals.
"No Congolese has the right to block any other Congolese from having access to his country," he said.
Jacques Kahorha is an IWPR-trained reporter in Congo. Blake Evans-Pritchard, IWPR Africa editor, contributed to this report.