/ 26 June 2022

Rwanda refugees fear extradition from Mozambique

Peace activist: Rwandan musician Kizito Mihigo, who tried to flee Rwanda, died in a police cell on 17 February 2020, days after his arrest

Rwandan refugees in Mozambique say they are being coerced into accepting “voluntary” repatriation and the extradition agreement signed between Mozambique and Rwanda last week may make it possible for those who don’t sign it to be forcibly returned to Rwanda.

In April, the Rwandan embassy in Maputo started a campaign to persuade refugees to return home, and 19 Rwandans agreed to go.

“The people who returned had no choice. They were threatened,” said Sembene Mentynhagu, adding that refugees who still had family in Rwanda were especially vulnerable. 

The high commission of Rwanda in Maputo has previously insisted that the process is voluntary and they “hope to receive more people interested in returning to their origins”.

Still, refugees fear that disinterest in returning will get them labelled and taken. 

“The capture argument will be the génocidaire label, we are afraid,” said Theophilus Andame. 

Many of the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide fled the country afterwards and are wanted by the authorities, but refugees say that President Paul Kagame’s government also uses the label to target critics or dissenters not linked to the genocide.

“Our fear now is that the Kagame regime will choose those they call ‘génocidaires’ and the [Mozambican] government will give them up,” said Rosalia Ntiema, who left Cyangugu in Rwanda after the genocide and has lived in Maputo ever since.

When these concerns were put to Rwandan high commissioner Claude Nikobisanwe, he said: “How is it raising fear? Are they criminals?”

Mozambique has been a safe haven for about 6 000 Rwandan refugees since the 1990s. But the feeling of safety was splintered a year ago, shortly after Rwanda sent troops to Mozambique to fight militants in Cabo Delgado.

In May last year, an asylum seeker called Cassien Ntamuhanga was taken from his home in Maputo by what his brother in Uganda described as “10 plain-clothed security personnel, among whom were four speaking Kinyarwanda”. 

The Rwandan high commissioner denies that the country had any involvement in the abduction.

Ntamuhanga, a radio presenter, had been involved in a political movement that opposed Kagame before being arrested in 2015, alongside the musician Kizito Mihigo, who was later found dead. Ntamuhanga escaped from jail and fled to Mozambique. The Rwandan refugee community in Mozambique believes he was taken to Rwanda.

Now refugees fear that under the new extradition agreement, such actions will no longer need to be clandestine. 

At least five Rwandan refugees have been murdered in Mozambique in mysterious circumstances — both before and after Rwandan forces arrived in Mozambique — and the cases have not been solved by the Mozambican authorities. One of those killed was Revocant Keremangingo, the treasurer of the refugees’ association. He was gunned down last September. 

According to the refugees, a list of alleged génocidaires — consisting largely of opponents of Paul Kagame — is updated annually. “Our names were never wanted but now it may be that those who do not want to return will be placed on that list,” says Ntiema. “We are scared.”

The Association of Rwandan Refugees in Mozambique has called on the Mozambican government to respect international law regarding refugees. 

“For me, the rapprochement of two African countries is always good,” said the association’s president, Cleophas Habiyareme. “But it is necessary to respect the Geneva Convention and the rights of refugees.” 

The names of some of the people quoted have been changed.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.