On December 5, 1996, the Tanzanian government and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a joint statement that read, in part, “all Rwandese refugees in Tanzania are expected to return home by 31 December 1996.”1 That same day, UNHCR distributed information sheets to refugees about the repatriation exercise, including the immediate suspension of economic and agricultural activities in the camps. The camps had been home to more than half a million Rwandan refugees since 1994, when they fled civil war and an advancing rebel army at home. They were eventually joined in Tanzania by nearly 500,000 refugees from Burundi and Zaire.2 As a haven of peace in a troubled region, Tanzania had long hosted refugees from neighboring countries. By December 1996, however, patience seemed to have run out. 3
Upon receiving the repatriation announcement, many refugees wanted extra time to see how the integration of returnees from Zaire would unfold within Rwanda.4 Several wrote a letter to Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa requesting him to reconsider the December 31 deadline. As the government’s position became clear, though, Rwandans sought other methods to avoid repatriation. On the evening of December 6,5 refugees started fleeing camps in Karagwe district. Nearly 10,000 refugees hiked toward Uganda and Kenya, where they hoped to get asylum. When questioned about their decision to flee, many said, “Death is death”; they would rather face the possibility of death in Tanzania than what they perceived to be certain death upon return to Rwanda. UNHCR sought to calm the situation by holding regular food distributions in the camps, which brought some refugees back from the woods. Those who did not return were rounded up a week later, when UNHCR sent trucks to bring them back to the camps.