Violence as refugees try to return home

Demonstrations against Congolese Tutsi refugees returning from Burundi turned violent over the weekend as 366 people, mostly women and children, arrived at Uvira, South Kivu Province, on the border with Burundi.

"Protestors threw stones," said Patricia Tome, the spokeswoman of the UN-peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "They were dispersed by Congolese troops shooting into the air."

Seven of the refugees were reportedly injured.

Congolese soldiers are guarding the refugees at a camp in Uvira, Tome said.

The protestors are opposed to the return of Congolese refugees who are of Rwandan descent. They consider them foreigners.

"The protestors are being manipulated," Tome said. "Hardliners are inciting the violence; some are inciting locals with false information like saying that 40,000 [Tutsi] refugees will be returning."

Tome said that 600 of the refugees, who fled to Burundi in June following violence in the province, now want to return.

In Burundi, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned that the refugees may be under pressure to return. The deputy governor of South Kivu visited the refugees last week to encourage them to return home.

Twenty thousand people had fled fighting between loyalist and dissident Congolese army troops in South Kivu in June.

"[The] refugees are receiving information that may prevent them from taking an informed decision and are coming under pressure from some of their peers to repatriate," Jennifer Pagonis, the UNHCR spokeswoman, said at a news briefing in Geneva on Friday.

She added that UNHCR is not facilitating repatriation to the DRC.

"Conditions in their home area are still volatile," she said, pointing to reports last week that thousands had fled renewed fighting in eastern Congo.

On Thursday, the first UNHCR convoy with 102 Congolese refugees on board left transit camps on the Burundi-DRC border to Gihanga, a new camp in Mwaro Province in central Burundi.

Pagonis said the number "is much smaller than UNHCR had anticipated".

Most of the refugees had come from Kararuma transit centre; only a few left Gatumba transit camp where around 160 Tutsi refugees were killed in August.