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Historic Patterns of Settlement

For centuries Rwandans have lived in homesteads scattered on the hills, their houses set inside enclosures which are surrounded by cultivated fields. In addition to growing crops, most farmers raised small livestock such as goats, chickens, and rabbits. Wealthier farmers possessed one or a small number of cattle. The dispersed habitat permitted intensive cultivation with farmers using household waste and animal manure to fertilize their fields. Living next to their fields also allowed farmers to protect their crops from thieves, a safeguard that recently has become especially important: some 70 percent of Rwandans are now below the internationally-recognized poverty line and many are hungry enough to steal food.1 Rwandans favored living surrounded by their land not just for the practical advantages but also because they valued privacy highly.

Although Rwanda had a highly organized state for centuries, it had no cities before the twentieth century. The ruler frequently moved his court from one region to another so there was no political locus for urbanization. Markets, although held regularly at the same locations, never grew into substantial permanent settlements. After a colonial administration was established in the early 1900s, the capital, Kigali, and several prefectural towns developed around administrative centers, but both then and after independence, authorities discouraged movement to urban centers.

The colonial administration established some rural settlements called paysannats to encourage the growth of cash crops. They were largely unsuccessful. After independence, the Rwandan government created other paysannats, some to accommodate Tutsi displaced in ethnic violence and others to provide fields for land-hungry people from the northwest. Officials were apparently beginning to see benefits in changing patterns of settlement, but they launched no large scale effort to reorganize rural life.

Population Growth and Land Scarcity

In the years following independence, the Rwandan population grew rapidly, reaching an annual growth rate of 3.1 percent a year in the period 1980-1990 and making Rwanda at that time the most densely populated country in Africa.2 At first agricultural production kept pace with population growth, but in the 1980s poor growing conditions and decreasing fertility of the soil reduced returns to farmers. Growing numbers found it impossible to accumulate cash reserves and had to sell land to meet urgent needs, such as medical

expenses. By the end of the 1980s landholdings were increasingly unequally divided: thosewho had access to extra-agricultural resources (chiefly salaried work) obtained control over a growing proportion of agricultural land while those who relied exclusively on farming held a shrinking part.3 Increasing numbers of young men faced the prospect of receiving no land at all in a culture where land was needed in order to legitimately marry and establish a household.

The fall in agricultural productivity and the increase in numbers of landless or virtually landless cultivators had enormous significance in a society where more than 90 percent of the population lived from farming. Usually unable to find jobs outside agriculture, the landless rented or borrowed land, worked as laborers in the fields of others, or remained unemployed.

Property and Returning Refugees

In 1993 the Hutu-led Rwandan government and the Tutsi-led RPF, which had been at war for nearly four years, signed the Arusha Accords, a peace agreement which among other provisions guaranteed refugees the right to return to Rwanda. Most refugees were Tutsi and the children of Tutsi who had fled Rwanda after the 1959 revolution which ended Tutsi rule. Providing land for the returnees, expected to number in the hundreds of thousands, was a major issue, given the already dense rural population throughout Rwanda. The parties recognized that the returnees had rights to the property which they had left in the country. But in the interests of "social harmony and national reconciliation," they "recommended" that returnees not claim property which had been left more than ten years before and subsequently occupied by others, the case for the holdings of most Tutsi refugees.

The parties agreed to provide returnees instead with land and materials to build homes in settlements which would include health centers, schools, roads, and access to water.4 According to one observer at the negotiations, RPF delegates were adamant that the new homes must be built in "villages." They asserted that rural poverty in Rwanda resulted from the pattern of dispersed homesteads and that villages were necessary to serve as magnets to promote economic development.5

The accords failed to bring peace. When combat resumed in April 1994, an interim Rwandan government launched a genocide that killed at least half a million Tutsi and many Hutu opposed to the authorities and the genocide.

The growing poverty and land scarcity fueled the genocide and help to explain the readiness with which the jobless and the landless took to killing Tutsi, whether for immediate payment or in return for the promise of land.6

When the RPF defeated the interim government, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi refugees returned from exile.7 At the same time, some two million Hutu fled the country at the order of the defeated government. Many of these new refugees took flight also because they heard reports-some true, some false-of massacres and summary executions of civilians by RPF soldiers.8

After the RPF established its government in July, 1994, there was no immediate housing crisis because most new arrivals settled in the homes of those who had fled or who had been killed. Nonetheless the Rwandan government soon began drawing up plans for the kind of settlements stipulated in the accords, locating them on previously unoccupied lands, mostly in a national park and hunting range in eastern Rwanda. Various NGOs, including those funded by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), began construction soon after.9 Several NGOs also rebuilt damaged houses and constructed new ones in scattered locations rather than in settlement sites.10

The Housing Crisis

In 1995 and 1996, the Rwandan government repeatedly requested international action to defuse a growing threat from refugee camps in Zaire (later the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC). The defeated government was using the camps as a base from which to reorganize and rearm its soldiers and Interahamwe, the militia responsible for much of the killing during the genocide. When there was no response from the international community, the Rwandan government sent its troops across the border. Together with local allies, they attacked the refugee camps, killing tens of thousands of civilians as well as thousands of combatants. They also sent hundreds of thousands of Rwandans back to Rwanda, thousands of them against their will, and they chased tens of thousands of refugees further west into the forests of Zaire. At the same time, Tanzania pushed Rwandans there to repatriate. In the space of a few weeks, nearly 1.3 million refugees returned to Rwanda.

Rwandan authorities had assured Hutu returnees that they could reclaim their homes and lands. They had formalized the guarantee in a ministerial order in September 1996 which spelled out the procedure for repossessing property and set a fifteen day deadline for returning property to those who reclaimed it.11

When the Hutu returned suddenly and in massive numbers beginning in November 1996, some of them succeeded in reclaiming their property, thus displacing Tutsi who then needed other homes. In many other cases, Hutu failed to get their homes back and they also needed shelter. In addition, some survivors of the genocide had seen their homes destroyed. Although they possessed property and perhaps even a building, some preferred not to return to their places of origin and were seeking homes elsewhere. Similarly Hutu victims of war sought help, although they were more likely to want to restore their original homes than to want to establish themselves elsewhere.

The housing crisis was real, but it may have been less serious than it was presented at the time. In early 1997, the Ministry of Planning estimated that 254,000 households required assistance with housing.12 The Ministry of Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration came up with the similar figure of 250,000 families, or some 1,270,000 people.13 This amounts to more than one and a half times the number of Tutsi returnees, estimated then at 775,000.14 This estimate itself may be exaggerated, as discussed below, but even if it were accurate, not all 775,000 returnees needed housing; significant numbers, including the thousands who took over property in the city of Kigali, were able to continue occupying homes vacated by previous owners who were dead or who did not return. In addition, not all the needy required new homes. Thousands of damaged houses were available that could be inhabited after being repaired.

The sense of crisis was heightened by the concentration of needy persons in the eastern part of the country where they clustered in numbers far greater than could be served by locally available housing resources. More Tutsi returnees settled in Kibungo and Umutara, the prefectures nearest the border crossings where they entered from Uganda and Tanzania, than anywhere else in Rwanda. In addition, this flatter, eastern part of Rwanda offered good pasturage for cattle and was traditionally favored by Tutsi over hillier regions to the west.In late 1996, returnees who had been born abroad constituted 42 percent of the residents of Umutara and 19 percent of those in Kibungo.15

Kigali-rural also experienced greater pressure for property than other prefectures to the west or south. Although only about 5 percent of its residents were born abroad, it included an additional 15 percent who had been born in other prefectures of Rwanda, a consequence of the drawing power of the national capital which lay at its heart.16

1 Government of Rwanda, Ministry of Lands, Human Resettlement and Environmental Protection, "Thematic Consultation on Resettlement, Background Paper," July 2000, p. 6, quoting the World Bank, Rwanda Poverty Update. Hereafter cited as Government of Rwanda, "Thematic Consultation."

2 Republique Rwandaise, Ministère du Plan, Service National de Recensement, Recensement général de la population et de l'habitat au 15 août 1991. Enquête postcensitaire. Kigali, 1993.

3 Catherine André, "Terre Rwandaise, Accès, Politique et Réforme Foncières," in F. Reyntjens and S. Marysse, eds., L'Afrique des Grands Lacs, Annuaire 1997-1998 (Paris: Harmattan, 1998), note 20, p. 150 and pp. 158-9.

4 Protocole d'Accord Entre le Gouvernement de la République Rwandaise et le Front Patriotique Rwandais sur le Repatriement des Réfugiés Rwandais et la Reinstallation des Personnes Déplacées, June 9, 1993, articles 3, 4, 13, and 28. Hereafter cited as Protocole d'Accord.

5 Human Rights Watch interview, Washington, by telephone, January 12, 2001.

6 In the early days of the genocide, government officials began redistributing property vacated by victims, sometimes to local leaders of the killing. Human Rights Watch/Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, 1999), pp. 299-300.

7 The figure usually cited is 800,000 Tutsi returnees. See below.

8 Human Rights Watch/Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story, pp. 702-723.

9 Juvénal Nkusi, "Problématique du Régime foncier au Rwanda. Contexte et perspectives, relations avec l'habitat regroupé," Conseil de Concertation des Organisations d'Appui aux Initiatives de Base, May 2000, pp. 26-27.

10 Draft working paper, Anonymous, "Imidugudu, Assessment of Housing and Land Reform Plans in Rwanda," May 1997, p. 7. Hereafter, Anonymous, "Imidugudu."

11 Republic of Rwanda, Ministerial Order No. 01/96 of September 23, 1996 Regarding the Temporary Management of Land Property.

12 Omar Bakhet, UNDP Resident Representative and U.N. Resident Coordinator, Memo to Ambassadors, Charge d'Affaires and Heads of UN Agencies, January 23, 1997. The number of persons is based on an estimated five persons per household as established in Republic of Rwanda and United Nations Population Fund, Socio-Demographic Survey 1996, Final Report, (Kigali, January 1998), p. 41.

13 Anonymous, "Imidugudu," p. 9.

14 Rwanda and United Nations Population Fund, Socio-Demographic Survey 1996, p. 30.

15 Republic of Rwanda and United Nations Population Fund, Socio-Democraphic Survey 1996, pp. 28-29. The actual percentage of returnees would have been even higher because these numbers do not account for refugees who had been born in Rwanda.

16 Ibid.

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