Zaire: IRIN Situation Report on Idjwi Island, South Kivu,8/6/96

Zaire: IRIN Situation Report on Idjwi Island, South Kivu,8/6/96

Department of Humanitarian Affairs
Integrated Regional Information Network

Tel: +254 2 441125
Fax: +254 2 448816

Researched: late July; Issued: 6 August 1996


This week the UNHCR and its humanitarian partners on Idjwi Island have begun to implement a plan to move 40,000 Rwandan refugees to two sites on the west of the island. This report follows a DHA/IRIN visit to Idjwi and describes the situation there today, the rationale for moving the refugees and the current plan of action for the transfer. It also looks at the significance of this development in humanitarian terms, particularly in the light of regional security and political issues.


Idjwi Island lies in Lake Kivu in South Kivu, Zaire. At 40 kms in length, it is believed to be the largest inland island in Africa, and its hilly terrain is home to an estimated 112,000 Zairean people and some 46,000 Rwandan refugees. Idjwi is roughly equidistant between Zaire and Rwanda, with 10-15 kilometres separating its western shore from the Zairean mainland and its eastern shore from the coastline of Rwanda. The island's southern tip, however, lies only 1 kilometre from a promontory of the Rwandan coast.

The Rwandan refugees arrived on Idjwi during and after July 1994, following the genocide and the advance of the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA). They soon settled among the local population, and today the UNHCR identifies five main sites, centring on villages within which refugees have clustered. The following sites are located on the east of the island: Chondo (9,673 people), Bugarula (11,828 people), Kabingu (11,324 people) and Bwina (8,559 people). In addition, there is one western site, Karama, which is currently home to 5,263 people.

The refugees currently receive a lower level of service from the humanitarian agencies than their compatriots on the mainland. The food ration, at 1,400 Kcal per day, is the same as that of the refugee camps at Bukavu, and is supplied by WFP and distributed by CARE Canada. The water and sanitation services, however, are significantly less sophisticated than in the established camps on the mainland, as refugees rely on untreated water from springs and from the lake. Medical coverage, provided by Caritas, is also less comprehensive than on the mainland. The other agency with a significant presence on the island is the ICRC, which runs five centres for the reunification of unaccompanied minors.

The level of services reflects both the island location of the sites and difficulties associated with the intermingling of the refugees among the local population. Providing services to the refugees on Idjwi is also a politically sensitive issue, given the fact that Hutu insurgents are using the island as a base for hit-and-run attacks in western Rwanda. In this respect, the island sites are similar to other refugee camps in the region, yet Idjwi's position in the lake, its spread-out population, its lack of roads and its proximity to Rwanda make it an ideal base for guerilla activities. The level of insecurity in the Kibuye area of Rwanda reflects this uncomfortable fact.

"Idjwi was always a potential base [for guerilla activities]", says Patrick de Sousa, UNHCR's Head of Sub-Office in Bukavu. "Today it is said quite openly there are attacks. There are no denials and no defensiveness. It reflects the fact that the forces of extremism are gaining the upper hand. By this I mean those who say that all the Tutsis are oppressors and the only approach is to reclaim the homeland, and on the other side those who say that all the Hutus are killers who deserve to be killed."

The presence of the refugees on the eastern side of Idjwi has also been problematic for the security of bona fide refugees and that of the local population. Although as yet there has been no concerted counter-attack by the RPA, a number of incidents have taken place involving RPA troops shooting at Idjwi's shoreline from motorized inflatable boats in the lake.


For the best part of two years, the UNHCR has made the case for moving the refugees from Idjwi to the mainland. By mid-1995, the proposal was being actively considered by the Zairean authorities, but, following the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Rwanda, the position of the Zairean Government changed to one of outright opposition, and today the issue is caught up with the increasingly strained relations between Kigali and Kinshasa. "I would still ardently desire moving these refugees to the mainland," says Patrick de Sousa, while acknowledging that, for the forseeable future, this appears unlikely.

The UNHCR has, however, secured the agreement of the Zairean authorities to transfer the refugees from the sites on the east of the island to two sites on the west. This will involve the establishment of two proper camps, one in the north and one in the south, which will house all of the island's 46,000 refugees. The northern camp will be established at Nyamuhiwa and will be made of up the 21,000 refugees currently in Chondo and Bugarula, while the southern site will be at Karama and will consist of the 20,000 refugees currently in Kabingu and Bwina as well as the 5,000 refugees already situated at Karama.

The transfer process for the two southern camps of Kabingu and Bwina began last week, following the last food distribution at Kabingu. The refugees will be expected to make their way to Karama on foot, and the UNHCR has worked out a detailed plan which seeks to ensure that the new camp is ready for them before they arrive and that their establishment there proceeds smoothly. The whole process is expected to take about one month, and will involve everything from transferring sick and injured refugees by boat, to a medical screening and the distribution of non-food items and food at the new camp. UNHCR has also requested the CZSC (the Zairean Security Contingent for the Camps) to establish bases at both the southern and northern sites. UNHCR's main implementing partner will be CARE Canada, while Caritas will be responsible for medical services.

While the planned northern camp of Nyamuhiwa is no more than a site in the minds of the planners, Karama today already bears all the signs of an established camp. Located on the southern side of a small inlet on the southwest of Idjwi, the homes of its 5,000 occupants currently cover two small hillsides. The mud huts, arranged in rows, extend from the waterfront to the top of each hill, and in-between spaces are being cultivated with maize and potatoes. The latrines and drainage systems have been constructed, water tanks have been put up, and areas demarcated for the homes of the 20,000 people who are expected.

Providing the process goes ahead smoothly, the UNHCR hopes to begin transferring the refugees in the northern sites later this month. Although the entire plan has been presented to the refugees and their approval secured, nobody is taking it for granted that the transfer process will be trouble-free. The June registration process in Bukavu, when groups of refugees attacked humanitarian workers and brought the process to a halt in several camps, is a reminder that some refugees may be uncooperative. Humanitarian agencies point out, however, that the registration on Idjwi went ahead without difficulties, and are hoping the same will prove true for the transfer.


While Idjwi is probably best known for the insecurity associated with the presence of the refugees on the island, it is salutary to note that, according to the first breakdown figures from UNHCR's recent census, the vast majority of the refugees on Idjwi are women and children. The island's reputation as a base for insurgents may in fact derive from the activities of a relatively small number of people.

While the long-term aim of moving all the refugees to the mainland continues to be an objective, the plan to move the refugees west will be of benefit to all bone fide refugees, enabling them to receive proper services for the first time and helping to ensure their security. It will help local people by relieving the pressures created by the presence of large numbers of refugees in their midst. It also has the potential to benefit both Zaire and Rwanda by improving security in the region and helping to relieve tensions between the two countries.

[IRIN Note: We wish to express our gratitude to the staff of the UNHCR in Bukavu for their invaluable assistance, without which the DHA/IRIN visit to Idjwi would not have been possible.]

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From: Guy Vassall-Adams <> Date: Tue, 6 Aug 1996 14:33:05 +0300 (GMT+0300) Subject: Zaire: IRIN Situation Report on Idjwi Island, South Kivu 96.8.6 Message-Id: <>

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D

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