In Congo, Rwandan Hutus in limbo as refugee status evaporates
"They are telling me to go. Go where? What would I do back there? Everyone's dead," says Gilbert Bigirimana, an 18-year-old Rwandan living in Republic of Congo who has never set foot on Rwandan soil.
Bigirimana is among thousands of Rwandans who, a generation after the Rwandan genocide, are living in a void, adrift in their host country and fearful of returning home.
Most of those in limbo are Hutus, who fled the country after leaders of their ethnic group orchestrated the mass slaughter of minority Tutsis before being ousted by a Tutsi-backed campaign.
Many first headed to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
But two wars -- a ghastly repercussion of the Rwandan genocide -- forced thousands further west to the Republic of Congo, also called Congo-Brazzaville, a small country of about five million people.
Today, many of this group, and their descendants, live in chronic uncertainty.
Most of them, around 9,200, have lost their refugee status, revoked because it was deemed that they no longer face persecution in Rwanda.
As refugees, under international law they had enjoyed specific protection by their host state and could not be forcibly returned to their home country.
Brazzaville's decision, criticised by Congolese aid groups, to strip them of their refugee status took effect on December 31, 2017.
"Those who did not get an exemption are now considered to be undocumented on Congolese soil," the Brazzaville government stated recently.
Jean-Claude Kourouma, the UN refugee agency's bureau chief in Betou, a city in northern Congo that took in nearly 1,900 Rwandan refugees last year, said no perpetrators of the genocide could have obtained refugee status.
Around 100 Rwandans decided to return home before the New Year's Eve deadline, while others have returned since.
Five families have taken steps to become Congolese, beginning with applying for Rwandan passports, which would in turn allow them to seek citizenship here, Kourouma said.
- 'They'll massacre us' -
But for people like Bigirimana, the future is deeply clouded.
He says he has no intention of moving to a country that he knows only through the stories -- real or embroidered -- that he has heard from compatriots who fled fearing reprisals, after Paul Kagame set up his Tutsi-led government in Kigali, which he heads to this day.
"Kagame favours his race," declared Bigirimana, a Hutu.
"If we go there, they will massacre us," he said -- even though a founding principle of the country's 2003 constitution is the "eradication of ethnic divisions".
But staying put in Congo-Brazzaville also offers little hope for him.
He is the oldest of six children, with an ailing mother. Without refugee status, the family no longer receives food rations.
"I am the only one working to feed my five little brothers and sisters," he said. "I grow food in a small garden and try to go to school. But how can I do everything on my own?"
- Odyssey of flight -
Among other cases in the camp, Antoinette Mokamakombe, 28, obtained an exemption to losing her refugee status.
Her plight was judged "exceptional" because she had fled a series of conflicts in her young life.
After leaving Rwanda for the DRC, she fled war there in the late 1990s for the Central African Republic, where conflict again forced her to flee, this time to Congo-Brazzaville.
She declined to go into detail about her ordeal, saying searching her dark memories gave her headaches.
"I will stay on (in Congo) as long as there is peace," she said.
Mokamakombe is among 802 Rwandan refugees who won the coveted exemption, Kourouma said, adding that it applied to people who were "in a special situation that threatens their security".
While several thousand Rwandans fled to Congo, around one million fled just across the border into the DRC, then called Zaire.
On a visit to the DRC's main eastern city of Goma on Sunday, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi promised to facilitate the return home of Rwandans still in the region.
But in Betou, Bigirimana told AFP bluntly: "I would rather stay here until they bury me."