For Francois Xavier, July 17, 1994 will be forever etched on his memory as the day he cheated death.
“We were running through gunfire,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, seated on a courtyard bench in downtown Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. “Behind, they were shooting at us.”
Amid the hubbub of children flooding out of a nearby school, Xavier’s expression darkens as he recalls how he fled his native country, Rwanda.
Then a 22-year-old student, chased by soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), he ran so hard he didn’t realise he had crossed the border into Democratic Republic of Congo.
He escaped just in time. Later, his three brothers and two sisters were shot by the RPF at point-blank range.
“What is most savage and cruel is that my mother and father were standing there, watching as their children were killed,” he said.
After crossing Congo alone, Xavier reached Cameroon, where he obtained refugee status. Twenty three years on, he is an established nurse anaesthesiologist, and the head of the country’s almost 900-strong Rwandan refugee community.
Unlike more recent refugees, often clustered in the country’s East or Far North regions eking out an existence between camps and urban slums, Rwandans in the capital are a well-structured group, due in part to the strong support network they have established.
But the shadows of the 1994 genocide - in which an estimated 800,000 died, most of them Tutsis - remain hard to cast aside.
The vast majority of Cameroon’s Rwandan community is ethnically Hutu, like Xavier. Some had significant links with members of the regime who took part, directly or tangentially, in the genocide against the Tutsis.
Among the refugees is a relative of a bodyguard for former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose killing when his plane was downed was a key trigger for the genocide. Another is a family member of an army general wanted for war crimes, now in hiding.
After the genocide, many Hutus were persecuted and forced to flee Rwanda as surviving Tutsis sought bloody revenge.
Network of mutual support
Over the past two decades, Rwandan refugees living in Yaoundé have focused their energies on helping each other.
The president of the refugee community is supported by two deputies, two secretaries and a treasurer, alongside a council of elders charged with resolving disputes.
This self-sufficiency against the odds is borne from a traditional suspicion of outsiders and their motives, Rwandans say. It has fostered an impressive network of mutual support.
When Elizabeth Nyirazankira, 40, was attacked at a market by a machete-wielding thief, she was seriously wounded in her left arm. The refugee community collected around two million francs ($3,575) to help her pay medical fees and stay afloat when she could not work.
Others, growing in confidence, have decided to draw on their own traumatic experiences to reach out beyond their own group.
Veronique Sibomana struggled after arriving in Cameroon, pregnant with three young children. But once she got on her feet, she decided to help others facing similar hardship.
Today she heads a Yaoundé women’s refugee collective, a voluntary post working with women from Congo, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Chad, Togo, Burundi, Nigeria and Rwanda. They help provide services from psychological counselling to food aid.
Kelly Yotebieng, a medical anthropologist at Ohio State University who has spent several years studying Rwandan urban refugees in Cameroon, said they have “an incredibly strong work ethic and a sense of entrepreneurship”. They place enormous value on formal education, as well as on social ties, she added.
But in recent months, old political tensions have resurfaced, triggered by Rwanda’s presidential elections in August. For the first time, non-refugee Rwandans were allowed to vote in Yaoundé, a move that outraged some.
Jean Baptiste Zikama, a Rwandan diplomat-turned-businessman of mixed Hutu-Tutsi background who settled in Cameroon in 1994, instigated the voting, seeing it as a way of strengthening the diaspora. By law, refugees were not allowed to participate.
"We thought that Rwandans who are here have the right to vote, as nationals. That’s why we decided to organise it,” said Zikama, taking his blue Rwandan passport from his shirt pocket.
Only about 10 per cent of eligible Rwandans in Cameroon - most of whom are Hutu - voted in the August poll, with the vast majority backing Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s long-standing Tutsi president.
Kagame, who has been in power for 17 years, won 98.8 percent of the vote in Rwanda. Rights groups and opponents accuse him of ruling with an iron fist, suffocating dissent and dealing ruthlessly with critics.
Some in Cameroon say the Yaoundé voting uncovered the open wounds of the genocide once again. Bringing in a Rwandan diplomat from Congo Republic to help run the poll also rang an alarm bell.
Some Rwandan dissidents have been killed after fleeing abroad in cases that remain unsolved. The government denies any involvement.
“We know that wherever there is a Rwandan non-refugee diaspora, there are disappearances, assassinations,” said refugee community head Xavier, who suspects there are Rwandan agents working for the authorities embedded in Cameroon. “They consider us as opposition, even if we’re not involved in politics.”
Madeleine Nizeyimana, 51, said the recent poll had “created something bad” by stirring up the past.
Before the genocide, she was married to a presidential intelligence agent living in an upscale district of the Rwandan capital Kigali. Today, home is a small, dark room in a back-street slum of Yaoundé’s Etoa–Meki neighbourhood.
Nizeyimana fled Rwanda when rockets started raining down on her street, but since the genocide, Tutsi friends back home have protected many members of her Hutu family, she said. As such, she believes simplistic interpretations should be avoided.
“Me, I can’t say President Kagame is someone bad – just like I can’t say that (we Hutus are) all ‘good’. Each one has their faults,” she said, as a mouse scurried past cooking pots on the floor.
"Just because we're refugees who are out of the country, it doesn't mean we are saints," she said. "We must get rid of all this 'ethnicity' business... It's the dirty mentality that we must wash out of our heads. We must live like brothers."
-Thomas Reuters Foundation