A message for the West

Britain and America thought the Rwandan problem was solved. Hutu rebels killed our tourists to prove us wrong
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Murder has transformed Uganda's Impenetrable Forest into an international crime scene. Once tranquil and remote enough for the peaceful survival of a few remaining families of mountain gorilla - as well as some of the most luxurious tourist campsites in Africa - the densely foliated jungle is now full of soldiers, diplomats and international journalists.

The FBI and Scotland Yard, along with the hundreds of Ugandan troops, are due soon, following the massacre last week of eight tourists out of 17 abducted by Rwandan rebels. The eight - four Britons, two Americans and two New Zealanders - were variously murdered with machetes and hammers, shot and raped, after being forced to trek into the jungle up the steep track used by the mountain gorillas.

All that is left at the entrance of Bwindi National Park is the shell of a burnt-out overlander truck and the gutted remains of administration huts. It is unlikely ever again to appeal to dollar-laden foreigners seeking inner peace and the holiday of a lifetime.

As they walked along the rough valley track, slept in the wooden and tented camps on the jungle hillside, or carefully and silently followed the rare gorillas and birds with cameras and trekking boots, the tourists could have had no idea that they themselves were the quarry.

Last Monday about 200 Hutu rebels armed with guns, machetes and hammers descended on the camps at 6.30am, just after the sun rose. Dressed in scruffy T-shirts, trousers, sandals and red headbands, they attacked simultaneously three separate but neighbouring camps. Shouting "bring money" in the KinyaRwanda language, and smashing down doors, the attackers were mostly young men, but included women carrying hammers.

"It could not have happened without some sort of reconnaissance," said the British High Commissioner Michael Cook, whose defence attache believes it was synchronised with watches or two-way radios.

For many of the tourists, the sound of gunfire was too alien to trigger the right response. A Swiss tourist, Danja Walther, said she thought they were firecrackers, until her friend pulled her to the ground. Some of the tourists managed to escape at this point, along with a number of camp rangers - they jumped out of windows, rolled into the forest or hid under beds.

About 30 tourists were eventually forced to assemble at the Abercrombie and Kent luxury camp, about 200 metres from the park administration buildings, while overland trucks and huts were set alight and property looted. Camp warden Paul Wagaba took on the rebels, but was shot down and gruesomely burnt. Two other rangers were injured.

"We were standing in a row and they [the rebels] said: `Nationality, nationality.' They wanted to put me with the French people but I said no, I want to be with my British friends," said Ms Walther, an air hostess.

Of the 17 tourists eventually selected, three women managed to persuade the Interahamwe rebels to let them go - probably because they thought they would be difficult to cope with. An American, Linda Adams, pretended to have asthma; the Deputy French Ambassador Anne Peltier's daughter burst into tears; and so they went away with a letter which was later produced in the Ugandan Parliament. It said: "The Interahamwe are not happy with the American and British because they preferred to support the Tutsi ethnic minority [the Rwandan government] against the ethnic Hutu majority."

Ms Walther, along with the other abducted tourists, was forced to trek up the narrow track. Trying to hold on to reality - "I thought I was in a film" - she initially talked to her captors in French. Her tale is a chilling account of psychological deterioration as fear and exhaustion increases, of attempts to use chat about mountain gorillas and music to control the increasingly sinister hostility, and, eventually, of escaping by a hair's breadth.

As the walk became more arduous and the rebels more familiar, her friends warned her that one of the rebels was taking too keen an interest in her - "I realised I should keep my mouth shut and I looked at the ground." One rebel lectured her about the Rwandan war, accusing her of "hating black people". Aware that the group behind her had disappeared - they had in fact been murdered - fear made her body shake uncontrollably. Other members of the group tried to reassure the rebels that it was because of exhaustion. "Then I felt someone grab my hair, and I started to cry, thinking, I am finished with my life."

An experienced tour operator, Mark Ross, an American, managed to come between Ms Walther and the rebel and talk in local KiSwahili to the Interahamwe. Whether it was his bravery and power of negotiation that ultimately saved this group, or whether the group had been marked out to take a message to the world, they alone survived, released after walking for about eight hours. Mark Ross was given a two-page letter for the US ambassador.

Returning towards the camp, they came across the bodies of five people - bludgeoned and raped - only about 4km from the camp. The bodies of three other men were later found by the Ugandan Army 7km inside the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). "They were hit from behind, with hammers and machetes on the head," said Lieutenant Colonel Benon Biraro, commanding the troops in pursuit from Bwindi.

There are few, if any, clues as to how the Interahamwe moved into the area. The closest the Interahamwe had been to the camp was about 40km, a considerable distance in an area of mountainous jungle terrain. There were no warnings - and pursuit was difficult. These were Rwandan rebels, operating from the DRC, infiltrating Uganda in search of English-speaking Westerners.

The British High Commissioner stresses that there was no reason at all to warn tourists away from the area. A series of murders and abductions by several rebel groups has been carried out in western Uganda in recent months, but until this massacre the victims had been local people - 22 in the past month - and their deaths had gone unreported.

The Rwandan army is helping the Ugandan army to pursue the rebel group inside a hostile DRC, where President Laurent Kabila is using the Interahamwe like mercenaries, against the Ugandans and Rwandans, in a regional war. In an ambush on Wednesday, 15 rebels were killed by the Rwandan army, hitting the tail-end of the group of about 150 - some were wearing clothes and boots from the camp.

The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, is categorical that the Interahamwe will be killed rather than caught. Extending apologies and condolences in a press conference - demonstrating again why he has international popularity as a regional leader - he stressed there should be an international effort to deal with the Interahamwe, whom he calls "international terrorists". But he is not referring to visits by the FBI or Scotland Yard - who he said, with all due respect, would be useless in tracking "bush terrorists" - rather, he meant a long overdue commitment needed to sort out a cancer which has fuelled an international war in Africa as well as leading to last week's horrific killings.

For the British public the killings were an unimaginable kind of hell. But in this region there is familiarity with the method of murder. It is a continuation of the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which the international community chose at the time - through a combination and negligence and naivety - to let run its course. Hundreds of thousands were hacked, bludgeoned, shot, raped and mutilated before the Interahamwe ran to DRC to become "refugees" and rebels. Rather than some form of atavistic "savage darkness", it is now recognised to have been a premeditated and carefully executed political philosophy based on xenophobic extremism. The victims died horribly, in other words, because of where they came from and what they believed in. It was led by the Interahamwe - which with echoes of fascist extremism, means "we must all bind together".

Last week, this philosophy of genocide was revisited - in unadulterated form - upon "Anglo-Saxon" foreign tourists. Notes found on their bodies spell out the political nature of the killings. Scrawled on the back of wildlife photographs, "Anglo-Saxons" were accused of supporting the Rwandan government, which has been attempting to eliminate the Interahamwe since 1994.

This is a crisis, in particular, for US policy in the region, say diplomats. Since the Cold War, the US has pushed hard for influence in places previously inaccessible, such as the former Francophone Rwanda.

Africa may not come high on the list of world priorities, but there are always reasons to keep others out, especially with the perceived threat of "fundamentalism". The US says it is trying to encourage democracy in Africa but it is not prepared to commit anything more than words. It would not send peacekeeping troops to Rwanda when it was in the grip of genocide. The Hutu militants, however, believe that President Museveni wants to create a Tutsi empire in central Africa - and that he is backed by the US.

Almost exactly a year ago, President Clinton visited Uganda in a tour of Africa to demonstrate commitment to the continent. Britain, now seen to follow the American lead so closely, finds itself increasingly bracketed with the US, despite having a very different history and relationship with Africa. The devastating bombs in Kenya and Tanzania last year spelt out fundamentalist opposition to the US. Now, notes scrawled on the murdered bodies of tourists couldn't be much clearer - there is a price to be paid for influence, as well as for negligence. In Africa, the US has not yet succeeded in finding the balance.