Walking back to catastrophe?: People are returning to the bullet-ridden houses and shops of Kigali; grass grows on the mass graves. But the signs of normality are an illusion. Richard Dowden reports

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It is now four months since the battle for Kigali began. After 6 April, when President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down, the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) quickly moved out of its enclave in the north and attacked the city. Two months later they drove out the government army, prompting the extremist Hutu parties in the government to claim the Tutsi state was returning. In the campaign of genocide that ensued, probably half a million people died. Then, as the RPF advanced westwards, Hutus fled into Zaire where they died in their thousands from cholera and other diseases. It was like an appalling indiscriminate biblical retribution. And yet, after all that, there seem - to the cursory glance - to be signs of renewal and hope in Rwanda.

Kigali is filling up again. The roads and pavements of Rwanda's small, spacious capital are slowly coming back to life after the slaughter of April, May and June. The market is becoming as busy as it used to be and the roadside is filled with people selling little piles of food and cigarettes or jostling along the pavements with anything from sewing machines to sacks of flour on their heads.

Thanks to the British Army, Kigali had water last week for the first time since April, and power is promised soon. In the commercial sector, life seems to be stirring again. Heavily laden lorries are emptying their loads into warehouses. Two months after the war ended, Kigali feels like a city returning to normality. But it is an illusion. Putting Rwanda together again is looking increasingly impossible. There is barely a flicker of remorse among Rwandans or even a recognition of the enormity of what has happened. The mistrust between its two ethnic groups is deeper than ever, and their understanding of the genocide and its causes differs widely. The new government may bring some of those responsible to justice, only to find that the accused still enjoy widespread political support. In Rwanda justice may conflict with reconciliation.

You cannot see the aftermath of genocide. The grass is growing on the mass graves. The wounds remain only in the mind. Only the physical - reparable - scars of war are still visible in Kigali. Some houses are peppered with bullet holes and a few are burnt-out shells or have had chunks smashed out of them by mortar or rocket fire. Most have had their doors or bars twisted off by looters. The ministries, mostly housed in a line of modern concrete blocks along a ridge, will not function again for some time. Their offices have been looted and smashed, their thick smoked-glass windows spectacularly riddled with bullets. In the offices of the World Bank, I found the representative returning for the first time since April. He was examining the remains of his office safe which had been opened like a sardine tin, puzzled that the looters had also taken shelves of World Bank reports.

Such wreckage is redeemable and it looks on the surface as if life is returning to normal. But when you begin to talk to people in the town and they tell you how they have come home, you suddenly realise that these are not the people who fled a few months ago to escape the war. These are people returning after 35 years in exile. Some of them are not returning at all but coming to Kigali for the first time, the children of exiles coming 'home'. They are mainly Tutsis, coming to claim their heritage after more than 30 years. Their heritage happens to be the land and homes of the Hutus who have recently fled. The next episode in Rwanda's horror has already begun.

Only a few of the people on the streets of Kigali are the survivors. They greet each other with huge embraces and the words 'You are alive'. But their joy is always tinged with loss and grief.

For the most part, the people you see are Tutsis from Uganda, Zaire or Burundi and more are arriving every day. They are taking over homes and shops and setting up businesses throughout the country. The new government has proclaimed that those who fled 30 years ago have no claim to property they abandoned then, but when you ask people what will happen if the Hutu owners return and claim their property from a Tutsi who has recently moved in, people shrug their shoulders and laugh knowingly. This is a country without a police force, law, judges or courts.

If you drive from Kigali on the narrow tarmac road that twists and turns up and over the steep green mountains, you can be at the border with Zaire in two and a half hours. It is a spectacularly beautiful drive through eucalyptus forests and fields and past hills terraced to their tops and dotted with huts of mud brick, grass or corrugated iron. There is something missing, however: people. A few work the fields and some straggle along the road carrying their bags and boxes on their heads, but much of what was the most densely populated country in Africa is now deserted.

You find the people when you cross the border at Goma. Nearly a million of them, living in hovels of stick, grass and plastic sheets that stretch for miles across the plain beneath the volcanoes. The rains have started now, turning the camps into quagmires of misery. Despite their wretched, hopeless state, the people are not coming home. Although the RPF has repeatedly begged the refugees to return as soon as possible, there is no sign that they are ready to go back. Fear rules these camps - fear of the militiamen who kill anyone who talks of going home and making peace, but also a deep, widespread fear of the RPF and the Tutsis. In two days of conversations in the camps, I could not find a trace of remorse or guilt for the massacres. The only regret I found was the regret that the RPF had won the war.

In Muganga camp the defeated Rwandan army and its camp followers sit in despair. Sullen, vengeful and violent, Muganga camp seethes with an almost palpable evil. Aid workers have been attacked on the road through the camp, and if you stop and try to talk to people, they turn away with angry eyes. Despite assurances from the government of Zaire that the soldiers will remain disarmed and constrained, the United Nations reported on Thursday that elements of the old Rwandan army had regrouped and were beginning to infiltrate over the border.

If the defeated army returns to Rwanda as a guerrilla movement, the last vestige of hope for a return of refugees will be buried in security checks and arbitrary detentions. Even now, the daily trickle of refugees out of the camps in Zaire is subjected to screening and checks by the RPF.

The few who do make it back to the capital will find themselves strangers in their city. The returning Tutsis are forcing the RPF government, which is anxious to restart the engines of government anyway, to employ them. The government will also find it more difficult to evict the newcomers from houses, shops and land as time goes by. One Hutu refugee pointed out that if a Tutsi wants a house in Kigali, all he has to do is accuse the owner of taking part in genocide and the man will be detained.

The RPF's calls for the return of the refugees may conflict with its demand for justice for the perpetrators of genocide. It is becoming increasingly clear that almost everyone, including women and children, took part in the massacres and that the Hutu refugees in Zaire have not yet rejected the leadership of those who urged them to take up their knives and clubs and fill the graves with the bodies of Tutsis. Both the United Nations and the new Rwandan government are calling for the prosecution of those responsible for the massacres, but to pursue this may put a nation on trial. Justice may jeopardise the chances of putting this country together again.

(Photograph omitted)

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