Fears for reconciliation in Rwanda as Hutus are moved off their land

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THE QUEUE snakes along the dusty road into the hot, hazy distance. Thousands of barefoot, ragged-clothed Hutus are converging on Macaca for the latest hand-out of blankets, soap and water cans from Christian Aid.

Across Rwanda's war-ravaged, north-west region - where Hutu extremists, responsible for the 1994 genocide of a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, continue to engage the Tutsi-led Rwandan army - green and fertile fields lie abandoned and crops destroyed.

In the past year, in the shadow of the towering volcanic mountains that mark Rwanda's border with Uganda, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men, women and children have died. Post-genocide, ordinary Hutus find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Some have been murdered by Hutu extremists (including former local leaders) whom they refused to help or hide, while others have been killed by government troops for collaborating with the enemy. Many have simply died in the vicious bush war's crossfire.

More than 600,000 Hutus - the north-west has virtually no Tutsi population - have been internally displaced in the only region where the genocidal killers refuse to fade away. But in recent months the Rwandan government has gained the upper hand in the bloody conflict with a combination of military attacks and an offensive to win local hearts and minds.

Though no one can predict how long it will last, peace has broken out. The displaced, however, have not gone home to the isolated shacks that have traditionally sprinkled almost every hillside. As if they had not suffered enough upheaval - many of these people spent two years in Congolese refugee camps after fleeing Rwanda with the murderous Hutu militiamen - they are at the centre of a radical government experiment in social engineering.

"Villagisation" has arrived, and the displaced are being moved into new cluster settlements. The revolutionary change is taking place at a tearing pace. In just three months almost 300,000 people have been moved into the new villages. Another 300,000 - mostly languishing in displaced persons' camps - are poised to follow.

The Tutsi-controlled Rwandan government insists villagisation is what the local people want. But critics say the Hutu population is being forced to move to hastily built villages near main roads for military reasons.

Villages - umudugudus - may be alien in a land where people prefer their nearest neighbour to keep a decent distance, but they will help the government to control the Hutu homeland, and separate insurgents from civilians who collaborate - either out of choice or fear.

At Macaca the signs of war, and endless, miserable disruption are everywhere. Alongside the road a hillside lies wasted. Six weeks ago 46,000 people were living on the slope, in makeshift shelters, waiting for relocation.

Everyone has been dispersed now to umudugudus such as Kalingolera, a mile down the road. Trying to gauge the real level of support for villagisation in Kalingolera, and elsewhere, is difficult.

First, access to the area is restricted by the government and continuing insecurity. Despite claims that the government has overstretched itself by sending forces into neighbouring Congo to hunt down Hutu militia leaders, the north-west is awash with soldiers. Aid workers venture in only with army escorts. The roads are heavily patrolled and without government permission it is almost impossible to visit camps or villages.

At Kalingolera two soldiers with AK47s hover while Muhanuk Felicien, 42, describes how he moved here on Christmas Day with his wife, Nzatumabakuze, and six children. From a pitiful, temporary shack - the government is promising houses, but not yet - he points to the distant hill and his old house. His fields once began at his back door. Now it takes up to an hour to reach them.

"We had to leave our home because of the infiltrators," he says. "They demanded services and food. And if you refused, they could do anything, even kill you."

He describes, in the flat, matter-of-fact manner of those used to suffering, how his daughter was killed in crossfire. So were his sister-in-law and her two children.

"In the end," he says, "it was safer to be with the government soldiers." While he says most people feel safer in the villages he adds some would still prefer to return to their old homes.

That is clearly not an option. The Hutus have not been frog-marched into the new settlements. But that does not mean they have had a choice. Even the owner of a relatively luxurious, brick-built house in a nearby valley has had to move into a new settlement. "Even if you have a house 10 storeys high it will have to be abandoned if it is not in a village," says a local priest, full square behind the policy.

Post genocide, the Hutu political position is, understandably, weak. And such is the culture of obedience - which after all helped to facilitate three months of massacres nationwide - and top-down government that people are not accustomed to thinking for themselves or being consulted. There is a chasm between what the rural Hutu - dirt-poor and uneducated - says and thinks.

Still, at Kalingolera, a few older men dare to say that the old way of living was best. But nearly all the rest sing villagisation's praises. John Rucyahana, an Anglican bishop and one of a new generation of moderate Hutu community leaders installed in the north-west since 1994, articulates the collective local way.

What if someone insists on remaining in their own home? "The government has a plan," he says. "And everyone has to follow it or it is politically self-defeating." The bishop argues that villagisation will mean not just security for his beleaguered people but their first access to clean water and promised schools and clinics. It also seems clear that anyone who does not comply with "the plan" risks being regarded as an insurgent sympathiser.

"At first the people did not fully trust the new government," he says. "But they are now beginning to see that it is the way forward. My people are still suffering from lack of food and shelter but the killing, at least, has stopped. It is time for people to stop existing and start living."

Only a minority of Hutus, he insists, supported the genocide. "I counsel people who are still traumatised and ashamed by what was done by fellow Hutus ... as traumatised as Tutsi survivors."

Some in the charity sector agree villagisation might be a useful developmental tool. "But the problem is that no one has been told exactly what kind of revolution the government is undertaking," says one non-governmental organisation (NGO) spokesperson. "And internationally other programmes of villagisation have been a disaster." So secretive is the government about proposed legislation for land reform that rumours are circulating of Soviet-style collective farming, or an elaborate wheeze to deliver land - farmed by 90 per cent of the population - into the hands of a few.

Even in the new, united Rwanda, where talk of ethnic difference is officially discouraged, the political context cannot be ignored, according to another NGO spokesperson. "We still have a Tutsi-led government seemingly imposing a policy in areas predominantly Hutu." The real danger, according to some donors, would be if a policy in which locals seem to have had little say fails from lack of planning or money. That would only exacerbate Hutu resentments and bitter ethnic divisions.

Charities are terrified to put their criticisms on the record for fear of offending a government sensitive to criticism. But they are meeting to discuss their position. Inevitably it is they who will be asked to fund the revolution.

Some Western diplomats, meanwhile - mainly concerned that an insurgency which threatened the whole country be eliminated - seem prepared to cut the government more slack. "It has been an extraordinary movement in just three months," says one. "But it looks less sinister that other international examples of villagisation."

Even he allows, however, that it might be wise to withhold donor funds until the government lays bare its plans. Until then suspicion will linger that autocratic leaders are pushing the Hutu heartland into fresh disaster, one that could have appalling consequences for reconciliation.