Rwanda waits in anguish for the militias' return

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The Independent Online
COLONEL Frank Mugambage stretches his hand and cracks his knuckles. Rwanda, he insists, has defeated the Interahamwe extremists who incited Hutus to massacre 800,000 of their Tutsi fellow countrymen as well as moderate Hutus in 1994.

But more than 18 months after a million Hutu refugees returned from camps in eastern Congo (formerly Zaire), where they had fled following a slaughter in which many of them had taken part, Colonel Mugambage, the Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu's chief of staff, is having a hard time convincing a traumatised nation that the murderers will never return.

The hard fact for the government, now led by Tutsis, is that the enemy has regrouped and is once again within. The genocidaires, who slipped back into Rwanda with the refugees or remained in the former Zaire, are making inroads in the north-west provinces of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, the cradle of Hutu extremism.

The government denies United Nations and human rights groups' allegations that its troops - once hailed as heroes for ending the genocide - have wiped out communities in the north-west, and inside Zaire, accused of supporting the Interahamwe. Colonel Mugambage said this week that Rwandan troops were disciplined and the situation was under control. Few outside the government accept these assertions. Most international aid agencies have pulled out of the north-west.

Politically it is difficult for the Tutsis, though they preach reconciliation and include Hutus in the government, to contemplate any political arrangement which involves them ceding control. The Tutsis carry with them the memory that every institution in Rwanda, from the church to the judiciary, was implicated in the slaughter.

The capital, Kigali, bustles with returnee Tutsis who fled to Burundi and Uganda to escape previous pogroms. Raised in refugee camps on dreams of returning to the motherland, they have come home to replace those who perished.

But their hopes that the conflict could be confined to the Hutu heartlands was shattered last month following attacks near Gitarama, only 45 minutes' drive from Kigali.

This week Gitarama was swarming with government troops. The old extremists are audacious. "Two came out of the bush a week ago," says Venuste Higiro, who lives just a few minutes drive from Gitarama. "They demanded food and money from us and said the killers would follow." The village, torn between fear of the Interahamwe and fear of the army, reported the encounter to the soldiers.

Rwanda expelled Jose-Luis Herrero, the country's UN human rights spokesman, two weeks ago after he criticised Rwanda's first public execution of 22 convicted genocidaires. The government was already angry at UN allegations about atrocities and human rights groups' claims that people are starving in Rwandan jails, where 130,000 alleged perpetrators await trial. The government also snubbed the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan.

The government believes that the UN, which failed to stop the 1994 genocide, can not assume the moral high ground. The row has split aid agencies. One charity official said: "It is not up to the international community to dictate to Rwanda how to solve huge problems when it fed the Interahamwe for two years in the Zairean refugee camps."

Advocats sans Frontieres, representing the genocidaires, says criticism of Rwanda for not offering fair trials is unfounded. Marie-elle Hallez, the body's coordinator, says the Rwandans have created a fair justice system despite pitiful resources.

And the executions, so the government argues, were needed to restore the rule of law and encourage the guilty to confess and testify against others in exchange for lesser charges.

Others insist international guilt about the genocide is encouraging people to turn a blind eye to government atrocities.