Rwandans put faith in God and their trust in paratroopers: Robert Block reports from a refugee camp where France's intervention has brought two things - sleep and hope

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The Independent Online
ON ROLLING hills on a windswept tea plantation turned refugee camp near the Rwandan border town of Cyangugu, nearly 8,000 people - all of them members of Rwanda's Tutsi minority - sleep, eat and pray with a new sense of hope.

Some manage to smile, perhaps for the first time since extremist Hutu militias began the slaughter of Tutsis and Hutu moderates on 6 April. For the desperate and frightened people crowded into the Nyarushishi refugee camp the reason for the new optimism is 50 lightly armed French paratroopers, spearhead of France's humanitarian intervention in Rwanda.

'Every day the militia are on those hills,' said Martin K, a 26- year-old former student from Cyangugu, sweeping his finger across the landscape surrounding the camp. 'But when the French came on Thursday, we got our first night of good sleep because the militias disappeared.' He paused a long time before adding: 'If the French leave now, we will be in the shit. We will be killed.'

Still, Tutsi refugees in Nyarushishi find plenty of room for hope. Yesterday the inhabitants of the camp celebrated their first Catholic Mass in almost a month. About 3,000 people sat on the hillside, watched from above by the French soldiers, and listened to the sermon: 'Perhaps you think God does not exist because of all of the killing, but even in worse situations God gives consolation to those who believe in him.'

Tutsis at Nyarushishi, however, are not the only people to take comfort from the French arrival in south-western Rwanda. Nine miles south, in Cyangugu itself, supporters of the Hutu government deemed responsible for inciting the orgy of violence that tore through this country are basking in the joy of the French arrival for completely different reasons. 'The people are very happy because France has been the one nation that has understood the problem of Rwanda,' said Rose Mukanyangezi, 46, who used to run a secretarial office in the capital, Kigali, but who has fled the fighting there for the relative quiet of Cyangugu. As she talked, cars and motorbikes paraded up and down the dusty streets, flying French flags from antennas and handlebars.

'Of course we are happy to see the French. They came to save us from the RPF,' said Jean Katenga, a 48-year old weaver from Cyangugu, referring to the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front which resumed its war against the Hutu government after the president, Juvenal Habyarimana, died in a suspicious plane crash on 6 April.

When asked what the Hutu expected of the French, Mr Katenga replied: 'We want the French to push the RPF back to Uganda where they came from.' And if they don't? 'That will be a big problem for us because the RPF will kill us, (but) the people have confidence in the French army to save the people.'

For their part, the French have tried to straddle these opposing expectations - the Tutsis' need for protection from Hutu extremists on one hand, and the Hutus' desire for protection from the RPF on the other - by insisting that they are a completely neutral party whose sole purpose is the humanitarian protection of all refugees. But it will be difficult for the French to avoid being accused of supporting one side or the other.

The RPF leadership, which has toned down its opposition to France's involvement on condition it sticks strictly to the humanitarian mandate, still doubts Paris's motives. The RPF fears France ultimately aims to bolster the Hutu-dominated government.

Already some aid organisations are suspicious of the French because of the presence of Rwandan paramilitary troops at the Nyarushishi camp. Dozens of paramilitaries patrol the area around the camp; the refugees say the soldiers have helped to protect them from murderous incursions by the militias, but they are still an intimidating presence.

Some relief workers see parallels between the French involvement in Rwanda and the UN-backed, but American-led, humanitarian intervention in Somalia in December 1992. The humanitarian goals in Somalia became distorted as the US troops got entangled in Mogadishu's civil war. But the French intervention in Rwanda is not Operation Restore Hope. There are not thousands of troops speeding around in heavily armoured personnel carriers and Humvee jeeps. There are no large-scale efforts to disarm the population. France's Operation Turquoise is a low-key affair, perhaps better named Operation Walk Softly.

Photograph, page 10