Thousands of Rwandans 'forced to destroy homes'

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The Rwandan government has forced tens of thousands of people to destroy their homes in an ill-conceived plan to reorganise rural life, a human rights organisation claims today.

Members of the minority Tutsi people ­ who were the target of genocide in 1994 ­ and the majority Hutu ethnic group, have been victims of the radical policy. Many families have been living for more than a year in shelters made out of tree limbs, banana leaves and pieces of plastic, according to a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Aid given by international donors to help refugees returning after the genocide has been used by Rwanda in the controversial resettlement plan, apparently with the donors' knowledge.

Human Rights Watch said the donors realised very quickly that rural-dwellers, who make up 90 per cent of the population, had been forced to leave their homes against their will.

After the genocide, the new Tutsi-led Rwandan government began resettling hundreds of thousands of refugees ­ requiring rural-dwellers ­ to move from their dispersed homesteads on to government-designated sites, called imidugudu. The intention was to speed up economic development, boost agricultural production and reduce the risk of insurgencies.

Farmers had to cede land to returnees and those connected to the political or military elite, according to Alison des Forges, the senior adviser to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. She said: "The government took a very ideological approach and implemented a top-down reorganisation of the people. Now they lack the resources to build new houses." She claims that aid came from the American, Japanese, Dutch and Canadian governments, the EU and the United Nations refugee protection agency.

"This report will serve as a caution to the donors: look at the human rights consequences or any land reforms that they are asking you to finance,"she said.

The Rwandan ambassador to Britain, Rosemary Museminali, yesterday dismissed the charges as "totally untrue". She said: "The government policy is to get people living in a more organised way. People only move out of their homes if they are broken and have not been repaired. They [Human Rights Watch] don't understand what they are talking about."

She said no one was forced to move without accommodation being provided, or materials for them to build with. To the charge that only those with connections to the military or the authorities were ceded land, she said: "This cannot be right. Anyone living in Rwanda now will tell you that this would not be possible without an outcry."

She said the scheme intended to bring people together, provide hospitals and schools and ease access to food and water.

* Rwanda accused the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday of sponsoring a recent wave of cross-border rebel attacks in an attempt to push the vast country's war on to its neighbours' turf.

The Rwandan army says it has killed more than 400 insurgents since ethnic Hutu rebels based in the Congo stepped up their raids in mid-May. Rebel activity has also intensified in neighbouring Burundi.

Patrick Mazimhaka, a special envoy for the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, said Congo had armed and supplied the rebels. The Congolese President, Joseph Kabila, denies arming the rebels.