Fear keeps 2 million Rwandans in camps

Despite intimidation, elderly farmers are among the few leaving Goma for an uncertain future. David Orr reports

Gaspard Gafaranga and his family's departure from Goma was accomplished with a little more ceremony than their arrival last summer. Then they were part of a shapeless, surging tide of panic-stricken humanity fleeing neighbouring Rwanda on foot as Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels advanced to victory.

When they recrossed the border the other day, they went in one of half a dozen lorries taking some 300 Rwandans home. The convoy, organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was escorted by Zairean soldiers in neat, mustard uniforms.

Sitting beside Mr Gafaranga in the lorry were his heavily pregnant wife and their five children. The only possessions they seemed to be taking out of Mugunga refugee camp were a radio and an oil lamp. "We're going back because we did no wrong and we've nothing to be afraid of," Mr Gafaranga, a Hutu peasant farmer from north-western Rwanda, said. "Life in the camps is very difficult. I know there's some insecurity in Rwanda and I've heard that some people going home are finding their houses have been occupied. But I don't believe all the stories of attacks against people who go back."

Not all those in the seven camps around Goma are as positive and hopeful. At least 100,000 have gone back since July but, in recent weeks, the number of Rwandans returning has slowed to a trickle.

"We used to see hundreds going back every day," says Mike Phelps of UNHCR. "Now it's more like dozens. Those returning are mostly illiterate farmers, quite a few of them elderly. Hardly any young men go home."

Hopes that the camps would soon close have long since foundered. A year after Rwanda's descent into anarchy, there are still more than 2 million - almost exclusively Hutus - living outside their country; 1 million are in eastern Zaire. The main deterrent to repatriation is intimidation by hardline Hutu leaders fearful of losing their "constituencies" and power bases.

Mr Gafaranga confirmed that the "chiefs" in Mugunga tried to stop him going back. According to the UNHCR, such cases of intimidation have been increasing in recent weeks. Clandestine radio broadcasts from one camp have been advising refugees it is unsafe.

There are also widespread rumours in the camps of a worsening security situation inside Rwanda. A recent Overseas Development Administration mission from Britain concludes: "Inside Rwanda, security has deteriorated in past weeks and confirmed reports of arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment are causing increasing concern."

In camps near Goma, rumours of revenge attacks on returning Hutus are spreading like wildfire, fanned by tales from a growing number of refugees who are doubling back into Zaire. The UNHCR estimates 70-80 a day have gone back to Kibumba camp alone.

"I went home to Byumba [in northern Rwanda] with my family in January", Jean Sakufi, a Hutu living in Kibumba, says. "When we arrived we heard my mother-in-law had been killed by Inkotanyi [RPF soldiers] so we came back to Zaire. We're not going home again until our safety has been guaranteed by the international organisations working here."

Such stories, true or false, serve the darker purposes of hardline Hutu leaders bent on preventing refugees from returning to the new order. The authorities in Rwanda are pursuing those believed responsible for last year's genocide of half a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates. Prisons in the capital, Kigali, and elsewhere are overflowing with as many as 29,000 detainees, and new detention centres are having to be built.

However, the human rights organisation Africa Rights insists the arrests are far from arbitrary, and says the guilty are not being pursued with sufficient vigour. Rakiya Omar, assessing developments for the organisation, says the perception of a breakdown in law and order arises because Rwanda's judicial system has collapsed and the government has insufficient resources to prosecute the guilty.

Among those sought for crimes against humanity in Rwanda are an unknown number of Hutu militia members who have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. African Rights says many leaders of the genocide are in the employ of international aid agencies in camps around Goma and elsewhere. But walking among the sea of faces in the camps, it is impossible to tell who is a murderer and who an innocent peasant farmer.

In this isolated and mountainous region truth has become as insubstantial as the mist that drifts down from the volcano tops and the wood smoke that swirls over the sprawling encampments at dusk.

Many deny there are killers in their midst or that any genocide happened. Here history has been reconfigured; it is Hutus who are the hapless victims of Tutsi persecution.

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