Home is where the fear is

Time is running out for Rwanda's Hutu refugees
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The Independent Online
THEIR place of worship is a patch of open ground just across the road from the sprawling Mugunga refugee camp. From chunks of black volcanic rock they have constructed rows of pews resembling little stone walls, and an altar on which is laid a cardboard box.

The box, marked with the words "High energy and protein-enriched famine relief biscuits", contains prayer-books, a white altar cloth and two silver chalices. The congregation is mostly made up of brightly dressed women and barefoot children who sing heartily when the pastor - looking somewhat funereal in his monochrome suit and tie - raises his arms to conduct the hymns.

After Communion, a collection basket is handed around. Then the faithful file out, singing.

The New Apostolic Church (founded in England and Scotland in 1832) is one of dozens of churches attended by the Rwandan refugees encamped in eastern Zaire. Most of the refugees - more than a million in Zaire alone - are Christians, and they carried their faith with them when they poured across the border nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

Some might find their religious devotion at variance with their reputation. These people are among those widely held responsible for the genocide of more than half a million of their countrymen in Rwanda last year. Mostly Hutus, they fled ahead of the victorious advance of a largely Tutsi rebel force which, soon after the killings began, relaunched its war against the then Hutu-dominated government.

It is to this recent and bloody history that the minds of many New Apostolic Church members will surely turn when they hear the text their elders have chosen for Christmas Day. It is the passage from Matthew which re- counts the arrival in Jerusalem of the Three Wise Men, come to worship the Christ-child:

"When King Herod learned of this, he was troubled and afraid, and all Jerusalem with him. He feared for his throne as the inhabitants feared the inevitable spilling of blood which would occur if he were overthrown. The future threatened murder, revolt and war. Thinking of the difficult days ahead, the people were stricken with anguish."

It was the murder of Rwanda's former leader, President Juvenal Habyarimana, last April which set off the bloodbath in the central African state. During the succeeding three months, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by rampaging gangs of machete-wielding thugs.

The killings were only brought to an end as Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels swept south through the countryside, driving before them the Rwandan army and the Hutu murder squads. Among the hordes of Hutus who sought refuge in Zaire and other neighbouring countries were most of the killers.

However, for the elders of the New Apostolic Church, it is they - and not the Tutsis - who are the real victims. They do not deny that killing took place: it was "the work of Satan". But they cannot accept there was a genocide or that Tutsis suffered any more than they did.

"Genocide is too strong a word for what happened," said Oscar Rochereau, the choir leader and a former student in the Rwandan town of Gisenyi. "That's just RPF propaganda. There was a war in which both Hutus and Tutsis were killed.There were massacres on both sides and it was the RPF which started the killing."

As the elders contemplate their second Christmas in Goma and yet another year in exile, their thoughts are increasingly gloomy. They would once have slaughtered a pig or a goat for Christmas. Tomorrow they will make do with their usual relief supply of beans and maize, supplemented for the occasion by home-brewed banana beer.

"We want to go back to Rwanda," said middle-aged Simon Mwunguzi, who was a money-changer in his former life, "but we cannot return until it's safe. There's no justice there any more. We could be killed or thrown into prison if we went now. We will stay in the camps for as long as we have to. We will leave when it's God's will."

The number of refugees returning to Rwanda has in recent weeks dwindled to a trickle. Reports of executions, persecution and arbitrary arrests have convinced most that no matter how miserable life in the camps is, repatriation is more dangerous.

Uwamariya, a gaudily dressed woman with 10 children, is typical of the few who decide to return. The other day she took some belongings and six of her offspring on to a bus belonging to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She explained why she was going back.

"We're fed up in the camp, we don't want to be here any longer. But we've no idea if it's safe to go back. I don't even know if we have a house any longer. So my husband decided that I would go and see how it is. If it's all right, he'll come and join us with the other children. If it's bad, we'll just go back to the camp."

President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, in whose country most of the refugees shelter, had set an end-of-year deadline for their repatriation, forcible if necessary. He has recently withdrawn the deadline in an effort to bolster his tarnished international reputation, although security advisers for the relief effort in Goma believe Zaire could still initiate a "symbolic" repatriation of hundreds during the week.

The congregation of the New Apostolic Church might find special significance in the words of Matthew they will hear tomorrow: "Amongst us are those who have been waiting for the coming of the Lord for many years and who could justly ask: Will it be much longer?"

The longer the refugees wait,the more despondent they grow. Whatever their hopes for divine direction, they know they will have to contend with the very earthly concerns of the Rwandan government. Primary among these is that the perpetrators of the genocide be punished. Unfortunately, the more time elapses, the less clear becomes the distinction between sinner and sinned against.