Rwanda: RPF men try to calm fears of returning Hutus: Tide of refugees swells as people in camps, spurred by cholera fears, ignore leaders' advice and start trek home

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The Independent Online
THE officers of the Rwandese Patriotic Front stand around the white customs house at the Gisenyi border crossing and watch the daily procession of Hutu refugees returning home with muted enthusiasm. They are happy to see the people coming back to their country, but they also know that after years of propaganda and hate indoctrination there is a lot of work ahead of them if they want to reverse the damage.

Nodding towards the stream of returning Hutus, 2nd Lt David Kamari, of the RPF immigration department, said: 'They have a right to return to this country like every other Rwandan. We have been refugees and we know what it is like to miss home'.

For their part, the Hutus slink past the RPF, avoiding eye contact with the soldiers and try to hide their fear of the rebel army that they have been led to believe would kill them at the first opportunity.

The RPF has always been a mainly Tutsi army and was never viewed by the Hutus as a liberating force. But as thousands of Rwandan refugees, tired of disease and death in Zaire, are disregarding the advice of the former extremist Hutu leaders and going home, the question is what can Hutus expect when they return?

Despite the arrogance of RPF soldiers, there have been no visible attempts by the RPF to take advantage of the refugees, and no confirmation whatsoever of the rumours being spread around camps in Zaire that the RPF has been killing returning Hutus.

The RPF is renowned for its discipline and its smooth public-relations style. Usually courteous, RPF officials can be aloof and difficult. Little is known of their future plans for Rwanda. They talk of reconciliation but insist on bringing the perpetrators of one of the century's worst cases of genocide to justice. Their ideology, vaguely Marxist, is also something of a mystery.

Officials of relief organisations who have worked with the RPF during the war describe RPF officials as 'control freaks'. And there is a lack of total trust in the RPF in its eventual political aims. A senior relief official in Zaire said: 'Whatever the great intentions of this RPF government - and they may indeed be good intentions - history says otherwise. Hutus and Tutsis have been slaughtering each other for decades'.

There are no plans to weed out the killers from the returning refugees at the border. 'Those who return will be judged by their neighbours,' said Lt Kamari. 'We know that if a person goes back to his village, people will say if he was a good man or a bad man and local authorities will deal with it.'

Considering that most of the massacres in Rwanda were carried out by neighbours against neighbours, the likelihood of such an approach being used by victims of Hutu attacks as a carte blanche to seek revenge against both innocent and guilty Hutus is worrying.

But perhaps most controversial of all the RPF's plans is its programme for 'political re-education'. The phrase smacks of Khmer Rouge political-speak and recalls the fact that the French military, which backed the former Hutu government, referred to the RPF as the Khmer Noir and its military commander, Major General Paul Kagame, as an African Pol Pot.

While the RPF has promised that all except the master architects of the massacres of an estimated 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus will get a welcome home, everyone will be subject to re-education.

'Most of the people who killed were not bad. They were used as tools. For the most of people involved in the killing it is a matter of showing them the right way,' said Lt Faustin Kaliisa, an officer from the RPF's political department who commands the forces around Gisenyi. 'Political re-education is necessary because we believe that all of this rubbish that happened in Rwanda was because of a lack of political clarity.'

When asked how the RPF was going to carry out its programme, Lt Kaliisa said the government was considering occasional seminars for peasants and regular formal classes for the more educated. Soldiers from the former Rwandan army would be welcomed back but would be expected to enrol in military political schools.

An international aid worker said: 'As far as I am concerned, we are talking about Khmer Rouge type people. They indoctrinate youth and talk in political-speak. Maybe we have been expecting too much of people who have suffered so much.'

The RPF is composed mainly of Tutsis who fled a 1959-1963 rebellion, which ended their aristocratic rule over Rwanda and installed a Hutu-dominated regime. At least 100,000 Tutsis were killed in the uprising and another 200,000 driven into exile in Uganda, where they were persecuted and scapegoated by a succession of governments.

Today, most of the RPF officer class is still almost exclusively Tutsi and most of them were born and raised in Uganda. Many of them do not speak French, Rwanda's national language, and do not know their country.

The regional track record of exclusive ethnic officer corps and armies is less than sterling. In neighouring Burundi, the Tutsis have used domination of the army to maintain their grip on power. They have shown time after time that they are quite willing to use force to suppress Hutus at the merest hint of an uprising.

General Kagame, now Rwanda's Vice-President and Defence Minister, has always denied that he was fighting for a return to Tutsi domination in Rwanda. He has always maintained that he was a genuine revolutionary and anti- feudal fighter.

Lt Kaliisa agrees. 'We have always been fighting for reconciliation, not revenge.'

(Photograph omitted)

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