Rwandan refugee camps `now closed'

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The Independent Online

in Nairobi

All the camps for Rwanda's internally displaced are now said to be closed after Saturday's massacre in which thousands of Hutus were killed by gunfire or trampled as they fled in panic. A spokesman for the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) said yesterday that the camps' occupants were freely returning to their homes.

Witnesses said that some were suffering from gunshot wounds while others bore injuries from machetes. Aid workers say displaced Hutus were stoned and beaten by members of the Tutsi minority as they passed through villages heading eastwards.

Kibeho camp, where Saturday's carnage took place, is now empty as are Munini and Ndagu. However, an Oxfam representative said he thought there were still people in Kamana, the fourth camp in the Gikongaro prefecture of southern Rwanda. Some 5,000 men, women and children were reported to be huddled in a sports stadium yesterday, waiting to be loaded on to trucks by Tutsi soldiers and sent home.

Until the weekend slaughter, which is being blamed on the RPA, there were some 200,000 Hutus in these camps. In the aftermath of Saturday's incident, an estimated 100,000 civilians, including sick and wounded, fled eastwards, most of them towards Butare, Rwanda's second city. It was there that some of the worst excesses of last year's butchery took place.

Most Rwandan displaced and refugees are Hutus who fled their areas last July when Tutsi-dominated rebels overthrew the largely Hutu government. Though not all Hutus were implicated in the genocide of up to half a million Tutsis, many camp residents took part in last year's savagery and now fear reprisals by Tutsi soldiers and civilians.

Kibeho camp is now said to be empty of all but 300-400 displaced Hutus who have sought refuge in a hospital run by Mdecins Sans Frontires. Thousands are reported to have been escorted out of the camp on Sunday by the RPA.

According to another report, some 600 refugees, many of them armed with rifles and grenades, were yesterday refusing to move from a nearby church compound, saying they would die before surrendering to government troops.

Aid agency workers believe that the outbreak of trouble can be traced back to last week when the RPA initiated a "cordon and search" operation. The majority of the camps' residents were rounded up for "screening" and "registration". Many were said to have been held for up to three days without adequate food or water before being allowed to leave.

"We knew something was brewing but we never expected such a tragedy," says Robert Maletta of Oxfam. "We feared an outbreak of cholera because of the terribly unsanitary conditions in which people were being forced to live. We were even afraid there might be an outbreak of violence as tension was rising between the Hutu residents and the soldiers."

Though the government is now trying to portray the camp clearing operation as an organised one, it is clear the RPA, impatient with the continuing presence of Hutu displaced, had taken matters into its own hands. "There is still a lot of trauma among Tutsis about what happened last year," says one aid worker who wishes not to be named. "On Saturday, the anger broke through the trauma."

How so many people were killed in the presence of Zambian UN troops securing the camps is not clear. One possibility is that the UN force was overwhelmed by the brutality of the RPA action.

Rwanda's government, claiming only 300 died, contends that the weekend's incidents were provoked by Hutu militiamen firing on RPA forces.