Rwanda: ruins, remains, revenge

By Kathy Chenault

Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Published Feb. 6, 1995

KIGALI, Rwanda – In villages and towns across Rwanda, genocide survivors sift through mass graves looking for remains of loved ones.

The turn of a spade reveals a familiar necklace, the first proof for one woman that her mother was in piles of mangled bodies covered with earth. Clothing on a decomposing body confirms another woman’s worst fears about her husband. She had been burning candles in the window of her home every night, hoping he would return.

Massacre victims are being dug up and given proper burials. With them, Rwanda is trying to bury its past so it can rebuild from the ruins of civil war and ethnic hatred that killed more than 500,000 people last year.

There are signs of recovery.

Peasants tend tea plots scratched into rugged hillsides. Kigali residents clip grass along roadsides. Limited water, telephone and electrical services have been restored in the largest cities.

But threats and problems from inside and outside Rwanda endanger the recovery effort, ensuring it will be a long process with uncertain prospects for success.

From exile in Zaire, accused masterminds of the carnage plot ways to undermine Rwanda’s new government. Former militiamen threaten violence against refugees who want to return home.

And the new government in Kigali, left bankrupt by the fallen regime, needs to repair war-damaged roads and buildings, restore postal service, restart the economy and instill confidence that a fledgling judiciary can bring those responsible for genocide to justice.

For most Rwandans, retribution must precede reconciliation.

“An entire population here does not want peace more than it wants vengeance right now,” says Leslie McTyre, a UNICEF official in Kigali who has helped organize the burials.

The United Nations has asked for $1.5 bullion in assistance for Rwanda, warning that without such aid the Tutsi-led government will be unable to prevent chaos.

But without steps toward unity, international investors, developers and donors are hesitant to send large amounts to Rwanda.

“The long-term requirement for peace and development is reconciliation,” said Sammy Buo, a U.N. political adviser in Rwanda.

Mr. McTyre, who is involved in UNICEF’s trauma counseling program, said the obstacles blocking recovery go beyond the desire for revenge.

“Everyone is talking about justice and forgiveness. I don’t think it starts with justice or reconciliation. It starts with remorse,” he said. “After 35 years of racist, fascist dictatorship, there is no moral base or value system people can go back to.”

Instead, the ousted Hutu leaders blamed for the genocide are intent on destabilizing the new government. Instead of reconciliation, some renegade soldiers in the new Tutsi-dominated military are bent on avenging the massacres that mostly targeted Tutsis.

“After 35 years of racist, fascist dictatorship, there is no moral base or value system people can go back to.”– Leslie McTyre, UNICEF official

In early January, soldiers opened fire on a camp of displaced people near the Burundi border in southwest Rwanda, killing 13 and injuring 36. Vice President Paul Kagame told U.N. officials that three officers were arrested and face court-martial.

Meanwhile, members of the former Hutu-led military are suspected of launching a well-organized insurgency into southwestern Rwanda, said Maj. Gen. Guy Tousignant, U.N. military commander in Kigali.

Joel Boutroue, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Goma, Zaire, said he has no proof but believes that former soldiers and militiamen are staging raids from there into northwest Rwanda. A few bodies of Rwandans are found each week along the border, but it is unclear who killed them, Mr. Boutroue said.

Mr. Buo said no matter how much help Rwanda gets, reconciliation will be illusory as long as former Hutu leaders in exile continue spreading hate propaganda.

“They have shown no remorse. They only continue to fan the flames of hate,” he said.

In Goma, one former leader accused by the human rights group African Watch of orchestrating the killing rampages offers no apologies and blames the victims for the genocide, saying the Tutsis started the war.

Matthieu Ngirumpatse, president of the now banned former ruling party, also said he doesn’t fear an international war crimes tribunal for Rwanda.

“But it should be in a neutral country so we are not killed in jail. We should have a very good and neutral magistrate. We are not afraid,” Mr. Ngirumpatse said. “We also have something to say.”

He said the government in exile has no plans for a military push into Rwanda, but hinted small-scale attacks could be a way to force compromise.

“If the refugees are strong enough to cross the border and control two districts, they (the government) will forget about that court,” Mr. Ngirumpatse said, referring to the international tribunal.

Most Rwandans have more basic concerns.

In Kigali’s central market, a 64-year-old woman selling rice and flour worries she hasn’t made enough money to feed the nine grandchildren she has cared for since seven of her eight children were killed.

Epiphanie Mukarukaka also fears that the killing will resume.

“Killers from other towns came here, and we must live with them,” she said. “I am afraid the genocide will return.”

She says she only hopes that “our leaders or even God will give them a punishment they deserve.”

Justice Minister Alphonse Marie Nkubito vows to bring all of the perpetrators to justice, a mammoth task for his ill-equipped staff. His ministry has only one vehicle for investigations. Typewriters are scarce; trained personnel are even scarcer.

Suspects are crammed into antiquated, putrid prisons and detained indefinitely while awaiting formal charges. Todd Howland, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights official, said it would take at least six to eight months and an estimated $10 million to complete the investigations and begin legal proceedings against those already arrested.

Epiphine Mukaruka, 64, says she hopes “our leaders or even God will give them (the killers) a punishment they deserve.”

In all, about 16,000 people are imprisoned in Rwanda. Mr. Nkubito says he expects more than 30,000 people to eventually stand trial for participating in the bloodletting.

At Kigali prison, 6,182 people are packed into brick buildings and courtyards intended to hold 2,000. With little room to move, most just stand shoulder to shoulder in bright pink or orange prison uniforms. Others, mostly teenage boys clad only in underwear, are wedged three or four to a bunk in filthy rooms.

From prisoner to prisoner, there are stories of false arrest. Mr. Nkubito acknowledges some may be wrongly accused but says it is only a few. Some government officials, however, told U.N. human rights officials that as many as 20 percent of the prisoners may be innocent.

Relief workers and U.N. officials say although the indefinite detentions violate human rights, the government has little alternative because it lacks money and staff to complete investigations. Safeguarding prisoners’ rights is a concern for international agencies, but it is not a priority.

Red Cross spokesman Gian Luca Thorimbert said of the prisons: “Compared with other countries, here it is a catastrophe.”

But he added: “You cannot pressure the government to not make arrests. There was a genocide that justifies the search.”

Mr. Nkubito’s determination indicates that no amount of pressure would affect his work anyway.

“The government will continue putting people in prison up to the last person,” he said.


Kathy Chenault is a free-lance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.


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