No one knows what sparked the. mayhem. It may have been a desperate attempt by some Hutu refugees to break through the cordon of Rwandan troops surrounding the Kibeho camp, as the military vise tightened and the 80,000 men, women and children were herded closer and closer together. Some armed Hutus within the camp may have actually fired on the army first. Or it might have even been the rain, one of those torrential Rwandan storms, that started just before noon and sent a collective shiver through the crowd. Shifting en masse, searching for comfort amidst the jammed, fetid conditions of the camp, they may have simply frightened the already jittery troops.
What is clear is that over the next few hours a slaughter ensued: death by bullets and mortar shrapnel, by machetes and bayonets, and by suffocation under the trampling feet of those who fled. ‘You just couldn’t crush 80,000 people together any tighter than those people were,” said Canadian Lieut. Kent Page, who was trapped in the Kibeho refugee centre with about 40 Zambian soldiers under United Nations command. “People were screaming and crawling through the barbed wire trying to get into our compound and away from the shooting and the crush. When we left the camp, they had to clear the bodies out of the way so our vehicle could get through, and you could see that most of the people had suffocated.”
There followed an unseemly dispute over how many people died. First reports suggested that 8,000 may have been killed.
Then the UN Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) said its soldiers had counted 4,050 bodies, before revising the count down to “about 2,000 and possibly less” after the Tutsi-led Rwandan government argued that “only”
300 Hutu had died. But the true casualty may be Rwanda itself. The international community, exposed again to televised images of savagery, is now more likely than ever to turn away from the country whose name has become a metaphor for mass murder and hopeless causes.
Indeed, there were swift repercussions.
The Dutch government immediately suspended $42 million of financial aid to Rwanda; within days the European Union froze all its nonhumanitarian assistance, worth $250 million. Ottawa simply condemned the killings—and sent its special ambassador for central African refugee problems, Bernard Dussault, to investigate the attack. But the preponderant international attitude was reflected by The New York Times, which intoned that until Rwandans themselves got their act together, “there is little that others can do.”
And Rwanda’s prospects appear dismal. Most of the population remains traumatized by memories of last year’s ethnic massacre that
was incited by Hutu extremists. It left more than 800,000 Rwandans dead and barely a family untouched by horror and fear. “It’s an angrier country now than it was six months ago,” said Lucie Edwards, Canada’s high commissioner to Kenya, who also oversees Rwanda. Edwards recalled that the mood at a public service in Rwanda last November had been mournful but peaceful, in contrast to the bitter speeches on April 6 marking the first anniversary of the war’s beginning. The United Nations has given up, for the moment at least, any hope of returning the 1.2 million Hutu exiles, now scraping out an existence in refugee camps on the side of a volcano in Zaire, to their Rwandan homes. Most fear what may await them: hostility from vengeful Tutsi neighbors or the prospect of being incarcerated under
Rwanda reels as soldiers massacre refugees
medieval jail conditions as suspected war criminals. Thousands of other Hutus are already stuffed into cramped jails in Rwanda awaiting trial. So far, six have been to court.
The violence in Kibeho will only reinforce the reluctance of refugees and internally displaced Rwandans to return home. The remaining camps are controlled by the interahamwe, or Hutu death squads who use rumor-mongering and intimidation to keep their fellow Hutu civilians from leaving. The camps provide them with cover against arrest, and a base from which to rebuild their army in order to resume the ethnic war. Now, they simply have to point to the slaugh-
ter at Kibeho as evidence that the Tutsi government will not protect Hutus. There were reports last week that some of the tens of thousands of mud-caked Hutus forced from the Rwandan camps had been killed, spat upon, beaten or jailed by Tutsis as they moved along sodden roads through the hilly central African country.
The Rwandan government has long been particularly sensitive about Kibeho. It was one of dozens of camps established by French troops last summer in Rwanda’s southwest region as a haven for Hutus fleeing the advancing Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). Since taking control of the country last July, the RPA has been intent on getting the Hutu refugees to stop taking foreign aid, return home, and begin the process of reconciliation and rebuilding. They also considered the camps a security threat, and Kibeho had always been a haven for members of the interahamwe.
The UN shared those fears. Its mandate includes protecting civilians in the camps, so last Dec. 14, as the sun came up, 1,500 UN troops raided the Kibeho camp to try to disarm the interahamwe. UNAMIR confiscated more than 1,000 weapons, mostly machetes, knives and axes, but some officials expressed concern that the Hutu extremists had been tipped in advance about the raid. Although the weapons haul was regarded internally at UNAMIR as a failure, UN Special Representative Shaharyar Khan felt it necessary to declare that “the camps have been cleansed of the intimidatory influence of the extremists.”
Throughout the winter, the Rwandan government allowed UNAMIR—a 5,200-member force that includes 120 Canadians and is commanded by Canadian Maj.-Gen. Guy Tousignant—to try coaxing the Hutus out of the camps, first with words, then by slowly cutting off aid and services. Some of the camps did close. But by late March, the Rwandan army finally stepped in to shutter the dozens of camps where the UN methods had failed. Using the technique of squeezing the population off the hillsides and into areas with minimal food or water, the soldiers were able to engineer an exodus of about 200,000 Hutu refugees. Through April, they closed all the major camps inside Rwanda but one—Kibeho, where the most militant
Hutus had fled with their weapons to make a last stand. While the other camps were disappearing, Kibeho’s population had swollen threeor four-fold, to about 80,000.
On April 22, the RPA surrounded the camp, pushing the refugees off its five hillsides, penning them in the camp’s centre. International aid agencies and human rights observers now argue that the UN should have anticipated trouble and sent heavily armed reinforcements to Kibeho to protect the refugees. But UNAMIR officials insist that they had no advance warning of the Kibeho operation. And once it began, they were barred from reinforcing or replacing the 40 Zambian UN troops already in the camp. “How can 40 guys in the middle of 80,000 screaming people, who are being fired on by hundreds of soldiers you can even see, be expected to stop the killing?” demanded Lieut. Page, who witnessed the first RPA attack on the refugees.
To Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, the UN’s inability to prevent bloodshed was a sign that UNAMIR needs more troops. “The existing contingent in Rwanda isn’t able to do much in these sorts of circumstances,” he told reporters two days after the attack. But Ouellet was not offering any more Canadian peacekeepers. And earlier this year, all 60 countries approached by the UN turned down a plea for troops to help clear the refugee camps in neighboring Zaire. Even so, the UN’s problem is seldom the lack of firepower, but rather the willingness to use it. “In Iraq, where there was political will, the sky was the limit and money was no object,” said Rowland Roome, director of CARE International in Rwanda, referring to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “In this case, ifs viewed as an African problem—ifs not in the international interest.”
There is little doubt that the UN’s in£ ability to prevent the Kibeho massacre i has damaged its credibility, both in« side Rwanda and out. Dependent upon g permission from the Rwandan govem* ment to renew its mission this May, UN officials appeared determined not to offend their hosts. As a result, some of their public statements have stretched credulity—from Khan’s boast that Kibeho was free of extremists last December, to the ever-changing body count last week.
Still, while cutting off aid to the Rwandan government as punishment for the Kibeho massacre may satisfy the moral outrage of donor countries, it will likely worsen Rwanda’s plight. Although the European Union said that it would continue to provide emergency humanitarian aid, it is exactly that type of aid that sustained camps like Kibeho. “I do not find any justification for anyone to feed criminals,” Maj.-Gen. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s most powerful official, told Western journalists last week. Instead, Rwanda clearly needs funding and assistance to rebuild its infrastructure and, most importantly, its police force and justice system in order to limit vigilante reprisals and allow some tentative steps towards reconciliation.
In an interview last week, Canada’s Edwards recalled her recent discussion in Kigali with Alphonse-Marie Nkubito, Rwanda’s respected justice minister, on the subject of the thousands of prisoners in grossly overcrowded jails awaiting trial for genocide. “I asked him: ‘Can’t you at least get the four-year-olds out?’ ” she recounted. “ ‘Can’t you get those under 12 out, and the pregnant women out?’ And he told me: ‘If we let them go, they will all just be killed when they get home.’ ” It was a sobering statement, grounded in realism. Rwandans, especially the shattered Tutsi population, have travelled through such a horrifying netherworld in the past year that the international community should perhaps not be so surprised when, on occasion, they slide back into the grip of fear, hysteria and vengeance. □
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