Rwandan Genocide Aftermath | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Rwandan Genocide Aftermath

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on March 6, 1995. Partner content is not updated.

Through the window of a Huey helicopter whisking above the countryside at 700 feet, the southern Rwandan countryside does not look like a hellish killing ground. The camel-hump hills are variations on green, groomed for the planting season that is just beginning.

Rwandan Genocide Aftermath

Through the window of a Huey helicopter whisking above the countryside at 700 feet, the southern Rwandan countryside does not look like a hellish killing ground. The camel-hump hills are variations on green, groomed for the planting season that is just beginning. Between the hills run equally fertile valleys and plains, and beyond are marshes and rivers that slalom southward toward Lake Tanganyika. The impression from the air is of a country draped in green felt, as if Jack Nicklaus had been given free rein to design the world's largest golf course.

By rights, the 18,000 dirt-smeared Hutu men, women and children crowded into the rancid streets of the Cyanika refugee camp in southern Rwanda should want to reclaim that farmland. Most of them arrived in Cyanika from the countryside last summer, fleeing the advances of a Tutsi-led rebel army that now controls the entire country. Under a program called Operation Return, soldiers from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) are offering them a military escort home. Meanwhile, the option of staying in Cyanika is becoming less palatable by the day. The last three-week supply of humanitarian aid was delivered on Dec. 29, and the water was cut off two weeks later. Determined to force the refugees to leave the camp and get on with the business of rebuilding their country, UNAMIR and the Rwandan government have agreed not to allow future aid deliveries.

But few of the Hutu are ready to leave. "We will be killed if we go home," complains one man, puffy-eyed, his shirt torn. Another says that when he did try to return to his village, he was threatened with arrest by soldiers of the Rwanda Patriotic Army. "I would prefer to die of hunger," he spat, "than die at the hands of the RPA." Such accounts of danger are also spread by Hutu extremists, who use intimidation to try to control the more than 1.5 million people still living in dozens of refugee camps both inside Rwanda and just across its borders in Zaïre and Tanzania.

The camps' leaders are, in many cases, the same people who instigated last April's campaign of genocide against Rwanda's Tutsi minority. That slaughter left as many as one million Rwandans dead, including thousands of moderate Hutus who resisted the call to kill. Now, the camps' residents shield the murderers from the new government - which wants to arrest the death-squad ringleaders and try them for crimes against humanity - and from enraged Tutsis bent on revenge. "The leaders in the camps hope that if they wait long enough, the former Hutu government will reconquer the country so they will not have to pay for their actions," says Capt. Arnod Siame, a Zambian army officer who is patrolling Cyanika as part of the UNAMIR mission.

The refugees' reluctance to leave Cyanika underscores the dilemma facing the international community as it struggles to end Rwanda's suffering. The UN mission is lurching towards failure, hamstrung by infighting over what to do about a nation where so many people have fled their homes. Government leaders in Kigali, a capital still awash in soldiers, are impatient to close the camps, arguing that they offer a base from which still-hostile Hutu militiamen can launch destabilizing attacks on government forces. And they want the civilians back on their farms, growing coffee, tea and other crops rather than waiting for food to be handed to them off the back of an aid truck.

Despite government denials, the United Nations believes that the Rwandan army is willing to use force to close the camps. In fact, government soldiers have already tried. On Jan. 7, the RPA raided a camp near the Burundi border in what appeared to be a clumsy attempt to root out extremists. By the time they pulled back, 13 people lay dead and 35 were injured. At the same time, humanitarian workers - including representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is responsible for the Rwandans now living in camps in Zaïre, Burundi and Tanzania - insist that it is unfair to expect Hutu refugees to return home until they are confident that they will be safe under the new Tutsi-led government.

Caught between the humanitarian agencies and the Rwandan government is a 53-year-old native of Sherbrooke, Que. - Maj.-Gen. Guy Tousignant, commander of UNAMIR, the 5,800-strong military wing of the UN mission. Since he replaced fellow Canadian Gen. Roméo Dallaire last August, Tousignant has supervised the restoration of electricity and water supplies, the treatment of thousands of sick and wounded, the training of local police officers and the transportation of more than 45,000 displaced people back home. But that reconstruction work is now threatened by the possibility of renewed violence. "The government has said it will close these camps by force," Tousignant told Maclean's in his Spartan Kigali headquarters. "This is not acceptable to us, but I cannot tell a sovereign government what to do. So I have to offer them an option."

Tousignant's alternative is to warn the people in the camps that the days of free food and water are over. If the aid is made available in their own villages, he believes, people will follow it home. "If you create a quality of life for people somewhere, even if it seems austere by Western standards, the only way to move them out is to offer them that same quality of life at home," says Tousignant. The wiry general lacks Dallaire's steely-eyed stare but none of his determination. The fear of violence is just an excuse used by Hutus who refuse to accept the new government, he argues. And the climate of fear is a product of "the creative minds" that promote what Tousignant calls "Rwandan folklore."

It is an argument rejected by most aid agencies, and it has provoked an unseemly dispute within the United Nations itself. For the United Nations, struggling to rebuild its credibility in the wake of successive failures in Bosnia and Somalia, Rwanda represents a crucial test. Somehow, it must come up with a way of resolving the world's current affliction: humanitarian disasters caused not by famine or ecological crises but by vicious regional wars.

Unfortunately, UNAMIR and the UNHCR - the two main branches of the United Nations dealing with the Rwandan crisis - have approached the problem in radically different ways. Many international aid agencies, including the UNHCR, are uncomfortable working alongside armed UN soldiers. "If you carry a weapon or wear a uniform, these aid workers don't want to have anything to do with you,' says Capt. Danielle Sweet, a 27-year-old nurse from Calgary, Alta., stationed with the Canadian Field Hospital in Rwanda. Sweet makes no secret of her own view: "Hey, I thought we were all here to do the same thing: help people."

Since the war's end last July, 151 aid organizations have swarmed into Rwanda - a country half the size of Nova Scotia - and the nightmarishly crowded refugee camps situated just across its borders. Almost half the agencies have refused even to register with the Rwandan government, and most argue - in direct contradiction of government policy - that the camps should not be closed until the refugees themselves believe it is safe to return home. "We shouldn't adopt a paternalistic approach to refugees," says Caroll Faubert, the Hull, Que., native who arrived in Kigali in mid-January as the UNHCR's special envoy to Rwanda. "They are all adults who know the local conditions and what is best for themselves. Our job is to listen and support them rather than thinking we can direct their movements. The level of aid in the camps, despite common wisdom, is not really a factor in whether people return home or not."

As Rwanda stumbles towards a possibly violent resolution to its refugee crisis, the United Nations has become a house divided. In their comfortable, guarded compounds in Kigali, aid officials openly sneer at attempts to close the camps by cutting food to refugees. UN military officials allege that some agencies, notably the UNHCR, are actively discouraging refugees from leaving the camps. They suggest that aid workers have a vested interest in keeping the camps open: the longer they exist, the more money they can raise to support their operations.

Meanwhile, Rwanda drifts to the fringes of the world's overtaxed attention. Less than a year after it witnessed one of the greatest outpourings of savagery since Pol Pot's regime slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Cambodians in the mid-1970s, Rwanda is now gone from television screens - and largely forgotten. If it comes, the next violent upheaval in this small African state will probably catch everyone looking the other way again.

The bodies of 600 to 800 people, slaughtered over two days last April in the churchyard at Nyarubuye in southeast Rwanda, have decomposed exactly where they fell. They were but a fraction of those murdered in the killing spree, and the sadistic way they died is still evident in the wounds on their skeletons. Some of the skulls have been sliced by machetes. Some bodies are cut in half. Most of the victims never had a chance to flee. They were crowded into rooms and shot en masse, dying on top of one another.

Nyarubuye is a chilling plot of earth. The tall grass partly hides some bodies; purple and yellow flowers push through other corpses. "We are going to pull the grass out with our hands to show what happened here," said a local Tutsi leader who guards the site. The new government wants to preserve Nyarubuye as a memorial. It will become a cenotaph to the genocide, a museum of the dead.

After what happened in Rwanda last year, recovery and reconciliation are proving to be very, very difficult. As Hutus fled, thousands of Tutsi refugees from a previous ethnic war and exodus in 1959 returned, taking over ownership of vacated Hutu houses. Known as "the 59ers," they followed the Tutsi army back from exile in Burundi and Uganda. Many Hutu refugees who have braved the trip home from the camps have discovered their houses occupied by Tutsis, who refuse to leave.

Rwanda desperately needs a functioning justice system to handle the claims and counter-claims on homes and property. It also needs a civilian police force to ensure that suspected Hutu killers are arrested and tried for their crimes rather than being lynched by angry mobs. And it needs to begin reviewing the evidence of war crimes in order to bring proper charges against - or else release - the suspects who are now languishing in Kigali's filthy, inhumanly crowded jails. This month, lawyers working for an international tribunal are expected to arrive to begin investigating allegations of genocide. "We want the tribunal installed and the criminals judged before we return home," says Wallace Gasasira, 26, a strapping Hutu electrician now living in the Cyanika camp. "Yes, there are guilty people here. But there are also innocent ones in jail."

Sorting through the aims and counterclaims will not be easy. Nor is it a problem for Rwanda alone. Acting on complaints from the United Nations and several independent human rights groups, Canadian immigration officers last week arrested a former Rwandan official at his apartment in Quebec City, where he has been living in voluntary exile. Leon Mugesera, 42, is accused of exhorting his fellow Hutus to kill Tutsis and dump their bodies in Rwanda's rivers. Mugesera - who left his native land eight months before the bloodbath began - will be held in a Montreal detention centre while authorities decide whether there is enough evidence to deport him.

For its part, the Tutsi-dominated government in Kigali recognizes that it must bring stability to the country. But it, too, faces formidable obstacles. Although the RPA is widely regarded as a disciplined army by African standards, its soldiers are becoming jumpier. Last month, the government was forced to close Kigali with roadblocks for a day to hunt for deserters and soldiers who were using army weapons to steal from civilians.

Meanwhile, Rwanda's neighbors are running out of patience with the refugees. One possible solution, now under consideration by the UN Security Council, is for the Zaïrese and Tanzanian armies to weed out Hutu extremists from peaceful civilians. But the humanitarian agencies paint doomsday scenarios should armed troops enter the camps. "Look at Somalia," said the UNHCR's Faubert. "There were 28,000 troops to arrest a few leaders, and you know what happened." The military planners at UNAMIR are aware of the risks, but believe something must be done. "We are trying to find a happy middle ground between the present stalemate - where nobody is moving from the camps - and the other extreme where the camps get closed by force," said Canadian Capt. Stephane Grenier, UNAMIR's spokesman. "We don't have the miracle solution, but what's happening now is clearly not working."

To avoid another round of violence, the United Nations must find a way to harmonize its operations in Rwanda. The justice system inside the country must be restored. And the camps must slowly and peacefully be wound down before they become festering sores on the border. It is unfair to expect the United Nations to "solve" every regional crisis. But unless it can resolve its own civil war, this mission will become yet another blow to the un's battered prestige. Inevitably, the people of Rwanda will pay the greatest price.

Maclean's March 6, 1995