Rwanda's Jails Burst And Hatreds Simmer Since Ethnic Violence

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A YEAR after one of this century's worst ethnic genocides swept through Rwanda, killing an estimated 500,000 people, the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has restored a semblance of normalcy to the country.

Schools have swiftly reopened, the capital Kigali is functioning again, markets are thriving, and thousands of war victims are being exhumed from mass graves and reburied with dignity and religious services.

And the international community, which was paralyzed while the killings took place, pledged a total of $577 million in aid in Geneva in January to help stabilize the new government.

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But that is where the good news stops.

Reconciliation between the warring Hutus and Tutsis is elusive, and experts fear that more ethnic killing could destabilize the rest of central Africa.

Reminders of the massacres haunt this tiny, hilly country -- from mass graves to devastated villages. Hutu officials fled with virtually all state funds, usable vehicles, and equipment. And many judges and prosecutors were killed.

Overcrowded jails

Some 27,000 people languish untried for genocide allegations in overcrowded, inhumane jails that resemble concentration camps.

Kigali Central Prison is a prime breeding ground for more hatred and revenge. More than 7,500 Hutu prisoners, many wrongly accused of genocide, are crammed into a jail built for 750. Last month, 20 suffocated in an overcrowded police cell awaiting imprisonment. [United Nations human rights officials say an estimated 250 to 300 inmates in Rwanda are dying every month, Reuters reports.]

''Reconciliation? Not now. We will never forget that we were in prison for six months,'' says Joseph-Desire Muhiganda, a former environment and tourism deputy minister. ''In 10 or 20 years this action will come back to haunt us,'' he adds.

Like many prisoners, he claims he was jailed unfairly on genocide charges because someone wanted his house. Many of the 300,000 Tutsis who returned with the RPF from decades of exile have seized the property of Hutus who fled in July, occupying unlawfully some 60 percent of Kigali houses.

Day of mourning

Reprisal killings, looting, and disappearances are being perpetrated by the previously disciplined RPF, which regained power last August. With a lack of policemen, RPF soldiers assume the role of lawmaker, and arrests are often made on the basis of false denunciations, diplomats say.

[Trials for those accused of the genocide are to begin April 6, according to Rwandan radio.

[Justice Minister Alphonse-Marie Nkubito said the trials will be held in Kigali, ''where we have some cast-iron cases,'' the radio report said Sunday. It was monitored by the British Broadcasting Corp.

[Rwanda's new government has declared April 6 -- the first anniversary of the death of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana in a still-unexplained plane crash -- as a national day of mourning for victims of the genocide.]

Olivier Coutau, local coordinator of detention for the International Committee for the Red Cross, says that on average, 1,000 prisoners have been arrested each week nationwide for the past few months. The only humane response would be to open camps, he says: ''If the problem of overcrowding is not solved, it will be difficult to avoid a catastrophe.''

Shaharyar Khan, special UN representative in Rwanda, told the Monitor that probably 40 percent of the prisoners in Rwandan jails could qualify for remand. Otherwise, it would take five years to try them all, he says.

On the surface, Rwanda's carnage seems illogical. The Hutus and Tutsis have similar cultures and speak the same language.

But the majority Hutus built up resentment against the 15 percent minority Tutsis who enjoyed more privileges under Belgian colonial rule.

The Hutus got their revenge in 1959: A cycle of slaughter and exodus began for the Tutsis. The 1993 Arusha Peace Accords envisaged elections, but hopes were dashed when President Habyarimana was killed and the extremist Interahamwe (those who kill as one) militia launched their killing spree.

Over the next three months, Tutsis and moderate Hutus were systematically slaughtered by soldiers and civilian militias, directed by the Hutu-dominated government. That government was ousted by Tutsi-led rebels in July.

Slow justice

Forgiveness does not come easily for Tutsi survivors, who demand justice.

A reburial of 12,000 victims in the town of Kaduha earlier this month gave little comfort to relatives surveying a mound of skeletons. ''Why are the killers still free?'' demanded one distraught man.

''There is deep frustration that the process of justice is slow in getting off the ground. Reconciliation is going to be very difficult, it may take a long time,'' says Mr. Khan.

The international community needs to step in, concludes a report by the US-based Human Rights Watch. ''The international community has continued to be paralyzed and ineffective, unwilling to put up the resources needed to avert further war, to bring the guilty to justice, or to protect human rights in Rwanda,'' the report states.

Richard Goldstone, the South African judge presiding over Yugoslavia war-crimes trials, will head Rwanda's international tribunal. Expected to begin work this year in Tanzania, the tribunal was set up by the UN to try perpetrators of genocide.

The first indictments, expected at the end of the year, will only be of at most 50 to 100 ''big fish.'' Lacking a budget and staff, Mr. Goldstone's assistants were seeking international funds earlier this month.

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