That Goldilocks Feeling Hits Tutsis in Rwanda

Hutus who fled in 1994 now want their old homes back

Jean-Marie Vianey returned to his village last Sunday after a 2-1/2-year absence in Zaire to find Mukangabo Mujimimana and her family eating their evening meal in his home.

The sight was disappointing for Mr. Vianey, who walked barefoot for 18 days with half-a-million other Hutu refugees looking forward to finally end their diaspora.

The Mukangabos, who are Tutsis, begged to remain in the house until they could find alternative accommodations.

Mr. Vianey agreed to give them a week. The two families now cohabit the property in delicate harmony - a surprising arrangement for a country best known for ethnic cleansing.

"I dreamt every night I was away about the day I would reclaim my house," Mr. Vianey says. "But I cannot kick these people out just like that."

Says Mrs. Mukangabo, only half joking: "I've asked him to lend us his plastic sheeting when we leave. We may end up as homeless refugees ourselves."

The unusual domestic cooperation between the two families in this village north of Kigali, the capital, is encouraging for Rwanda's crisis. But the problem bringing them together is not.

Since the refugees began streaming back a week ago, housing has emerged as a major problem that officials say could threaten reconciliation if not sorted out quickly.

Between a quarter and a half of the 500,000 returnees will find people living in their homes, says Deputy Rehabilitation and Social Integration Minister Christine Umutoni.

Rwanda needs massive aid to cope with the refugee situation - $44 million is need-ed immediately for tents and portable houses and $50 million for more permanent houses, she says. The biggest housing problem is expected to be in Kigali, where unlike the countryside, there is no open space for simple mud homes.

Paul Kagame, the defense minister and vice president who effectively rules Rwanda, describes the problem of resettling the Tutsis have occupied Hutu property as "very complicated."

"The problem is one of property, not of ethnicity," he told reporters Wednesday. He added: "You cannot tell a civil servant to go under plastic sheeting."

This tiny, hilly Central African nation is one of the world's most densely populated. Some academics attribute the lack of space to the ethnic problems between the 14 percent Tutsi and 85 percent Hutu population. The strife culminated in the genocide of up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994 and the subsequent flight of 1.2 million Hutus who feared reprisals.

Housing, especially in Kigali, has undergone a seesaw of ownership due to multiple grand-scale population movements.

Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis left during communal violence in 1959. They came back after the 1994 genocide to oust the Hutu-led government and militias that orchestrated it. Now a multitude of refugees who fled with the militias are coming back after Zairean rebels, backed by Rwanda, attacked the camps.

A week after the return began last Friday, they are still marching home along the roads leading from the border with Zaire. They trek in the thousands, bundles of belongings balanced on their heads and plastic water jugs and children in hand. They begin briskly at the cool of dawn and continue all day long, determined to get home as soon as they can.

International aid workers say local authorities are doing the best they can to cope with the influx. But worries remain.

"Everyone is asking: 'Where are we going to put them all?' " says one foreign relief worker.

Not all have come to an understanding like that of the Vianey-Mukangabo families. Several Hutu families who have returned to villages outside the town of Ruhengeri say they fear their neighbors will accuse them of having participated in the genocide so that they can hold onto their houses.

Among the frightened is Issa Barawigilira. Although refreshed by his first clean change of clothing and proper bath in 2-1/2 years, he is glum about getting further settled.

He walks by his simple concrete house every day but doesn't dare talk to the current tenants or knock on the door.

"I've heard that if you try to get your house back, they say you are a member of the Interahamwe [Hutu militia]. You have to be very careful," Mr. Barawigilira says.

"I'd rather keep a low profile and stay with relatives until it becomes clear how the situation will unfold."

Some aid workers say Barawigilira's concerns may be well-founded and that acts of revenge motivated by the scarcity of property may develop with time.

"The need for a home is a very important thing," one says.

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