GOVERNMENT troops from the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) moved into the Kibeho refugee camp at dawn on April 18, firing into the air, sending panic through the packed huts in the camp built on five hills. Over the next few days, as the RPA cordon tightened, families were shot in the back by RPA soldiers as they fled, others were crushed in the stampede.
The death toll ranges from Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu's low estimate of 300 to the United Nation's official count of 2,000 to aid workers' estimates of far more.
The Rwandan government says the camp was a breeding ground for Hutu militias, involved in last year's four-month genocide of up to 1 million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis.
''We need to understand the context of a country trying to recover from civil war and genocide, but at the same time, nothing excuses a massacre,'' says Alison DesForges, a consultant with Human Rights Watch/Africa.
Now, some say Mr. Bizimungu's promise of a complete inquiry comes too late. As condemnation of the killings mount, Belgium and Holland have suspended aid. Other countries may follow. Having inherited a devastated economy and a wounded nation, the Tutsi-led government had only just begun to win credibility. Pledges of $587 million made at a donors' meeting in January in Geneva may now be at risk.
The Rwandan government feels it is being judged unfairly. Resettling the 250,000 displaced in the camps in southwest Rwanda was established as a priority. But the Feb. 27 deadline for the camps' closure passed, and the UN's resettlement program had barely made a dent in the camp's teeming population. ''We had all agreed on the closure plan, but the UN delayed. Certain countries had political and financial interests in keeping the camps open,'' says Justin Murara, director-general of Rwanda's Ministry of Rehabilitation. ''How can people condemn our action? They know there are militias and soldiers from the former government in the camps, and they will never, never want to go home.''
But as recriminations fly over ultimate responsibility for the Kibeho incident, more worrying events are unfolding in villages where Hutus are returning from the camps to a hostile welcome from their Tutsi neighbors.
At Maraba village, 11 women, one with a baby on her back, were herded at gunpoint by a young RPA soldier. A pair of handcuffs hung from the bars of a window of a nearby building, guarded by federal soldiers.
''They are guilty of genocide,'' says one of the soldiers, jerking his thumb toward the building behind him. He refuses to say how many prisoners were inside. ''Last year, they killed thousands, you know. There's a mass grave over there.''
Keeping track of the hundreds of Hutus who are being arrested as they return home is proving virtually impossible. All over Rwanda, Tutsi survivors of the genocide are denouncing Hutus, whom they accuse of crimes. Many are bundled into makeshift prisons. On April 26, at the village of Rusatira, UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials stumbled upon a small room where 28 prisoners had suffocated to death.
Most refugees know they are returning home to an uncertain fate. Amiel Ruteragisereko, a Hutu who fled from Kibeho, says, ''It's been a year since I left home. I don't know if my house is still there. I'm afraid.''
Ms. DesForges says she fears the already-full prison population of 33,000 could double as a result of the camp's closure. ''The real test will come over the next two or three weeks, when we see whether the judicial system can function. If it doesn't, then people will operate outside it because of their sense of obligation to the dead,'' she says.
But Rwanda's justice system is in ruins; with 80 percent of the country's judges having fled, been killed, or imprisoned. With no money in the coffers, the justice ministry has been hard-pressed to investigate properly thousands of genocide-related cases that clog every prison and detention center.
And with the Rwandan government now losing its moral authority after the Kibeho massacre, donor-pledged funds simply may not be forthcoming. The pursuit of justice in Rwanda risks becoming ever more elusive.