Reconciliation in Torn Rwanda Set Back After Camp Massacre

THE violence that swept a refugee camp for Rwandan Hutus April 24 to 26 has undermined international support for the country's fledgling government and may reflect the waning influence of moderates who seek ethnic reconciliation, not revenge.

Many relief workers and human rights monitors are concluding that soldiers who fired into crowds of tens of thousands of essentially unarmed civilians in Kibeho acted deliberately.

''Certainly, at some point, someone would have stopped them had it been accidental,'' says Alison DesForges, a Rwanda specialist and consultant for Human Rights Watch/Africa. ''The current government is divided [between] people of goodwill and people bent on retribution. There is, I believe, a struggle going on within this government over who will predominate.''

Hardliners may well win out. In the aftermath of the massacre, the position of some moderate Hutus in the Tutsi-dominated regime appears tenuous.

''Many [Hutu politicians] just rode to power on our backs,'' says one official and member of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which leads the government. ''They just used us to get rid of [former Rwandan President Juvenal] Habyarimana. We don't know how long they'll be in the picture,'' he adds derisively.

President Habyarimana's plane was mysteriously shot down in April 1994. A four-month genocide of up to 1 million mostly Tutsis by Hutu soldiers and militias followed. It ended in July when the RPF fought their way into power. Many Hutus, fearing retribution, fled.

The Rwandan government, concerned that the camps were turning into strongholds for Hutus planning violence, started closing them last month.

Extremist members of Rwanda's ousted regime feel vindicated by recent events. They have long argued that the estimated 2 million refugees in camps outside Rwanda should not return home because they are likely to be killed. Some hard-line members of the former regime, though accused of genocide, say they deserve a share of power.

If donors cut off aid in the aftermath of the massacre, international lenders might lose the little leverage they have in Rwanda. Belgium, a former colonial power in Rwanda, and the Netherlands have severed much of their assistance. Britain has so far maintained support. So has the United States, Rwanda's largest donor, who has spent some $400 million in the shattered country last year.

Rwanda's government preaches ethnic harmony. But since the rebels' victory in July, the divisions between Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis have deepened.

In recent months, the government has tossed some 30,000 Hutu suspects into shockingly overcrowded, filthy prisons, where they languish with little hope for trial. As Hutu villagers return to their homes, they are increasingly targeted in revenge attacks.

Relations between the United Nations mission in Rwanda and the Rwandan government have also deteriorated. But the UN has invested heavily in Rwanda and has much at stake in the country's rehabilitation. UN officials are major backers of the international inquiry into the Kibeho killings, set to begin May 3 in Rwanda.

Rwanda's government has invited the US, Canada, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the Organization of African Unity, and the UN to nominate members for the inquiry team.

The UN's special representative to Rwanda, Shaharyar Khan, hopes donors don't immediately block their funding.

''I'm sure that many governments who have questioned from a distance and perhaps considered action will want to await the results of this inquiry, so that they have before them a clear realization of the truth,'' Mr. Khan says.

But the truth of what happened in Kibeho may remain illusive. The inquiry will have to grapple with thorny issues, including establishing the actual death count, determining if the government tried a coverup, and verifying if soldiers unnecessarily used heavy gunfire.

Rwanda's future, including the return of the refugees, may hinge on whether the government agrees to punish troops who carried out the massacre. Vice President Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame says his soldiers acted in self-defense. But he says he is conducting his own inquiry.

''[The soldiers] were instructed to respond appropriately if there was any violence coming from inside the camps,'' Mr. Kagame says.

''So [the Army] responded according to instructions. If there were excesses, these are the excesses we will look at, and who and which individuals could be responsible for these excesses.''

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