A nation's trial of reconstruction Rwanda: Hutu extremists creep across the border to kill or intimidate those who would testify against suspects in Rwanda's genocide. As justice is frustrated, so too are hopes for national reconciliation.

Sun Journal

July 17, 1996|By Alan Zarembo | Alan Zarembo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KARENGERA, Rwanda -- The bullet holes in the living room tell the story. Six of them, knuckle-deep, scar the concrete wall just above the cushioned chair where Anne Mukandoli was murdered in May. A stray shot pierced a window a week later, during an attack that freed dozens of genocide suspects from jail.

Mukandoli had helped put many of them there. She was a Hutu, like the prisoners accused of participating in the 1994 slaughter of about 800,000 Tutsis. But she had watched the murderers pass her house without joining them; later, she hid in the bush with her family. In 1995, a new government began to restore order and appointed her as the top administrator in her village.

It became her death sentence.

"The Hutu extremists were not happy to have a Hutu mayor exposing the crimes of other Hutus," says her husband, Jean Damascene Ruronona. Indeed, her slaying two years after the collapse of Rwanda was part of a violent campaign to impede the return of Hutu refugees and the workings of the courts -- and to destroy any chance for reconciliation in the country.

The attackers are the defeated Hutu soldiers and militiamen who fled to Zaire with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Now, they clandestinely return to Rwanda to visit their relatives -- and to assassinate potential witnesses, plant land mines and free prisoners.

And they thereby further diminish the prospects of the court system bringing 75,000 prisoners to trial or of the verdicts being accepted. While Rwandan officials talk publicly about the need for justice, they ask privately whether the country's Hutu majority will perceive the trials as fair and whether survivors of the killings will seek revenge.

The incursions by Hutus are not new. The 30,000 fighters and their leaders left for Zaire with trucks, radios, weapons and plans to shoot their way back to power. For two years they have controlled sprawling refugee camps perched on the border with Rwanda, and used them as bases for hit-and-run attacks.

In recent weeks, the fighters have grown bolder.

While a large-scale invasion is still unlikely, the rebels are infiltrating deeper into the country, burning government buildings, ambushing crowded public minibuses and exchanging gunfire with the army.

One reason for the increase in attacks, according to military officers and aid workers, is the growing chaos in neighboring Burundi. Hutu rebels there have taken over the northwest corner of the country and opened new routes for the Hutu rebels of Rwanda. More frustrating for the Rwandan government is the assistance the insurgents get once inside Rwanda.

These rebels are the sons and brothers of Rwandans who populate the country's steep hillsides -- the quilts of terraced fields, dense banana groves and ramshackle huts that become room and board for guerrillas visiting their families.

"A mother cannot turn her son in for genocide," says Lt. Jean-Baptiste Seminega of the military police. "We have to mobilize the people. They are facilitating war in their own country."

In the case of Anne Mukandoli, two local officials have been arrested and charged with providing her assassins with shelter and information.

As on many evenings, Mukandoli had sent her bodyguard to pick up her husband from a nearby shop. The two men heard the shots.

Wearing a second-hand polo shirt emblazoned with a Dunkin' Donuts logo, and sitting next to the chair where she died, Ruronona says his 44-year-old wife would have been an excellent witness in genocide trials had she lived to see them begin.

Now, fearing for his own life, and the lives of his nine children, he sleeps under the protection of three armed guards.

"Most people here are extremists," says Ruronona, a magistrate. "The two of us were the only ones who were not."

That is part of the government's problem: how to crack down on the Hutu insurgency without further alienating other Hutus, who constitute at least 80 percent of the population. Western Rwanda was a recruiting ground for some of the most enthusiastic killers during the genocide.

Rwanda's present leaders are Tutsis who fought their way to power as rebels who stopped the genocide. But they have yet to shed their image as a Tutsi clique. Except for the 800,000 Tutsi refugees who came home after decades in exile and the army officers who claimed empty hillside villas for their relatives, few other Rwandans can see any benefits of their shaky victory.

Not the 1.7 million Hutu refugees afraid to return. Not the 75,000 jammed into prisons with no trial dates set. And not their 4 million kin living in the countryside.

"You don't know exactly who the enemy is," says Theobald Rutihunza, who until a transfer early this month was the top government official in Cyangugu, the region under heaviest siege. "Everyone who has a relative in exile is under suspicion."

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