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Rural Rwanda Faces Uneasy Balance of Fear as Refugees Return

New York Times, December 26, 1996

Rural Rwanda Faces Uneasy Balance of Fear as Refugees Return

Perilous Reunion: A Special Report

ABA COMMUNE, Rwanda — She was the only Tutsi left living on a hillside in Murehe township when the genocide ended two years ago. So when Savina Mukacyibibi was beaten and strangled to death recently, it sent chills through the few Tutsi survivors left in this hilly community of banana groves, coffee trees and neat brick houses.

The killing was the first in the Taba Commune since thousands of Hutu refugees, some of them war criminals, began pouring back into Rwanda from camps in Zaire a month ago. The local authorities say the killing was probably the work of Hutu militants who wanted to silence Mrs. Mukacyibibi, 50, and prevent her from identifying those who killed her husband and five children.

The next day, Tutsi soldiers arrested five local Hutu men who had been at the social club with her before the killing. But the police acknowledge they have no hard evidence against the men.

The killing of Mrs. Mukacyibibi and the arbitrary arrests afterward reflect an ugly reality of life in Rwanda as Hutu refugees begin to arrive home. Behind the facade of pastoral peace, there is an uneasy balance of terror in the countryside.

Members of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority say they are terrified Hutu militants will kill them, especially now that militiamen from the Hutu majority who carried out the mass killings of Tutsi in 1994 are drifting back home. Some Tutsi have abandoned their houses and are banding together in trading centers.

“We fear tomorrow it could be us,” said Steria Mukankusi, a 60-year-old grandmother. “We are very worried about the returnees.”

On the other side of the ethnic divide, Hutu people, who dominated the government here for three decades before losing power to a Tutsi rebel army, say they are now living in what amounts to a police state. Hundreds of Hutu men have been hauled off in the night by Tutsi soldiers and locked up in overcrowded jails, without ever facing their accusers or having a chance to defend themselves. Their wives are often left floundering in poverty.

“Wherever a Hutu is, he thinks he’s going to be thrown in prison,” said Peragia Mukantabiera, whose husband was jailed in March.

None of this bodes well for Rwanda’s attempts to knit itself back together after the massacres of 1994, in which 500,000 Tutsi and liberal-minded Hutu were killed by Hutu militiamen and soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of Hutu who fled the country after the Tutsi rebel army defeated the old Hutu-led government are coming home now, having been ejected from Zaire by Tutsi-led rebels and from Tanzania by Tanzanian troops. But they are entering a society polarized by fear and vengefulness.

All along the dirt roads and paths of the Taba commune, in its bars and stores and butcher shops, Hutu and Tutsi treat each other with brittle civility. But in private, many say the hatred that led to the events of 1994 has only deepened since the refugees began to return. Some say it is only a matter of time before that enmity will erupt again.

“I am living with the Hutu and we talk when we are together,” said Gatalina Mukafurere, a 53-year-old Tutsi woman whose husband and three children were slain. “When you live with someone, you have to talk to them. But at night I start thinking about my family, thinking about how I’m living by myself, when I had a wonderful family, and that is when I start hating them. Myself, I think it’s going to take a while before we have peace.”

Closed Community: A Rolling Farmland Monitored by Spies

Set in rolling hills of banana and coffee about 11 miles west of Rwanda’s capital, Taba is a sprawling green and fertile agricultural community. Along its red-dirt roads, women in colorful kerchiefs shell piles of runner beans in front of small brick houses with tin roofs. Ground coffee, peas and cassava are spread on grass mats to dry in the bright sun.

Rwandans do not live in the tightly clustered villages that dot much of Africa. Instead, they are fanned out across the countryside in hundreds of tiny farms, linked by dirt paths and gravel roads.

Every inch of available land is cultivated, and each family enjoys a relatively private domain — a house, a garden, a couple acres of farmland. But despite its rustic character, Taba commune is meticulously organized, with a rigid hierarchy of state officials reaching down to every level.

The commune is broken down into nine “sectors,” each headed by a “councilor.” The sectors are in turn broken down into dozens of “cells,” presided over by officials known as “responsibles,” who report up the line to the counselors and the mayor. Each cell-leader also employs a network of local volunteers to keep an eye on crime.

Even in the most remote parts of Taba commune, a stranger is likely to be stopped and asked for his credentials by one of these so-called “security” officials, who then follow the intruder around and eavesdrop on his conversations.

Today nothing can be done in a commune without permission from the mayor’s office, which has a garrison of Tutsi soldiers to enforce its edicts.

Sometimes this insistence on following rules can reach a Kafkaesque absurdity. A journalist, whom Mayor Ephrem Karangwa had given blanket permission to work on a report in the commune, was hustled off by security officials when he tried to listen to a public speech on the genocide Karangwa gave in one of the sectors. The reason, Karangwa explained, was that the journalist had not sought specific permission in advance to cover the speech and consequently was not authorized to be there.

It was this extensive hierarchical system of control, when it was in the hands of militant Hutu politicians in 1994, that made the genocide possible in the first place, historians say.

At Taba, the former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, mobilized the system to hunt down Tutsi and kill them, witnesses and prosecutors say. At least 5,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates who advocated racial tolerance and democracy were hacked and bludgeoned to death in Taba in 1994. More than 2,000 died right outside the commune headquarters, where they had come to seek protection.

One Victim’s Story: A Genocide Survivor Marked for Death

By all accounts, Mrs. Mukacyibibi was a peaceful woman who had never done much to antagonize her neighbors. Though she had lived through the horrors of the genocide and lost her husband and five children in the massacres, the police say she had never came to them to accuse the killers.

When the war ended in 1994, she kept to herself and went back to running her husband’s farm, a few acres of banana trees and runner beans on a hillside in Murehe, about four miles from the commune headquarters.

It was not an easy place for a lone Tutsi woman to live, recalled her last living son, Emmanuel Yakaremye. She was surrounded by Hutu neighbors, and the countryside grew wild just beyond her place, plunging into a deep ravine and rising in rugged hills on the other side. Hutu militiamen were believed to be hiding in those hills, Yakaremye said.

“They killed her for the land,” he said. “Nothing else.”

On Dec. 3, Mrs. Mukacyibibi accepted an invitation from some Hutu neighbors to have a cup of banana beer at a local social club. She left the club a few minutes before 7 p.m. The next morning, she was discovered beaten and strangled to death in a cornfield just 60 yards away from the club’s door.

The five men who were taken into custody were arrested because they all had the misfortune to be in the bar the night of the murder, the police said. Though there is not a scrap of evidence against them, they were thrown into the commune’s overcrowded jail.

Emmanuel Tuisenge, the 23-year-old investigator for the commune, said the arrests were necessary to pressure the men to turn in whoever is responsible. He thinks the Hutu in the neighborhood know the answer, but none have come forward.

Two days after Mrs. Mukacyibibi was killed, several of her neighbors brought food to her son, Yakaremye. He received them in his mother’s cramped brick house. The day before, he had buried his mother in a banana grove near the back door.

The neighbors were all Hutu, and Yakaremye said he did not feel comfortable with them, but he accepted the food anyway and ate it in silence. It would have been impolite not to, he said. “I don’t trust them,” he said. “They don’t trust me.”

He added he has decided to move to the capital to find a job. “I can’t keep living here,” he said. “I can’t survive like this.”

On almost any road or path in Murehe, it is hard to find a Hutu family who does not have at least one member in jail. There are about 920 men in the local lock-up at the commune headquarters alone, not to mention hundreds of local residents who have been sent to regional prisons.

“The problem we have now is that so many people have their husbands in jail,” said Virpa Mukanzigiye, who runs a general store in Murehe. Her husband was arrested in September 1995. “They came and they just took him. They didn’t ask him anything. I haven’t seen him since.”

Most of the wives of the arrested men in Murehe blame their Tutsi neighbors for their troubles. “The survivors are in good hands,” said Marigarita Nyirabarera, a resident of Murehe who claims a Tutsi neighbor was behind her husband’s detention 10 months ago. “Whatever they say the government believes them, and if they point a finger at someone, that person will be beaten and taken away to jail before they even prove what they did.”

Many of the women left alone are having trouble making ends meet. Some are living in abject poverty, hiring themselves out as day laborers to farmers.

Every afternoon, they must walk three miles to the commune headquarters to bring food and water to their husbands in jail.

Unlike some communes, the Hutu refugees who have recently returned from Zaire have had no trouble finding housing. Most found their farms neglected but unoccupied. Still many are now walking on eggshells because of the mass arrests. A few men even avoid going out during the day.

So far, the authorities have been restrained. Despite receiving more than 20 complaints from survivors, the Taba police have only arrested six returnees. One is an influential former member of Parliament, Cyrille Ruvugama, who prosecutors say was one of the architects of the massacres in the commune.

Still, young men who have come back from the camps say they are looking over their shoulders all the time, waiting for the government to come after them.

“Maybe if there is a political change in the future, I will be comfortable, but not now,” Protazi Ntamaganyiro, 19, who returned recently. “I eat. I sleep. I wake up in the morning. I don’t know what’s going to happen the next day.”

Intimidated Witnesses: Known Killers Walk Among the Returnees

For survivors of the genocide, the trickle of returning refugees is a terrifying event. Several Tutsi residents say they have spotted people in recent weeks who they know took part in the massacres but have been afraid to report them.

“I’m scared,” said Beatrice Musabyeo, 24, a Tutsi woman in Murehe who says she saw two former militiamen on the street the other day. “I think someone is going to come and knock on my door and kill me. A lot of the returnees were involved. There are even some soldiers who left before and are now coming back.”

The fear of the militia’s return is so great that many Tutsi in Taba have abandoned their farms and moved into empty houses at a trading center called Gachuragengi, less than two miles from the commune headquarters. There are about 270 Tutsi people living in the center, the vast majority of them women with children. They till their land only during daylight and then flee back to the trading center at night.

Speciose Mukarugambwa, a 39-year-old mother who heads a survivor’s association at the center, said she decided to move because living among other Tutsi provided some protection.

During the genocide, she said, her husband was killed and she was beaten and left for dead in a mass grave. This month she saw one of the men who killed her husband, coming back from Zaire with a bundle on his head.

“When I saw him, my hair stood on end,” she said. “I was so afraid. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was him or not.”

“I think justice must be done soon,” she added. “They have to be punished. If you are not going to punish them, the genocide will happen again. They will be able to continue this genocide ideology.”

Daring to Speak: Making Accusations Brings New Risks

Speaking out against the killers has made life even more dangerous for people like Beatrice Nyirasengimana, a Hutu who was married to Mrs. Mukacyibibi’s brother. Though Mrs. Nyirasengimana is a Hutu, her husband and five children were killed during the massacre and thrown in a latrine because they were Tutsi.

Mrs. Nyirasengimana has denounced Hutu members of her own family to the Tutsi police, including one of her other brothers-in-law as one of the killers. As a result, she says been ostracized by her parents and her life has been threatened on at least two occasions. “They want to kill the survivors before the trials start,” she said.

While a few Hutu like Mrs. Nyirasengimana are brave enough to speak out, most people in Taba never talk openly about the killings.

Teachers in the Murehe school say they steer away from the massacres in class, nor do they ever raise the issue of ethnic rivalry. One reason is there are so few Tutsi students; another is a deep-seeded reluctance among Rwandans to discuss unpleasant topics.

“I try to avoid the topic,” said Emerita Mukagihana, a 30-year-old teacher. “I have no way to start talking about it. When you start talking about it, the kids think you are bringing back what happened in the past.”

The silence is all the more remarkable because many students are still suffering mental and social problems stemming from the violence. Absenteeism is very high. Dozens of Hutu children have fathers in jail and have dropped out because they can no longer afford the school fees. Some Tutsi children have also dropped out, apparently fearing harassment from Hutu children.

Still, the teachers say they want to wait until more time passes before they begin addressing the issue. “There is nothing new we can teach these kids about the genocide,” one teacher, Martin Munyankindi, said. “They saw it all. Everything happened in front of their eyes. All we can do is wait until they become more stable, then try to teach them what was evil about it.” On a recent afternoon, the jail at the commune headquarters was overflowing with desperate humanity, mostly sullen Hutu who peer through the window bars with worried eyes.

The men here say they have no idea what they are charged with. They maintain they are innocent of any crimes, and insist they are the victims of fabricated evidence, vengeful police or false confessions coerced by torture.

“I came home from the bar one night and they just arrested me,” said Savare Zabamwita, a 28-year-old from Murehe who has been in jail since September 1995. “They still haven’t told me the charges. They just put you in prison. They don’t ask you what happened.”

Among the inmates here are several former police investigators, teachers, school inspectors, and other civil servants. The government asserts that they are all killers, but they maintain they have been arrested simply because they are Hutu who worked in the previous government. They point out the people in charge in the commune headquarters across a parking lot from their cells are all Tutsi now.

It is not clear how many of the people in the Taba jail are guilty. No trials have been held yet, and most of the arrests are made on the basis of a single accusation. Often the investigation is cursory at best, since the police are stretched thin. Still, there are undoubtedly some in jail who deserve to be there, U.N. rights investigators say. Tens of thousands took part in the massacres.

One man prosecutors say is probably not innocent is Cyrille Ruvugama, the former member of Parliament. Prosecutors and survivors say Ruvugama and the former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu orchestrated and personally oversaw the killings in Taba.

Like everyone else in the jail, Ruvugama denies the charges. He says he did nothing but attend a meeting the morning the massacres started. Akayesu held the meeting, he maintains, to call for peace, not to urge Hutu to kill Tutsi. His account contradicts the accounts of dozens of witnesses who were at the meeting.

“I am innocent,” he said, his eyes narrowing, his hand reflexively stroking his chin. “I didn’t take any part in what happened. I am accused just because I attended a meeting called by the mayor.”

Ruvugama, who is facing the death penalty if convicted, warned that the new government’s policy of arrests would backfire in the long-run. A Hutu uprising is inevitable if the government does not do more to share power, he said.

“As far as I can see, this government has a long-term program of politics to intimidate the Hutu and, little by little, to make sure they have no say, no power,” he said.

Denying the Past: A Church Service With No Repentance

In the Sunday after Mrs. Mukacyibibi’s death, the main church in Murehe was filled with joyous song. About 700 people crowded into the Mwirute Presbyterian Church, only half a mile from where the body was found.

For two and a half hours, the churchgoers danced and clapped to music from three separate gospel choirs. Accompanied with homemade rattles and guitars, they prayed and sang about the glory of God, their reedy voices rising in harmony. They acted out a pantomime of the Last Judgment, holding a baby aloft as a symbol of Jesus, or perhaps a symbol of their own lost innocence.

Mrs. Mukacyibibi’s name was never mentioned during the service.

The pastor, Alphonce Munyakazi, said later he believed it would have done no good to bring up the murder. Instead, he chose to read a section of Romans I, urging people to stop making war against one another. He also brought in a pastor from another commune, who delivered a scathing sermon aimed at people who took part in the killing.

“God is very angry about what happened here,” the visiting pastor, Eriel Karangwa, railed. “People who did the killing are the people who need the Bible. People cannot forget it. People cannot forgive it.”

“There are many among us here who think they are very clever,” he went on. “They pretend to be innocent. What if God does the same thing to us, gets very angry and does the same thing we did.”

There were no tears after the sermon. Most people stared placidly up at the visiting pastor and then went on to the next hymn in the book.

Later, when it was time for churchgoers to repent their sins before the congregation, only two small boys came forward. One admitted he had been disrespectful to his parents and had beaten up his brother. The second said he had thrown rocks at some elderly people.

There were a few Tutsi in the congregation, but they were lost in the sea of Hutu worshipers. Many Tutsi no longer attend church, since many of Rwanda’s clergymen, especially Roman Catholic priests, collaborated with the former government during the killings.

Later, when the service was over, Munyakazi said he often looks out over his congregation and wonders who is guilty and who is innocent.

“I feel very bad that some of the killers are in this church, but I can’t say so and so did this or that — I don’t who did what,” he said. “God cannot forgive them before they repent. All they have to do is come in front of all of us in the church and seek forgiveness in front of God. And God will forgive them.”

Munyakazi said he knew anti-Tutsi hatred still ran deep in his congregation. “It’s a very difficult thing to do to change these people’s hearts, because they have such a terrible kind of heart,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult, but we are going to have to do it. It’s our job.”

Asked if anyone had come forward in his church in the last two years to admit taking part in the killing, the pastor lowered his eyes and shook his head.

“Never,” he said.

See THE POPULATION EXPLOSION is from Paul and Anne Ehirlich.


See THE COMING ANARCHY by Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly, February 1994.

IMMIGRATION: NO. 1 IN U.S. GROWTH New Look Shows Greater Role in 1970-90 Population Increase, by Roy Beck (1991-1992)