YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Massacre Signals Rwanda's Grim Slide Toward War


KIGALI, Rwanda — In the countryside, saboteurs pull down some electrical power poles. The army moves in to hunt them down. There is an ambush. A lieutenant is killed. Furious soldiers fan into the muddy banana groves. Shooting starts. Machetes flash in the moonlight.

Ten hours later, the crackle of gunfire and the cries of its victims cease. On Wednesday morning, 108 men, women and children are piled up dead in three adjacent rural villages. Sixteen other people are gravely injured.

Peace will not give Rwanda a chance.

"The problem is, it doesn't take a lot of people to do harm," said Charles Murigande, a Cabinet minister in Rwanda's struggling young government. "It is the nature of human beings that people who want to do bad have more commitment and energy and determination than those who want to do good."

By midday Wednesday, the United Nations and the world's human rights and relief organizations were demanding: Who was behind these killings? Few bothered with the other question: Why?

This is Rwanda, and that is why.

The fresh massacre on the western border is grim evidence of Rwanda's slide backward toward war. How rapid and how consuming this tragedy will be is guesswork, but its likelihood is not.

Rwanda's government has an ever-growing army, now estimated at 50,000 men and women, mainly ethnic Tutsis. Across its borders, in camps in neighboring nations, is a defeated and increasingly restless army of ethnic Hutus; it may also be about 50,000 strong. In between are about 2 million peasant Hutu refugees, frozen in place by fear of the two armies.

"One has at the back of his mind, always, that civil war can break out again. This country is held together by a slender thread. . . . And the history of Rwanda tells us that this slender thread breaks from time to time," said Shaharyar Khan, the U.N.'s special representative to Rwanda.

The world is spending $750 million a year to feed and care for the refugees. An additional $720 million has been pledged by developed nations to assist the Rwandan government in rebuilding the nation from last year's genocidal civil war--a convulsive episode that cost 600,000 lives and left perhaps 100,000 orphans.

But the world is tiring. This week, the United Nations reduced its peacekeeping force here from 5,500 to 2,400. The remaining troops are to leave by December.

The problems seem only to grow larger. The United Nations is trying to coax the refugees to go home--but only tentatively, as it still fears for their safety. Extremist Hutu refugee leaders boast that among those returning to Rwanda are the vanguard of a guerrilla movement taking form inside the country that will try to bring down the current, Tutsi-controlled government.

Officials from the United Nations and other Western missions increasingly confirm reports of infiltration, sabotage, weapons stockpiling and, sporadically, armed encounters like this week's.

"The prospects for renewed war?" a Western diplomat asked. "I gauge it like this: You have two armies 500 yards apart, both claiming rightful authority over a country. What do you think?"

This month, Rwanda's army leadership, which controls the country, purged several ministers from its showcase, multiethnic civilian government. The official reason was to make the government more efficient. It also had the effect of silencing critics of army heavy-handedness inside the country.

One of those ousted was Faustin Twagirimungu, the former prime minister and a notable Hutu moderate in the Tutsi government. On Tuesday, he boarded a plane for Europe and possible exile. En route to the airport, he spoke to three Western journalists.

"The peasants don't care for this politics. They only want peace," he said. "So it will be up to the leaders and the army. If they continue on a hard line, I think surely there will be no peace. They must show the political will for reconciliation. At this moment, I have to say there isn't such will."

Less diplomatic, and certainly more desperate, are the Hutu extremists of the defeated army and youth militias in the teeming refugee camps of neighboring Zaire. These Hutus held their country for 30 years while tens of thousands of Tutsis lived in exile in refugee camps of their own.

"It took the Tutsi 30 years to take the country. It will take us less than 30 to get it back. To that, I can swear," said Chris Nzabandora, a spokesman for a new Hutu political activist party formed in the refugee camps. He spoke in a recent interview conducted outside Rwanda.

"Many people think the civil war ended last year. It didn't," he added.

In an assessment shared by many neutral analysts, Nzabandora conceded that Hutus in exile are not strong enough--at least now--to mount a full-scale invasion of the country.

"But we can defend ourselves and our interests in other ways," he said.

Perhaps their choice will be a grinding guerrilla campaign. Or maybe, as some Western military sources theorize, an attempt to capture a small corner of Rwanda, which would give Hutus territory of their own from which to maneuver.

Nzabandora noted that Rwanda's Hutus have one important advantage: They outnumber Tutsis four to one.

"That means that the government will never trust the population, and the population will never trust the government. . . .," he said. "Nowhere in the world does a minority regime rule without oppression."

Los Angeles Times Articles