Soldiers Prod Refugees Homeward
BUTARE, Rwanda (AP) _ Soldiers prodded tens of thousands of Hutu refugees out of Butare and on toward their home villages today while fears intensified that mass returns would touch off a wave of deadly reprisals by members of a rival ethnic group.
An estimated 60,000 people were camped in the open in and around Butare, having fled the refugee camp at Kibeho 20 miles to the west after thousands were gunned down by soldiers or trampled to death in stampedes on Saturday.
By official U.N. estimate, at least 2,000 men, women and children were killed at Kibeho, but some U.N. officials and private aid workers say the number was probably much higher.
Most of the refugees from the camp are Hutus who took shelter at Kibeho last year for fear of reprisals by the victorious, Tutsi-led rebel army for the genocidal massacres of a half million Rwandans, most of them Tutsis.
The new, Tutsi-dominated government in Kigali has been trying for months to get more than 2 million refugees inside Rwanda and in neighboring countries to return to their homes.
Its soldiers were continuing that effort in Butare today, sometimes harshly.
``The government seems to be playing hardball,″ said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. ``We are crossing our fingers hoping they won’t play too much hardball and have another incident in Butare.″
Aid workers and others said many refugees were being abused by civilians and soldiers alike.
``You know local people standing along the route are carrying sticks and hitting them quite heavily,″ said Brynjar Wetteland, an employee of the U.N. Children’s Fund. ``I even saw lots of soldiers that would hit people that were quite unable to defend themselves.″
The U.N. special envoy to Rwanda, Shaharyar Khan, said some 200,000 refugees were on the march throughout Rwanda. He and other U.N. officials warned of renewed hostility toward returning refugees.
A U.N. military spokesman in Kigali, Lt. Kent Page, said he had personally seen refugees whipped and stoned by civilians and soldiers.
``I saw it myself,″ he said. ``They are more than just minor incidents.″
In Geneva, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the Rwandan government had reported that at least nine returning refugees had been killed and that 1,100 had been locked in a bank building in the village of Ngenda. The building is supposed to hold 500 people, spokesman Ron Redmond said.
Many of the returning refugees were in bad condition, he said. Some had machete wounds, others had been stoned or beaten.
Khan said some 70 percent of the refugees nationwide were expected to stream into four villages. Some 10,000 arrived today in one village, Gitarama, he said in Kigali.
``The government is conscious of the fact that there is going to be a huge problem in terms of food and water,″ Khan said. ``There is also a question of hostility.″
Khan said the United Nations has asked that at least one human rights monitor be placed in each of the 13 villages to which the 200,000 refugees were returning and that additional military observers be stationed in the villages.
A standoff continued today at Kibeho between soldiers and about 600 men, women and children who were refusing to vacate a school. Some of the holdouts apparently are hard-line Hutus who have the most to fear from the Tutsi-led army.
Others were apparently being held against their will by Hutu extremists using them as human shields, one U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
``There is a very hard core inside the building with weapons and grenades and they are trying to persuade the other people not to leave,″ said Benedict Giaever, a field officer for the U.N. Rwanda Emergency Organization. ``It is a very difficult situation for us.″
The situation at the Kibeho camp underscored the deep distrust hampering Rwanda’s attempts to recover from the civil war and genocide of last year.
The government has vowed not to seek revenge against Hutu civilians and promised to set up a war crimes tribunal to try those suspected of involvement in 1994′s massacres.
Aid workers and witnesses said last weekend’s slaughter was unprovoked. The government claims that its soldiers were protecting themselves against Hutu militiamen.
Some survivors said the United Nations should have done more to stop the violence, which occurred within sight of 200 U.N. peacekeepers.
A report issued Monday by Human Rights Watch-Africa backed up those accusations, saying that although the peacekeepers were outnumbered by Rwandan soldiers, they should have anticipated trouble and called for reinforcements.
A U.N. spokesman in New York, Joe Sills, would not comment on the report.