Revisiting the killing fields
Sep 2nd 2010 | nairobi
IN 1996 Rwandan troops descended on the Chimanga refugee camp in east Congo, to which their compatriots had fled to avoid genocide at home. The soldiers gathered the refugees together with promises of meat to fortify themselves for a promised return to Rwanda. “At a given moment,” says the draft of a new report from the United Nations, “a whistle sounded and the soldiers positioned all around the camp opened fire on the refugees. According to different sources, between 500 and 800 refugees were killed in this way.”
In the 16 years since his rebel forces halted the Rwandan genocide, the country’s president, Paul Kagame, has earned a reputation for steering his country firmly towards stability, economic growth and a measure of reconciliation. Lately, that reputation has come under attack. Before a landslide election victory in August Mr Kagame found himself under heavy fire for the mysterious murders, oppression and censorship that marred the run-up to the polls. Grim-faced and impatient of critics, Mr Kagame weathered the storm.
The draft UN report, leaked last week, will be harder to brush off. It suggests Mr Kagame’s mostly Tutsi army attempted a counter-genocide in the mid-1990s in parts of Rwanda’s vast and unruly neighbour, Congo.
Mr Kagame’s rebel army swept through Rwanda from Uganda in 1994 to halt the genocide in which Hutu death squads slaughtered around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The perpetrators of the genocide—a mixture of politicians, priests, and militias—fled to Congo where they hid among more than 1m genuine Hutu refugees. When the génocidaires regrouped to continue their fight Mr Kagame ordered an invasion of eastern Congo in 1996. This triggered a war that drew in six more countries (Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and the Central African Republic) and led to the deaths of about 4m people, mostly from disease and ill-health.
A team from the UN’s Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights, charged with documenting the most serious violations of human rights and international law during the conflict, catalogued 617 incidents that occurred between 1993 and 2003. The result is a detailed inventory of horrors. People are chopped up, shot and burned to death. Over the 500 pages or so of the report none of the countries implicated in the violence comes off well. But 104 out of 617 incidents involved the murder, often on a large scale, of Hutu refugees by Mr Kagame’s forces and allies. The report’s authors say that some of the incidents, if proven in a court of law, “could be classified as crimes of genocide.” Rwanda’s army made “no effort” to distinguish between civilians and combatants, instead killing “probably several tens of thousands” in the “relentless” pursuit of Hutus, according to the report.
This detailed reporting of alleged Rwandan crimes seems to back up what human-rights activists have been arguing for years: that Mr Kagame’s commanders should be held to account just as the Hutu perpetrators of the 1994 genocide were. Indeed, the report’s findings claw at the heart of Mr Kagame’s moral authority. “Mr Kagame’s reputation is based on being the man who ended the genocide and now he’s accused of perpetrating one,” says Jason Stearns, a Congo expert.
Rwanda has always denied committing atrocities in Congo and the government angrily dismissed the leaked report as “immoral and unacceptable”. Rwanda’s foreign minister threatened to withdraw the country’s peacekeepers from the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur if the report were to be published in its current form. Insiders say the draft was leaked precisely to prevent any such sanitising edits.
It will make uncomfortable reading for Mr Kagame’s backers too, such as America and Britain, but little will change. Despite his ruthlessness Mr Kagame is regarded as a steadying hand in a chaotic region.
Sadly the report will change little in Congo either. The aim of cataloguing these atrocities was to help end impunity and to win justice for the countless victims of Congo’s overlapping wars. But the Congolese government has already rejected recommendations for a truth commission and an international tribunal. Instead, the government says, any crimes will be tried through the domestic justice system—which is staggeringly inept and corrupt.
Middle East & Africa