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Wednesday, December 9, 1998 Published at 04:29 GMT

Fleeing attack - from all sides

Refugees flee fighting in the region

By Chris Simpson in Kigali

I first visited Nyaratovu on a rainy Saturday morning in May. A Rwandan friend suggested it would be as good a place as any to get an introduction to the war in the north-west. And so it proved.

Hutu fighters from the Interahamwe militia had struck a few weeks earlier, killing more than 30 civilians. I was shown the huts they had set on fire as they left.

The local bourgmeister, or mayor, not used to visits from the press, shyly apologised for the dilapidated condition of his office and talked calmly of the death threats he had received and the occasional decapitations the Interahamwe carried out on local officials.

I listened to his assurances that things would get better in time, but was more than grateful to be back on the road heading south.

Refugees seeking sanctuary

Six months on, the mayor's deputy in Nyaratovu was just as phlegmatic. "We have our problems here," he said. "But we're well on the way to solving them. Come and meet our new residents."

What he presented us with was a vast refugee camp, home to some 40,000 people, most of whom had arrived in the past few weeks.

Local officials said they had come of their own free will, abandoning homes in the surrounding villages, where they were still vulnerable to attack, to take up the government's offer of sanctuary.

The nearby hillside was a mass of huts and shelters, while down on the road below men, women and children moved back and forth, bringing in new building materials and fruit and vegetables.

A soldier from the Nyaratovu garrison appointed himself as our guide, and provided a crisp explanation of what we were seeing. "We have brought the people to us," he said. "Now we can go after the enemy."

Protecting the population

Ministers and military commanders in Rwanda tend to be wary of offering much enlightenment on their handling of the problems in the north-west, tending to act first and offer explanations later.

[ image: The government: the enemy must be defeated]
The government: the enemy must be defeated
But this time the message is explicit: the population has to be separated from the insurgents, both for its own protection and to cut off whatever channels of support the Interahamwe still has access to.

This is not the kind of war to lure in any outside mediators.

There is no UN-appointed peacebroker to sponsor dialogue, no power-sharing mechanisms to be devised, no cease-fire modalities to be adopted.

The fighting will stop, says the government, when the enemy has been eliminated, because the enemy's only objective is to eliminate us.

As an outsider, you follow all this at a discreet distance, absorbing what you can.

At its worst, the images you take away offer a small idea of what the genocide of 1994 must have been like.

Violence and distrust

The hospital morgue at Gisenyi, with the corpses waiting for collection; a Congolese doctor explaining how machete wounds to the skull can best be healed; a burned-out roadside inn with carbonised bodies being packed into plastic bags for a hurried mass burial.

[ image: Corpses in plastic bags await burial]
Corpses in plastic bags await burial
Interahamwe pamphlets demanding "Hutu liberation from Tutsi domination". And the hopelessly fractured interviews with villagers, translated from Kinyrwanda, talking of dawn raids and bereavement.

You also get some sense of how the government is trying to tackle the problems, against a background of simmering violence and distrust.

The minister with the megaphone, calling on villagers to stand firm against the enemy after an attack in which over one hundred people were killed.

A three-day peace conference in Ruhengeri, with priests, soldiers and teachers offering their input. Government officers, friendly but superbly evasive on where the war is going.

After several months in Rwanda, a friend's brother arrived at my house in Kigali to talk me through his experiences living in a remote village in the north.

Divided loyalties

He smiled at the naivety of my questions. "They wait for you guys to leave before they start killing people," he said, making it clear that "they" were both Interahamwe militiamen who preyed on the local population at night and government soldiers who carried out brutal acts of reprisal the morning after.

The government denies the north is enemy territory, but accepts that loyalties in the past have been divided, that people may have been loath to denounce the enemy because their own sons and brothers were involved in the fighting.

The talk now, however, is of a major switch of allegiance. Nyaratovu is just one of over 2O similar camps and settlements which hundreds of thousands of people have poured into in what the government describes as a mass abandonment of the Interahamwe.

The enemy has failed them, you are told, and there are dozens of defectors there to explain why this is so.

A forced migration?

Despite suggestions of a long hearts and minds campaign finally paying off, it seems likely that a strong element of force was used to back up the whole migration, enough to have critics warning of forced resettlement programmes and dubious social engineering.

As the relief convoys head north from Kigali to deal with the obvious food and medical needs that come with this scale of human displacement, there are suggestions from some quarters that this is an emergency entirely of the government's making.

But the authorities are used to such reservations and are unlikely to be moved by them. A UN Human Rights mission was politely sent on its way earlier this year after failing to persuade the government of its professionalism and its objectivity.

The phrase '"iternational community" is often delivered with a sneer in Rwanda, suggesting pious ineptitude and a mindset which is wholly inequipped to deal with the problems of the north-west.

"This was Rwanda's war," you are told. "And it will be our peace too."

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