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Rwandan exodus: extreme violence was the catalyst for millions of Rwandans to flee their country.

There's something very blood-curdling about the machete. Death by bullet or starvation, something we've become accustomed to seeing in news reports from Africa, is hideous enough. But, the idea of being chopped to pieces by someone wielding a machete makes most of us shudder a little more. And, that's just what happened in Rwanda in the spring of 1994. Hundreds of thousands of people were hacked to death in one of the worst massacres of modern times.

The simplest explanation for what happened in Rwanda would be that one ethnic group attacked another with which it had been enemies for centuries. It wasn't that simple. In the first place, the combatants - the Hutus and the Tutsis - belong to the same ethnic group. It's more appropriate to describe them as economic classes - the Tutsis being rich, the Hutus poor.

Until the spring of 1994, Rwanda had a population of about eight million - 80% Hutu and 20% Tutsi. The enmity between the two groups grew out of their peasant-overlord relationship. Under Belgian colonial rule, the Tutsis were promoted to the status of wealthy landowners and royalty, something the Hutu majority resented. This Tutsi privilege was maintained by Belgium until it was shattered by a Hutu rebellion in 1959. Tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Uganda. They remained in exile and plotted their revenge. In the early 1970s, they formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), built up their strength, and invaded from Uganda in 1990.

The RPF claimed to be seeking to free the country from its ruthless dictator, Juvenal Habyarimana, and restoring national unity. In early April 1994, the president was killed when his plane was shot out of the sky near Kigali airport. His followers blamed the RPF, although it's now widely accepted that extremists in his own government were behind the rocket attack.

Within hours, opponents of the regime, both Hutu and Tutsi, were slaughtered. The following day, mass killings by the Hutu-dominated militia began. The aim was to exterminate the entire Tutsi population, although Hutus who opposed the government were also targeted. Women, children, men, and the old, all were victims. The whole massacre looked well planned. Tutsis, who look no different from Hutus, were located quickly and dispatched. The killers had the names and addresses of those they were after. In a few days, the death toll reached 500,000.

Then, the tide turned against the Hutu death squads. The rebel forces of the RPF started roughing up government troops. By mid-may, the Tutsi-dominated RPF controlled half the country. By June, they had captured Kigali, the capital. Now, it was time for the Hutus to run for cover, fearful that the Tutsis would be looking for revenge.

By August, 2.2 million Rwandans, a quarter of the country's population had fled. Hundreds of thousands, both Tutsi and Hutu, had earlier travelled east into Tanzania. Now, an even bigger tidal wave of desperate people flooded into Zaire to the west. The town of Goma, population 80,000, was overwhelmed as more than a million Hutu refugees arrived there in just five days. The Red Cross, Doctors Without Frontiers, CARE, the United Nations and other agencies rushed to set up camps to look after the masses of people. But, they couldn't cope. The job was just too big for them and soon disease started to do the work of machetes, but with greater efficiency. Cholera spread throughout the camps (it kills in hours by draining the body of all its fluids), and the dead were piling up too fast to be counted, much less buried.

Andre Picard of the Globe and Mail described the scene. "You could stand in the middle of the Munigi refugee camp, the place they call Camp Cholera, choking on the air, bending under the heat, nauseated by the sight of Rwandans vomiting and defecating their way to cholera-induced death, and still hear the open fires crackling. We have all heard that hell is hot, dark, and foul-smelling, but no one ever said it would be so eerily quiet." The relief workers said there were only three types of people in the camps: The living dead, the dying dead, and the dead dead.

Meanwhile, back in Kigali, the new government was making all the right noises about peace and national reconciliation. Hutus were appointed to senior government jobs and those who had fled were told they could return home in safety. "The great majority of the refugees did not commit atrocities," said the new president, Pasteur Bizimungu. "They can come back without any fears."

However, the Hutu leaders convinced their people that they faced instant death if they went back. But, why would the leaders want to keep their people living in such miserable conditions? The experts analyze it this way; having lost the country, the Hutu leaders could keep control of the people by stirring up their hatred of the Tutsi. Their hope being that one day they would be able to channel that hatred into an effective invading army. The Hutus believed they had lost a battle, not the war. The Hutu leadership issued death threats to drive aid workers out of the camps and began hijacking supplies. After repeated attacks, CARE pulled its workers out and refused to let them return. The Hutu extremists didn't want any outside influences in the camps so they could control the flow of information to the refugees and rekindle the civil war.

The United Nations was criticized for not doing enough. First, for not stopping the killings, and second, for not rushing aid to the refugees fast enough. But, the UN couldn't act without the financial and moral support of its member states; and this was lacking throughout the Rwandan emergency. To a large extent, the world community is tired of having to deal with more Rwandas, a sentiment that was summed up by an article in the Times of London: "Here we go again. Out of Ethiopia and into Somalia. Out of Somalia and into Rwanda..."

Relief officials believe the only hope for Rwanda is for the refugees to go home and pick up the pieces of their lives again. This is how Daan Everts of the World Food Program puts it: "The longer the refugees stay here [in Zaire], the more explosive it becomes. It's like a time bomb. The exodus has to be undone."


1. Simon Jenkins has written in the Times of London: "There is no letup in Africa's vicious famines. If anything, they are worsening. They are no longer associated with natural disasters but with civil wars - in Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda. All have occurred in countries that have been so-called beneficiaries of huge amounts of foreign aid and political and military intervention. Nobody ever dares to ask whether these phenomena are linked." Discuss.

2. A UN official speaking about the Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire said the world should not forget what the Hutus did: "These are the people responsible for most of the murders. Yes, we have to feed them. But, we also have to pursue justice. I can still smell all the bodies in Kigali. Imagine these killers now as helpless victims. It's obscene." By sending aid into the camps, the international community may be sustaining the efforts of the defeated Hutus to keep the civil war against the Tutsis going. But, what are the alternatives?

The Horn of Africa

In July 1994, United Nations officials warned about the possibility of a famine in the Horn of Africa. A report says that 35 million people in 15 countries of sub-Saharan Africa are threatened by severe food shortages and face starvation. The crisis is especially severe in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, and Somalia and could overshadow the disasters of 1984-85 in which hundreds of thousands starved.


More than 70,000 desert nomads from Mali are living in refugee camps in Mauritania. The Malians are fleeing attacks by government troops who are trying to put down a rebellion among the nomads. At the heart of the dispute, and many others in Africa, is the conflict between camel and cattle herders and farmers. Both groups are in a contest for the dwindling supply of arable soil just below the Sahara Desert.


Hundreds of thousands of refugees were left to fend for themselves in October 1994. The United Nations and relief agencies pulled out because of a "general breakdown of law and order." Various factions in the country's civil war have been held responsible for attacks on hospitals. The aid agencies also complained about looting of clinics, warehouses, and relief worker's homes.


The government issued an order in 1993 that illegal aliens must leave the country or else. Thousands of Zairians heeded the warning and queued up for the 20-minute ferry ride home across the Congo River. They had left their homeland to escape hard times and civil unrest. In the crush to get aboard the ancient ferry, a gangway collapsed. Two hundred died in the accident.


This East African nation has a population of nine million. It has taken in one million refugees from Mozambique. For Canada, the equivalent would be receiving more than three million refugees. In 1991, Canada received 25,000 refugee claimants.


This country may fragment when it shakes loose the shackles of Mobutu Sese Seko. With 38 million people split among 250 tribes and clans, the country seems destined to experience the same kind of civil war it had in 1960 when it declared independence. Kept in check by the Mobutu regime are ethnic tensions so taut that a U.S. State Department memo warned that Zaire, a country four times the size of France, could become "Somalia and Liberia rolled into one, with vast potential for immense refugee flows, regional destabilization, and humanitarian disaster."


Early in 1994, 64 West Africans died in a detention camp and 200 more immigrants were rounded up and kept in the same camp with insufficient food. A guard said, "We can't feed them because we have no budget for it." Oil-producing Gabon, with black Africa's highest per capita income, draws poor migrants from all over West Africa.

South Africa

More than ever, South Africa has become a magnet for people in countries to the north. But, more than ever, it is a place of uncertain welcome. Under white rule, illegal migrants were accepted because they were cheap and compliant farm workers and domestic servants. Now, the government is more sensitive to the demands of organized labour and it wants illegal workers found and sent home. It's thought there are as many as two million illegal workers in the country. In 1993, 96,600 foreigners, 80,000 of them from Mozambique, were caught and deported from South Africa.

The Maghreb

The Arabic name for Northwest Africa is The Maghreb and it encompasses the countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Algeria is in the midst of a near civil war - between 1992 and 1994, political violence claimed the lives of 4,000 Algerians. There are fears that the Islamic extremism of Algeria will spread to other Maghreb countries, causing huge numbers of people to cross the Mediterranean and seek refuge in Europe. In 1994, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl called the rise Islamic fundamentalism in North Africa the major threat to Europe.


In one day in May 1994, a quarter of a million Rwandans arrived in the town of Ngara. Typical of the migrants is Kian Sana. The 41-year-old farmer left his village because government soldiers were, "killing everybody, even the children, women, and old people. We had to leave. Now, we're here. There is no more to say."
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Title Annotation:refugees
Author:King, John
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Previous Article:Borders without meaning.
Next Article:Future wars.

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