Tutsis nervously eye war next door; Congo fighting may lead to more carnage in Rwanda


NYAMATA, Rwanda -- In a land haunted by the 1994 genocide, where small boys bear machete scars across their skulls, where creeks wash up bones on shore, the civil war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo is seen as a battle for Rwandan survival.

The dreams of Casius Niyonsaba, a 10-year-old Tutsi boy, tell him so. He stands in the Nyamata Catholic Church in southern Rwanda on an overcast morning and walks behind the altar. He points to the spot where his mother, father and three sisters were hacked to death in a raid by radical Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe.

More than 1,100 men, women and children were killed in the church in one of the worst raids of the genocide. Only a few people survived. Casius lived because his mother fell on top of him. The machete blow that ended her life cut a 6-inch gash above his left ear. The Interahamwe left him for dead.

"The Interahamwe is still around," Casius says quietly. "The killers are only in different places now. They want to come back for us soon."

For centuries, the Tutsi have dominated the military, politics and economy of the area. But it was not until the end of colonialism and the subsequent battle for control of the country that the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry turned genocidal.

The most recent flare-up between the groups started in 1994 in Rwanda after a Tutsi rebel army overthrew the Hutu-led government in response to the government's attempt to exterminate the Tutsis. The Interahamwe and radical army troops killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus that year. Tutsis live in fear here because, they say, the Interahamwe is alive and well and fighting in neighboring Congo.

Perhaps 10,000 strong, it is the most notorious group to become involved in the 5-month-old Congolese civil war. The Interahamwe has gained the support of Congo President Laurent Kabila for a renewed series of attacks on Rwandans, particularly ethnic Tutsis, such as Casius.

Rwanda, along with its northern neighbor Uganda, has sent several thousand troops across the border into Congo to fight alongside rebel forces. The rebels are known as the Congolese Rally for Democracy and are trying to oust Kabila, and thus expel the Interahamwe.

But Rwandan support for the rebels has enraged Kabila. He has vowed to "take this war back to where it started -- Rwanda." His state-run radio has urged listeners to pick up machetes, spears, panga knives, bows and arrows, garden hoes and axes, "in order, dear listeners, to kill the Rwandan Tutsis."

Such apocalyptic statements strike a chilling note in the Rwandan psyche -- and reinforce Rwandans' fear of being exterminated by the Hutus.

Congo is more than 100 times the size of Rwanda. Kabila has rallied not only Interahamwe radicals to his side but also government forces from Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad and Namibia. Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe has sent jets, helicopter gunships and at least 8,000 troops into Congo. He leads the Congolese allies in saying that the rebels and their Rwandan supporters must be crushed.

The result is that the Interahamwe is better armed, trained and prepared than at any point since it waded through the little church in Nyamata, hacking women and children to death.

"If Kabila wins in the Congo," says Boniface Rucagu, the Hutu administrator of Rwanda's northwestern province of Ruhengeri, where 10,000 people have been killed by Interahamwe raids in the past two years, "let me say it clearly: We will all be killed."

Given the widespread Hutu support in Rwanda for the Interahamwe during the genocide, it is almost impossible to overstate the level of distrust, if not outright paranoia, here. In Ruhengeri, which borders Congo, the Rwandan army has swept some 365,000 people -- nearly half the population -- into "resettlement villages" to deny invading forces any secret rural support.

"Everybody in Rwanda goes to sleep in fear they won't be alive in the morning," says Josue Kayijaho, director of the Collective Association of Human Rights Groups, an umbrella group of four Tutsi and Hutu agencies. Many see the war in Congo as a continuation of Rwanda's Hutu-Tutsi strife. After the radical Hutu army and the Interahamwe were defeated by the Tutsi-led army in Rwanda, they moved across the border into Congo, then known as Zaire, and continued their attacks.

Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko failed to stop their cross-border raids, so Rwanda and Uganda created a rebellion that overthrew Mobutu in May 1997. They installed Kabila, a longtime Mobutu foe, as president.

Kabila renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo but changed little else, keeping in place a corrupt, autocratic regime. He supported the Interahamwe to show independence from the Tutsi-led Rwandan army, his one-time patron. Interahamwe attacks into Rwanda grew stronger and more deadly. This rekindled fears of genocide in Rwanda, prompting the Rwandan intrusion into Congo's civil war in August.

While analysts understand Rwandans' fears, many are critical of the Tutsi-led government's backing of an armed revolt to overthrow Kabila. The way forward, these analysts say, is a long-term effort to ease distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis.

"By invading the Congo, the Rwandan Tutsis are turning the Great Lakes region into one big vortex of a self-proving hypothesis," says William Zartman, director of African studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "They are convinced they have to eliminate those who they think will eliminate them. In doing so, they are making attacks on themselves more and more likely."

At least for the moment, the Rwandan gamble is paying off.

The Congolese rebels and their Rwandan and Ugandan allies have cleared eastern Congo of the Interahamwe militias and conquered up to 40 percent of the nation.

This has brought a rare, rough-hewn peace to Rwanda, though tempers remain on edge.

Neely Tucker wrote this article for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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