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Aid agencies and human rights campaigners cannot evade their share of the responsibility for the tragedy of the Hutu refugees in Zaire, writes Bernadette Gibson

Blood on whose hands?

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the security of the rare mountain gorillas made famous by the movie Gorillas in the Mist, has improved since the rebels took control of eastern Zaire. With funding from WWF, the rebels under the leadership of General Laurent Kabila have been improving conditions in the Virunga national park where many of the gorillas live. A gratified WWF representative told Reuters that 'prospects for the gorillas are looking a lot better than they were'.

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of people currently hiding out in the forests of eastern Zaire it seems that Kabila's enthusiasm for wildlife does not extend to human beings - especially of the Rwandan Hutu variety.

Aid agencies, the UN and the EU have all condemned Kabila's ADFL rebels for massacring large numbers of Rwandan refugees during their advance through the east of Zaire. Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations. has accused the rebels of adopting a policy of 'slow extermination'. Emma Bonino, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, spoke of a 'deliberate strategy to wipe out the refugees in Zaire'. Médècins sans Frontières (MSF) condemned the rebels for targeting refugees, and a host of British aid agencies working in Zaire have called on the British government to use its influence with the rebels' allies in Rwanda and Uganda to end the killings.

Yet many of those who now bemoan the fate of these refugees cannot evade their own share of responsibility for sealing that fate. When human rights groups and aid agencies persuaded the world that the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda between April and July 1994 was a 'genocide', as distinct from the bloody finale of an all-too familiar African civil war, they helped to prepare the ground for the tragedy of the Hutu refugees in Zaire today.

The refugees stranded in eastern Zaire are those who avoided being herded back to Rwanda by aid agencies last November, when rebel attacks closed their camps. A claim repeatedly made by the Tutsi-run Rwandan government, and accepted by the US and British governments, is that the vast majority of refugees are now back home, and that those who did not return are almost all former soldiers and militia members and their families who took part in the slaughter of Tutsis now known to the world as the 'genocide' of 1994. But the facts suggest that, of the 1.2 million Hutus who fled to Zaire in July 1994 when the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of Rwanda, only 700 000 returned last November. For months, many thousands of refugees simply disappeared into the dense forests of eastern Zaire. Many are still missing.

Those refugees who have turned up in makeshift camps, many malnourished and diseased, have brought stories of vicious attacks on men, women and children by Kabila's forces. One missionary priest from eastern Zaire distributed a detailed report to Western agencies and journalists, claiming that he had witnessed several massacre sites and had helped to bury 134 refugees killed by the rebels, some of whom had been burned alive, some shot in the back and others hacked to death.

Although these reports were largely uncorroborated, they are exactly the sort of eye-witness atrocity stories which the British media usually milks to death. Yet despite the appearance of these allegations in the French and Belgian media early this year, they were pretty much ignored in Britain. Only in April, when UN human rights investigator Roberto Garreton returned from Zaire claiming that he had substantial evidence of at least 40 mass graves, did the British media carry the story.

The plight of the Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire could be largely ignored because they have been characterised not as 'innocent' refugees, but as guilty participants in the Hutu 'genocide' against the Tutsis in 1994. With the world convinced that the refugees are murderers fleeing from justice, it is little wonder that Kabila's forces feel that they can get away with doing what they like to terrified Hutu refugees.

The irony is that aid organisations and human rights campaigners have led the way in judging and sentencing the Hutu refugees of eastern Zaire. Rakiya Omaar, from the human rights group, African Rights, has coined a phrase for these refugees - the 'genocidaires'. Writing in the Guardian in April she made it clear that the suffering of Rwandan refugees in Zaire is the bitter harvest of 1994:

'Thousands of these men and some of the women orchestrated the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi. Soldiers, militiamen, politicians, ideologues, priests, doctors, teachers, students, and peasants with blood on their hands fled Rwanda in July 1994.' (30 April 1997)

Omaar questioned whether they should be entitled to refugee status at all: 'UNHCR's mandate is the protection of bona fide refugees, not of mass murderers fleeing justice.'

Of course, Omaar and other human rights activists would never advocate the killing or abandonment of Hutu refugees. But in arguing that many of them are 'mass murderers' who must be treated differently from other, 'bona fide', refugees, she gave credence to the widely-held belief that the Hutus had made their own bed and should be punished. UNHCR, not wishing to be accused of helping these refugees, sent a rapid response to Omaar's article. The letter spelt out that it had always seen 'the potential for further trouble' in the camps and that it was UNHCR that persuaded the UN Secretary General to ask 'the Security Council to send an armed force to clean up the camps' (Guardian, 2 May 1997). By 'clean up', UNHCR presumably did not mean sweeping the floor.

African Rights and UNHCR are not alone in their distrust of Hutu refugees in Zaire. The idea that large numbers of these refugees were genocidal killers, first popularised soon after they arrived in Zaire in 1994, produced an unprecedented debate among aid agencies about how to deal with the 'problem' of Rwandan refugees and the morality of delivering humanitarian aid to this group. MSF has now condemned the killing of Hutu refugees. Yet it contributed to their demonisation last year by publicly withdrawing from the Hutu refugee camps in Zaire on the basis that it could no longer feed killers. UNHCR stayed in the camps but implemented an 'aggressive returns policy' designed to chase the Hutus back to Rwanda by making life in the camps unbearable.

Before the mass return of last November, the report from the US Committee for Refugees had predicted that up to half a million Rwandans would not go home because they are probably guilty of genocide: 'A reasonable estimate is that 250 000 to 500 000 Rwandans in Zaire and Tanzania may never repatriate due to their guilt or their family ties to a guilty individual.' Even after the first pictures of the desperate refugees emerging from the forests reached our TV screens, the US ambassador to Rwanda urged the international community to withhold humanitarian aid from the dying refugees in Tingi Tingi camp, arguing that 'if we do not, we will be trading the children of Tingi Tingi against the children who will be killed and orphaned in Rwanda'. The ambassador was merely echoing a sentiment shared by many: that these refugees are genocidal by nature and will continue to kill people if they are allowed to return to Rwanda.

Given the pathetic state of the refugees barely clinging to life in the forest, it is hard to see how anybody could believe that they present any obstacle to the rebels' war effort, or threat to the Rwandan government. But the global consensus, that Hutu refugees are genocidal outlaws, has meant that there has been no serious debate about why these desperate people should have been subjected to attack by Zairian rebels.

In fact, the attacks on Hutu refugees are a cynical pay back for the support which the Zairian rebels get from the governments of Rwanda and Uganda. The fact that tens of thousands of Rwandans refused to return home after camp closures last October placed an uncomfortable question mark over the legitimacy of the Rwandan regime: a minority Tutsi government imposed by force with the support of Uganda and the West. That is why the Rwandan and Ugandan governments armed and trained Zairian-based Tutsis in Kabila's army to attack the camps, and why the British and American governments went along with it while hailing Kabila as the saviour of Zaire. And because the aid agencies were so unhappy about working with Hutu refugees they too expressed relief when rebel attacks succeeded where they had failed, by closing the camps and forcing the bulk of the refugees home.

When the presentation of Hutu refugees as murderous 'genocidaires' is added to Western support for the new Rwandan regime and Rwandan support for Kabila's rebel forces, it is clear why Zairian rebels should feel able to get away with attacking defenceless refugees. In this atmosphere, killing Hutus who are subject to a blanket accusation of genocide could be rationalised as a means of ending what NGOs and journalists have all termed 'the culture of impunity' in Rwanda.

The 'culture of impunity' is a dangerous myth, which seeks to explain the Rwandan conflict as the latest example of a national tradition of Rwandans killing each other with impunity. According to this myth, the reason why Rwanda descended into 'genocide' in 1994 was because the Hutu militia keyed into a culture in which inflammatory radio 'hate speech' was sufficient to galvanise an entire population into an orgy of killing. The aim of ending the 'culture of impunity' by bringing the perpetrators of the 'genocide' to book has been endorsed by almost all aid agencies and international institutions. It has led to an international witch-hunt of those branded as Hutu extremists, culminating in the establishment of the UN International Tribunal on Rwanda.

Some, however, want to go further still. Gerard Prunier, whose book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (1995) is widely regarded as the most authoritative on the subject, has few qualms about calling for the blood of 'maybe 100 men who have committed not only a crime against humanity but a sin against the Spirit by locking up a whole nation into the airless sadomasochistic inferno. They have to die. This is the only ritual through which the killers can be cleansed of their guilt and the survivors brought back to the community of the living' (p335).

When respected writers such as Prunier can casually call for a mass execution to cleanse Rwanda's spirit, it is easy to see why Zairian rebel forces do not worry that killing Hutu refugees marked out as probable perpetrators of genocide will attract too much international condemnation. And as international bodies, aid agencies and the Western media continue to treat Hutu refugees as different from any other refugees fleeing an African country after their defeat in a civil war, any attempts to speak up for the dignity of these refugees are treated as tantamount to apologising for genocide.

Amnesty International, for example, has already come under fire from the Rwandan government and some NGOs for daring to criticise the forcible repatriation of refugees to Rwanda in November, and suggesting that UNHCR's actions contravene international refugee laws which state that refugees must only return home voluntarily. Amnesty points to the continued human rights abuses carried out against Hutus by the Rwandan government as evidence that it may be unsafe for these refugees to go home. Around 100 000 Hutus are in jail in Rwanda awaiting trial charged with genocide - several thousand of whom were among those refugees forced home in November. The first Hutus were recently sentenced to death for the crime of genocide, after trials in which some had no access to a defence lawyer. The demonisation of Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire has left them completely without a voice in the debate around their own fate.

Three years ago, the presentation of the Rwandan civil war as a 'genocide' served as a useful cover legitimising Western intervention in the region. Now the presentation of Hutu refugees as genocidal criminals serves the same purpose. The rebellion in Zaire has nothing to do with the people of Zaire. It has been planned and implemented by Rwanda and Uganda with the backing of America, which now sees Kabila as a better bet than Washington's ailing and deeply unpopular Cold War ally, President Mobutu. The price for these diplomatic manoeuvres by the American and British governments and their allies continues to be the persecution and slaughter of an entire ethnic group.

When LM first took issue with the characterisation of the Rwandan civil war as 'genocide', the magazine was accused of 'Holocaust denial'. Yet the consequences of the moral consensus branding Hutus as a breed apart from other refugees - as genocidal, sub-human creatures less deserving of humanitarian aid than gorillas - can now be seen in eastern Zaire. As I wrote in these pages in December, when the Hutu camps were being closed and the refugees forcibly repatriated to Zaire, 'The criminalisation of these people as supporters of genocide has robbed them of a voice, and may well rob them of their lives'. For once I am sorry to say that LM has been proved right.

These issues will be the subject of an all-day course, 'Rwanda: the great genocide debate' convened by Africa Direct at The Next Step conference in July

Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997



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