The Pope has condemned the conflict in Rwanda that led last week to the killings of an archbishop and 12 priests. Kevin Hartley reports on the roots of a tribal war that threatens to decimate a nation
"MOST OF THE people you know will be dead by now." In the '60s, I had taught in a junior seminary with the speaker, a Mututsi for many years now in exile in Switzerland, where he and his wife have taken the momentous decision to become citizens.
I had phoned to express, however inadequately, my sense of desolation at the news coming out of Rwanda.
Rwanda, newly-emerging into independence, was a desperately poor country. Whoever coined the phrase, "the Switzerland of Africa" had more of an ear for poetry than an eye for reality".
In 1962 the Belgians, had bowed to the inevitable and also quit the United Nations Mandated Territory of Rwanda-Urundi, leaving the two countries to resolve to their separate independencies.
There was not an inch of hard-top road in Rwanda, no industry, a rudimentary educational system which relied almost entirely on religious foundations, and an agricultural programme which had been introduced with so much brutality that the terracing, so essential in that sort of over-grazed deforested and mountainous terrain, was essentially equated with colonialism and largely allowed to fall into abeyance.
Conventional wisdom had it that the Batutsi, Nilotic pastoralists related to the Nuer and the Masai, had entered Rwanda in time immemorial and had there imposed their kingship on the agricultural Bahutu, Bantu people linguistically related to the peoples of the entire eastern side of Africa.
Though it seems more likely that the kingship, its sacral character so similar to that of the Baganda, had been borrowed from the Bahutu, the Belgians, as the Germans before them, had gone along with this wisdom.
The Batutsi were natural rulers the Europeans could rely on to keep things stable. In truth, however much the Batutsi had been regarded as the aristocracy, there often seemed little to choose between the life-style of the Batutsi and the majority of the Hutu.
The size of Wales, Rwanda, with a population of about four million by the end of the '60s, was already groaning at the seams. Even from the point of view of an outsider it seemed that, for such a tiny country, regional and clan rivalries played a significant role. National politics were strictly ethnic. Tens of thousands of Batutsi had fled into the neighbouring countries especially Uganda following massacres.
The Belgians, bong-timer supporters of the Batutsi minority, had thrown in their hand with the Bahutu in the power struggle leading up to 1959 and the removal of the monarchy.
Deprived of a voice, and despite the legacy of murder and discrimination, the Batutsi seemed to the forefront in a number of areas, notably in education and the Church (Catholic, that is; the Anglicans favoured the Bahutu).
The country was over 50 per cent Christian, the majority of these being Catholics, ministered to by Rwandan clergy and religious, as well as a multi-national band of White Fathers and other missionary organisations.
With hindsight, one could say the seeds of the present atrocities were already being sown during the 1960s, when there was a fear of the Inyenal, ("the cockroaches", as the Bahutu termed the guerrilla bands of Batutsi infiltrators whose alleged forrays from the north were always an excuse for further acts of repression.
What truth there was in the scare stories was impossible to ascertain. Ironically, it was the emergence of Hi Amin in Uganda which was to lead eventually to the military formation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The overthrow of Amin and the eventual return to something like stability and growth under Museveni was to provide the Batutsu refugees with the army training, and probably the weaponry, to seriously consider an excursion into a Rwanda where even some Bahutu were sickening of the excesses of President Habyarimana.
The invasion of 1991, although overwhelmingly Batutsi in origin, began to resemble a civil war as Bahutu were prepared to join them against the government. The present chairman of the RPF is himself Hutu, Alexis Kanyarangwe.
Such was the military effectiveness of the Popular Front that Habyarimana was driven to consider a compromise: an integration of the RPF-ferces into the national army.
It remains a matter of speculation now how far these moves were genuine. A rocket, a shell or an engine failure on the approach to Kanombe airport of the aircraft carrying Habyarimana and the Burundian President from peace negotiations put an abrupt to wishful thinking. It seems now abundantly clear that the Habyarimana clique had contingency plans for ethnic cleansing.
The stories in the press and the pictures on our screens have a terribly prophetic quality. This is ultimately what happens when people are denied a decent way of life, when people prize the illusion of power more than they respect the humanity of others when living conditions become intolerably cramped and the share of what there is becomes grotesquely tilted in
favour of a few.
We are hearing now that the Rwandan Patriotic Front has been responsible for civilian killings.
It has been admitted that the Archbishop, together with 12 of his priests, have been slaughtered by soldiers of the RPF supposedly guarding them. Did the soldiers think that these priests were somehow conspiring with the enemy?
There is no reason :o believe that the RPF enjoy saint-like qualities. It may be that they see a fierce justice in the destruction 'of people they believe to have been responsible for countless horrors. Kanyarangwe talks about the need to politicise the people.
Presumably, he means that they must be weaned away from the tribal, ethnic and regional divisions which have
played such an historic role in this tiny country.
There are signs of this working in Uganda, where the blood-letting was on an immense scale, and where there are even greater divisions, ethnic and linguistic.
It may be that by the time you read this, the RPF will have taken Gitarama, where the rump of Habyaramana's regime has fled if Gitarama is taken, the whole country will effectively be under the control of the erstwhile "rebels".
And then what? There "seems little hope for a country so torn apart, no basis on which to build any form of trust, but maybe miracles can still happen. Astonishingly, even in the camps, one can hear people talking about forgiveness, about trying to build a future.