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Rwanda Seeks To Bridge Deep Ethnic Divide

Influx of Hutu refugees tests Tutsis' resolve

Despite the images of rebels and refugees flickering across US TV screens, Rwanda is more stable than it has been in years - for now.

To be sure, there will be more disputes over houses and land as the hundreds of thousands of Hutus who spilled home from Zaire settle back in their villages. Thousands are likely to be packed into fetid prisons when their neighbors accuse them of participating in the 1994 genocide of up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

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The half-a-million refugees who have already returned may soon be joined by up to 500,000 more from Tanzania. Last week, the Tanzanian government, with the backing of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ordered all Rwandan refugees to leave the country by the end of the month. Yesterday, aid workers reported that more than 40,000 Hutu refugees had abandoned two camps in northwestern Tanzania. They speculate that the mass exodus was organized by hard-line Hutu groups, which control the camps, in response to the order to return home. Many Hutus are afraid to return to Rwanda for fear of being accused by the Tutsi-led government of participating in the genocide.

Even if the refugees come home peacefully, the question remains: What is their country's future?

Rwanda's most pressing problem, the refugee camps in eastern Zaire, has disappeared. Perched on the border for two years, they became bases for Hutu militants to raid Rwanda. Now that they have been dismantled by Zairean rebels, Rwanda is more stable than it has been in years.

But some observers wonder if the stability can last under a minority-led regime. Ultimately, it is the difficulty of the situation, not the intentions of the leaders, that may make lasting peace elusive.

Rwanda's old leaders forced ordinary Hutus to butcher their Tutsi neighbors - in what current leaders say was a deliberate effort to create a society their enemies could never rule.

The legitimacy of the Tutsi-led regime is that, as a rebel force, it stopped the genocide in its final stages. Now its challenge is to piece Rwanda back together.

To start, leaders are trying to bury the ethnic question. They have banned the words "Hutu" and "Tutsi" from the radio, and teach that colonialism created the divisions. While the Belgians, who ruled as a colonial power, practiced divide-and-rule techniques, Rwanda's ethnic battle lines have never been so crisp as in the wake of the genocide. And while officials may downplay ethnicity, they are acutely aware of it. For example, few officials dare utter the word elections in public. A vote now, they say, would be an ethnic census.

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Instead, they installed more Hutu ministers than Tutsis in an effort to win broad support. Few Hutus buy it. Many see the ministers as Uncle Toms who would be fired if they cross certain lines, a view supported last year when the prime minister and three other top Hutus were replaced after criticizing the Army.

The government's top priority is punishing the killers. More than 85,000 genocide suspects have been locked up after being denounced by neighbors. But the drive-by arrests and the failure to try even one suspect 2-1/2 years after the crime have not helped heal ethnic divisions.

Still, Rwanda has strong support from its Western allies, most importantly the United States. The US sees a strong Rwanda, with all of its people home again, as the best way forward. They raised no objection as evidence mounted that Rwanda was supporting rebels in eastern Zaire to dismantle the refugee camps and solve the border crisis.

Across Rwanda's southern border, another Tutsi power, Burundi provides a totalitarian blueprint for keeping control. Both countries have nearly identical colonial histories and the same ethnic mix - 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi. There Tutsis have stayed in power for three decades by periodically massacring hundreds of thousands of Hutus - and aborting the country's only attempt at democracy in 1993 with the assassination of the first Hutu president three months after his election. There have been attempts at power-sharing, but the Tutsi-dominated Army has never relinquished its grip.

The fear is that Rwanda is heading down the same path. While many have predicted that Burundi will explode in a Rwandan-style genocide, the opposite is happening: Both countries have armies that view themselves as the protectors of the Tutsi minority. Both have become so polarized that even the most moderate of politicians are squeezed into extremist positions. And until recently, both faced attacks from Hutu insurgents.

For now, the strip of Zaire held by Zairean Tutsi-led rebels serves as a buffer of protection for Rwanda. But the Hutu militants won't disappear forever. In the end, the massive refugee return may have a downside for the Rwandan government: The next time Hutu militants attack Rwanda, they may find many more supporters waiting for them.

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