Immanuel Sebomana used to be a boxer. An ethnic Tutsi living in a predominantly Hutu area of northwestern Rwanda, his ability to throw a punch let him escape the region's ethnic tension. Hutus thought of him as one of their own. They said hello to him in the streets and never once bothered him, not even during the 1994 genocide.
Resentment against the Tutsis - a small minority on whom the Belgian colonial administration had lavished money and attention - was at its sharpest. About 800,000 of them were killed in the genocide but they were once again in charge of the country, as they had been until the so-called Hutu revolution of 1959, which led to Rwanda's independence from its colonial rulers.
Still, Mr. Sebomana was allowed to carry on unmolested, both in his homeland and in neighboring Zaire, where he had set up a small business selling auto parts.
But boxer or no, he was just a Tutsi when Hutu rebels ambushed his bus just two miles out of Gisenyi town a month ago. The rebels opened fire on the passengers and set fire to the bus, killing 35 people.
"I jumped out of the window as they were setting fire to the bus. Then I ran into the bush," Sebomana recalls. "I don't want to stay here anymore. I want to make something like a life."
Even though the Tutsi fighters who took over Rwanda in 1994 were able to halt the genocide, the new leaders have not been able to put a stop to the ethnic violence that still racks the country's northwest.
In a gutted building housing Gisenyi's civilian administration, Jean-Baptiste Muhirwa is dealing with the aftermath of the attack.
A small, compact man with an unblinking stare, he was dispatched to this former resort town to put an end to the growing Hutu rebellion. He began by slashing acres of precious banana plantations in an effort to secure the main road from rebels hiding in the dense vegetation.
Having spent years in the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel force that took over the capital, Kigali, in 1994 after the genocide, Captain Muhirwa is well versed in the language of guerrilla warfare.
Rebels, he says, need food and shelter. They need people who will not report their presence, who will suffer brutal army reprisals in silence, who will accept to live in fear. Says the captain: "Without help from the population, this insurgency would be over in one week. And I would not need one soldier."
Why the largely Hutu population is so steadfast in its support of former genocide leaders is a question analysts have tried to answer since May last year, when rebels stepped up their activity in the northwest.
The Hutu insurgents, a highly mobile force of no more than a couple of thousand fighters, seem solely motivated by ethnic hatred. Their attacks have been mostly on Tutsi civilians. Yet they are fed, sheltered, and hardly ever denounced by local citizens. And they have successfully turned the northwestern provinces into war zones, accentuating ethnic tensions in other parts of the country.
Analysts say the history of the region accounts for some of the support. More than 50 percent of the former Hutu political establishment - and 80 percent of the former armed forces - came from the northwest. Many of them played a key role in the genocide and would likely be put to death if caught by the Tutsi-led Army. Unable to reintegrate themselves in Rwandan society, they have chosen to take up arms, banking on the support of their extended families. "A father is not going to turn away his son," says an aid worker in the region.
Yet blood ties alone cannot account for the degree of collaboration with the Interahamwe, as the rebels are called. While it is true that the rebels are in the habit of taking at gunpoint whatever is not spontaneously offered, there have been surprising demonstrations of loyalty. More disturbingly, there have been collective displays of solidarity during and after rebel attacks.
One such display came during the attack Sebomana survived. Hutu peasants surrounded the bus and burst into songs of Hutu supremacy as 35 people were massacred. "It's incomprehensible," says one Western diplomat. "They know the Army will come back and punish them, yet they stand there and cheer."
Observers estimate that more than 10,000 people have died in Ruhengeri and Gisenyi since May. Many have lost their lives in Army reprisals against civilians suspected of sheltering rebels. "These people are genocidaires, all they want to do is kill Tutsis," says Muhirwa.
Hutu peasants also refer to the Tutsi prefect and his entourage as "these people." "These people are a dictatorship," one farmer said, "They tell us every day we are genocidaires.... Then they force us to cut our banana plantations down. How are we going to live without our plantations?"
Like the reprisals routinely carried out by the Army, the leveling of the plantations was seen as an unfeeling imposition on the part of an alien, Tutsi-dominated military regime. Many key players in Rwandan politics, including the country's de facto leader, Major Gen. Paul Kagame, belong to the Tutsi diaspora that was forced out of Rwanda in 1959 and was able to return 35 years later.
"This is a situation in which nobody listens," notes a Western observer, "The Army doesn't listen to the people, and the people certainly don't listen to the Army."
Many see the Army's reprisals against citizens in the northwest as a gross political mistake. "Whether this government likes it or not, the constituency it should be worrying about are the Hutus," says Scott Straus, an observer of African politics. "They make up over 85 percent of the country. If the government doesn't find a way of bringing them on board, this cycle of violence will never end."