With the international image of his government horribly tarnished, Rwanda’s military leader asked the world Tuesday not to rush to judgment about the killings at Kibeho camp, arguing that his soldiers were up against organized enemy militia - not helpless refugees.
Gen. Paul Kagame, who holds the rank of vice president and defense minister but who is Rwanda’s most powerful government official, said his soldiers faced a mass charge, orchestrated by Hutu militia. He insisted Rwandan troops were justified in opening fire.
“The mob inside had gained enough momentum,” Kagame said in an interview with three American journalists. “They went directly to attack the soldiers. I still believe it was right for them to act as they did in self-defense.”
He conceded, however, that his soldiers may have panicked before the events were over.
“As to whether or not they went beyond a certain margin is another matter that one can look at, but the initial reaction was in self-defense,” Kagame said.
This was the first time he had spoken publicly about the killings, which have already resulted in the cut-off of relief aid and called into question Rwanda’s commitment to national reconciliation.
In fact, so profound is the question - Who is responsible for the killings? - that the next chapter in Rwanda’s troubled history could easily hinge on the answer, or at least what the outside world and Rwandans themselves come to accept.
Until now, the Rwandan government has offered only a sketchy explanation and defense of its forced closure of refugee camps inside its borders.
The United Nations has estimated that 2,000 people died in two clashes at Kibeho camp last Saturday - some shot by army soldiers, some killed by radical refugees and some trampled in the ensuing panic.
The Rwandan government said the toll was only 300, a figure which Kagame said he believed. But some relief workers said the toll might actually be 4,000 or higher.
Often in news coverage and in fund-raising appeals, Rwandan refugees are portrayed sympathetically, Kagame noted.
But he said the global community also should remember that among these refugees are thousands of Hutu men and women who just a year ago undertook systematic slaughter of 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis and who are now are being given relief food and medical care in camps, instead of being brought to justice.