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Rwanda to Hold First Multi-Party Elections Ever on Monday - 2003-08-24

Millions of people in the east African country of Rwanda will head to the polls Monday to vote in the country's first multi-party presidential elections.

The election is seen as a test of how far Rwanda has come since the genocide in 1994 when an extremist Hutu government orchestrated the slaughter of nearly a million Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus. The election has brought half-buried ethnic tensions back to the surface.

The residents of the sleepy, pastoral town of Nyamata, about 30 kilometers south of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, say they are still desperately trying to forget the horrors they witnessed here nine-years ago.

Emmanuel Ndashimye said back then, he barely survived an attack by Hutu extremists who came to his home. Tears roll gently down Mr. Ndashimye's face as he recalls how the killers hacked to death his pregnant wife, three children and a dozen relatives, for no reason other than they were ethnic Tutsis.

"They killed everyone, including newborns and babies still in their mothers' wombs," Mr. Ndashimye said. "They killed in such a brutal way, it is hard to describe what I saw."

Nyamata district has traditionally been an Tutsi-dominated area in a country where 85 percent of the population are ethnic Hutus. When the genocide began in early 1994, 140,000 people - mostly Tutsis - lived here. When the killing ended several months later, only half of them were still alive.

The man who stopped the bloodshed in Rwanda is the current President Paul Kagame, who led a Tutsi rebel army that drove the extremist Hutu government and most of its supporters out of the country.

Mr. Kagame, who has effectively ruled Rwanda since 1994, has been both praised and criticized for his attempts to unify the country.

In towns like Nyamata, Hutus have been invited to return and live alongside Tutsis. Many extremist Hutus, who participated in the killings but have shown remorse, have been freed from jails and allowed to return to their communities.

But critics say that Mr. Kagame also rules through repression and fear by automatically accusing opponents of trying to stir up ethnic tension.

That charge has again surfaced as the country moves toward its first genuine multi-party election since it gained independence from Belgium in 1962.

President Kagame's main opponent is Faustin Twagiramungu, a moderate Hutu. During the genocide, extremists killed many members of Mr. Twagiramungu's family because he would not condone the killings. He served as prime minister in the post-genocide government before he fell out with Mr. Kagame and went into an eight-year self-imposed exile.

Since his return to Rwanda in June, Mr. Twagiramungu has campaigned on a platform similar to that of Mr. Kagame's call for economic development, national unity and security.

But Mr. Twagiramungu has also been critical of the government's policy of forbidding Rwandans to identify themselves as either Hutus or Tutsis. "This philosophy of denying identity is not a solution. The solution for me has to be a process, which will start with the education of our children, to get out of your mind anything of ethnicity," he said.

In recent weeks, the disagreement over how Rwandans should view their ethnicity has badly marred the presidential campaign.

Mr. Kagame said his opponent has been blatantly trying to encourage Hutus to vote along ethnic lines. Mr. Twagiramungu denied the charge and says that Mr. Kagame's Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front party has harassed and intimidated his supporters because as a serious Hutu candidate Mr. Twagiramungu has a good chance of winning the election.

On Friday, the London-based human-rights group, Amnesty International, released a statement supporting Mr. Twagiramungu's allegations. The group said the Rwandan Patriotic Front has used pressure tactics, including the detention of opposition supporters, forced conscription into Rwandan Patriotic Front ranks and violent intimidation to undermine support for the opposition.

Despite such reports about Mr. Kagame's conduct during the campaign, many Tutsi and Hutu residents in Nyamata say they will vote for the president because they believe he has done much in the past nine years to heal the rift between the two groups.

Francis Nkurunziza, Nyamata district's mayor, said, "When you have no peace, you can not be democratic because without peace, democracy cannot prevail. The government of Rwanda has done a lot to change this country. The RPF has led a country fragmented by the genocide. Now, it is reached the extent where people are living together. People have no problems. If the RPF continues to lead the country, it means the country will be peaceful."

Monday's election will show if the rest of the country agrees.