by Judi Rever
TORONTO – Amid tight security, Rwandan President Paul Kagame met privately with Rwandan supporters in Toronto Saturday, as protesters on the sidelines of the event hurled insults and accused the leader of committing war crimes in Central Africa.
The protesters, mainly Rwandans and Congolese in exile, brandished placards with photos of bloodied victims and orphans, shouting 'Kagame is an assassin' and 'he raped our mothers'.
A few Quebeckers also attended the protest, including women whose bare breasts were painted with the word 'rapist' -- a reference to militias that Rwanda has supported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose members have been accused of raping and killing civilians.
Supporters shot back with the slogan 'Kagame is a visionary regional leader', and rival sides nearly came to fisticuffs as the president arrived at an arena in northwestern Toronto where he was due to address members of the Rwandan diaspora. Organizers of the event claimed thousands of supporters were already inside, and that selected members of the press had been invited to attend.
Protesters meanwhile threw eggs at the presidential car, while Toronto police urged calm and prevented angry protesters and supporters from charging each other.
Kagame and his delegation were in Toronto to celebrate Rwanda Day, a periodic event held worldwide to discuss progress in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide during which Hutu extremists killed more than half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The location of the Rwanda Day meeting was initially shrouded in secrecy in order to avoid any embarrassing protests, after dozens of detractors showed up at a hotel where Kagame was believed to be staying. The demonstrators used megaphones to convey their message, setting off recordings of sirens and calling for his arrest.
“We came here to protest against Kagame because he’s a criminal,” Pierre- Nkinamubanzi said outside the Sheraton, a luxury hotel in the heart of downtown.
“He killed a lot of people not only in Rwanda but in the Congo. He’s responsible for the deaths of millions of people.” “And we know that he’s responsible for supporting the robbers in eastern Congo that have killed and raped innocent people,” he added.
Kagame’s staunchest supporters include former US President Bill Clinton and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Western governments have continued to grudgingly back the strongman in the belief he has kept ethnic extremism at bay.
Yet the Tutsi leader has been accused by the United Nations and human rights groups of looting the Democratic Republic of Congo of mineral riches and stoking a war that began in 1996.
In 2012, his government came under fire for supporting a new militia in the DRC, --the M23 -- that has raped, killed and displaced thousands of civilians in the eastern Kivu provinces.
Many governments, including Canada, rallied behind Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide but have now reduced or cut off funding to the tiny central African nation. And Kagame's official visits to the West are becoming less frequent.
"I do think it is interesting that this isn't an official visit by Mr Kagame. As far as I can see, Canada has not invited him," said Christina Clark-Kazak, who teaches international development policy at York University in Toronto,
"It seems to me that the Canadian government has not been forthcoming in welcoming him in conjunction with this private visit. It's reflective of a distancing of relations with Rwanda," she suggested.
By 2014, Canadaand Rwandawill no longer have a bilateral relationship on an aid level, Clark-Kazak pointed out.