Journey into Rwanda finds heroism and selflessness amid the devestation


KABGAYI, Rwanda -- The land is disarmingly lush at first. Before reaching the eerie emptiness that grips the killing fields, the aid convoy passes through hills thickly cultivated with coffee, bananas, beans and sorghum -- the places to hide.

There aren't stacks of bodies here, but death lingers. It greets the aid workers, and a reporter traveling with them, as they make one of their first expeditions into southern and central Rwanda since it became too deadly to stay in the country.

On an open field beneath a hill between the Burundi border and Butare, a university town in southern Rwanda, the convoy stops where two bodies lie on their backs, bloated in the sun and about 100 yards apart. One appears to be a woman; the other, its head buzzing with flies and its tongue protruding, appears to be a man.

Aid workers here say they have been told of mass graves in the area, so filled with rotting corpses that people won't go near because of the stench.

The Rev. Vjeko Curic, a Franciscan priest from Croatia, has seen the many bodies as he drives back and forth between the Burundi border and the mission he runs in Gitarama, central Rwanda.

"Today you saw two bodies," he says. "I have seen thousands."

The living are his concern, the thousands upon thousands of refugees -- Hutus and Tutsis alike -- trying to escape the carnage.

They are everywhere, trying to get out of the country, packed into hospitals, churchyards, swarming in fields, hiding in the hillsides.

At the Catholic hospital in Kabgayi last Sunday, a roomful of people with exposed machete wounds lie untreated in a scene of agony, blood and filth.

A young girl, perhaps 12 years old, is motionless, her cheek against the bare concrete floor, a diagonal gash across her face surrounded by black, caked blood.

Nearby, a tall, thin man lies on his side on a cot with a deep wound in the back of his neck. Tugging at his clothing, he reveals another deep gash above his buttocks.

Across the room, another man huddles in a corner, eyes vacant. He stretches out his right arm, showing that his hand has been severed. Dried blood stains the sleeves of his jacket.

In another part of the hospital, Eugene Havugimana, 26, is recovering from machete wounds to his head. He was attacked after being turned back from the Burundi border.

At the hospital entrance, Deogratias Hdatashye, a thin boy of about 11, sits moaning in pain on a bench, his knees drawn up. He has machete wounds on the right side of his head and a deep gash on the back of his neck.

Both Hutus and Tutsis have come here in search of safety. No one has been fully spared.

Near the hospital, on the grounds of a Catholic seminary in Kabgayi -- "Le Petit Seminaire de Kabgayi" -- several hundred Hutu refugees sprawl around a courtyard, many of them ragged and dirty.

Across the way, about 8,000 Tutsi refugees cram into the muddy yard of one of the seminary buildings. Families huddle around wood fires. They lack even the most meager assistance. Knots of people cluster around visiting aid workers, desperation in their eyes and expressions.

Cyrille Gashabizi, a gaunt 28-year-old with the familiar, prominent Tutsi cheekbones and large, expressive eyes, clutches a patterned cloth around his head and shoulders. In broken English, he says he came to the camp from a suburb of Kigali on April 22, by way of another churchyard, and has nothing left.

A young woman with chapped, light-brown skin, who identifies herself only as Beatrice, says many people have died from hunger at the camp.

In nearby Gitarama, a soccer stadium holds about 5,000 people, mostly Hutus from Kigali's middle class. They have fled in fear of the retribution that might come from the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front rebel forces, which control part of the capital.

Peter Muhingabire, 37, a statistician in the state Ministry of Planning, lies under a blanket on a covered bleacher amid clusters of families. He says he joined a general exodus of frightened people from his Kigali neighborhood who left "because of the war and the shooting."

"There was no way to live," he says.

A survey of needs

Survival here may not get much easier. Last weekend marked the first effort to restore major international relief operations in southern Rwanda since most relief workers and European and American expatriates fled the nation's descent into holocaust.

At the urging of Father Curic, a small convoy quickly assembled by Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) crossed the border from Burundi to Rwanda to explore the needs of refugees still trapped in Rwanda.

It included Chris Hennemeyer, head of the Rwanda Program for CRS; his assistant; two Burundi-based staff members of the World Food Program; Norbert Clement of World Vision International, a Protestant relief organization; Father Curic; and a Baltimore Sun correspondent.

After his first visit last week, Mr. Hennemeyer predicted that "a lot of people are going to die" before a major influx of aid arrives to the refugees in Rwanda.

On the road

The border crossing from Burundi is not much to speak of. As travel documents are cleared, the convoy is joined by a young soldier with a rifle who sits in the lead vehicle.

The first roadblock is an informal affair, like many that have been set up by civilian militias: a log lying across the road. A youngster comes from nowhere to remove it.

Roadsides usually filled with pedestrians are practically empty. Most people are staying inside their homes.

The road into Butare, where two weeks ago between 100 and 170 Tutsi patients were forced out of their hospital beds and killed, resembles an armed camp. Just past the university entrance, a large roadblock with many government soldiers briefly halts the convoy. Around the corner, Butare's 3-block-long main street is deserted.

The normally crowded road to Gitarama is mostly empty, too. Behind the terraced agriculture, hedged and grass-covered ridges dug along the side of the steep hills to prevent soil erosion, the evidence of destruction is plain to see.

Dwellings have been set afire and wrecked in the recent frenzy of ethnic extermination. One hut has smoke stains; several have window and door frames yanked out, their surrounding bricks crumbling, roofs caved in.

In Gatagara, a small town north of Butare, cattle are being herded along the road. Farther on, the convoy pauses briefly behind a stopped red pickup truck with its bed filled with young men, a few of them carrying machetes. The convoy passes other men carrying spears.

This is how many of the people have been killed or hurt in Rwanda, with spears and machetes.

No safety in churches

There are some heroes in Rwanda's devastation. Many are the innocent Rwandans -- Tutsi or Hutus or mixed -- who survive this ordeal. Then there are the priests, native and foreign, and the aid volunteers.

The Rev. Andre Havugimana, a Catholic priest, lies in the hospital in Kapgayi, his right shoulder bandaged and his left arm in a sling, too weak to say more than a few words. He is being treated for a gunshot wound received when he tried to protect people who sought refuge in his churchyard from government troops.

Thousands of Rwandans have mistakenly sought refuge in churches, only to be forced to flee or slaughtered.

The Catholic bishop of Butare, Jean-Baptiste Gahamanyi, an elderly, bespectacled Tutsi in white robe with purple skullcap and sash, greets people with stately bows and the lingering Rwandan handshake.

The bishop agrees with a questioner that what has occurred constitutes genocide. He himself has not been menaced and isn't afraid, he says, but he is frightened for priests who live in the same building.

Asked how such massacres could occur in a country where a majority are Christians, he says that for many Christianity is more of a social exercise, a way of belonging.

The bishop of Kapgayi, Thaddee Nsengiymva, is a large, soft-spoken man with a broad face and widely spaced, protruding buck teeth. His features clearly mark him as a Hutu. He presides over a cluster of orange brick church buildings on a hillside where, he says, some 20,000 refugees have sought sanctuary.

The bishop appears to be a government supporter. He says that thousands in his diocese have been killed but that the military has brought the region under control. Now they fear infiltration from the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front.

There is something "anti-clerical" about the killings of people in churchyards, he says.

'I felt helpless'

Father Curic -- the native of Croatia risking his life for Rwandans -- seems a special case among the special people who help.

He runs a mission on a hillside at Gitarama. It's a simply furnished complex with two rows of priests' cells, each with a comfortable bed, desk and bookshelves.

Remaining after most Americans and Europeans had fled, he drove a heavy truck back and forth along the violence-prone mountain roads between Gitarama and the Burundi capital of Bujumbura to bring back desperately needed food.

A frenetic, compact man of 37 with stubbled face, salt-and-pepper curls, an easy grin and direct gaze, he is an expansive host and seems to have befriended much of Gitarama, including local soldiers. His order, he says, has adopted the approach of listening to and learning from the local people. He learned the native tongue fluently by joking around with Rwandans.

Now he is wrestling with the fact that some of his parishioners, he is sure, have become killers in the rampage conducted by local militiamen and backed by the military.

He has watched helplessly as people have been killed. Once he passed along a road where, on one side, two women partially hidden in bushes were begging to be spared and, on the other side, armed men were preparing to kill them.

Some 25 of his fellow priests have been killed in Rwanda, Father Curic says.

But a defining moment of the Rwandan carnage occurred when he arrived at the scene of a massacre of 30 people at a government checkpoint between Butare and Gitarama.

Among the bodies he found a live baby who had been carried on its mother's back. When the mother was killed, she had fallen backward, but the baby survived. He picked the baby up from beneath the mother's bloody body and cradled it, feeling utterly impotent.

"I felt helpless, more feeble than this child," he says. "It was for me a synthesis of what had happened."

TOMORROW IN THE TODAY SECTION: If the horror of Rwanda has a single human face, it may be that of rights leader Monique Mujawamariya.

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