Evacuees tell of terror in Rwanda

April 11, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Foreign evacuees came out of Kigali, Rwanda, yesterday bearing horror stories of sweeping civil strife that left their Rwandan friends and neighbors slain or in hiding and fearing for their lives.

Many of the Americans and Europeans who traveled in caravans to neighboring Burundi and were flown here by U.S. military planes arrived shaken, with few belongings but many eyewitness accounts of the three days of bloodshed that began in Rwanda on Wednesday when the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their plane was reportedly downed by a rocket at the airport.

"It was the most basic terror," said Chris Grundmann, 37, an American evacuee, describing the fears of the Rwandan civilians and officials who were the targets of the violence. He and his family, hunkered down in their house with mattresses against the windows, heard the plights of the Rwandan victims over a two-way radio.

"The U.N. radio was filled with national staff screaming for help," he said. "They were begging: 'Come save me! My house is being blown up,' or 'They're killing me.' There was nothing we could do. At one point we just had to turn it off."

Mr. Grundmann, an official with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said members of the Tutsi ethnic group were among the worst hit in the first night of fighting.

The family's cook, a Tutsi, came to their home begging for help on Friday after having spent three days pretending to be dead.

"He told us that on Wednesday night someone had thrown TC grenade into his home," Mr. Grundmann said yesterday. "He escaped through an open window, but he thinks his wife and children died. For 36 hours he played dead in a marsh. There were bodies all through the marsh. . . .

"When we left, we gave him all the food in the house, and I showed him where he could hide in the rafters," he continued. "He didn't dare go out," Mr. Grundmann said.

Since Wednesday, it is estimated that thousands of people have been killed in fighting between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority that have struggled for political dominance since Rwanda won independence from Belgium in 1962. On Friday alone, the main hospital had more than 600 bodies before noon.

No one has taken responsibility for the downing of the plane that killed the two presidents, Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi. The Rwandan government has accused the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis.

The heaviest fighting started at first light Thursday and concentrated first on one of the many hills of Kigali, in an area where government ministers and many Americans lived. From then until a cease-fire Saturday morning, few of those evacuated left their homes or hiding places, and those who did saw the bloodshed firsthand.

In the Rwandan capital, houses were broken into, shops were looted, and there were bodies in the streets, Marty Fields, a business manager for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, said yesterday after he was flown to Nairobi.

Mr. Fields said he had seen Rwandan soldiers as well as civilians armed with machetes, spears, and bows and arrows roaming the streets.

But what he remembers most vividly is a man on the side of the road, kneeling and begging for mercy from Rwandan soldiers. They shot the man three times in the head, he said.

For almost 36 hours, 13-year-old Hanne Steen, her parents and sister lay huddled in a hallway of their home while soldiers and looters threw grenades into the homes of their Rwandan neighbors in Kigali.

"Thursday night was the worst time," Hanne said. "There was no light, no telephone and gunshots throughout the night. I was so nervous. I couldn't eat. I was nauseous. We were in the hallway with pillows over our heads to stop the noise. We could hear the bullets whistle over our heads."

The American family ate M&Ms and canned tuna and kept in touch with the outside world by two-way radio.

Hanne's mother, Kathy Shapiro, who works for UNICEF, said, "One staff member was forced by soldiers to put at least six bodies into a ditch."

Richard Steen, Hanne's father, who works with an AIDS control and prevention project, said, "We just held the kids and told them we would get through it, that it was not aimed at us."

The attackers struck close to home, though. Among those who lost their lives were neighbors of the Steens -- the family of a senior official.

Those evacuated yesterday had left Kigali on Saturday just after noon in three car convoys organized by the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda, and the first arrived in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, about 9:30 p.m. the same day.

The convoys were stopped for several hours at the border, and two convoys were harassed by armed civilians and soldiers.

In one instance, they were looking for Belgians and said they wanted to kill Belgian soldiers, said several of the evacuees. Rwanda is home to more than 1,500 Belgians, the largest foreign group in the country.

Belgium is sending additional troops to help evacuate its citizens, and yesterday at least four C-130 transport planes left Nairobi airport loaded with Belgian paratroopers.

In the Rwanda countryside yesterday, international relief workers told the Associated Press that armed men had set up roadblocks outside Kigali and that it was too dangerous to get the wounded to the hospital.

"The Red Cross is overwhelmed. We are picking up the dead. It's in the thousands but I can't number it," said Patrick Gasser, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kigali.

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