A Tutsi in Baltimore tries to find who is still alive

April 15, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

During the past week of bloodshed and chaos in her native Rwanda, Nathalie Piraino, 37, has sat in her Carney home, garnering scraps of horrifying news.

Breaking through on jammed telephone lines a handful of times, she has been told that one of her sisters has already been slaughtered along with her 10 children. She reached another sister, hiding in the capital, Kigali, terrified that the same fate awaited her.

"Every minute, she told me, they expect to be killed," Mrs. Piraino said last night, her words punctuated by sobs. "They're hungry. They can't get water."

Mrs. Piraino and her nine brothers and sisters in Rwanda are Tutsi, members of the ethnic minority that make up less than 10 percent of the population. The Tutsi so far have borne the brunt of the killing by bands of ethnic Hutus, who are about 90 percent of the 7.4 million citizens of Rwanda.

Mrs. Piraino has been told that the marauding Hutus are going from neighborhood to neighborhood in Kigali with lists of Tutsi families, looking for people to kill.

The Belgian neighbors of another of her sisters, who were hiding the sister's family in their Kigali home, agreed to take one child with them as they were evacuated to Belgium earlier this week. Fearing the whole family could perish, her sister sent her 4-year-old daughter with the fleeing foreigners.

The child, Vanessa Wineza, is now in Belgium. Mrs. Piraino and her American husband of 15 years, Dave Piraino, are working to obtain a U.S. entry visa so that they can bring her to Baltimore. Mr. Piraino, who works for Catholic Relief Services, has visited Rwanda twice in the last year. Mrs. Piraino, who has lived in this country nine years and makes wedding gowns, was last there in 1988.

She is one of perhaps a few dozen native Rwandans living in the Baltimore area. Some are refugees from

earlier civil strife. Others are students, mostly at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Caroline Musabe, 27, and her husband, Enias Baganizi, 30, a Hopkins doctoral student, are ethnic Hutus. After days of telephoning, she managed to reach her mother and sister in Kigali for the first time Wednesday morning. A neighbor with a phone ran and summoned them. They were hungry and frightened but unharmed.

They told Ms. Musabe her father and brother were out helping to organize an unarmed civilian guard for the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, she reached friends in the scattered Rwandan community in the United States: a friend in Texas, cousins in Washington, D.C., Idaho and California. She heard rumors of the victims.

An uncle was dead -- an ethnic Hutu, but apparently mistaken by marauding Hutus for an ethnic Tutsi. A friend involved in opposition politics, whose picture from a December visit to Baltimore is in their family photo album, is believed dead.

"Many, many people I know have been killed," said Ms. Musabe, sitting yesterday afternoon on her sofa in a full length green-and-yellow dress and matching head wrap as her 1-year-old son, Stephane, played on the carpet.

"In Kigali, everyone knows everyone else," she said.

The history of intermittent strife between the Tutsi and the physically taller Hutus dates back centuries. But as in other ethnic conflicts, the two groups have experienced much intermarriage and long periods of peaceful coexistence.

Ms. Musabe's only living grandparent, her mother's mother, is a Tutsi, and the neighborhood guard her family is helping organize includes members of both groups. Mrs. Piraino recalls being rescued by a Hutu during an earlier period of conflict, many years ago.

But the strain of distant bloodshed can be felt as far away as Baltimore. "They are nice people," Mrs. Piraino says of some Baltimore Rwandans, "but they are Hutus."

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