Rwandan killing has bloody roots in Hutu-Tutsi rivalry How could this have happened?

May 08, 1994|By Mark Matthews and James Bock | Mark Matthews and James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondents

KIVUMU REFUGEE CAMP, Burundi -- The mob ran Venerande Bakashema down like the most helpless prey. Eight and a half months pregnant, she had no chance. Then they slaughtered her.

Francois Sekayuku, 32, a Tutsi farmer in mud-spattered trousers, numbly told the story of his wife's death. He sat under blue plastic sheeting at this camp in north-central Burundi.

From his family's hilly farm in southern Rwanda, Mr. Sekayuku said, he saw spear-carrying Hutu militiamen draw near, followed by soldiers.

Violence and unbridled cruelty had radiated out from the capital of Kigali after the Rwandan president was killed April 6. Tutsis, the tall, cattle-raising minority who once ruled Rwanda as kings, were being singled out for death by mobs of Hutus, the short, crop-growing majority who have run the Central African nation since independence.

The poverty-wracked little country, once dubbed the "Switzerland of Africa" and known best for its "Gorillas of the Mist," had descended into hell. Now the flames licked at Mr. Sekayuku's home.

"First of all, they burned," Mr. Sekayuku said. "All the [Tutsi] houses were burned. . . . Then they killed."

He gathered his wife, three sons, ages 6 to 10, other relatives and five head of cattle. They ran up and down hillsides. Looking back, he saw the mob douse his small mud-and-wood house with gasoline and torch it.

They ran, but after two miles over rugged terrain, Venerande Bakashema, 30, gave out.

The boys, running with their uncles, did not see their mother fall. They didn't see the mob catch up with her, and hack and slash their mother's life away with machetes. Mr. Sekayuku saw.

Then he kept running.

*

A month of horror flows out of Rwanda in the gruesome stories of refugees cast across northern Burundi, in the whispered telephone calls between Rwandans still cowering at home and their friends in the West, in the thousands of bloated corpses floating down the Akagera River along the Tanzanian border.

Patients were pulled from hospital operating tables and shot to death. Children were ripped apart by shrapnel from grenades thrown into church sanctuaries. Innocent Tutsis were bludgeoned and dismembered by club, mace, spear and machete.

The deadly numbers -- an estimated 100,000 Rwandans killed in only a month -- are chilling, even cold. But visits to Rwanda and the sanctuaries for survivors of the carnage in neighboring Burundi make clear the unspeakable pain and human tragedy, the lives forever scarred, behind the statistics.

The massacres began after the suspicious plane crash in Kigali that killed Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of neighboring Burundi, both Hutus.

It has far exceeded even the violence of the 1959 revolution that first brought Hutus to power, and it has spurred renewal of a civil war that began in 1990 when mainly Tutsi rebels invaded Rwanda from their base in Uganda.

The shock of the savagery that has carpeted Rwanda in cadavers is exceeded perhaps only by the slaughter's methodical nature.

What has happened in Rwanda is not an orgy of ethnic violence but orchestrated political killing, according to refugees, human rights activists, international relief workers and U.S. diplomats.

There is broad agreement that Hutu extremists -- fearful of a Tutsi takeover and clinging to their clique's hold on power -- are probably behind both the president's death and the bloodshed.

"The slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda is genocide, a planned campaign to eliminate this minority people," Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch/Africa told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday. "But the massacres go beyond genocide to target those of the Hutu majority who show a willingness to work with Tutsi in building a more democratic nation." The Rwandan government attributes the violence to "popular anger" at the president's death (which it blames on the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front). It denies that killing continues in government-held zones -- despite widespread reports to the contrary.

The Rwandan tragedy has a more complex underpinning than simply hatred between Hutu and Tutsi, although that is a major factor.

It also involves regional rivalries among Hutus (northern hard-liners vs. southern liberals), and demographic pressures that make Maryland-sized Rwanda (population: 8 million) the African continent's most crowded country.

For five centuries, Hutus and Tutsis have shared the "Land of a Thousand Hills" that is Rwanda. The two ethnic groups speak the same Kinyarwanda language and often live side by side.

Rwanda was 85 percent Hutu, 14 percent Tutsi and 1 percent Twa (the original Pygmy inhabitants) until hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled during the Hutu revolution.

Until the eve of independence in 1962, Tutsis were lords and Hutus serfs, first under the traditional monarchy, then under Belgian colonialists who chose to rule through the Tutsi aristocracy. In the colonial era, a Hutu with more than 10 cattle could become a Tutsi.

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