Journey into Rwanda finds heroism and selflessness amid the devestation

May 08, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Correspondent

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

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