To visit Rwanda government, just step over the bodies

August 09, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

KIGALI, Rwanda -- To visit the new prime minister of Rwanda, you go to the Meridian Hotel, make your way past the bullet-scarred windows, between the walls of sandbags, walk up five flights of stairs and head for Room 519.

Somewhere along the line, an official of the new government will appear and you can negotiate an appointment, all the while trying to ignore the stench in the air, an inevitable smell that comes when a hotel has been full but the plumbing hasn't worked for more than two months.

The Meridian stands as a symbol of Kigali, past and present. It's a modern place, seven stories tall, more than 100 rooms. Out back, there's a big swimming pool and a miniature golf course.

It sits atop a ridge outside the city center, overlooking the hills that held the 400,000 residents of this, by far the largest city in Rwanda.

But now, if you want a room, you walk by the front desk and negotiate with one of the various families who have taken control of the hotel's various floors.

The rooms are free. If you're lucky you get one of the few that still has its television, complete with CNN when the generator is turned on for a few hours in the evening -- the city has not had electricity for months, either.

But you pay the family for services, say $5 for a bucket of water to flush the toilet. Much more for a kebab of grilled goat. Laundry can be taken care of, for a price.

The view out the window shows an empty swimming pool and weeds taking over the miniature golf course.

A bit over a week ago, Kigali was virtually deserted except for places such as the Meridian, filled with Rwanda's new government, journalists, United Nations officials and representatives of aid organizations.

It's beginning to fill up again a bit now, but not just with returning residents. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which won the war for control of the country, was formed by exiles, some of whom have been in Uganda or another neighboring country for more than 30 years, since the majority Hutus took control from the minority Tutsis.

Indeed, many of the RPF fighters were the sons of those original exiles. Rwanda was to them what Israel is to many Palestinians -- a home that they had never seen in their lives.

These exiles are coming to Kigali from Uganda, from Tanzania, from Burundi, greeting each other warmly in the few cafes that have started to open, selling warm beer and goat kebabs that can be paid for in a variety of currencies.

These newcomers have taken to moving into houses vacated by war refugees, in some cases taking over not only the house, but also whatever possessions were left behind.

The new government has been adamant that it will not stand for this, that all property will be returned to its prewar owner. The first signs of this are roadblocks checking car registrations. But with thousands of people likely to form a new Rwanda diaspora -- this time of Hutus -- some squatters probably will get to stay.

For the most part, they will inherit middle-class homes undamaged by the war. Kigali looks as if a couple of shrapnel-filled tornadoes came through town, reeking destruction along narrow lines -- ridges that formed the front line before the city fell to the RPF July 4 -- and leaving the rest relatively unscathed.

The Meridian stands on one of these ridges. Other buildings nearby also show the scars of modern warfare. Some have collapsed; others are so damaged they probably will have to come down. The U.S. ambassador's residence just down the street took a couple of direct hits.

(The ambassador now lives in the Diplomat, another of the city's top-class, no-water, no-electricity hotels, but one that charges $50 a night for a room where the door has been smashed in with a sledgehammer.)

On another ridge that was once the front line, more modest homes bore the brunt of the fire that also took large chunks out of the minaret of the city's Muslim Cultural Center.

Inside, the breeze coming through broken windows makes a chandelier tinkle eerily.

Nearby, a skull sits on a rug, perhaps the remains of one of the 160 Muslims who were said to have died here in one of the many massacres that followed the April 6 death of President Juvenal Habyarimana when his plane went down at Kigali's airport. Pieces of the wreckage hit the wall behind the presidential residence, now occupied by the new RPF head of state.

The massacres turned Kigali into a terrifying, bloody mess in April. About 60,000 people are thought to have been slaughtered in the city. They are buried in mass graves around town. If the wind is blowing from certain directions, the stench still emerges.

In the downtown area, a bit of cleanup has begun, though most storefronts, almost all looted during the fighting, are still deserted. But crowds have returned to the open-air market, buying a variety of goods, from bananas and passion fruit to soap and batteries.

Out from town, a bit beyond the Meridian, the U.N. military mission has taken over another deserted hotel. Next door is the now-empty stadium where up to 100,000 people fled to escape the massacres -- most were successful, though some died when the stadium was shelled.

Just beyond is the Christus Center, a Jesuit residence that the RPF uses as its press center. In April, 17 of its residents -- priests, cooks and friends -- were shot to death.

A body still lies in a ditch on a road next to the stadium, a skull and a pair of jeans filled with bones. On a recent day, two young boys bicycled up to the remains and stopped, smiling as they had a look.

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