A portrait of Rwanda massacre: A boy barely survives the killing of his village

August 11, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

NYAMATA, Rwanda -- No one knows how many dead lie beneath the two long scars of red earth just behind the Roman Catholic church in this rural town.

The smallest number you hear is 600. A priest who came after the April killings to run an orphanage says he understands it is more than 1,000. In the town, some talk of 6,000 dead, though they seem to mean in the entire area.

Obed Mbarushimana's mother died. He is not sure where or how. He knows how his father died. He was walking with him when the killers caught up to them. The 14-year-old ran away as the machetes cut down his father. He ran to the place where he thought he was safe, to the place that had provided sanctuary for Tutsis in the past.

He ran to the church.

It was on April 6 that the rolling hills of Rwanda began witnessing killings of Holocaust proportions. That was the day when a plane crash killed President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Planned killings

In what is suspected to have been a planned reaction to the shooting down of that plane, hard-liners in the government set the wave of murder in motion, swamping the country in blood, and then in refugees.

It took three days for the surge to reach this town about 30 miles -- two hours over rutted, dusty roads -- south of Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

Rwanda, and its neighbor to the south, Burundi, have seen many deaths as a result of rivalries between their two ethnic groups -- the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. But neither had seen anything like April's orgy of killing.

Many think that President Habyarimana's agreement to stop earlier fighting by sharing power with the predominantly Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) spurred the hard-liners to plan his assassination and the slaughter that followed.

Human rights observers agree that the killings were not simply along ethnic lines. Many moderate Hutus also died, along with intellectuals, priests, the wealthy and others suspected of not supporting the hard-line stance.

"They were killing anyone with soft hands," said one Polish United Nations officer who nearly died himself while trying, unsuccessfully, to save a group of wealthy people who had hidden in a Kigali hotel. The lack of callouses would indicate someone who was not, like most Rwandans, a peasant farmer.

Moreover, there are plenty of reports of Hutus who hid their Tutsi neighbors, even of Hutus who committed suicide rather than carry out orders to kill their friends.

Tutsi vs. Hutu

But out in the countryside, in places like Nyamata, where almost everyone belongs to the same peasant class, the line between the living and the dead was drawn almost solely by ethnicity.

It was on the first day of the killings in Nyamata that Obed's mother died. On the second day, early in the morning, his father was grabbed. Obed ran to the church, getting there around 6 a.m.

Hundreds of people had crowded into the sanctuary itself, a wide modern brick structure with pews that fan out from the altar. Obed went into the walled-off priests' compound next door. The two Belgian priests had left when the trouble started. ++ Belgians, the former colonial rulers, were being killed, too.

About 3 that afternoon it was clear that the church would offer no sanctuary this time.

Local militias, armed with automatic rifles and machetes, did most of the killings across the country. But when they encountered resistance from the Tutsis here, they called in the army to help. Troops showed up and starting tossing grenades into the compound. The militia shot and hacked people down as they tried to flee.

Obed ran into the kitchen and flattened himself on the ground. Soon, he was covered with others seeking similar shelter. The shooting and explosions went on for three hours, stopping around 6 p.m.

Eventually, Obed realized that those covering him were dead. But he still did not move. During the night, a man who survived started looking through the bodies, trying to find anyone who was alive.

Hid in forest

He found Obed unharmed. The man took him to a nearby village where they hid in a small forest along with a few other Tutsis.

A similar pattern was taking place six miles to the south in the small village of Ntarama. On the third day after the plane went down, Deogratiu Gashotsi, 61, learned of the killings from those fleeing neighboring villages.

Within hours they started in Ntarama. The militia began roaming the streets, burning houses and killing people.

"They were after Tutsis and those who did not support the government," he explained.

The civilian militia were local Hutus. Mr. Gashotsi said he considered many of them to be his friends.

His house was burned on that first day and he fled, running, along with about 1,500 Tutsis, to a nearby swamp to hide.

Others in Ntarama went to a school and, when they resisted the machete-wielding militia, faced the wrath of the army. Grenades blew holes in the walls, clearing the way for the militia to attack. A few survivors tell of fleeing and joining the others in the swamp.

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