`All around children are crying and coughing, their eyes swollen from infection and dirt. The stench is overpowering . . .'

David Orr reports from Kibeho Camp, Rwanda
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Nothing among the green terraced slopes and gently folded hills of south-western Rwanda prepares one for the horror of Kibeho. At the end of a 25-mile dirt track are the first indications of the terrible scenes enacted here. Mounds of clothing and personal possessions are scattered around the rim of a natural amphitheatre; hundreds of abandoned bent-wood shelters line the winding track into the heart of Kibeho village.

Picking your way through more sodden clothing, blankets, discarded mattresses, plastic gerry cans, past a hastily dug grave, you arrive at a complex of buildings whose entrance is guarded by the corpse of a woman, her eyes staring heavenwards. Inside the compound, in a space half the size of a football field, is concentrated a mass of ragged, reeking humanity, so dense that you have difficulty in moving forward.

Among their water-logged belongings, in ankle-deep mud and excrement, some 1,000 men, women and children have been encamped since the weekend. Some are too weak or sick to stir from the filth in which they lie. Others have bullet wounds and gaping infected gashes on their heads and limbs, evidence of the violence which erupted at Kibeho last Saturday.

They say they have received no fresh rations in the past two weeks and that since the weekend they have had only rainwater to drink. The fetid air is thick with the buzzing of flies and with smoke from cooking fires. Women rinse beans in water unfit for the washing of dogs. All around children are crying and coughing, their eyes swollen from infection and dirt. Many of the older people seem too traumatised to know where they are. The stench is overpowering.

No one knows exactly how many people died when soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) opened fire on the 110,000 displaced Hutus they had forced to gather in a restricted area at the centre of the village. Recent estimates have ranged from 8,000 dead (the initial figure given by the United Nations Mission in Rwanda) down to 300 (the official Rwandan government statistic).

It was to determine the exact number of casualties, as well as the cause of the tragedy, that President Pasteur Bizimungu announced during a visit to the camp yesterday the establishment of an international commission of inquiry which will convene within a week. "We are ready to dig up the bodies now and count them," he informed assembled diplomats, aid workers and journalists who were until yesterday prevented from visiting Kibeho. "In the end the truth will come out and we need the truth in this country."

At the President's behest numerous bodies had already been disinterred and were lying in bloated, bloody heaps by the gravesides. Perhaps well intentioned, it seemed a grotesque and hopeless exercise. "They will find as many corpses as they want," said Major Mark Cuthbert-Brown, one of the few British soldiers serving with the UN in Rwanda. "The bodies are very widely distributed and there are individual graves all over the place. This is not the time to start digging them up."

Aid workers maintain that countless hundreds of bodies have been dumped in pit latrines and that we will never know the true extent of this massacre.

Those huddled in the courtyard and in the former schoolrooms and outhouses are the remnants of a population of internally displaced Hutus which until recently numbered nearly a quarter of a million. Early last week the Rwandan government gave orders for the closure of the remaining four displaced persons' camps and the dispersal of their inmates. In Kibeho however, the military clearing operation went badly wrong.

Last Saturday soldiers belonging to a 2,500 strong RPA force at the camp opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades on the people they had herded together. UN troops stood by powerless to help as inmates were shot, blungeoned and trampled death.

Those who were not killed and did not flee to Kibeho sought refuge in the former school buildings where Medecins Sans Frontieres were running a camp hospital. Three times during the past week the RPA has been dissuaded by the UN from blasting the displaced out of their refuge.

The Rwandan government maintains these people form a `hard core' of Hutu extremists who took part in last year's genocide in which at least half a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were butchered. The government claims some of them are armed and holding members of the families hostage.

There are almost certainly people here who are guilty of crimes against humanity but if there are guns or other arms in the compound, they are not in evidence. "The soldiers will kill me if they see me talking to you," said a middle aged man who gave his name as Andre. "They have already shot at us, and they will do it again if we leave. We are innocent people. We have no guns here only kitchen implements for our food."

Some of the injured were yesterday evacuated tby he International Committee of the Red Cross and by mid-day some 15 people had been persuaded to leave the makeshift camp . At one point the RPA soldiers patrolling the area pulled back from the camp at the request of diplomats. But time after time blank refusals greeted the entreaties of the German ambassador August Hummel who begged the people to leave under the protection of Zambian and Australian UN troops.

Rumours of revenge attacks on returning Hutus are fife are rife among the displaced. Many said they would prefer to die where they were than risk going home to other villages.