Rwanda's tapestry of misery: David Orr reports from Ruhango, where hunger, malaria and dysentery wreak new havoc among the war refugees

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The Independent Online
THE MAN is too weak to sit up. He lies shivering on the cobbled floor of a vast gloomy hall. Another man lifts him up to give him a sip of water and some food but he collapses, unable to eat. Gasping for breath, he forces some words from his swollen, bloodied lips. All his family is dead, he says, and he has not eaten for five days.

The scenes here recall the worst ravages of starvation in Somalia. There are 200 sick and emaciated people in this huge warehouse overlooking Ruhango, central Rwanda. Most are from the minority Tutsi tribe; all have lost family members in the killing which has swept the country in the past two months. Many bear suppurating machete wounds to their heads.

Outside, hundreds of other malnourished people languish in the scorching sun, some cooking what few beans and potatoes they have been able to scavenge. A young girl crawls across the grass, her scrawny limbs hardly able to carry her. Suddenly she falls in a tiny heap, flies buzzing around her mouth and eyes.

'I'm dying of hunger,' a desperately ill man tells me, pointing to his empty stomach. 'Is there no one who can do anything for us?'

A Rwandan doctor says that since these people started arriving in Ruhango last Thursday, 30 have died. Malaria and dysentery are rife.

The suffering of Rwanda has entered a terrible new phase as thousands of civilians, many starving, flee southwards. They are escaping the fighting between rebel and government forces around Gitarama, 25 miles south-east of the capital, Kigali. Heavy artillery has halted the advance of the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels who reached the outskirts of Gitarama last week.

The battle for the town will mark a turning-point in this war. If the rebels can take Gitarama, until last week home to the discredited interim government, they will be able to isolate the government's garrison in the besieged capital.

The rebels have already pushed government troops back from Kabgayi, a suburb of Gitarama, where 35,000 displaced people have been camped since April. It is from Kabgayi and other newly liberated areas that the civilians are now pouring out. Some have been hiding in the bush, others living in terrible conditions in government-run

internment camps.

The people in the Ruhango hall have brought horrific tales of executions and torture. By the time the rebels arrived in Kabgayi, hundreds had been massacred by the interahamwe (those who kill together) death squads from the majority Hutu tribe. Every day for weeks men, women and children have been dragged out of the camps and bludgeoned to death.

The lucky ones are those like Francois Cavulate and his son, who made it to Ruhango after the liberation of Kabgayi. But before they could escape, he says, his wife and three of his children were butchered by the interahamwe.

No one knows how many Tutsi civilians in these camps were dispatched before the arrival of the RPF. When I visited Kabgayi just over two weeks ago, I heard countless testimonies of massacres from inmates of one compound. A young man, though frightened for his life, told me people were regularly selected for execution beyond the barbed wire perimeter.

Every day hundreds more people arrive on foot from the death camps of Kabgayi. Ruhango hospital contains some 250 patients, but has no more room. Dozens of hungry people lie listlessly at its entrance, their hands raised as they plead for food. A further 5,000 displaced people crowd the eucalyptus-lined slopes outside the hospital.

A terrible tapestry of human misery is unfolding as the rebels push back the government forces south of Kigali. In the looted monastery where I am staying is a skeletally thin old man. He hobbled into the town of Nyanza on Saturday and collapsed outside the monastery walls.

Aloysius Gasirabo had been in hiding in the bush for six weeks, surviving on sporadic supplies of raw potatoes. He drank water from a swamp. He told me his wife and four children had been killed by the interahamwe in mid-April. His house was destroyed. Afraid for his life, he fled.

Dr Mike van Joost, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a veteran of nine war zone missions around the world, said: 'The wounds I have seen in this country are among the worst I've ever witnessed.

'Many of these are fresh wounds, so it is evident that the massacres of civilians are continuing in government- controlled areas.'