The horror returns to Burundi

Exclusive: David Orr was the only European reporter to witness the aftermath of a massacre that left 300 dead
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The Independent Online
A charred claw protruded from the limp bundle where the woman's hand should have been. Two men had wrapped her body in a piece of reed matting and were half dragging it out of the red brick hut where she had fallen.

Smoke was still rising from the smouldering embers of the building and dark patches of congealed blood lay everywhere on the ground. On the concrete floor of the looted health centre, where the remains of more burned bodies lay in ashes, the pools of blood were still sticky and red.

Dead cattle, broken pots and blood-soaked clothes were scattered along the paths. Among the debris were piles of bullet casings and under a tree, three blood-covered cudgels.

Inside the door of a mud walled cabin another body was concealed, this one burned beyond recognition, its face frozen. The papers discarded on the ground outside gave the only indication as to who the victim was. An identity card showed the smiling young face of a woman in a dress. Typed below her picture was: Spes-Caritas Ndayikengurukiye, born 1971.

"That is the body of my daughter-in-law," said Antoine Rurikera, an old man who stood barefoot and crying a short distance away. "My three grandchildren were also butchered."

This horrific set of killings is a reminder that the international community continues to stand by, even as it stood by during the Rwandan genocide. The UN has constantly talked of bringing a peace-keeping force to Burundi. But it has failed to match words with action. In the absence of an international force came this mass murder.

The true horror of Saturday morning's attack on Bugendena, in central Burundi, was revealed in a clearing at the end of a dirt track. There, on a piece of open ground, were laid out the bodies of about 300 people, mostly women and children. The corpses, wrapped in blankets and reed matting, had been placed side by side in three long rows.

Many had open gashes on their heads and limbs, others were badly burned. The feet which protruded from the makeshift shrouds were in many cases those of small children, no more than a few inches long.

Witnesses say the attack on Bugendena was launched as dawn broke over the lush, rolling hills which surround the community. This was a settlement of about 1,800 members of the country's minority Tutsi group. They were living in the centre's municipal buildings, after being displaced from their homes in the fighting which followed a coup attempt by Tutsi troops in 1993.

Tutsi soldiers now guarding Bugandena say the list of dead stands at 320 people, though this number could still rise. Some 160 wounded lie in nearby hospitals while about 30 inhabitants are reported as missing.

"We were asleep in our beds when we heard shooting," said Pascasie Ngendabanyika, one of more than 50 wounded who are now recovering in hospital in the provincial capital, Gitega.

"It was time for the first radio programme to come on the air. I was breast-feeding my child when men came into our house and started shooting. A bullet hit my baby in the back and went through one of my arms. The attackers asked for money. I gave them some clothes and told them I had no money. Then they said, 'Kill her' and I ran away. They fired again and hit me in the other arm. I smeared my face with blood and lay down amongst some dead people outside. That is how I survived."

Other witnesses of the dawn raid on Bugandena say the attackers numbered more than 1,000. They say they were rebels from the Hutu majority who have been locked in a bitter and increasingly brutal conflict with the largely Tutsi army.

"When we heard the shooting we thought they were attacking the military post," said one stunned inhabitant. "But then the rebels came to our houses and started shooting. I recognised some of the attackers: they were Hutus, our neighbours from the hills. We knew many of these people."

The attackers appear to be Hutu peasants armed with machetes and spears. According to many witnesses, the killers were led by Rwandan Hutus who were apparently members of the former Rwandan army. They carried automatic weapons which they used to mow down those trying to flee. Incendiary grenades were used to set fire to the houses

Relatives of the dead recall that groups of men and women danced and sang as the houses were torched and petrol poured over their terrified occupants. Dozens of people appear to have been burned alive.