Hutus in horror jails await Tutsi 'justice'

The inmates of Butare prison are polite and accommodating. They say "Bonjour" and answer questions without complaint. They say they are innocent, but many of them - perhaps most of them - are brutal killers.

Since the massacres of last year in which at least half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus died, some 35,000 people have been imprisoned. Nearly all those detained are from the Hutu majority. Nearly all of them have been charged with genocide. They are being held in 144 different places, including 13 prisons, in conditions described by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as "appalling".

Butare, in southern Rwanda, is one of the institutions in which the ICRC estimates there are up to four people per square metre of floor space in the main compound, and up to six per square metre in dormitories. Most of the 6,111 inmates live and sleep in an open courtyard with no shelter. Many have been there since last July. None has had access to a lawyer, disease is rife and violent death is common.

There is little sympathy among the Tutsi lite now running the country. Such was the enormity of the crimes and such is the need for retribution, that few are concerned about conditions or legal niceties.

To walk among the swelling sea of faces in Butare is a surreal exercise. These men have been charged with the most heinous crimes imaginable.

With one exception, none of those I questioned admitted any involvement in the terrible events of last year. Some say they stand accused of having murdered members of their own families, some of having belonged to the extremist Hutu militia known as the interahamwe (Those who attack together), some of having taken part in killing sprees. Many say they were arrested because they were Hutus or belonged to a Hutu political party.

Only one man admitted his guilt. "I killed because the [former] government told me to. They said I had to fight to liberate my country. We have been cheated by our politicians."

According to Rwanda's former public prosecutor, Franois Nsawzuwera, who resigned last month, some 20 per cent of those accused are innocent. But with denunciation by one person enough to secure an arrest,wrongful detention is inevitable. In the past two weeks, the number of arrests has risen and the ICRC believes that the prison population is growing by more than 1,500 a week.

Men coming from Kibeho refugee camp - where about 1,000 terrified Hutus are still encamped in horrific conditions - are almost automatically arrested on return to their villages. So frightened are many of being imprisoned or lynched by Tutsi villagers that they hide in the bush or flee across Rwanda's borders.

In a cachot or lock-up at Butare are more than a hundred former residents of Kibeho camp, some of them suffering from wounds inflicted by the Rwandan Patriotic Army which nine days ago opened fire, killing 2,000 to 4,000 Hutus. The air in the cachot, is almost unbreathable. A woman prisoner claims she saw two men being bludgeoned to death outside the lock-up last week.

In this hell-hole the Tutsi desire for revenge has found its terrible apotheosis. The national trials for crimes against humanity have been suspended for lack of resources and the international tribunal in Tanzania has yet to convene. Increasingly, it seems, hatred is overcoming the desire for justice.