In hell the streets are empty: From the front line in Kigali, David Orr records a grim day in the death of Rwanda

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE MORNING wake-up call in this city is usually a mortar round falling a short distance from where you lie. But the chances are you have already been awake for some time, listening to the ping-pong of artillery shells which go back and forth across the front line. The shelling and machine-gun fire begin at four or five in the morning when it is still dark outside. Two mongrels promptly start howling in the forecourt.

You lie there in your half-sleep playing a sort of aural identification game: this one is incoming, that one is outgoing. Boom, boom, boom. Then you wait a second or two anticipating the inevitable explosion somewhere beyond or behind you. If the sound is muffled you know the firing is some way off in the hills. If not, you surface from your slumber a little more quickly. There is usually a reply, the other side lobbing a few rounds back in the direction of the opening volley. Boom, boom, boom. Perhaps someone has just been killed or wounded.

Another day of war has begun in the Rwandan capital. You open your curtains and look out on the rolling countryside below you. Two days ago the hills were shrouded in mist so that you could see only 50 yards ahead but these last couple of mornings the day has begun with bright sunshine. Idyllic, really, were it not for the sound of gunfire and shelling.

Idyllic were it not for the fact that more than 60,000 Kigali inhabitants have been massacred in the last couple of months. Tutsis, Hutu opposition party members and rebel sympathisers were killed by government soldiers and Hutu militias in the wake of the president's death. Whole families were dragged from their homes into the street where they were butchered with machetes and clubs. They now lie in mass graves on the outskirts. Maybe 50,000 people remain out of a population of one third of a million. The streets are empty.

Kigali is not a city in the way most Europeans would understand it; perhaps not even as many Africans would understand it. People in Rwanda do not ask 'What town do you come from?' but rather 'What hill do you live on?' So it is with Kigali, a scattered series of hillside communities with green valleys running between them. This is no Somalia or Sudan but a lush, mountainous land which some visitors compare to Switzerland or even to Wales.

I am staying in a hotel on the front line between rebel and government forces. The Meridien was one of Kigali's two four-star establishments, welcoming businessmen and tourists wishing to visit the legendary gorillas who live in the mountains a couple of hours drive north-west of here. Behind the hotel, beyond the tennis courts and the empty swimming pool, is the King Faisal Hospital where thousands of displaced Rwandans are living in squalor. Beyond that are the hills from where the rebels issue their early morning salvoes. From the balcony you can see the ridge, along which are ranged the government troops with their machine-guns and mortars.

The hotel's guests are now a motley bunch of displaced Rwandans, United Nations' peace-keepers and foreign journalists. There is a remarkable similarity about the interior of the rooms: windows shattered by bullets, bedsteads placed across the balconies for protection against shrapnel, mattresses on the floor, piles of half- eaten military rations on the tables. There is no running water so conditions in the bathrooms are none too sanitary. There is a vocal little group of orphan children who play in the corridors among piles of rubbish. But the place is somehow kept running by a young hotel employee called Edouard, who found himself trapped when fighting broke out in the city at the beginning of April. To the amazement of everyone there is electricity, even CNN on television.

The peace-keepers and journalists are lucky in that they can get out during the days, even if it is only as far as the UN compound a couple of miles up the road. It is not safe to wander far abroad, even with a UN escort. Neither side respects the UN flag and the organisation's convoys are regularly shot at. The day before yesterday, a Senegalese UN soldier lost his life in a mortar attack. He was not the first peace-keeper here to be killed.

The 180 displaced people who have sought refuge in the hotel do not have the option of leaving the premises. They stay shut up in their rooms most of the day, lying on their mattresses, reading or watching television. It may not be much of a life to live for months on end, but at least it is better than being confined to the nearby football stadium where an estimated 4,000 civilians are languishing in unspeakable misery in the open. This is the rainy season and torrential rainstorms are frequent at night. Countless thousands more families are living in similar locations throughout the city.

Yesterday Edouard introduced me to a well-dressed young mother of two children living on the floor below. She is a Hutu, a member of the majority tribe which has been blamed for the brunt of the genocide which has claimed as many lives in two months as were killed in Bosnia in two years.

This is her story: Within days of the death of the president the rebels arrived at her house on the outskirts. They advised her to relocate to the stadium for her own safety - the fighting, they indicated, was going to get very heavy. The day after her arrival there some shells landed on the stadium, killing more than 20 people. She took her children to the airport hoping to secure passage abroad. By this stage her house had been burnt to the ground and the massacres in the city had claimed thousands of innocent lives.

But she was told no Rwandans could leave the country. Someone gave her a lift to the hotel where she and her children now reside. One boy has malaria but there are no doctors to treat him. Though their future is bleak she is content that they are at least safe for the time being.

On the floor below them live two Tutsi men in their forties, Jean and Faustien, both former cooks with a German company in Kigali. Jean says his wife and six children were slaughtered by government soldiers along with more than 200 people who took refuge in a parish centre during the early days of the killing. In another such centre near Kigali Faustien's wife and eight children were murdered. There the death toll was reported to be much higher - as many as 3,300 people. His family's killers, says Faustien, were the notorious Interahamwe, the Hutu death squads which still roam southern Rwanda with their machetes, grenades and nail-studded clubs.

This is a land of millions of displaced and bereaved people, ordinary citizens caught up in a hell not of their own making. As the death toll mounts by the day, it is impossible to see beyond the suffering of the present. This will surely once again be a green and pleasant land whose fields are free of the stench of rotting bodies and whose rivers are empty of bloated corpses. But I have not met many people here who could tell you when that day might come.

(Photograph omitted)