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

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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine