Life stirs in Rwandan charnel-house: In Kabgayi, David Orr witnesses a saga of survival amid the immense army of the dead

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The Independent Online
If infantile memories are swallowed by time, then so much the better. One child, a baby boy, was found lying naked in a hall, surrounded by the corpses of five adults.

The other, a baby girl, was discovered clutching the arm of her dead mother in a chapel not far away.

Perhaps her mother had been dead for days - it was impossible to tell. Had not both infants coughed when we walked in, we would have left them for dead too, along with the dozens of bodies that littered the compound.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the former seminary which until last week served as an internment camp for displaced civilians. The sun was low in the sky, casting long shadows beside the little huts of leaves and branches in the courtyard.

Apart from the cawing of crows circling overhead and the occasional sound of gunfire down the valley, the place was silent. Bodies lay all round, some of them emaciated from hunger, others bloated in the early stages of decomposition.

When I first visited this camp at Kabgayi, in southern Rwanda, nearly a month ago, it was crowded with some 2,000 men, women and children. The rooms, cellars and outhouses were so full of people stretched out on the concrete floors that it was difficult to pick a path through them. There were even families living in chicken coops at the edge of the barbed-wire compound.

Hundreds more were encamped in the courtyard.

These people, members of the minority Tutsi tribe, arrived at Kabgayi in mid- April, having fled from surrounding areas, seeking refuge from the massacres which were spreading like the plague through the Rwandan countryside. Many had already lost family members at the hands of government soldiers and Hutu militiamen who roamed the hills searching for victims of their hatred. They thought they would be safe in the seminary but within days it their haven had become a hell from which there was no escape.

To leave meant certain death from the militias. Those who stayed faced starvation, for there was little food or water.

Many of the inmates succumbed to the ravages of malaria and dysentery. Young men were selected every day to be killed beyond the perimeter fence by government soldiers and militamen armed with machetes and nail-studded cudgels.

Driving up the deserted road towards Kabgayi, I wondered how many of the people I had talked to a month ago were still alive. In particular, I wondered about the fate of a teacher, Raymond Mdaraga, who had guided me around the camp. He had led me deep into the compound, out of sight of two government soldiers who had followed us inside. He knew he was risking his life by talking but felt compelled to speak out about the atrocities.

Before reaching Kabgayi, we stopped off at a displaced- persons settlement in the town of Ruhango. A young man came towards me out of the crowd: it was Raymond. I learnt that after my visit he had been betrayed to government soldiers by fellow inmates desperate to save their own lives by currying favour with their persecutors.

'The massacres and rapes continued after you left,' he said. 'The interahamwe (Hutu militias) came looking for me when they heard I had spoken about what was happening. It was only God who saved me. I dug a hole in the floor of a hut and my brother covered it with leaves. I stayed buried there for five days, praying I would not be found. Then the rebels arrived and freed us.' Two of his brothers were butchered by the death- squads. He and his family had spent six weeks in the camp.

No one knows how many people had died by the time Kabgayi was taken by advancing Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels last week. Those survivors still strong enough to walk made their way southwards, to the relative safety of towns recently liberated by the rebels. Hundreds of others, too sick and weak to move, have been taken by the rebels to Ruhango, 12 miles south of Kabgayi but many were too far gone to survive more than a few days in the reception centre and hospitals to which they were brought.

Those we found still in the camp had for some reason not been evacuated. Perhaps a dozen people remained. Near the entrance, an emaciated woman was bent over a tiny fire while three children squatted in the dirt near by.

Beside them sprawled the decaying bodies of two men and a half-naked baby. It was impossible to tell if these people had been killed or had died of hunger and disease.

On the concrete floor in an outhouse four men lay motionless under soiled blankets, only their eyes indicating they were alive. One levered himself up on a scrawny arm and spoke: 'Please can you help us?' he said. 'We are sick and there is no one to give us medicine or food. Does anyone even know we are here?' Bodies wrapped in shawls were scattered on the floors in every room, every building, and the fetid air was thick with buzzing flies. Outside, the body of a woman lay stretched by a hedge, her bony hand still grasping a branch.

The two babies we found alive were carried out by the RPF soldiers who had accompanied us into the camp. They also rescued an old man called Daniel who had been sitting alone in the courtyard. He said that every member of his family was dead.

Having left the camp, we came to the main hospital. A month ago there were some 300 sick and wounded patients here but now only a dozen or so remained. Some lay on filthy mattresses in the entrance, too ill to move. A man sat a few feet from the rotting corpse of a government soldier whose face was set in a ghoulish rictus. Because of a badly infected leg wound, the man could not turn away from the sight before him. Day and night, the two had been sitting together, sharing the companionship of death. In the wards, the few patients still alive lay in beds alongside those who had died. They had not had food or water for days. The stench of decay and infection was overpowering.

Can the few who survived these horrors ever really recover? I do not know, for, though I have spent weeks in this blighted country, I cannot imagine what such suffering must do to the minds and hearts of human beings. All I can say is that Raymond Mbaraga, when I met him again, had a glimmer of life in his eyes. Now and then as he talked a smile came to his lips. He even mentioned some of his plans for the future.

(Photograph omitted)