People were murdered brutally, with knives, machetes and clubs. You had to pay money if you wanted to be killed by a bullet

David Orr meets survivors of Rwanda's genocide as the first trials begin
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Taba - In a grove of trees outside the village there are two rectangular plots, each measuring about 40ft by 15ft, their borders edged with plants. These are the mass graves in which some of the thousands of Taba residents slaughtered in the early days of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 are buried.

The man accused of having organised, and in many cases committed, these killings is Jean-Paul Akayesu, 43, the former mayor of Taba, a commune in the central Rwandan prefecture of Gitarama. His trial, the first to be held by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, is due to begin today at Arusha, in northern Tanzania. If found guilty, he could face life imprisonment.

No one knows how many members of the Tutsi minority were butchered in and around Taba during the 100-day genocide - estimates are that at least 2,000 men, women and children died at the hands of the Interahamwe, Hutu militias. The real figure is probably much higher. Among those killed at the outset of the carnage in Taba were three brothers, Simon Mutijima, Thaddee Uwanyiligira and Jean Chrysostome.

One of the many charges brought against Akayesu is that he ordered and participated in the killings of these three men. Their brother, Ephrem Karangwa, says he witnessed the executions. "The genocide in this commune began on the evening of 18 April", says Mr Karangwa, now mayor of Taba. "That day Akayesu attended a meeting of all the mayors in the prefecture. When he got back to Taba he summoned members of his party [MDR-Power] and went to talk to the Interahamwe. Then the killings began".

First to die was Sylvere Karera, a local teacher. Although at least one of his murderers was handed over to the authorities, no one was arrested for that or any of the subsequent killings which took place while Akayesu held office. Survivors say Akayesu, a former teacher, took particular pleasure in targeting teachers and other educated people.

Akayesu is alleged then to have called a meeting urging the elimination of all Tutsis in the area. Reputedly he made incendiary speeches, urging the population to kill all inyenzi (cockroaches), even Tutsi foetuses in their mothers' wombs. Survivors say he drew up death lists, distributed weapons and roused his henchmen. He is even said to have recruited children as look-outs, giving them whistles to blow whenever they saw a Tutsi.

"I was warned I was on a blacklist of people to be killed," says Mr Karangwa, described in a newly published report of the London-based human rights agency African Rights as "the man Akayesu hunted more than any other".

Mr Karangwa said: "I saw Akayesu and his gang go to my house, looking for me. They looted and burned the house, then began searching the area. My brothers and I split up but Akayesu caught up with them. I saw him shoot my youngest brother dead. Some of his men killed the two left, slashing them with machetes."

A police inspector at the time of the genocide, Mr Karangwa was pursued to a neighbouring commune by the Interahamwe. By May 1994, most Tutsis in Taba were dead.

"Many of my friends are buried here," Mr Karangwa says. "People were murdered brutally, with knives, machetes and clubs. You had to pay money if you wanted to be killed by a bullet. Akayesu did terrible things. He even took part in the killings. If he hadn't given the orders, no one, or hardly anyone, would have died here."

Mr Karangwa has made a several statements to the tribunal investigators and hopes the UN trials in Tanzania will be properly conducted. But, like many Rwandans, he feels the guilty should have been tried in their own country. Found guilty by a Rwandan court, Akayesu would face the death penalty.

Only 21 people have been indicted by the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda which, with the tribunal for former Yugoslavia, is the first to attempt to prosecute war crimes in an international forum since the end of the Second World War.

Of the 11 people under arrest, four are being held in Arusha, among them Akayesu who fled Rwanda in June 1994. He was arrested in Zambia last October and was indicted by the tribunal in February.

Akayesu has pleaded not guilty to genocide and crimes against humanity. His lawyers will no doubt attempt to present him as "small fish", one who was only following orders. Yet he held enormous power and in the anarchy of those months which preceded liberation by the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels, Akayesu was a master of life and death. The fate of Taba's Tutsis was invariably the latter.