Sweet sour stench of death fills Rwanda: Richard Dowden in Rusumo finds only flies, goats and chickens remain in villages emptied of all humanity by weeks of devastating tribal bloodshed

I DO NOT want to write what I saw. In 10 years of reporting from this continent, nothing I have seen or heard matches the horror of Rwanda.

As we set off to drive across the country, an army major from Zimbabwe with the UN who had fought against Renamo in Mozambique told us: 'I thought Renamo was cruel but it was nothing to what has been done here. Yesterday an officer came from Rusumo but he could not make a report. He could not speak. We have seen things we do not want to remember.'

Perhaps one day someone will try to explain why it happened, how human beings could do these things. At the moment the scenes and images must simply be recorded.

The trail south is agonisingly long, winding through hills of rich blue- green banana plantations and eucalyptus woods. Every inch has been cultivated, but the little homes and huts which make Rwanda the most densely-populated country in Africa are all deserted. It is as if the entire country has fled. A few people still hang around some villages and look at you blankly as you pass, but every home has been ransacked - the scant possessions strewn around outside them. Sometimes you see movement inside the dark homes but it is only goats or chickens which have moved into the deserted huts.

We saw groups of people staggering along the road with baskets, bags or other possessions on their heads. Even the little children tottered along carrying something. Refugees? Returning refugees? Displaced people? One group said it was fleeing, another was returning.

On the road are deserted camps, clusters of thousands of lean-tos of sticks and leaves. These are the homes of people who fled when the war started four years ago. They too are now abandoned, the people fleeing for a second time. As you approach every village along the way, every five or 10 miles, it hits you, a faint sweet sour smell of rotting meat. The bodies are sometimes by the side of the road, still lying where they were gunned or hacked down nearly a week ago. And wherever you see a little pile of possessions scattered in the road you know that you will smell it again. You stop once to look but not again. Flies swarm away from the bodies and here they have a habit of landing directly on your lips or your eyes.

In the larger towns buildings have been smashed by artillery or rocket fire and the doors pulled off most other buildings. We slept on the floor of the town offices at Kibungo and that sweet sour smell woke me many times in the night. A little notice read: 'The charges shall be screwed down in the grenade.' This war has not only been the responsibility of Rwandese.

At last we reached the border with Tanzania, the River Kagera at Rusumo Falls. The river, wide as the Thames and flowing fast, swollen with rains, thunders over rapids and falls beneath a bridge. The river is the colour of oxtail soup and there are lumps in it. Above the bridge you see them coming, about one a minute, sometimes more. And that smell returns again. One looked as if it had been crucified, arms outstretched rigid. Another seemed to be clutching something which had slipped away. Beneath the falls the shiny grey lumps bob around in the eddys and pools; children, women, men. Hundreds and hundreds must have passed down the river in the past week and they are still coming.

Across the border in the rolling savannah is the largest gathering of human beings who have ever fled their homes at one time, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 250,000 of them, and more are still coming. They have what they could carry and when the rain comes down as it does for about two hours every night they simply stand in it and wait for the dawn. The UNHCR is distributing sheeting and the Red Cross and World Food Programme are here, but most people have nothing yet. There is a lake near by for water but food must come by a dirt road eight to 10 hours drive away and it is rapidly being churned into an impassable mud lake in the heavy rain. 'We are terrified of an outbreak of water-borne diseases here,' said Sheila Wilson of the ICRC, 'the logistics of reaching this inaccessible place are a nightmare.'

Who has done these things? The territory we pass through is now controlled by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the rebel movement which is largely Tutsi. It rapidly advanced after the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana on 6 April and moved down to the border with Tanzania last week. The RPF appears disciplined and does not appear to have been involved in the killings of civilians.

They have been carried out by the government militia, Hutu fanatics, who have killed all the Tutsis in their areas as well as anyone who supported last year's peace agreement between the government and rebels.

But this is not what the people in the refugee camps say. They are mostly Hutus and they say they fled from the RPF which kills all Hutus. Very few say they actually saw the RPF killing people, and only four arrived with bullet wounds according to the UNHCR. Among the refugees are the militiamen who, armed with spears, knives and machetes, have been carrying out the killings and the refugees may be too frightened of them to speak the truth.

But not all these killings can be explained by political or ethnic conflict. They have gone further and deeper. 'They kill you just for looking at them,' said one refugee. A terrible genocidal madness has taken over Rwanda. It is now completely out of control. On the RPF side there is a sort of peace, a peace of death and abandonment. But on the other side as the RPF advances westwards across the country, the militias are continuing to kill. And when the RPF takes the capital, Kigali, which is only a matter of time, the madness may increase.

(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?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea