'We have seen terrible things these last weeks': David Orr, in Butare, Rwanda, hears reports of well-organised mass murders

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Near the Rwanda-Burundi border, a single corpse remains as evidence of the massacres that have ravaged Rwanda over the past month.

It lies face down on a sandbar by the Akanyaru River, which meanders out of the hills of southern Rwanda into northern Burundi. Carrion crows pick over this belated offering brought to them by the muddy flow whose bounty left them spoilt for choice a few weeks ago. At the height of the killings, dozens of bodies floated down every day.

It was at this lonely border crossing that I met Claude Sonier and his family as they fled to safety in Burundi. For the past three weeks, the Swiss businessman had been in hiding inside Rwanda with his wife and three children. It is a blessing that his wife, a member of the Tutsi minority, was not butchered by the Interahamwe - the government-sponsored death squads drawn from the Hutu majority.

But it is a blessing marred by the loss of many family members and friends. They had to leave 17 women and children behind in their house. They dare not think what fate awaits these people.

I had heard of Mr Sonier in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, the day before I crossed into the government-held south of Rwanda. A Swiss human rights activist, hearing of my plan to drive into neighbouring Rwanda, asked my help in trying to locate his fellow countryman. All he could tell me was that Mr Sonier lived with his Tutsi wife and family in Butare, on the main road north. He feared they might already be dead.

In the event, it was the authority of the Italian consul in Bujumbura that secured the Soniers' release. Under diplomatic escort, the family arrived at the border, traumatised but elated at their escape.

'We have seen such terrible things these last weeks,' said Mr Sonier, a small, wiry man with a prematurely greying beard and eyes bloodshot with fatigue. 'I must talk about what has happened in Butare, I have to talk.

'Everything was quiet until just over three weeks ago. Then a new prefect was appointed, a Hutu from the north. Soon afterwards planes landed with members of the Presidential Guard. The killings began early the next morning. The soldiers and militias started with the men, then went on to massacre children . . . mostly they picked on Tutsis, but Hutus were also targeted.

'The soldiers got the Interahamwe to dig pits, which they lined with flaming tyres. Men, women and children were thrown in alive. My mother-in-law, a woman in her sixties, was killed in this way.'

Butare, a once-lively town with a university and many businesses, had an unusually high number of Tutsi inhabitants. Mr Sonier says most of the Tutsi residents have been killed. Of the 1,000 Tutsis who lived in his quarter, he estimates only 40 have survived.

Last Friday, aid workers near Butare discovered a mass grave containing the bodies of 88 students. It is one of several such pits in the area where the Interahamwe have buried the victims of their hatred.

It was growing dark as we drove down the main street of Butare, deserted apart from Interahamwe and military checkpoints. In a parish-run guest house I met a Belgian and Swiss-educated Tutsi priest from the neighbouring parish of Kiberho. This alert old man, who asked me not to use his name, told a story that confirmed the worst of the horrors earlier recounted by the Swiss businessman.

'The Interahamwe started systematically burning Tutsi houses in our district during the second week of April. About 6,000 Tutsis sought refuge in the church, school and other parish buildings. The terrible events of 14 April began at one o'clock in the afternoon. There were about 300 attackers, among them men in military uniform. They started looting the priests' houses and stealing the cattle. They were armed with guns, machetes and grenades. All the people were hiding in the parish buildings.

'I could hear their screams as the attackers moved from room to room, shooting and throwing grenades. I prayed as I awaited my turn. Then there was a pause in the killing as night fell and some Interahamwe went away. Those who were strong or lucky fled into the bush. When a soldier came to my room, I thought my time had come. But for some reason, perhaps out of respect for my cloth, he helped me escape. I hid all night in a banana plantation, then came here to Butare, where I know the bishop.'

He can only piece together subsequent events from the accounts of survivors and of Red Cross officials who arrived at Kiberho on the afternoon of 15 April.

'The Interahamwe started killing again the next morning. Up to 2,000 people, mostly women, were in the church. They were all massacred and the church was burnt to the ground. I cannot give exact figures, but I believe about 5,000 people died over those two days. I have been told the dead have been buried in mass graves.

'Kiberho is where I was born and I want to go back, but it is not safe and anyway there is nothing to go back to. Perhaps we can build everything up again, I don't know.'

Both the priest and the Tutsi Bishop of Butare, Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Gahamanyi, say the massacres were prepared in advance and were orchestrated with military precision. But both men, now under the dubious protection of government soldiers, fear to point fingers that might provoke further bloodshed.

Letters, page 13

(Photograph omitted)