In Ravaged Rwanda, Forgiving Will Be Hard While Signs Of Life Emerge, Death Lingers.

Posted: August 08, 1994

NYAMATA, Rwanda — There is no Sunday worship service at the red-brick church here, because the sanctuary and the churchyard are full of rotting bodies.

Many of the town's houses are blackened shells. Others sit empty, their owners either dead or in refugee camps.

But there are signs of life returning, however slowly, to this town that four months ago was home to about 50,000 people, with a reputation as a Tutsi bastion that opposed the Hutu government.

Shops and stores along the dusty main road are beginning to reopen, although they have few wares and fewer customers. Some residents are moving back, although many have to occupy abandoned houses because their own have been burned.

The banana beer vendor is back, selling his brew to neighbors who whisper that he was a ringleader of the massacres that killed thousands here in early April.

Rebuilding won't be easy, said Jean Kilinganire, 54, a Tutsi farmer who lost a son and three brothers-in-law during the weeks of ethnic massacres in Nyamata.

Forgetting may be even harder.

Kilinganire said several of his Hutu neighbors took part in the killings. ''It would be difficult to live with those people," Kilinganire said last week. "But if the new government says they can come back, there is nothing I can do."

By some estimates, more than two million people fled Rwanda, a nation that had just under seven million before the carnage began. About half the refugees are crammed into camps in Goma, Zaire, where hunger, fatigue and disease continue to claim hundreds of lives daily. And 200,000 to 500,000 people are believed to have been killed in the ethnic violence.

Rwanda's new government is appealing to all refugees to return, but many are kept away by fear.

In Goma, where most of the refugees are ethnic Hutus, the group blamed for most of the killings, the refugees say they fear reprisal from the country's new Tutsi-led army, which overthrew the former government. That fear has been reinforced by some of the exiled leaders in Goma, who warn other Hutus that they will be killed if they return to Rwanda.

There have been recent reports, from refugees who tried to go home, of Hutus being killed by vengeful Tutsi soldiers.

Still, people are slowly beginning to return to the country. Along the road leading from Goma, hundreds of refugees set out for home each day, their meager belongings bundled in sacks and carried on their heads.

United Nations workers estimate that perhaps 100,000 refugees have returned in the last three weeks and that as many as 5,000 people a day are going back, but exact numbers are hard to come by. Many avoid the main roads and return by walking through the bushes and forest rather than crossing the border over the main road.

For those going back, the future is uncertain. Many of the Hutus, no doubt, will be suspected by their Tutsi neighbors of having participated in the April massacres. Others will go back to find their homes and businesses taken over by Tutsis.

Rwanda's new government said it would ensure that returning refugees get back all property they left, although many abandoned homes have been claimed.

Some residents say the hardest part of rebuilding Nyamata - and Rwanda - will be learning to live together again, Hutu with Tutsi.

Though most Hutus did not participate in the slaughter, and some even risked their own lives to hide Tutsi neighbors, some did have a hand in the killing, and forgiveness may not come easily.

"It's too early to tell what will happen," said Father Pierre Simons, a Belgian priest who has lived in Rwanda for more than 25 years. "There are still too many people outside the country, and the few who have come back are half refugees. They have not gone back to their original homes. Only time will tell."

Joseph Serukwavu, 56, a Tutsi, said he was anxious for his neighbors to return, even the Hutus.

Like many in Rwanda, Serukwavu blamed the massacres on power-hungry leaders who used ethnic differences to divide and incite the poor and uneducated masses.

"There has never been a problem among the people," he insisted. "The problem is with those in power."

Others see things differently.

Deogratius Gashotsi, 61, said he lost a mother, five brothers and a daughter in the ethnic violence, and is not about to excuse those who killed.

"They should be tried," he said, sitting on the front porch of a house he moved into recently. His own was burned to the ground when Hutu mobs attacked in April.

The leaders in Rwanda's new government said they would push to have those who led the massacres tried in an international court.

No one knows how many people were killed in Nyamata, but based on the grisly evidence, and on the recollections of people who survived the carnage, the numbers almost certainly would run into the thousands.

At the Catholic Church of Ntarama, about seven miles outside of town, hundreds of massacre victims still rot in the Rwandan sun. Many local Tutsis had run to the church, believing that it would provide sanctuary when machete- wielding thugs overran the area.

The site today is ghastly. The floor of the main building is covered with decay, and bodies stretch from the blood-stained entry to the back door, where dozens were hacked or shot as they tried to escape. The stench of death is overpowering.

In two smaller buildings out back lie dozens more bodies. Around the church, amid tall eucalyptus trees, the ground is littered with human carnage - the bodies of men, women and children, frozen as they fell.

In Nyamata itself, hundreds more were butchered in another blood-splattered church. In this case, those who killed buried the dead in a series of mass graves, a thin attempt to hide what had been done.

Some residents say about 600 bodies are buried in the hard, red dirt, just yards from the church. Others say the number is well beyond 1,000.

As with all of Rwanda, Nyamata had seen a long history of ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis, but on a scale much smaller than the recent carnage.

In the last four years, hundreds of Tutsis died in at least four outbreaks. But the latest killings were far more brutal than anyone here could have imagined.

Aside from the human toll, the months of slaughter and civil war also caused extensive property damage in Nyamata, as in the rest of Rwanda.

The country is largely without running water or electric power. Many of the buildings have been destroyed or badly damaged.

Even during the best of times, Nyamata was not much of a town. Its main commercial area was a few dingy stores on either side of a short and dusty dirt road, where cows and goats competed with people for space. Now even that has been destroyed.

Slowly, shops and stores are beginning to open again, but their shelves are nearly bare. Most residents cannot afford what little food there is for sale.

As a functioning country, Rwanda has ceased to exist. There are no jobs, and little money is in circulation. Some of the new leaders said the nation's central bank was emptied by the former regime after the country plunged into chaos.

Faustin Twagiramungu, Rwanda's new prime minister, said it would take many years to undo the damage caused by four months of killing and unrest. With the world watching, he said, Rwandans must prove that they can end the cycle of violence that has plagued the nation.

As a Rwandan, Twagiramungu said, he was embarrassed by the images of his country seen on television around the globe.

"I feel bad, of course," he said. "But to feel bad does not mean I have lost my hope."

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