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Rwandan Tells of Horrors, Cannibalism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man believed to be the first Rwandan refugee to surface in Los Angeles during the current crisis told a harrowing story Saturday of mass murder and cannibalism, of luck that led to his survival and of a debt repaid that led him here.

Joseph Wanzam, a 28-year-old member of the minority Tutsi tribe, said his ordeal began in April when he saw his family murdered by rival Hutus. Then, he said, he barely evaded death himself in a massacre at a jungle prison camp and fled on foot to neighboring Uganda.

There, he searched out an old family friend whom his father had once harbored from the wrath of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who killed thousands of his own countrymen during the 1970s. This time, it was the friend’s turn to offer safe haven.

The friend, a successful farmer, provided Wanzam with phony passports and bought him airline tickets to Johannesburg in South Africa, Jakarta in Indonesia, and ultimately Los Angeles, where Wanzam arrived June 23 and applied for political asylum with the help of the refugee organization El Rescate.

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“I feel comfort now,” he said. “I feel that I am all right.”

Wanzam had surrendered to the Immigration and Naturalization Service when he got off the plane at Los Angeles International Airport. He was held for three weeks at a detention facility on Terminal Island until an El Rescate official arranged for a $2,000 bond.

On Saturday, a subdued Wanzam sat at a Formica table at the Highland Park home of his lawyer and recounted his experience of the ethnic warfare that has turned Rwanda red with blood.

Wanzam, who was educated in Catholic parochial schools and speaks English, began by describing the murders of his parents and sisters the day after the Rwandan president’s plane was hit by rockets, an act that set off the violence.

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The government, controlled by the Hutu tribe, blamed the rocket attack on Tutsi rebel forces, which had been receiving counsel and supplies from Wanzam’s father, a successful coffee farmer and outspoken advocate of Tutsi rights.

The morning after the rocket attack, local militiamen came to the Wanzam farm and seized his father’s letters, Wanzam said. That night, after supper, masked security forces appeared looking for additional correspondence.

Wanzam said he was forced to watch as a gunman shot his kneeling father, then his mother when she began to hurl insults. His two sisters, ages 20 and 22 were next. They were shot, he said, when they began to cry, and clubbed to death when they did not die right away.

The Times was unable to independently confirm details of Wanzam’s account Saturday.

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But Wanzam’s lawyer, Robert J. Foss, who regularly represents refugees for El Rescate, said he verified the account in general terms by comparing it to reports from Amnesty International about massacres in Wanzam’s hometown of Nyanza. Because of the turmoil, Foss said, his account “is really the only evidence he has.”

INS officials contacted Saturday said they could not immediately verify it, but did confirm that he arrived June 23, was jailed for three weeks and is now free on bond.

After watching his parents and sisters shot and clubbed to death, Wanzam said he was thrown into the bed of a truck with a score of other young men from Nyanza and taken to a makeshift military concentration camp in a jungle.

Wanzam assumed he was being kept alive so that his tormentors could question him about his father’s efforts to aid rebels.

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He said masked interrogators had already pulled out one of his fingernails with pliers and used a knife to cut into his thigh in an effort to extract information.

Wanzam, who said he didn’t know details of his father’s activities anyway, had his hands tied behind his back and then to a stake where he was left to sit for 10 days.

Wanzam, who appeared almost numb during much of a lengthy interview, said, at that time, he had no fear.

“There was nothing for me to be afraid of,” he explained quietly. “I knew death was only once and I knew I was going to die. . . . Nobody who was ever taken by the security returned to his home.”

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Soon, he said, the majority Hutu tribesmen who ran the camp were too busy fighting off encroaching rebels to pay attention to him.

As the rebels advanced, Wanzam said, the Hutus broke camp, shooting to death any prisoners--including some women and children--considered too weak to be moved.

They trucked him and some others to another jungle clearing, where the prisoners were again tied to stakes.

When the man at the next stake died, a friend two stakes away suggested to Wanzam that their only chance to survive would be grasp nearby sticks and use them to scrap away some of the dead man’s flesh. They managed to do just that, Wanzam said.

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“At that time,” he said, “we were not even considering ourselves human beings. We were not thinking what we were doing was wrong or right . . . It was OK, because that was the only means to survive.”

After three days in the second camp, an official appeared, giving instructions that the camp was to be abandoned and the barbed wire and watchtowers torn down and burned. Guards then opened fire on the prisoners tied to their stakes; Wanzam pretended he had been hit.

Luck was with him, he said, as he lay still for hours, long after he had heard the last sounds.

Then, after a struggle, he managed to free himself from his bonds and hiked to the Uganda border, about 15 miles away.

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