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REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK : Summing Up Rwanda’s Multiplying Horrors Leads to a Total of Despair

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A teen-age soldier with a scarred carbine and curious eyes asks the departing American, “So, what do you think of Rwanda now?”

What, indeed?

You wish for a coherent answer.

But all you can do is shrug, because how can you tell this eager young man that you think he lives in one of the most beautiful places on Earth and one of the most horrible?

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Dare you tell him that you fear that doom has half a century’s head start over hope in the footrace for Rwanda’s future? Would he understand if you said Rwanda is as far away from coherent as you’ve ever been?

The soldier smiles, as if to say that’s OK. He doesn’t have a good answer either. How could he?

So all you can think of Rwanda now is what little you have lived of it.

You think of that empty highway, east of Kigali, where the African acacias rise like lightning bolts from the soil and bloom in a shocking bright canopy of purple, where the air is cool and full of bird songs and thick with the smell of corpses from a shallow mass grave where pigs are rooting.

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Maybe half a million or more Tutsis and their sympathizers lie rotting in the soil of Rwanda, chopped down by maniac Hutu machetes that flashed in the moonlight all spring long, filling the nights with screams--but not for mercy, because mercy was first to fall in Rwanda.

What can you conceivably think of a country where nearly one of every 10 people was butchered in slightly more than three months, at the encouragement of the government? Where a man prayed with his wife as he shoveled dirt on her and buried her alive at the point of a machete, because her father was Tutsi and his was Hutu and this was Rwanda in 1994?

And what can you think of a country where perhaps six out of 10 people then took sudden flight in barefoot columns 100 miles long, Hutu refugees bent under the weight of all their worldly possessions--and the even-heavier load of their guilt and fear of retribution?

All of them marched silently to the hellish ant heaps of Zairian camps, where the weak would die and the strong would be sustained with poisonous dreams of revenge.

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These are the people whose suffering touched the world.

But you think to yourself how strangely little it seemed to touch them. Somewhere, some time ago, they ran out of tears. Now they roll up their dead in mats and lug them curbside like lawn clippings.

As one refugee lies in the mud in the agony of dysentery, another steps over to stir the dinner pot. An old woman shuffles to a trench latrine and is beaten to death by young men because she cannot pay the few pennies they are extorting at the entrance.

Other refugees whittle away at the bases of big trees for firewood. Then thunderstorms blow the trees over. Some people are crushed. Others move forward to retrieve more firewood. These people are crammed together but not pulling together.

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Every time you plunge into the camps, you know you are looking into faces of mass murderers. The young, tough ones move to the front of the crowd, stripped of their dignity and their machetes. What do they want? Food, blankets and amnesty for their crimes.

You think of the boy of perhaps 8 who could not walk as fast as his parents and drifted alone for four days in the moving mob of refugees. And when the mob bolted for the bridge across the Rusizi River at the town of Cyangugu, it trampled over him like he was another clod of dirt.

But only in a place like Rwanda could you rejoice at the boy’s fortune. A British television crew rescued the bloody youngster and made news of him, and viewers far away reached into their pocketbooks to help.

Rwanda is a rich land inhabited by poor people. So you think: Why does getting ahead mean so little compared to getting even? Half the time, you cannot even distinguish a Tutsi from a Hutu. And could any difference matter this much?

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You think of the block houses, sitting in the shade of hardwoods, overlooking banana groves and coffee plantations and misty peaks. Miles and miles of these farm villages. All empty today, the crops rotted or looted. Their residents now huddle under plastic sheeting on lava beds in Goma, Zaire, covered with lice, festered with worms, pelted by torrents of rain, chewed by mosquitoes, dying at the rate of one every three minutes.

And you think of the rows upon rows of tents that shelter the littlest displaced Rwandans--entire cities of abandoned, lost and orphaned children. There isn’t enough heart in all the world to make things right for them, though a good many are trying, and that knowledge numbs.

So you leave Rwanda. And what do you think of it now? You think this: The shadows of its ghosts darken our days.


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