Deeper Into The Abyss

AT A CHECKPOINT ACROSS A BRIDGE near Kigali, black-bereted soldiers from Rwanda's Presidential Guard swigged bottles of beer and poked their M-16 rifles into a Red Cross truck carrying medicine into the besieged capital. "Any Belgians here?" asked one half-drunk private, glaring at three terrified foreigners inside. "We're going to kill all the Belgians." There was a burst of machine-gun fire nearby, followed by the distant crash of heavy artillery. In the Nyabarongo River just below, two corpses floated in the reeds. After checking passports (none of them Belgian), the soldiers waved the truck and a dozen other Red Cross vehicles through the barricade-allowing the first doctors and medicine to reach the capital after a week of mayhem.

Rwanda seems helpless against its demons. After the death of its president in a suspicious plane crash two weeks ago, an orgy of reprisals against the country's minority Tutsi tribe pushed the country deeper into an abyss. By the end of last week a force of 2,000 rebels, most of them Tutsis, had marched into suburbs of the verdant, hilly capital. Government troops, mostly members of the majority Hutu tribe, held high ground in the city center. As many as 150,000 refugees fled the city on foot. French and Belgian troops evacuated the last of several thousand diplomats. aid workers and other expatriate s, then prepared for departure. Each morning, Rwandan prison inmates in bright pink uniforms patrolled the city in garbage trucks and Caterpillar bulldozers, gathering corpses to dump into mass graves.

The killers were both soldiers and civilians. Often they weren't satisfied merely to kill their victims. Witnesses said the preferred method was to cut off body parts one at a time or to slice bellies open, leaving the victims to die in slow agony. A Red Cross patrol found a woman who displayed a deep gouge below one ear. She told how Hutu militiamen broke down her door and attacked her family with machetes, axes and hammers. She was left for dead. "They attacked everyone, then buried the living with the dead," she said. Later, the Red Cross had to suspend operations after a gang removed six wounded people from a truck and shot them. Such scenes left departing aid workers distraught and guilt-ridden. "What's the use of immunizing children only to have them hacked to pieces?" asked Bertrand Desmoulins, a UNICEF physician who escaped to Kenya.

The 2,500 United Nations peacekeeping troops in Rwanda were powerless to stop the killing. Deployed to monitor a peace agreement that has gone up in flames, they had no mandate to use force, and most remained in their barracks. Under intense domestic pressure, Belgium withdrew its 400 United Nations troops, the mission's best-equipped unit. Yet the Security Council decided not to pull out its peacekeepers altogether, for fear that a withdrawal would only help the outside world to continue to ignore Rwanda (following story). At the weekend, fresh massacres were reported. Some government officials retreated to the city of Gitarama, and it was unclear whether their forces could mount a serious counterattack. The United Nations commander, Canadian Brig. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, conceded that his efforts to broker a cease-fire had failed. "If we spend another three weeks cooped up here watching them pound each other, we'll have to reassess [whether to stay]," he said. Already, the outside world had almost abandoned Rwanda to its fate.