Country of the living and the rotting dead

 

UNDER tropical rains and purple clouds, the fertile soil of these rolling hills of central Africa is slowly yielding up its darkest secret - the debris of Rwanda's genocide.

Tangled skeletons, skulls and leg bones poke from the brown earth before a group of forensic anthropologists in knee high rubber boots and masks. Skeletons are stacked one atop the other inside a mass grave half the size of a tennis court. Shreds of clothing, a shoe and a flower printed scarf adorn some of the bones.

As the rainy season's clouds build up in the morning and a veil of pearly mist obscures the blue green hills, the scientists return to the grave outside a Catholic church.

Their business is death. One problem they have is washing away the smell of decomposing flesh after spending the day rooting around amid the detritus of the slaughter of 1994.

The team is exhuming the mass grave - one of maybe 1,000 similar horrors - for a UN tribunal looking into the genocide of up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus by now ousted hardline Hutus.

"At times when I'm inside the grave, I feel the dead can hear us," says scientist Clea Koff. "I feel like telling the dead: Hold on, we're coming. We're coming to take you out."

The scientists conduct autopsies in a makeshift morgue and document the wounds suffered for a final report - a papers trail to the past which will help to put some genocide leaders in jail. "When we put the bones together, it's a person with a story to tell, no longer a jumble of bones," says David del Pino, an anthropologist from Chile.

"Our mission is to get the truth. But the work will never end. There are too many graves."

In villages dotting this sad country, rows of decomposing flesh lurk beneath the ground in hundreds of mass graves, making almost the entire country a necropolis.

"You can easily count up to 1,000 graves across Rwanda," says tribunal lawyer Luc Cote. "There are at least three or four mass graves in each of Rwanda's 147 communes."

In this town of the living and the decaying dead, in a neighbourhood beyond the rickety kiosks selling banana beer and the mud huts overlooking Lake Kivu, residents recently found yet another mass grave after grazing cows turned the soil. Aid workers and UN officials who have worked in Kibuye say they have found graves in their own back gardens.

The task of exhuming the graves is overwhelming. Tutsis were almost entirely wiped out here. Some 4,500 victims are buried outside the church and another 8,000 in the stadium.

Witnesses say grenades were used to kill people who had taken shelter inside the church. Some of the remains have gunshot wounds, others were hacked by machetes.

The tribunal in December indicted eight people for the killings in Kibuye, but the question now is how to catch them ahead of trials expected to start this year. Many of the killers hate found refuge abroad.

Inside the stone church, sunlight through the small, broken windows gives an eerie glow to a jumble of human bones laid on aluminium examining tables. On one table are the remains of a five year old child, his skull cracked by a machete, his hip bone next to his thigh bone, its shape suggesting a sudden and explosive separation. Nearby are the remains of a mother a pelvic bone with a hole in it and finger bones, probably broken by a machete blow.

US pathologist Robert Kirschner says the scientists collected many skeletons from the surface around the church. "One hundred years from now, this evidence will live," he says, showing a man's hip bone hacked with a machete.

Forensic anthropologist William Hugland adds: "This is the largest exhumation in history. The whole country is a cemetery. We'd be blubbering masses here if we were driven by emotions."

THE three month genocide unleashed by extremist Hutu militias and soldiers backed by mobs - and even children - ended after Tutsi rebels swept to power in July 1994.

Nearly two years later, new graves are being discovered almost every week. Down a dirt track winding through banana plantations in the south, rows of blinding white skulls stare out from inside the Ntarama Catholic church where 5,000 people were killed.

A dazed old man on crutches, one of his feet amputated with a machete, stands outside with a crazed look in his swollen eyes. "All my family is in here," he whispers.

"Foreigners come to Rwanda and talk about reconciliation. We find this very offensive, really," says Rwanda's vice president and defence minister, Paul Kagame. "What would you do if you went home tomorrow and found all your family - your father, mother, brothers and sisters - slaughtered? How could you forget?"