Witnesses Describe Cold Campaign of Killing in Rwanda

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 8, 1994

According to Rwandans and expatriates who were in the capital, Kigali, when the violence began, the killing appeared to represent an attempt by some officials who belong to the majority Hutu tribe to secure their positions of power by decimating the minority Tutsi tribe.

The violence began April 6 after President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed in an apparent rocket attack on his plane as it landed at Kigali's airport. The Hutu-dominated, self-declared interim government that succeeded him has blamed the massacres that followed on tribal passions inflamed by suspicions that Habyarimana's plane was downed by Tutsi rebels.

But witnesses -- interviewed here and in refugee camps in Tanzania -- said those first few hours of mayhem seemed to be coldly systematic. They point to the role played by a Hutu-controlled radio station, which broadcast appeals for Hutus to step up the pace of the killing, with Tutsis as the targets.

"The violence was felt within hours," a senior U.N. official said. "It was not happening at random. This was a highly organized and pre-planned assassination that started from the top, which degenerated into the violence we've seen."

It may never be known just how many people have died in Rwanda's explosion of violence. U.N. officials estimated the toll at 100,000, then doubled it to 200,000, but no precise count has been attempted. It seems certain that the victims number at least several tens of thousands, with bodies stacked in Kigali's streets, crammed into mass graves and floating down the rivers.

The histories of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi have been full of battles between the Hutus, who form roughly 85 percent of the population, and the Tutsis, who are about a 15 percent minority.

Implicated in the massacres, according to witnesses, are Habyarimana's elite, Hutu-dominated Presidential Guard and two militia groups organized as "youth wings" of Hutu political parties.

The larger militia is the Interahamwe, or Those Who Stand Together, the militia of Habyarimana's National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (known by its French initials, MRNDD). Interahamwe was apparently assisted by the Impuza Mugambi, or the Single-Minded Ones, the militia of the MRNDD's close political ally, the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic (CDR). Members of both militias have been trained by the Rwandan army at camps in the country's northeast.

U.S.-based human rights groups and Rwanda specialists said both militias received arms from the military last year, about the time Habyarimana was facing growing international pressure to make compromises with the Tutsi opposition and the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front guerrilla movement.

Following the apparent downing of Habyarimana's plane -- which some observers have blamed on hard-liners within the Presidential Guard -- the violence came in two distinct stages, witnesses said.

First, the Presidential Guard put roadblocks around the city, preventing U.N. peacekeeping troops and others from moving freely. Troops from the guard took the lead in rounding up Tutsi officials, as well as Hutu ministers and others believed sympathetic to the Tutsis.

In the second phase, the militias began an apparent attempt at exterminating Tutsis. The neighborhood-based militiamen knew the homes of all the Tutsi families in their designated areas. The leader of a militia group often wore a whistle, which he would blow for the attacks to begin. The militiamen went door-to-door, and if they failed to find the Tutsis they knew to live there, they would search neighbors' homes. Hiding became difficult, if not impossible.

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