Mugunga Massacre Bodies Shield Hutu Survivor From Grenade, Gunfire, Machetes

SATURDAY, NOV. 16, 1996

The woman’s voice and arm trembled as she pointed to the heap of bodies. Flies buzzed around the corpses, and carrion birds circled overhead.

“I was under that pile,” she said. “It was the hand of my good God that saved me.”

Out of fear, the woman gave only her first name - Asterid - as she described how she survived an attack on the Rwandan Hutu refugee camp at Mugunga, which in recent weeks had grown to be the largest refugee camp in the world.

After crawling out from under the pile of twisted bodies, all of them women and children, she found 10 slaughtered men lying on the dark volcanic ground. Then, she discovered her family among the dead.

“Look, there’s my little sister. There are two of my daughters,” she said. “My son is lying with the men further down there.”

At least 30 people were killed.

When asked to identify the attackers, she pointed east toward the rebel stronghold of Goma and toward Rwanda. The rebels, as well as the Rwandan army, are mostly Tutsis.

“They asked us ‘Are you Rwandan or Zairian?”’ she said. “And when we said ‘Rwandan,’ they led the men away and told us, the women and children, to sit down on the ground.

“We knew they wanted to kill us, so we begged for mercy,” she said. “But all they said was ‘You have killed so many of our people, why should we pardon you now?”’

One of the soldiers threw a hand grenade into the group. Others opened fire or hacked with machetes. Bodies fell on top of her, and she fainted.

Asterid, 30, fled her home near the Rwandan capital Kigali in 1994. She was among the 1 million Rwandan Hutus who took refuge in camps in eastern Zaire, fearful that the Tutsi army would take revenge on them for the genocide of a half-million Tutsis.

The leaders of the genocide were Hutu militiamen - called Interahamwe. They, too, fled to U.N. camps and for years used the refugees as human cover while they staged cross-border attacks on their homeland. Through a campaign of violence and intimidation, the militias prevented the refugees from leaving.

A Zairian rebel attack on the Mugunga camp on Thursday apparently frightened the militias into fleeing west and thousands of refugees at last began streaming home to Rwanda.

After the militiamen left, other attackers came and slaughtered some in the group of refugees, including Asterid’s family.

Rats fed on piles of rotting trash in the deserted camp on Friday. Huts that had sheltered some 400,000 refugees were bare wooden frames, stripped of their plastic sheeting.

The heap of bodies lay over a blue water pipe. One young woman’s head was split open. A child had bones piercing his skin. Three of the victims, including a tiny baby, were still breathing faintly.

Tiny twins lay under a soiled bed. Asterid said their mother and father were among the slaughtered.

Next to the group, a traumatized boy rocked on his haunches, rolling his eyes as he stuffed dirt and cornmeal in his mouth. A woman with leg injuries lay in agony under the shade of a hut.

Asterid lost three children in Thursday’s killing. She lost two others in recent weeks as she fled the fighting. But she is still not sure whether to take her remaining child - a daughter - and return to Rwanda.

“We can’t go back. The same thing will happen,” she said. “The men who did this are there in the camps, too.”


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