BRUSSELS — Belgian nationals fleeing from the violence in Rwanda returned home early Tuesday, carrying with them tales that detailed the horrors that have swept the Central African nation for the past week.
Fighting erupted after the country's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, along with the president of neighboring Burundi, Cyprian Ntayamira, was killed in a plane crash, apparently after the craft was hit by rocket fire near the airport at Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
The violence has been characterized by savage, often random attacks between members of the Hutu majority and the minority Tutsi.
One of the most chilling accounts to come out of the carnage--which Western aid workers remaining in the country believe may have left more than 20,000 people dead in less than a week--was given by a Belgian soldier serving with a U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda.
Visibly shaken, the soldier--identified as Cpl. Antoine Gaston--told how he watched a series of atrocities but was helpless to stop them, even though he was armed. The U.N. mandate, he explained, strictly forbids any intervention to stop fighting between Rwandans.
"This was real butchery," he said. "Ten meters (about 30 feet) away from me, I saw people being massacred, a little girl being raped, then killed with a machete. All of this under our eyes and without being able to intervene. And why? Because we are U.N. soldiers (and) it is not possible (to intervene to stop the killing).
"The blue helmet missions for me are over," he said. "I don't want to participate in them anymore. You can't intervene, and I'm out there risking my life."
Another returnee, who was not identified but who said he had spent considerable time in Africa, seemed stunned by the level of bloodshed he had witnessed.
"What is happening in Rwanda I've never seen anywhere else, and I was in Zaire in the '60s when we had to flee that country," he said.
There was also confirmation of an account related by a Belgian priest in Tuesday's editions of the Brussels daily La Libre Belgique.
The priest, Jozef Schmidt, described how several hundred people sought refuge from the fighting in his church in the town of Boussassamama.
"Two soldiers who were supposed to be guarding them started acting crazy," he recalled. "It was raining. I saw everything from my room. It was horrible."
Another witness said the two soldiers took four hours to kill everyone in the church.
As the Belgians recounted their chilling experiences from the safety of their homeland, conditions in Kigali disintegrated further, with the interim government fleeing the city as units from the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front reportedly entered the city.
Belgian government sources indicated that the evacuation of foreigners from the country was nearly complete, with only about 50 to 100 mainly expatriate Europeans still in the capital. Before the start of the violence last week, there were about 3,000 Westerners in the country.
Reporters still in the city said heavy fighting between the Tutsi-dominated RPF and units of the mainly Hutu Rwandan army continued through the afternoon. But the flight of the Hutu-dominated government was perhaps the most striking evidence that the RPF seemed to be gaining ground.
Speaking in Brussels, an RPF representative, James Rewgo, said the rebel units would act quickly to end the bloodshed. "We will be able to stop the massacres," he said. "After establishing public order, we will try to set up a government with a broad base."
The comments seemed to imply that the rebels were at least open to the possibility of an ethnically mixed power base for the country.
Isabelle Maelcamp of The Times' Brussels Bureau contributed to this report.