RUKARA, Rwanda — The church was always safe. Everyone in Rukara knew that. It was the one place people could go when the Tutsis and Hutus started killing each other, as they have done periodically over the last 35 years--the one sanctuary that both sides honored.
So when the residents of Rukara, a farming village 90 minutes by road from Kigali, the capital, heard a month ago that government militiamen were rampaging north from there, massacring entire communities, they filed, 500 or so strong, into the Roman Catholic parish church to pray and wait out the latest of Rwanda's many nightmares.
It was a fatal decision.
You'll find the church today down a dirt road, past small farms that grow bananas and towering sunflowers, and in it everything is dead. The rotting corpses of women and children lie huddled on the altar. The bodies of old men are twisted into grotesque shapes next to pews they tried to stack against windows to keep the killers out.
Throughout the church area, in the clump of spruce nearby, along the walkways and by the schoolhouse, hundreds of bodies are still sprawled, torn apart by grenades, machetes and knives. Some victims have had their arms tied behind their backs. One man is frozen in what appears to be a supine position of surrender, with his hands raised above his head.
"This is madness," said a lieutenant from the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front who escorted a journalist into territory held by his forces. "You cannot carry out massacres like this and be sane. It makes me feel embarrassed to be a Rwandan. What must the world be saying about us?"
In this and other villages visited during a 100-mile journey with the rebels, the mass killing of civilians appears to have been systematic, not random. The death squads first searched out people who were known to be unsympathetic to the Rwandan government, say witnesses; they carried whistles, which they blew to alert their comrades when an intended victim escaped out a window or back door.
While the government-controlled radio station broadcast inflammatory messages--such as "The enemy is still there. Find him!"--squads of young militiamen swept into villages, segregating the men from the women and killing them first. Then the women were killed and, finally, the children.
Relief workers estimate that more than 200,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them civilians, have been slaughtered since fighting erupted after President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed in a mysterious plane crash April 6.
The Patriotic Front guerrillas have not been blameless in the killing of civilians, human rights officials say, but most of the massacres appear to have been carried out by the Hutu-dominated presidential guard or the two youth wings of the late president's party. A militia cell operated in each village that was not controlled by the rebels.
In the Gahini Hospital a few miles from Rukara, scores of patients lie in wards with broken windows. Each is a massacre survivor.
Biatrice Mugangoga, 22, is one of those survivors. Still glassy-eyed and trembling, she told how she fled into the woods when the killing squad from the youth wing began swarming through her village, Kiumza. She was caught, bound with rope, stabbed with a knife and thrown with wounded children into the village latrine.
"I don't know how I escaped," she said. "I only remember dying."
But Mugangoga managed to make her way to the church in Kiumza where her family had sought refuge.
"I knew I would find them safe," she said. "No one ever violates the church."
But this time they had. In a group in the last pew, she found her parents, three uncles and four brothers. All were dead except her 9-year-old brother. Rebel guerrillas who battled and defeated the youth squad in town carried the boy to the hospital where grenade shrapnel was picked out of a dozen wounds. A nurse at the hospital dressed his wounds Monday and said he will recover. But he has not uttered a word or a sound since the day of the attack on the church.
"What happened in Rwanda will leave scars on the mind for a generation," said Annie Faure, a French doctor at Gahini Hospital. "You see a lot of trauma here--children who can't talk, people who start shouting and screaming for no reason, women who look at you but don't seem to see you."
Many of the villages on the road from the Tanzanian border into the heart of Rwanda remain abandoned. Looted shops stand empty. Bodies still lie along the roadside a month after the war passed through. And except for rebel roadblocks made of sticks and milk cartons, the signs of life in much of eastern Rwanda are precious few.