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In Rwanda, This Year's Horror Is Prison : Africa: Squalid jails teem with thousands accused of genocide. The nation's future is trapped with them.

April 16, 1995|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GITARAMA, Rwanda — There is no space remaining in hell today. The doomed already fill it. They live, sleep, eat, rot and die squeezed together four men per square yard in the roofless brick box that is Gitarama Prison.

Built to confine 400 on a ridge among the banana and potato communes of central Rwanda, the prison yard is now engorged with 6,793. There is no room to lie and sleep, no space to sit. So the prisoners stand as if one organism under the sun, under the rain, choking on the smoke of cooking fires, amid dysentery and despair.

Eight or 10 die each day of suffocation or from falling into the fires or of disease; but they are replaced by others marched at gunpoint through the squeaky iron gate.

Not one of these prisoners has yet been convicted of a crime.

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The horror of Gitarama Prison was begot by an even worse horror. Inside are ethnic Hutus, mostly young men, accused of last year's systematic slaughter of Tutsis--a genocide that left up to 1 million dead in this tiny country.

Like so much in Rwanda, the hell of Gitarama evokes conflicting emotions.

"You ask how I look at it as a humanitarian. It's very complicated. It comes at you at different levels," said Alison Davis, an Australian physician with Doctors Without Borders, who cares for the prison's sick.

"There is the inhumane way they are being treated--like animals. No one should allow humans to live like this.

"The paradox is that these people I'm treating, many of them, are murderers. They have been inhumane themselves.

"I haven't been able to come to grips with that."

Neither has Rwanda, and neither has the world, which has been asked to help rebuild the Central African country.

One year ago this weekend, Rwanda was awash with blood and stricken with terror. The butchery had reached full pitch as majority Hutus labored to purge Rwanda of minority Tutsis and of Hutus sympathetic to Tutsis.

"The number of people killed in the short period of time with hand-held weapons has never been seen before," said Jose Ayala-Lasso of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

At the time, the outside world mostly stood by, and the rampage continued until a small army of Tutsi rebels retook Rwanda inch by inch and established the struggling government now in place.

Today, about 35,000 Hutus accused of genocide are jailed in Gitarama and hundreds of smaller prisons. Government officials say 100,000 more are guilty.

At the same time, there is no hope that the prisoners will soon know their fate. While Rwanda's first genocide trial opened earlier this month, it was abruptly halted for lack of evidence and witnesses. Hutus, meanwhile, live in growing fear that the innocent are being swept up with the guilty and that free-lance revenge killings cannot be contained.

This is the awful Gordian knot that threatens to strangle hope in Rwanda.

Perhaps surprisingly, the government of Rwanda is not hiding its miserable prisons. Rather, it opens them to world view.

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It allows 115 U.N. human rights monitors to roam the cities and communes. It gives foreign journalists unexpected freedom. U.N. security forces have been permitted to return, even though they retreated during the Tutsi slaughter.

And why? Because Rwanda is in desperate need of help, particularly help restoring its judicial system.

But the problem is that outside scrutiny results more swiftly in criticism than in assistance.

Photographs and reports on prison conditions have drawn worldwide rebuke. And an international aid package of $611 million remains largely a promise.

The U.N. World Food Council transports thousands of tons of supplies through Rwanda to feed and care for more than 1 million Hutu refugees living in neighboring Zaire--among them thousands of accused murderers. When the Rwandan government halted the shipments earlier this month to draw attention to its own needs, the U.N. agency called the move "an outrage."

"We are in a situation where we feel like beggars," says Christine Umutoni, Rwanda's deputy minister of rehabilitation.

"We think you should help us and then ask for results. But instead you ask for results for nothing. You think we should be angels. We're not angels. We're only trying."

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