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Violence Undermining Faith in the Love of Her Life: Rwanda

Africa: Rosamund Carr gave up the life of a New York fashion designer 47 years ago to live here. But she's pessimistic about peace in adopted home.

September 14, 1997|DIANNA CAHN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MUTURA, Rwanda — Rosamund Carr recalls the time when visitors steadily streamed past her fields of yellow, blue and red flowers and found their way into her ivy-covered stone home.

An American who left the life of a New York fashion designer for Africa 47 years ago, Carr today doubts that her conflict-riven adopted homeland can find its way back to peace.

The 85-year-old woman in sneakers and slacks tends to her blossoms, picking off a dead leaf here and there, and worries not for herself but for the Rwandans who work her flower plantation and for the 74 orphans who live in a converted flower-drying shed.

"It's terrible," she said over a recent lunch after warmly welcoming unannounced visitors. "It's very hard on the children. They are used to having visitors and they love it."

Carr's hospitality is well known in Central Africa and beyond. She was a close friend of Dian Fossey and a featured character, portrayed by actress Julie Harris, in the film on Fossey's life, "Gorillas in the Mist."

The plantation and orphanage, known as Imbabazi, or "care" in the Kinyarwanda language, sit in the foothills of the Virunga volcano range, which forms the border between Rwanda, Uganda and Congo (the former Zaire)--a restive area that has been the scene of conflict for more than a century.

In three months of 1994, Rwandan Hutu militants led a slaughter that killed at least 500,000 minority Tutsis. Carr tried to protect her Tutsi neighbors at her house, but Hutu mobs frightened them into fleeing.

When a Tutsi-led government took power and ended the genocide, Carr was hopeful for peace. Renewed bloodshed has ruined her optimism.

In November, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus walked past Carr's home on their way back from three years in exile in Zaire, which was renamed the Republic of Congo after a rebellion there. They had fled Rwanda because they feared punishment for the genocide.

Carr, her employees and the orphans also watched thousands of Rwandan Hutu militants return in April and May, ready to fight to topple the new government. Many of the rebels now hide in the forests near her plantation.

When a single gunshot went off recently, Carr said she "jumped a mile." Meanwhile, the children--Tutsis who lost families in the genocide as well as Hutus who returned from exile--only laughed.

"The children don't seem to be very scared," Carr said.

Defense Minister Paul Kagame has said he will wipe out the rebels and reconcile a divided people. Government figures show at least 1,800 rebels, 100 soldiers and 300 civilians have been killed since April, but the battle is not over.

Hutus fear that soldiers in the predominantly Tutsi army will seek vengeance against villagers they suspect of assisting the rebels, Carr said.

Carr said her Hutu employees are uneasy, even though the soldiers who guard her plantation day and night have promised to keep them safe.

All her Hutu employees insist on getting home before dark. The cook, who lives opposite a military camp just 500 yards from the plantation, insists on leaving earliest.

"He's scared," Carr said. "When I asked him why, he said the other workers walk across the fields to get home. He told me, 'Madame, I live in front of the guns.' "

Carr is no stranger to conflict. She has witnessed rebel uprisings and genocide since coming to Africa in 1950, when she married an Englishman and set up a farm with him. They separated in 1955, but Carr stayed. She had fallen in love with the land.

The recent deaths of a young couple related to a senior government official, three local aid workers and a family of five have made Carr lose faith in any short-term solution.

"I am so pessimistic now," said Carr, wisps of gray hair drifting across her face as she shook her head. "When the war first ended, I was so optimistic. I thought Kagame was so good. But since the return [of the Hutu militia], the killings have begun, and I don't think there will be reconciliation for a long time."

Life is deceptively calm on the grounds of Carr's 7-acre plantation. But events of the last months have left their mark.

Carr's meager resources--profits from flower sales and private donations--aren't enough for the orphans, whose number swelled from 45 to 74 as aid agencies were unable to find the families of returning Hutu children.

The new arrivals brought sicknesses with them, she said.

Foreign doctors from international aid agencies, who used to visit the plantation weekly, no longer venture along the dangerous route to Carr's home. There is a local clinic, but the very sick must be taken to a hospital in Gisenyi, an hourlong drive along dirt roads through ambush territory.

Carr said she is worried not for herself, but for the children, her Rwandan friends, and the country she now calls home.

"Oh my God!" she exclaimed with a chuckle. "I am not afraid for myself. Suppose I was shot and killed--which I won't be. But even so, it would be much better than dying an old lady in a nursing home in New Jersey."

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