Running Rwanda's Gantlet

A string of roadblocks manned by ethnic militias marks where Tutsis and moderate Hutus have died

BARRICADES across roads in Rwanda's government-held area can be death traps if you are not from the right ethnic or political group.

In a single day of traveling across this French-protected humanitarian zone in southwestern Rwanda, this reporter passed through nearly 40 barricades. Only one was manned by the French.

The rest were guarded by armed remnants of Rwanda's mostly Hutu Army or civilians armed with machetes. Often consisting of simply a pole across the road, barricades are nevertheless where many Rwandans have been slaughtered in the country's civil war.

Hutu militants gather around the barricades in this zone, waiting for anyone suspected of being Tutsi.

The Tutsis, Rwanda's main ethnic minority, are the backbone of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front. Hutus who are considered RPF sympathizers are also targets.

Close to one barricade, boys training with wooden guns jog behind an adult. After a lengthy discussion, the barricade swings open slowly for the UN officials, private relief workers, and journalists. Nearby, a congregation in a Pentacostal church sings hymns.

On a lonely stretch of highway between Gikongoro and Cyangugu - two towns with a small French military presence - a convoy of trucks and cars comes to a stop. The convoy is part of a massive exodus of civilians from Butare, a city the RPF seized on July 4 along with the nation's capital, Kigali.

The fleeing Rwandans appear afraid as they look toward the barricades ahead. Some in the convoy are Tutsis, others probably moderate Hutus.

A stench by the roadside turns out to be a decomposing body. In the forests, French troops and others have found hundreds of bodies of those trying to avoid the barricades.

One of the women in the fleeing convoy is nearly in hysterics. She cries and begs us to request that the French escort them to a French-protected camp for the displaced, where they seek safety.

A few miles down the road, a group of well-armed French soldiers guard a small road leading up from Burundi, the neighboring country to the south, to block RPF infiltration. One officer says the French contingent of about 2,500 troops assigned to Rwanda is not enough to provide escorts. (The French plan to withdraw 300 of their 2,500 peacekeeping troops before the end of July, to be replaced by African troops. Paris has stated it will pull out all remaining troops by the end of the month, but so far the United Nations is having trouble assembling troops to replace them.)

The officer's reply raises a question: Why, as part of France's supposedly nonpolitical intervention, can they block a suspected RPF infiltration route while declining to escort frightened people fleeing possible death at the barricades?

Another French officer says his troops have allowed most barricades to remain because manning them ``makes people feel more comfortable.'' Perhaps Hutu militants take such comfort, but certainly not Tutsis and Hutu moderates.

In Gikongoro, where several hundred thousand Hutus have fled from nearby Butare, people walk idly around town.

``See that group?'' a young man says while pointing to a cluster of Hutu men on the roadside. ``They're checking IDs.'' Those with Tutsi identification, and those with no papers, might be killed, he explains.

Another young man, a Tutsi with fear in his eyes, says he hopes the French will evacuate him to a safer area.

For the moment, he remains undetected.

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