French special forces Tuesday evacuated 43 nuns from Rwanda who had been terrorized for 10 weeks by young machete-wielding men staging mock executions.
The nuns - American, Belgian, British and Rwandan - had taken refuge in a convent in the western town of Kibuye when bloodletting started in early April between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis.Soldiers of the Hutu-dominated government and extremist militias have massacred as many as 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis. Thousands in Kibuye who had sought shelter in the church and stadium were massacred, the nuns said.
Occasionally, the soldiers and militiamen would check on the nuns.
"It was the mean people of the village, the young ones," said Sister Emma, a Tutsi. "They had machetes and clubs."
"They had a list, and now and then they'd come to see if anyone was hiding with us," she said. "We had to turn people over. It was sad but we had to."
Under the urging of Mother Superior Mary-Juliann, head of the Belgian-based Sisters of the Virgin Mary order and originally of Buffalo, N.Y., about 100 French commandos were dispatched to the convent Sunday.
The nuns were brought out at daybreak to a makeshift loading zone, then helicoptered to Goma, the Zairean town on the Rwandan border that serves as the command post for France's humanitarian intervention in Rwanda.
The evacuation was the first staged by the French since they started their military buildup last week.
Up to 2,500 French soldiers are to take part in a two-month mission France says is strictly humanitarian but which Tutsis distrust because of French support for Hutu-led government troops.
French Premier Edouard Balladur in a television interview Monday night offered new assurances that "Operation Turquoise" had no military objectives. But he did not hide the benefits.
"France wants to be a world power. And the first area of its intervention is Africa, especially French-speaking Africa," he said.