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HOW MANY LIE DEAD? NO ONE KNOWS

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No one knows how many dead lie beneath the two long scars of red earth just behind the Roman Catholic church in this rural town.

The smallest number you hear is 600. A priest who came after the April killings to run an orphanage says he understands it is more than 1,000. In the town, some talk of 6,000 dead, though they seem to mean in the entire area.Obed Mbarushimana's mother died, but he is not sure where or how. He knows how his father died. He was walking with him when the killers caught up to them. The 14-year-old ran away as the machetes cut down his father. He ran to the place where he thought he was safe, to the place that had provided sanctuary for Tutsis in the past. He ran to the church.

It was on April 6 that the rolling hills of Rwanda began witnessing killings of Holocaust proportions. That was the day when a plane crash killed President Juvenal Habyarimana.

In what is suspected to have been a pre-planned reaction to the shooting down of that plane, hard-liners in the government set the wave of murder in motion, swamping the country in blood, and then in refugees.

It took three days for the surge to reach this town about 30 miles - two hours over rutted, dusty roads - south of Kigali, Rwan-da's capital.

Rwanda and its neighbor to the south, Burundi, have seen many deaths as a result of rivalries between their two ethnic groups - the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. But neither had seen anything like April's orgy of killing.

Many think that President Habyarimana's agreement to stop earlier fighting by sharing power with the predominantly Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front spurred the hard-liners to plan his assassination and the slaughter that followed.

Human rights observers agree that the killings were not simply along ethnic lines. Many moderate Hutus also died, along with intellectuals, priests, the wealthy and others suspected of not supporting the hard-line stance.

"They were killing anyone with soft hands," said one Polish U.N. officer who nearly died himself while trying, unsuccessfully, to save a group of wealthy people who had hidden in a Kigali hotel. The lack of calluses would indicate someone who was not, like most Rwandans, a peasant farmer.Moreover, there are plenty of reports of Hutus who hid their Tutsi neighbors, even of Hutus who committed suicide rather than carry out orders to kill their friends.

But out in the countryside, in places like Nyamata, where almost everyone belongs to the same peasant farmer class, the line between the living and the dead was drawn almost solely by ethnicity.

It was on the first day of the killings in Nyamata that Obed's mother died. On the second day, early in the morning, his father was grabbed. Obed ran to the church, getting there around 6 a.m.

Hundreds of people had crowded into the sanctuary itself, a wide modern brick structure with pews that fan out from the altar. Obed went into the walled-off priests' compound next door. The two Belgian priests had left when the trouble started. Belgians, the former colonial rulers, were being killed, too.

Around 3 that afternoon it was clear the church would offer no sanctuary this time. Local militias, armed with automatic rifles and machetes, did most of the killings across the country. But when they encountered resistance from the Tutsis here they called in the army to help. Troops showed up and started tossing grenades into the compound. The militia shot and hacked people down as they tried to flee.

Obed ran into the kitchen and flattened himself on the ground. Soon, he was covered with others seeking similar shelter. The shooting and explosions went on for three hours, stopping around 6 p.m.

Eventually, Obed realized that those covering him were dead. But he still did not move. During the night, a man who survived started looking through the bodies, trying to find anyone who was alive.

He found Obed unharmed. The man took him to a nearby village where they hid in a small forest along with a few other Tutsis.

No one has determined how many people died in the massacres, unprecedented in Rwanda, or in Africa. The lowest estimates put the number at 200,000. Many say 500,000.

Anecdotal testimony supports the possibility that as many as a million died, most of them drawn from Rwanda's 1.2 million Tutsis.

Even the most conservative estimates mean that the total deaths from cholera in the Goma refugee camps will be about one-tenth the number of those who died in the massacres.

Though effectively genocidal in intent and scale, Rwanda's massacres produced no Auschwitzes. Instead, almost every town and village has its monument to the atrocity, the freshly dug graves of former friends and neighbors.

The two behind the church in Nyamata, both about 100 feet long, were dug by the old government using a bulldozer a few weeks after the killings, the dirt that covered the bodies meant to cover up the evidence of the massacre. The clothing and other belongings that the refugees had brought with them to the church was put in two piles and burned.

There were many more bodies around the town, and some of those were buried individually around the mass grave, simple crosses of sticks at the end of the mounds of earth.

Even if the bodies are gone, the church itself gives powerful testimony to its desecration. One of its doors lies twisted from the force of an explosion, probably from an army grenade. The shrapnel of the explosion marks the brick walls inside the sanctuary.

Those walls also display the scars of bullets that cut down the Tutsis. Their blood stains the walls all around. It flowed on the floor beneath the simple, flat pews.

A statue of the Virgin Mary that looks down on the chapel is marked by a bullet. Holes can be seen in the baptistry, amid the blood stains of the nave, all over the structure that held the host and wine for communion.

On the front of the altar, a wooden carving of Christ at the Last Supper - a beautiful, very African work of art - is also stained with blood.