JULY 5, 1994.

Associated Press

KIBUYE, Rwanda (AP) -- The choral rhythms of African hymns sung during Mass seemed so close to God. The stench of the mass grave just outside the church pushed Him farther away than ever.

After the suspicious death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana touched off a wave of ethnic massacres April 6, tens of thousands of minority Tutsis sought refuge in churches like the idyllic Roman Catholic stone edifice in Kibuye, overlooking scenic Lake Kivu from a shady hilltop in western Rwanda.

On April 17, the killers came. An estimated 3,000 people in the church were butchered. Those in the sanctuary fell to machine-gun fire. Others barricaded in a small building in back were cut down with machetes. Their bloody palm prints still stain the walls, the machete marks still scar the doors where the killers forced their way in.

"It was a crime against humanity," said one Kibuye resident who did not give his name for fear of reprisals from his neighbors.

For most of the others: No one saw or heard anything. In Kibuye, the churchgoers generally say that "outside Hutus" came to kill the Tutsis -- soldiers, militia, police. Only under insistent questioning do they admit that perhaps a few of the local Hutus took part.

A few of the uniformed government soldiers carry their Kalashnikovs as they pray this sunny Sunday. A few of the others in their pressed Sunday best, smile and chat as they leave the church, walking over the freshly bulldozed mass grave that emits such an incriminating odor.

In the eyes of those who would talk, the Tutsis deserved it -- men, women and children. Ask the kids who try to cadge rations from the French soldiers now setting up camp in Kibuye, and they laugh like they've been caught stealing cookies.

Cynianque Brisengimana, 44, a veterinarian, recounts the kind of story you hear all over Rwanda when one asks about massacres at churches. He says the church was a hotbed of activity by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi-led rebels who have seized about two-thirds of the country and are advancing on government-held Kibuye.

"The priest was a Tutsi," says Brisengimana. "There were armed Tutsis in the church. They had arms. Where did those arms come from? Why did they have them?"

Maybe they had arms because they wanted to defend themselves. Maybe they had no arms at all.

What is certain is that they're all dead. Brisengimana admits that some of the dead Tutsis were just seeking shelter but were unfortunate enough to be caught in a cross fire.

"The forces were not equal," he says.

Those who managed to flee from the church didn't get far. Their rotting corpses, gnawed by animals, litter the hill around the church, lacking the dignity of even a mass grave. The people here say they couldn't bury them all.

There are a few local Hutus who said they had hidden some Tutsi children and their parents and handed them over to the French when they arrived.

But the grave can't hide the smell of those who could not hide, and the Hutu-dominated government army hasn't been able to stop the rebel advance. The population lives in fear of reprisal killings if the RPF takes the strategic town, which would cut what remains of government-controlled Rwanda in half.

Saying the push on Kibuye is creating thousands of refugees, the French are setting up what amounts to a security zone in a 20-square-mile region around the town. Four hundred of the French intervention troops have been rushed here, along with heavy mortars and at least 10 light tanks.

It would require the approval of the U.N. Security Council and the warring parties themselves to create any kind of a truly functioning safe haven.

For now, the worshippers fill the church on Sunday and breathe the air of massacre. "I'm a [Roman] Catholic," said Brisengimana, who fears RPF revenge massacres. "I believe that reconciliation is possible."