Associated Press

RUTARE, Rwanda (AP) -- On a chilly, windswept mountaintop where the sick, the homeless and war orphans huddle are the shattered remains of what was a promising effort to cure Rwanda's explosive overpopulation.

Experts say intense competition for land in one of the world's most densely populated countries helped fuel Rwanda's frenzied violence.

Rwanda is a "ghastly example of a population war," said Sharon Camp, a consultant formerly with the U.S.-based Population Action International.

Here at Rutare, the American relief agency CARE ran one of Rwanda's largest and most successful programs to curb its fast-growing population.

CARE's workers are now dead or refugees, the pharmacy and warehouses have been looted and one of the agency's buildings has been converted to a crowded clinic for orphans suffering from malaria and dysentery.

After the looting, children inflated and played with thousands of scattered condoms and syringes for injectable contraceptives, recalled Jean Baptiste Bizimana, vice mayor of this town 50 miles northwest of the capital, Kigali.

But he said the people in the area were very sensitive and receptive to the idea of reducing their numbers. "They understood. It is necessary to start the program again," Bizimana said.

Even with the killing of some 500,000 Tutsis by rival Hutu tribesmen, the country is greatly overpopulated. Almost every piece of cultivatable land was intensely worked. Terraced fields clamber to the tops of denuded hills.

Before the chaos erupted last April, the population of Rwanda -- a nation about the size of Maryland -- was 8 million, or nearly 800 people per square mile. The World Bank projected that, growing by 3.1 percent a year, its population would reach a staggering 25.7 million by the year 2030.

The draft plan for the U.N. population conference in Cairo cites Rwanda as having one of the world's highest birth rates. The average Rwandan woman has 8.2 children, the plan says.

The size of Rwandan family holdings has shrunk dramatically in recent decades, causing greater malnutrition, environmental degradation and poverty, American demographer John F. May wrote last year.

It was estimated that in 1990, there were 2.5 people per cultivatable acre.

Population experts say the fierce competition for land -- Rwanda's prime resource -- made its people more susceptible to the hate campaign waged by the Hutu government against the Tutsis. Young men, poor and without job prospects, could be easily enlisted into gangs which carried out most of the killings.

"I think constant crowding, constant fighting for scarce resources made them more desperate. It contributed to the snapping," said Ann Goddard, CARE's deputy director for East Africa, in a telephone interview from the United States.

Many Rwandese say some killed fellow villagers not because they were Tutsis but to take their land or settle property disputes. Now that Tutsi-led rebels have taken control of the country and begun searching for the killers, others now say they are being falsely accused so their land can be taken.

Although there were important tribal and political dimensions to the killing, Ms. Camp said by telephone from Cairo, Rwanda could be called a "population war" that she believes also looms over other areas of the globe.

Ironically, Rwanda exploded as the family planning effort -- launched on a national level in 1981 -- was making real headway. From nearly zero, an estimated 13 percent of women of childbearing age were using contraceptives in 1992.

"The Rwandese realized the problem themselves. They saw that they were starting to devour their resources to the point that they would have nothing," said Hugh O'Haire of the U.N. Population Fund, also in Cairo to attend the conference.

The CARE program, funded largely by the U.S. government, was reaching about 91,500 people, or 22 percent of the population in eight rural districts. It also included health education, child care and "motivation classes" for men new to contraception, which CARE says was strictly voluntary.

Now, with the international community and the new Tutsi-led government focused on emergency aid to a stricken population, family planning and other-long term development projects are on hold. Agencies are waiting for the situation to stabilize.

"Perhaps it's a bit morbid to talk about population control after the slaughter, but we have to start thinking about it to stop it recurring," said Wendy Driscoll, a CARE spokeswoman visiting Rutare.

"If we don't do it sanely and humanely, it's going to be done brutally and horribly."