AUGUST 15, 1994


All that remains of the young girl is a whitened skeleton in a tiny rural church some 50 miles south of Kigali, the Rwandan capital. In the half light of the darkened church, some 800 bodies lie in various states of decomposition. Like driftwood on a beach, her skeleton rises above the sea of bodies, the thin bones of her arms still clutching the wooden pew where she died. No sound penetrates the awful silence except for the metronomelike ticking of a plastic crucifix as it swings against her exposed vertebrae in the late-afternoon breeze.

Outside the church lies a small photograph album. After more than four months in the sun, the emulsion in most of the pictures has faded to white, leaving only fragments of images. In one photograph, all that is visible is a hand holding flowers; in another, a portion of a young girl's skirt. Soon, like the skeletons inside, these will turn to white in the tropical sun, erasing the last traces of humanity from the hundreds of corpses that fill the country church.

Yet memories of the massacres that claimed the lives of an estimated 1 million Rwandans refuse to fade. While inviting an estimated 2.4 million refugees to return to the country, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotric Front that captured most of the country in July vows to punish the Hutus responsible for the killings.

International aid workers, meanwhile, charge that leaders of the former Hutu-led government are spreading rumors of revenge killings and are intimidating refugees to prevent them from returning home. ``The problem is not humanitarian, it's political,'' says Panos Moumtzis, a spokesman for the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees.

Without negotiations between the two sides, there is little hope that the 2.4 million refugees now living in camps in Zaire, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi will return to Rwanda. But the chances for reconciliation appear slim. Last week, the UNHCR offered to escort elders from the Kibumba refugee camp in Tanzania back to Rwanda to investigate a rumored massacre of some 100 returning Hutus. The elders said they would agree after three conditions were met: the disarmament of the RPF, the evacuation of RPF soldiers from Rwanda and the restoration of the former Hutu government.

Foreign observers in Kigali, however, are impressed by the RPF's efforts to create a government of national unity. Of the 22 cabinet ministers named, only eight are RPF members, and only four of those are Tutsis. ``We all have to be Rwandans; that's the ideal,'' new Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, a Hutu, told U.S. NEWS. ``We can't say that because I'm in the majority the minority must disappear.''


The RPF also has taken steps to assure the refugees' security. At the Zairian border, aid officials say, refugees are screened only for cholera and weapons. The government has invited U.N. military observers on joint border patrols, and as Tutsi refugees from massacres as far back as 1959 return home, it has denounced land grabbing by members of the Tutsi diaspora.

But in the once bustling capital of Kigali, most houses remain unoccupied and traffic is almost nonexistent. Communications have collapsed, most government buildings have been ransacked or damaged, and water and electricity have yet to be restored to any part of the country. The prime minister's secretary must borrow a typewriter from the International Red Cross to produce the latest government edicts. In the countryside, ghost towns line the dirt roads and sorghum fields rot in the sun.

Officials of the new Tutsi-led minority government speak of a five-year transitional period. But multiparty elections are impossible anytime soon, and many worry that the RPF government may follow the lead of Uganda, its main ally, where RPF leader Paul Kagame was once head of military intelligence. In Uganda, a military government took power in 1985 after almost two decades of interethnic fighting, and elections have yet to be held.

More worrying is a growing suspicion that much of Rwanda's middle class was wiped out in the massacres. Survivors say those with ``soft hands'' (a sign of white-collar work) were singled out and slaughtered by Hutu militias. And in one of Africa's most Roman Catholic countries, it now appears that much of the Rwandan clergy, who many had hoped would provide a moral framework for reconciliation, was wiped out in the massacres.

The most immediate concern, however, is the French-protected humanitarian zone, where at least 1.2 million people, mainly Hutus, have taken refuge. A U.N. peacekeeping force is slated to replace the 1,000-strong French contingent when its U.N. mandate expires August 21. But with most refugees believing the U.N. favors the RPF and with the new force yet to materialize, aid officials fear a new exodus into Zaire. Says Mike McDonagh of the Irish relief agency Concern: ``If the French pull out, we've had it.''

Though U.S. officials stress that their mission in Rwanda is strictly humanitarian, pressure is mounting on foreign governments to help find a political solution. But no one has forgotten how the humanitarian mission in Somalia went awry. Says one Western diplomat in Kigali: ``The political problem of who's going to be the government is an internal Rwandan problem, and if we got involved in it, we'd end up getting our ass chewed again.''

``Even children know that some of their neighbors killed their parents,'' says Ferdinand Ngabo, the new administrator of Nyamati, a rural town whose [Roman] Catholic church bears the bloodstains of a massacre that left as many as 400 dead. Those children are unlikely to forget.