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In Rwanda, an uncertain justice awaits prisoners

Celestine Mazimbaka clenched the sides of his wooden chair while the prison interrogator hammered out his responses on a manual typewriter.

"How did you kill him?" the typist asked.

"With a machete."

"Where did you hit him?"

"I just beat him in the back of the neck. . . . He didn't die right away. We put him in a hole in the ground and hit him again."

The questioning, in the Kinyarwanda language, ended. The next in line moved into the chair. Mazimbaka, 41, pressed his fingerprints onto his interview transcript and a soldier escorted him into the warehouse where alleged killers await what the new government hopes will be an international tribunal for genocide.

The prison is meant to hold 750 inmates, but more than 3,100 people _ nearly all Hutus _ are crammed into the brick-walled slum. Each day soldiers deliver at least 30 more suspected war criminals, including women with babies strapped on their backs.

While some prisoners die waiting for trial, Rwanda's leaders worry that revenge killings become more likely the longer war criminals go unpunished. People are moving back to their villages, in many cases alongside people who butchered their children or parents.

"You won't find any Tutsi who has not lost the majority of his family members," said Seth Sendashonga, the interior minister in Rwanda's new government.

The scale of the tragedies makes justice a murky concept.

A tribunal would be limited to those who ordered genocide, said William Clarence, head of the United Nations human rights operation. But the government wants to punish all killers, including people like Mazimbaka, who said he was following his district administrator's orders when he plunged a machete into the neck of his Tutsi friend. The man was his drinking buddy.

"I am scared. I killed and that was not necessary," said Mazimbaka, who was turned in by neighbors. "But I hope they will judge those people who forced me to kill."

Inmate Joel Hakizamana, 29, calls himself "president" of the prisoners. Arrested two months ago, he said he was obeying his bosses at the government radio station when he broadcast the message: "Kill Tutsis or they will kill you."

Part shanty and part death ward, the prison seems more like a refugee camp than a concrete yard stuffed with murder suspects. There are no jail cells, only a large padlock on the main steel gate.

Inmates drape themselves over wooden slats in unlit bunkhouses, not bothering to swat malarial mosquitoes.

Plates, cups and jugs of cooking oil are strung to the rafters supporting rusty corrugated tin sheets that form a cover in the middle of the yard. Inmates compete for spots under the shelter. Hundreds more flop down on donated blankets or plastic maize sacks on the ground outside.

"There is no violence, but so many are sick," said Casien Nkaboniwana, director of the country's prisons. At least two people die each day, according to prisoners.

The United Nations has 26 human rights workers investigating the genocide of an estimated 1-million people and no deadline for setting up a tribunal. Rwandan officials accuse the U.N. of not taking the war crimes seriously.

"We have noted the apparent cynicism of the international community with regard to the trial of those accused of genocide," said Maj. Wilson Rutayisire, the government spokesman.

Keeping the prisoners locked up could put the new government's credibility at risk abroad and at home. Delayed justice could spur international accusations of human rights abuses and alienate the Hutu majority, whose allegiance is crucial for political stability.

Still, government officials reject suggestions of amnesty as means of healing ethnic divisions. "We try criminals. We are not trying Hutus," said Sendashonga. Like the majority of the ministers appointed by the victorious Tutsi military, he is a Hutu.

Some inmates have been jailed for two months because their neighbors told soldiers they were murderers. One prisoner said his accusers invented the charges because he refused to work for the equivalent of $1 a day.

About 20 percent confessed to killing, most claiming they were following orders, based on a sample of interrogation transcripts. The rest say they are wrongly charged.

"They say we are murderers. That's not true. They have no witnesses," said Eugenerie Murekatete, 31, feeding a biscuit to a naked baby at her feet. She was arrested last month with several other Rwandans hired recently by relief agencies.

"I didn't kill, but they are accusing me of murder," said Venuste Bazayaka, 48, a former civil servant arrested when he visited the Justice Ministry trying to collect a paycheck.

The barefoot 12-year-old inmate standing next to him said he doesn't understand why he is here.