Bisesero (Rwanda) (AFP) - More than 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, survivors still carry painful memories of three fateful days when French soldiers allegedly left ethnic Tutsis to be slaughtered by Hutu killers.
As a long-running controversy resurfaces over whether France's United Nations-mandated Operation Turquoise failed to rescue endangered Tutsis, in Bisesero in western Rwanda, memories remain sharp of what happened in 1994.
Ezechiel Ndayisaba, a 56-year-old farmer, points to a gumtree forest on the hillside where he and hundreds of other Tutsi survivors hid from the Interahamwe Hutu militia until the day a French patrol came on June 27, 1994.
"When the French arrived on the road, we came out of hiding to talk to them," said Ndayisaba. "To show them the situation was really serious, we showed them the corpses, some of them were still warm."
Tired almost beyond endurance, traumatised, and often badly hurt, the survivors thought that finally they were safe.
But despite the pleas, said Ndayisaba, the French patrol left after advising them to go back "into hiding" until their return.
"When I saw them go, I said to myself 'This is the end, we're going to die'", he said.
His wife and four children were killed the next day in an attack by Hutu militiamen.
- 'Aiding and abetting genocide' -
French soldiers had been deployed in Rwanda a few days earlier under UN instructions to stop the massacres that began in April, and which three months later had left at least 800,000 people dead, most of them Tutsis.
In 2005 survivors filed a complaint in France, saying the troops had on June 27 vowed to return, but when they came back three days later, it was too late for hundreds of Tutsis massacred in the Bisesero hills.
In November this year, three groups including the International Human Rights Federation (FIDH) called for two French officers to be charged with aiding and abetting genocide -- Jacques Rosier, commander of special forces, and Marin Gillier, head of a squad of marines.
At the Bisesero memorial to some 50,000 Tutsi victims, 42-year-old Antoine Sebiroro has come to remember his family, as he has almost every day for the last 21 years.
He and others say that a man named Jean-Baptiste Twagirayezu was patrolling with the French soldiers on June 27. "He was a killer who worked as a translator for them. He'd convinced them that Tutsis were killing Hutus," and not the other way around, he said.
When the French left that day "I lost all hope", said Sebiroro, who could barely walk after being shot in the foot. "I said to myself that if the whites abandoned us we would all be killed."
Now knowing where the survivors were hiding, the Interahamwe returned and killed "day and night", he said.
- 'Monstrous allegations' -
Investigators in Paris are examining French military claims that it only found out what was really going on in Bisesero on June 30.
A former lieutenant-colonel, Jean-Remy Duval, who headed the reconnaissance patrol on June 27, has told the inquiry that he gathered testimony from Tutsi witnesses which he immediately passed on to his superiors by telephone and by fax.
"There may be about 2,000 hiding in the woods... they were hoping for our immediate protection," he wrote in a fax.
Civil plaintiffs say Rosier, as well as Paris army headquarters, were aware on June 27 of the "Hutu threats" against the Tutsi minority.
But French army officers including the head of Operation Turquoise, Jean-Claude Lafourcade, have denied the allegations as "monstrous" and "unrealistic".
Sebiroro however said it was "inconceivable" that the soldiers had failed to realise what was happening. "If they'd stayed lots of people would still be alive," he said.
"If they hadn't shown up we wouldn't have come out of hiding," said Aphrodis Ntakirutimana, a 43-year-old who lost a score of family members in Bisesero, including many after the French left.
"We implored them to let us leave with them by walking in front of their vehicles", but the pleas were ignored, he said.