Rwanda’s story

I have been reading stories in newspapers and magazines lately about the anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

I was in South Africa in early spring covering the first all-race elections in that theretofore benighted nation when I got news of the atrocities in Rwanda. Nelson Mandela had been released from decades of imprisonment and he had, by sheer force of will almost, led South Africa to the brink of renewal as a nation.

It was a great development in the history of mankind: a tyranny, essentially, relinquished power to the people it once oppressed.

To be sure, there were elements in the country that resisted the new dawn that was about to eclipse their world. The AWB, a militant Afrikaner group, for instance, mounted a bombing campaign that failed to halt the votes. Also, while the demise of apartheid meant the end of the despicable ideology of white supremacy on that continent, it did very little for women of all races who still had few rights in the new South Africa and were subject to incredible violence.

But those were days of hope and that was how I and the platoon of journalists from all over the world that descended on South Africa covered the story.

Then dark tidings reached us of violence convulsing another part of the continent, genocide in the East African nation of Rwanda.

On April 6, 1994, a mysterious plane crash killed Juvenal Habyarimana, president of Rwanda. The Interahamwe, militias made up of Hutus, the majority tribe, commenced a reign of bloodletting that did not stop until an estimated 1 million of their fellow Rwandans had been killed. The dead consisted of mostly Tutsis, the minority tribe, but Hutus considered opponents of the government were also slaughtered.

In the killings, neighbors turned against each other, set up roadblocks, invaded churches and other sanctuaries in pursuit of their quarry. Millions fleeing the carnage and the ensuing civil war were ravaged by outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

The remarkable thing about this tragedy was that it happened over the course of months under the full glare of worldwide press and yet was allowed to continue. The world allowed it to happen.

A cargo plane deposited me and a bunch of journalists in Goma in the middle of the night. We slept out in the open air at the airport during the night and when we awoke in the morning, nothing we had read or heard prepared us for the macabre scene we were soon to confront. Everywhere we looked there were piles of dead bodies.

And there were processions of refugees kicking up fine dust as they walked along and those too sick to go on lying down by the roadside, many dying at the very spot.

By the time I arrived in Rwanda, making my way from Nairobi, Kenya, through Goma, Zaire (now Republic of Congo), a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, which won the civil war and took over the country, had begun rounding up people believed to have carried out the carnage.

I made my way into the country with these dying people, sometimes on foot, other times in the vehicles of non-governmental organizations.

Rwanda is a ravishingly beautiful country with peculiarly hilly terrain that earned it the designation as the ‘Land of a thousand hills.’

Rwandans are subsistence farmers, tilling the nation’s red, rich, and loamy soil but, because of the terrain, not enough land was available to plant all the food this nation of 9 million people needed. This deficit fed the savage hatred that sometimes led to the carnage, although nothing on the scale of 1994. Town after town was devastated and deserted. The whole nation, at times, appeared to be on the same stretches of road I was on, returning home. The roads were lined with pine and eucalyptus trees, their leaves shimmering in the twilight, and past shady Acacia and Jacaranda trees, past banana groves and rice fields and tea plantations on terraced hillside farms.

At that moment, freshly turned earth was more likely to reveal beneath Rwanda’s red clayey soil a mass grave than it was to reveal new crops in the ground. On arrival in the Kigali suburb of Nyamirambo, I found evidence of unspeakable depravity—bones and ashes of burnt corpses from the genocide just past and stench still emanating from homes where the dead were hurriedly dumped.

While arranging for a place to stay in Kigali, a woman at the United Nations compound implored me to help find a man, a former diplomat named Sylvestre Kamali. I would be meeting Rwanda’s new Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu the next day and I promised to ask about him.

A pack of dogs greeted us at the gates of the government ministry building in downtown Kigali where Twagiramungu was to meet a delegation of journalists. If we’d arrived a week earlier, people told us, those dogs would have been roaming with human limbs in their mouths. Now they’re just hungry. We went past the sandbags into a dark building, with the only light coming from the bullet and artillery holes. At the end of a dark corridor on the third floor, stood a man in impeccable, perfectly tailored suit and preternaturally shiny shoes. He invited us into an office denuded of any evidence that work was being done there.

I don’t remember much of what we asked him, or his answers. But, without betraying any knowledge of Kamali’s case, Twagiramungu did instruct the security officers to help me find him. And the following day, soldiers driving a jeep took me and a Washington Post reporter deep into remote Rwanda where we met Kamali.

The war-crimes tribunal set up by the international community to sort out responsibilities for the atrocities and mete out punishment largely failed in its duties. The reasons were many, including that very few people in Rwanda had clean hands. And that many of those detained were held on the unsubstantiated accusations of their personal enemies.

Take Sylvestre Kamali.

A 60-year-old former diplomat, Kamali was being held in a remote government prison when I met him in August 1994.

He had been picked up at government roadblock in July 1994 for not having correct vehicle papers. He was later accused of involvement in genocide. But one of Kamali’s alleged victims, a Jean Tegeli, was soon seen very much alive. I was told he was being held on the orders of a government official, Twagiramungu. Representatives of Amnesty International told me Kamali, a member of the opposition to the old government, was being held on orders of those in the new government who fear he may provide an alternative for his grieving nation.

I was born on the continent of Africa and I knew the precariousness of life there, as much as anywhere. But I had not been prepared for death on the scale I found in Rwanda. I left there stressed out, depressed, and messed up. Friends later told me I had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. If I did I didn’t want to find out.

I wonder now if what afflicted me affected the entire nation of Rwanda, not wanting to find out. Yes, some people did come to trial for the genocide and were found guilty, but no reconciliation took place.

And there’s no guarantee that a fresh demagogue could not whip Rwandans to begin killing each other anew.