When A Thousand Hills Fell Apart

T H I S  Y E A R  W I L L  M A R K the twentieth anniversary of what arguably represents the nadir of twentieth century human endeavour. There are a number of candidates that both could and should be considered for such a macabre accolade. Such a list would inevitably include some, if not all of the following: the Holocaust, the atomic extirpation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin’s purges, the Vietnam war, Idi Amin’s rape and despoilment of Uganda, ‘Year Zero’ in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s chemical butchery in Halabja, the Srebrenica massacre – I leave you to fill in the gaps. However, in terms of the sheer efficiency, effectiveness and brutality of the slaughter, none of these occasions quite match that which occurred in the small African nation of Rwanda.

In April 1994, a Hutu government in collusion with various militia groups, most notably the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, attempted to implement a final solution to the ‘Tutsi problem’ in Rwanda. Although ethnic tensions had existed for decades, it was not until April 6th, when Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Burundi’s president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were killed in a mysterious plane crash, that things began to fall apart. Just as every American knows where they were the day two aeroplanes demolished the twin towers, every Rwandan knows where they were the day that plane was shot down over Kigali. With frightening immediacy, just an hour after the crash, Hutu militia groups erected roadblocks around the city and begun searching houses for ‘undesirables’. Gunshots began to echo through the streets. Many leading personae non gratae – politicians, journalists and human-rights activists – were murdered within just thirty-six hours. The grande peur that was to infect Rwanda and poison its society over the next hundred days had begun.

The event that proceeded Habyarimana’s death was the most efficient genocidal massacre of the 20th century, the rate of killing surpassing that of the holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. Massacres spread like a rash out of Kigali and into the préfectures. Barely a village was left unscathed. The bodies of the deceased cascaded down the Rusumo falls, out of Rwanda and into Tanzania, where they spilled out into Lake Victoria turning the river’s mouth red. 40,000 rotting cadavers were found washed up upon the Ugandan shoreline. Western governments watched with indifference as the gruesome events played out in front of them. There is an infamous video clip of Bill Clinton stating that United States intervention in Rwanda depended solely upon the ‘cumulative weight of the American interests at stake’. The systematic massacre of 800,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations unfortunately did not fulfill this rather isolationist approach to foreign policy and, ultimately, the United States did not invest a single dollar in preventing the anti-Tutsi pogroms.

On the 4th of July, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the party currently governing Rwanda under president Paul Kagame – finally brought the genocide to an end. Kagame and the RPF pushed the Hutu genocidaires out of Rwanda, instigating a mass exodus into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (previously known as Zaire). This migration was made up of both Hutu civilians, who had played no part in the 1994 killing spree, and of Hutu genocidaires, collectively responsible for the genocide. The extremist elements amongst this tide of humanity soon began to instigate incursions against the RPF and started a campaign to ethnically cleanse DRC of its native Tutsi population – the Banyamulenge (a group that has suffered repression so extensive as to be named ‘the Jews of Africa’) – from refugee camps on the Rwandan border. In September 1996, Rwanda launched a full-scale invasion of the DRC, ostensibly with the goal of eliminating the racist Hutu militia at large in the East of the country; Zaire’s generous mineral reserves providing a significant ulterior motive. This aggression ultimately acted as the catalyst that would provoke ‘Africa’s Great War’.

At its zenith, the war pitted the armies of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda against the forces of the DRC, Zimbabwe, Chad, Angola, Sudan and Namibia, as well as up to forty different militia groups. The highest casualty estimates for the Syrian civil fall between 100,000 and 200,000 persons. Although significant, these figures pale when compared to the Congolese wars which, since 1996, have caused over five million people to expire prematurely. The war ended in July 2003, when the current president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, managed to engender a brief parenthesis of peace and stability. However, this period of relative tranquillity was far from sustainable. Since the war officially ended, there has been a recrudescence of guerrilla warfare in the North and South Kivu regions that border Rwanda, of the kind that had continued spasmodically in Europe during the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648. There are currently almost 20,000 UN peacekeepers in the DRC – the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. Despite their recent success in defeating the M23 militia group in North Kivu province, the UN mission has been largely unsuccessful in stemming violence across the country.

As some of you already know, I will be travelling to Rwanda on April 5th 2014 to observe the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. Rather than focusing on the events that preceded and happened during the genocide, I want to write about where Rwanda is now – socially, economically, politically – and the extent to which the genocide lives on in the minds of Rwandans today. I will be carrying out interviews with people working with various charities, aid agencies and (if I can manage it) the Government of Rwanda. I also intend to take every opportunity available to talk to people that I meet upon the way. Genocide Memorial Day takes place every year on the April 7th, followed by a week of official mourning. I will be in Kigali over this period to attend remembrance ceremonies and visit memorial sites. I will then travel through Rwanda, stopping off in some of the towns most affected by the genocide. I am trying to obtain a visa to cross over into the Democratic Republic of Congo on the 1st May 2014 via the town of Bukavu in South Kivu province. From here I plan to take the ferry across lake Kivu to Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

Both North and South Kivu remain two of the least stable provinces in the DRC which, as it happens, is one of the least stable countries in the world. In late 2012, the M23 rebel group – whose leader is currently on trail at the International Criminal Court – captured Goma. The town has now been retaken by Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (the Congolese army) and MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping mission). From Goma it is possible to track mountain gorillas and scale the live Nyiragongo volcano in the Virunga National Park; both challenges, which, if the security situation allows, I intend to complete. From Goma I will cross back into Rwanda and then south into Burundi, a country with a past almost as turbulent as Rwanda’s. On 20th June 2014, in Bujumbura – Burundi’s capital – my adventures in the great lakes of Africa will come to an end and I will fly back to London.

Over the following weeks it is likely that I will be immersed in planning the finer details of the trip. Obtaining a visa to enter the DRC is already proving to a considerable challenge: the last time I called their London embassy, the operator could not even speak English. Between now and departure, my blog will feature regular commentary on current and historical affairs in Rwanda, DRC and Burundi, along with additional information regarding my adventures. Please do read and comment upon these missives, if you get the time. Any feedback would be most appreciated.

Fergus Simpson

Guildford, 15 January 2014