A Week to Remember

S A N D W I C H E D  B E T W E E N  F O U R countries towards the centre of the great African landmass lies the small nation of Rwanda – a country of hills, rivers, cows and smiles. At its epicentre you will find the city of Kigali: a clean, calm, temperate municipality and Rwanda’s capital since independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1962. All over the city, as if from nowhere, new buildings have begun to spring up that would not look out of place in London or the South of France. You can almost feel the air vibrate with the rhythms of progress. At every street corner and across the front of every church there are banners emblazoned with four words and a flame: the flame represents Rwanda’s hard earned peace and the words read, “Kwibuka 20: Remember, Unite, Renew.”

I took a night drive with my new friend Christopher Mugabo, a middle aged Rwandan who had kindly agreed to show me his fair city. I watched as he looked out with immense pride at the bright lights of progress shining across Kigali’s undulating landscape. Then, in near perfect English, he said to me, “Kigali, today, is a city of hope, a city of economic development and a place of peace; however, the things that are most different from the time before are the smiles you see on people’s faces and the laughter that you hear in people’s voices.” In Rwanda, the time before represents all history that occurred prior to April 7th 1994, the time before represents all history that passed before the apocalypse.

I have come to Rwanda to join its people in remembering the twentieth anniversary of the genocide that engulfed the country in the spring of 1994. Over the last week I have been in Kigali, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what happened here and where this country now finds itself in the modern world.

But who are the Rwandans? They now number approximately twelve million and occupy an area of only 26,338 km2 (an area only slightly larger than Wales). On arrival in Rwanda and its twin Burundi, the first explorers could not help but notice the extent to which the inhabitants were both linguistically and culturally homogenous; yet, at the same time, they were struck by the way in which society was divided into three different ethnic groupings: the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa.

All three shared the same Bantu language – Kinyarwanda – (Rwandan’s do not suffer the problem of Babel) and had lived side by side in relative peace prior to colonisation. The Hutu, who made up 85% of the population, tended to practice arable farming and dominated the peasant classes. They were generally short and stocky, with a physical aspect typical of the Bantu people. The Tutsi comprised only 14% of the population, practiced mostly pastoral farming (many were wealthy cattle herders), and were often extremely tall with sharp facial features and an aquiline nose. The Twa were very few and very poor, they made up just 1% of the population, were of pygmoid origin and often lived as hunter-gatherers in the forest.

The European colonialists did not view the Hutu and the Twa to be much advanced than the great apes of Western Rwanda. The Tutsi, on the other hand, were perceived to be intelligent, self-disciplined, physically attractive and – this is key – superior to the Hutu and the Twa. (Indeed, a Dominican priest once proposed that the Tutsi had originated from the Garden of Eden.) Unsurprisingly, these stereotypes had a deep affect on the groups’ collective self-image and societal worth. It caused the ego of the Tutsi to inflate, and the ego of the Hutu to descend vertiginously into a pit of spiteful inferiority. Fundamentally, it produced a fissure within the bonds of society based on ethnicity categorization. It was these early distinctions, imposed by Belgian and German colonisers, which acted as a spawning ground for the genocidal ideology that would come to define Rwandan politics.

The first significant massacre of the Tutsi populace occurred in 1959 after the death of the Tutsi king Mwaami Rudahigwa. Clusters of killings were committed over the next four decades, causing a mass exodus of Rwanda’s Tutsi community into neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – a predominantly Tutsi-led guerrilla force – invaded Rwanda from Uganda in October 1990. A ceasefire was signed on the 29th March 1991, although the Tutsi population continued to be terrorised by spouts of violence. It was roughly around this time when the Rwandan army began to train and equip a civilian death squad known as the Interahamwe (“those who stand together”), and the fanatical Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM) began its broadcasts of hate. The cogs of genocide had been oiled and were slowly beginning to turn.

On the night of April 6th 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali, acting as the casus belli for a carnival of cruelty that was send Rwanda back into a state of nothingness that would have impressed even a Pol Pot or a Stalin. In just one hundred days, the genocide claimed the lives of between 800,000 and 1,000,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu community. The United Nations, the United States and the rest of the world watched with indifference as the fabric from which Rwandan society had been woven was violently torn to pieces. At this point in history, Rwandans will tell you that they had no friends. Mothers killed children and children killed mothers, teachers killed pupils and pupils killed teachers. There are simply no words to describe the horror that occurred in that fateful season of blood.

The humbling of the Hutu-power regime and their psychopathic death squads finally took place in July 1994. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of Kigali and began to purge the préfectures of Interahamwe and soldiers still loyal to the incumbent administration. After decades in exile, over 750,000 exiled Rwandans, mainly ethnic Tutsi, were able to return to the verdurous hills of their homeland. Whilst abroad this swathe of émigrés acquired a host of skills and qualifications. They have since been key a component in the rebirth of the Rwandan nation and spirit. From this point onwards, Rwanda started upon the epic voyage of reconstruction and reconciliation that has made it the Central African haven of peace and relative prosperity that it is today.

My flight arrived in Kigali airport on the evening of April 5th 2014. As soon as I enter the main foyer of the airport, a friendly young man asks if he can help me with my bags. I accept his offer, somewhat reluctantly. Though I had no reason to be concerned – my bags are delivered to the taxi rank free of charge and I am bid farewell with a welcoming smile. I manage to shout down a taxi in less than five minutes and touch down at the door of my hostel in a punctual quarter of an hour.

The first thing that you notice upon arrival in Kigali is the exquisite cleanliness of the place: no cigarette butts; plastic bags are banned; congestion is minimal; the roads are scrupulously maintained; streetlights line the pavements; police keep a watchful eye out for troublemakers. The sense of peace and security is comparable to that of any European city. This is not the scene with which one expects to be confronted in a city that was, just twenty years ago, the epicentre of the most efficient episode of mass killing since the desolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After checking in at the hostel, I wonder, out loud, where was the nearest bar. “Bar?” says the receptionist. “The Englishman needs a bar!” A tall, elegant Rwandan lady takes my hand and walks me to the hostel door. “Go straight, take the first left, walk for about ten minutes and you will get to Sundowners. Its the best bar in town.” I voice my concerns: it is already dark, it is my first time in Kigali and walking does not seem the most appealing of options. She retorts, “You English, you are silly scared, Kigali is safe, just like London, trust me”. Not totally reassured, still shell-shocked by her loveliness and unsure of where I was heading, I take her advice and march off into the night.

As advised, I arrive at the watering hole in good time, without hassle. Rwandan music videos play on a big screen towards the back of the bar. Young men and women chat and hold hands, lounging away the warm evening over cold beers and sodas. James Bagabo, a student studying civil engineering in his mid twenties, enters with his girlfriend. They find a quiet table where the light is good and settle down with their course books. They quiz each other throughout the evening.

Two men invite me to come and sit with them. Their names are Pius and David. Pius is a DJ and David runs a taxi company. “Thank you for coming to Rwanda at this difficult time. You are most welcome”, said Pius. I would hear encouraging comments of this nature throughout memorial week. The Rwandans want the world to know what happened here, but they also want people to know what their country is like now and where it is heading. Both Pius and David had returned to Rwanda from Uganda after the RPF put an end to the genocide. They arrived with nothing and have since managed to forge a satisfying and comfortable existence in their native capital. More fundamentally, both of them are now happy. The enterprising spirit present in both Pius and David is positively palpable throughout Kigali: nearly everyone I spoke with has plans to start their own business or study at one of the country’s numerous universities. Believe me when I say Rwanda does not need or want your sympathy. Rwanda wants your support and it deserves your respect.

Genocide memorial week starts every year on 7th April and begins in Amahoro (meaning “peace” in Kinyarwanda) Stadium in Kigali. Early, sometime before 8am, I enter an enormous queue at the entrance to the stadium. On this day tens of thousands of Rwandans have come to remember the dead and to stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who survived the killings of 1994. This year, being the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, there are a number of high profile attendees, including Tony Blair, Ban Ki Moon, Paul Kagame, William Hague, Thabo Mbeki, Yoweri Museveni, Mary Robinson, and many other heads of state and national delegates. A variety of speakers took to the podium throughout the day, but two moments stand out as worth recounting in more detail.

It was during the testimony of Fidele Rwamuhizi, a “survivor”, that I first heard the screams. The testimony was delivered in Kinyarwanda. Fortunately, Joseph Bizimungu, a proficient speaker of English and student at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, was seated next to me and offered to translate. I will not relay the traumas to which Fidele had been exposed; I will just say that the level of cruelty was unimaginable. As he spoke, various members of the audience began to cry. The tears spread through the crowd as wave. The tears then evolved into mixture of maniacal wailing and shouting. “Please, please don’t kill me. Forgive me. I am sorry. Have mercy.” Security guards carried some of the worst affected members of the audience out of the stands. It was as if these people were reliving the moment when the Interahamwe first came to dispose of them and their families. I have never witnessed people so traumatised as this. These chilling displays of emotion serve as a stoic reminder that the effects of the Rwandan genocide will be felt for many years to come.

The second moment of significance was the speech of Rwanda’s existing president, Paul Kagame. Throughout the week of remembrance I have had many discussions with Rwandans about their president and his party, the RPF. Despite the criticisms that have been levelled against the man, I have been left with very little doubt that the citizens of Kigali love their president. As soon as he set foot on the podium, flickers of excitement shot through the crowd. William grabbed my hand excitedly, “Mr Fergus. Listen closely. This is the man that saved Rwanda. This is the man that stopped the genocide.”

Kagame spoke clearly and slowly, with perfectly punctuated rhythm, switching from Kinyarwanda to English and back again with ease. The man is a world-class orator. The beginning of the speech was relatively innocuous, but it was not long before the president’s polemical skills were on full show. He excoriated the international community for its insouciance in 1994. The rhetorical attack aimed at the French – for their uncompromising support for Habyarimana and their intervention on the side of the genocidaires during Opération Turquoise and their failure to apologise for all of the above – was particularly fierce: “People cannot be bribed into changing their history. And no country is powerful enough, even when they think that they are, to change the facts. After all, les faits sont têtus.” He stressed that Rwanda had three main goals in the coming years: to be together, to be accountable and to think big. At the end of the speech the crowd’s admiration for their dear leader was volubly plain. Even for a sceptic such as myself, who has numerous qualms about the evolution of Rwanda’s contemporary political landscape, it was hard not to feel a jolt of respect for the man who has clawed a nation back from the precipice of hell.

Over the week preceding the ceremony I visited several of the memorial sites in and around Kigali. The largest and most famous of these is Kigali Genocide Memorial. At this site there are a number of mass graves that collectively house the bodies of 250,000 people. Huge concrete slabs demark the area in which the dead now rest, adjacent to which a wall is being painstakingly inscribed with their names. Inside the museum an exhibition guides visitors through the annals of Rwandan history: from colonisation, to the ideology of Hutu-power, to the 1994 pogroms against the Tutsi, to peace and reconciliation. The curators are at pains to personalise the victims: one room is adorned with the smiling faces of the deceased; the bones of the victims are displayed in another; their despoiled clothes hang in the next. Kigali Genocide Memorial is certainly not for the faint of heart; however, nothing could have prepared me for what I would witness at the Churches in Ntarama and Nyamata. Even now, when I look back at my notes, I shiver.

During the killings of previous decades it had been possible for Tutsis to take refuge in the churches that dot Rwanda’s hills. That all changed in 1994. Scores of priests sided with the fanatics and offered up their houses of God as factories of death. The churches of Ntarama and Nyamata are both located around 25-30 kms South of Kigali and witnessed some of the most barbarous massacres during the genocide.

I reached the first church, Ntarama, at around 10am. Here 5,000 people lost their lives. The frayed garments of the dead line the pews and drape the walls, whilst their bones sit silent at the back. The killers had reserved a room towards the side of the church – in some crazed gesture of selectivity, perhaps – for the murder of children: their bloodied brains still stain the walls a sickly brown. The instruments of execution laid out at the front of the church include a machete, a dagger, a hatchet, a club, a hoe and… a long, sharp wooden stick. My guide, Jean Claude, informs me that this was used to murder women – only after they had been gang-raped! The stick was inserted into the vagina and pushed upwards through the body until it burst out violently through the victim’s head. (Trust me, dear reader, I do not wish to share with you facts of this nature; I merely fear that euphemism would only add to the defilement of the deceased.)

The second church, Nyamata, is just a five-minute motorbike ride from the first. The scale of the slaughter that occurred here far exceeded that of Ntarama: between the 10th and the 12th of April 1994, around 45,000 people were killed inside the church and its surrounding compound. The church itself, although considerably larger, is much the same as Ntarama: bones, clothes and weapons are littered throughout. Outside the church I find scores of families weeping. They are standing near what looks like a large white step. As I walk closer it soon becomes clear that this is, in fact, the surface of a vast subterranean crypt.

At its centre is a staircase, descending down deep into the grave. As you enter, the nostrils are assaulted by a deep, turgid musk – the reek of death. Coffins are stacked in neat rows, draped in purple and white. Each contains the remains of around fifty persons. As I walk through the grave, colossal shelves of bones become visible – femurs, skulls, pelvises – that once formed the frames of thousands of people. I turn to my guide for reassurance. He is not there. I panic. I run. My head finally rises back into the land of the living and I stagger out into the sun. As a cool blanket of relief covers my sweat-sodden skin, I regain a modicum of calm. But where is Jean Claude? I look out to the trees that surround the grave. Ah! There he is… He is staring at the floor. He is silent. He is still. He is crying. (I would later find out that Jean Claude had lost his father in the massacre at Nyamata.)

That fateful spring of 1994 saw the rotting of the Rwandan tree, and the dying of its leaves. The Habyarimana regime had been allowed to pump lies, fear and junkyard propaganda into society for over thirty years. And thus a class of uneducated losers was bred: ready and waiting for the occasion when saturnalia and frantic destruction made itself known. By the end of July 1994, Rwanda was lifeless, its people barely registering a pulse.

The wounds of genocide are everywhere in Rwanda, and in many ways are still horribly fresh, even after the passage of twenty years. Nearly everyone has lost friends and family to the genocide, and it is clear that much of the population continues to suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Lost victims of the genocide are still unearthed today: it seems digging will remain a profession in Rwanda for some time. And – it must not be forgotten – many of the architects of the genocide continue to live comfortably in France, whilst the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (the FDLR) – the scabs of the ancien régime – remain at large, although diminished, in Eastern Congo. Genuine reconciliation will only occur when these thugs and tyrants are brought to justice.

In the meantime, the Rwandan people – the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa – continue upon their extraordinary journey of reconstruction. The roads are now smooth, the landscape cultivated and (slowly but surely) people are lifting themselves out of poverty. The Rwandan parliament is comprised of 64% females (a world record, by the way). Smartly dressed police and soldiers stand guard at intersections. Their Internet connections are amongst the best this author has experienced in Africa. Once a people characterised by tribal divisions, the Rwandans have demonstrated that they can transcend their differences and – regardless of the comparisons one could make – build a nation of which anyone would be proud. But, most of all, as my new friend Christopher Magabo was so determined to stress: many, many Rwandans are now happy. Twenty years ago countless brave men and women paid with their lives to protect the lives of others. Today, there is a ticket with your name on it. The ticket is to Kigali, Rwanda and you need only pay with cash.

Fergus Simpson

Kigali, 18th April 2014