Silence of Rwanda's dead haunts those who ignored their cries
It was April 1994, and Princess had been infected by the feverish mood that had taken hold in all of South Africa at the time. She was our housekeeper in Johannesburg, a plump, sedate and humorous woman, whose real name was Nolizwe Mneno. She had changed her name to make it easier for white people to remember.
The first free election in the country's history was due at the end of the month, an election in which all citizens would participate for the first time.
The end of apartheid made headlines around the world, an epochal event with more than 400 foreign correspondents reporting on it.
I was one of them.
On April 16, 11 days before the "mother of all elections", a press contingent accompanied Nelson Mandela, the future president, to the Umlazi township near Durban. It was one of his last appearances before the election, and about 50 000 people had gathered for an open-air rally, dancing, singing and celebrating the freedom fighter as though he was the messiah.
White domination was coming to an end as an African dream became reality in the republic. It was the news story of the day, but only because no one, including me, was aware of the sheer magnitude of the nightmare unfolding in the centre of the continent at the same time. Like other journalists, I too wrote unforgivable stories for which I am ashamed today, 20 years later.
The first reports from Rwanda, 4 000km away, were confusing: accounts of military showdowns, bloody unrest, ethnic squabbles and fraternal strife. Der Spiegel published a story that spoke of "anarchy that feeds on itself". Rwanda was dismissed as a typically African conflict.
"Rwanda?" a British colleague said. "Oh, it's just the Tutsi and the Hutu smashing each other's heads in. It's never-ending tribal warfare."
The "tribal warfare" was in fact genocide, the most horrific since the Holocaust and Cambodia's killing fields.
"We were left alone. The entire world looked the other way," says Jonathan Nturo (34), a slender, small-boned man. He is well dressed, wearing a red leather jacket, Burberry jeans and sunglasses. He wants to look cool when he visits the hell he managed to escape.
Standing on a hilltop in Murambi, a scattered settlement in southern Rwanda, Nturo recounts how he and his family and their five head of cattle arrived there. He describes how they, with tens of thousands of terrified people, set up an emergency camp on a construction site for a high school, next to the same three, now-rusty yellow cement mixers that still stand there today.
Promises of protection
Government troops had promised to protect the refugees, and they were still hopeful they would escape the mass murderers. Nturo was 14 at the time.
On April 6, at 8.20pm, a plane carrying the then Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot down as it approached the airport in the capital Kigali. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain a mystery. The apparent assassination marked the beginning of the genocide.
That night, the presidential guard and Interahamwe ("fighting together" in the official Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda) militias went on a murderous and incendiary rampage through the streets of Kigali.
A group of fanatical Hutu had seized power and decided to wipe out the Tutsi minority, which made up about 10% of the population, once and for all. The violence had swept across the entire country within a week.
"My father didn't want to believe it at first," Nturo recalls. "Only when the villages were burning in our region and three of my siblings had been killed did we leave and head in the direction of Murambi."
They reached what they believed was a relatively safe haven on April 10, at about 4pm.
At 10.30pm that evening, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, in Kigali, called his operations centre in New York. The Canadian officer was the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Its mandate was to keep the fragile peace and safeguard the transition to democracy that had been negotiated in the 1993 Arusha Accords.
For months, Dallaire had been issuing dire warnings about escalating violence in Rwanda. In January, he had reported on secret weapons caches, hit lists and death squads in an encrypted telex. Now the peacekeepers' worst-case scenario had become a reality.
Dallaire requested immediate reinforcements, arguing that disaster could be averted with about 4 000 troops and a strong mandate. But his superiors in the department of peacekeeping operations, headed by Kofi Annan, later to become UN secretary general, turned down the request. They refused to believe that a crime against humanity was about to unfold in Rwanda.
In the next 100 days, the Hutu regime and its accomplices murdered about 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus – the equivalent of five killings a minute. It was probably the first time in human history that so many perpetrators murdered so many of their fellow human beings in such a short time. Dallaire would characterise it as an "African holocaust".
The inferno erupted in Murambi at 3am on April 21. The soldiers suddenly began shooting indiscriminately into the crowd and tossing hand grenades, says Nturo. An hour later, militias from the surrounding hills forced their way into the camp and began systematically slaughtering the helpless refugees, using machetes, knives, spears, sickles, hoes and clubs.
The Nturo family was torn apart in the chaos. Nturo joined a group of young men who desperately tried to defend themselves by throwing bricks at the assailants from the construction site. But they were greatly outnumbered. Almost miraculously, about 100 of the trapped refugees, including Nturo, managed to escape in the midst of army gunfire. They ran down into the valley and swam across the Murambi River.
Nturo points to a banana grove on the opposite hillside, where he hid in the early morning hours. He is trying not to let on how disturbing the memories are to him.
Nevertheless, he seems distraught, gesticulating wildly, speaking quickly and stuttering occasionally.
"We are afraid to talk about it," he says. He tells about the sleepless nights when the ghosts of the past return to haunt him, and about the unsuccessful attempts to treat him for post-traumatic stress disorder in therapy.
At least 40 000 people died in Murambi, the scene of one of the most horrific massacres. No one knows the exact death toll but skeletons are still being found in the area today.
"Kubera umurimo wari wakozwe" ("You've done good work"), the prefect of the Gikongoro administrative district said, spurring on the hordes of killers.
About 160 000 Rwandan refugees at a makeshift camp near the Zairean border town
of Goma on July 17 1994. (AFP)
The first TV images to appear around the world during those initial days were so monstrous and inconceivable that commentators referred to the slaughter as an "aberration of nature", a murderous frenzy, a maladie de tuer (or "killing sickness") – as if the genocide had descended on Rwanda like an insidious virus.
Today, we know that the genocide was not the work of archaic, chaotic powers, but of an educated, modern elite that availed itself of all the tools of a highly organised state: the military and the police, the intelligence services and militias, the government bureaucracy and the mass media. The Hutu killers were no demons but the henchmen of a criminal system. They pursued a simple logic of extermination: if we don't wipe them out, they will destroy us.
A national memorial was built in Murambi, where the unfinished school buildings were left untouched.
"The media didn't describe what happened here as genocide but as a ethnic war," the first informational panel reads.
Rwandans haven't forgotten how naive the global press was at the time.
The murderous excesses had nothing at all to do with "tribal warfare". The Hutu and the Tutsi have shared language, customs and culture for centuries. There were mixed marriages, and many Rwandans were unable to tell whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi.
The causes of the tragedy were different: the pressures of overpopulation in a small agricultural country, the struggle over scarce resources, colonial segregation policies that had fuelled latent racism between the ethnic groups and the ruling elite's thirst for power.
A sickening stench of decay emerges from the open doors of the classrooms in Murambi. Hundreds of bodies, preserved in lime, lie on wooden platforms inside, people with severed limbs, beheaded children, crushed skulls with spearheads protruding from them, women whose legs were ripped apart to rape them – and faces frozen in expressions of horror.
There is probably no other memorial in the world where human bestiality is on such blatant and brutal display.
Nturo pushes his Ray Bans up on to his forehead. He has stopped speaking and is fighting back tears. He only regains his speech when he is outside again, as he steps on to a concrete slab overgrown with grass.
"Underneath here is the mass grave on which the French played volleyball" – the French, who had cultivated a close friendship with the Hutu regime, supplied it with weapons, advised the military and trained the militias. The French also sent a "rescue mission" to Rwanda, Opération Turquoise, when the murderous orgies were over. It created a safety corridor through which the killers, protected by hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, were able to escape to Burundi or Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some boys holding up homemade pinwheels wave at us as we drive away from the memorial.
"The normalcy is eerie," says Nturo. "Sometimes I'm amazed that grass still grows here, that life goes on."
He wants to go up to Gataba, where his father and brother were beaten to death. They too managed to flee from Murambi, but they only made it to the small village on the next hill. We encounter a man on a bicycle with a stack of brand-new machetes on his rack. The smooth blades glitter in the sunshine.
Nturo had intended to speak to the wife of the man who murdered his family members. But as we drive slowly past her shop, he loses his resolve. "No, not today," he says. "The mood is strange."
In fact, the mood is hostile, as people on the village square stare at our off-road vehicle. Nturo doesn't want us to get out to interview them. We can see their response in their suspicious glances, he says – "Here comes that guy with journalists, stirring up the old stories. It's time to finally let it go. After all, as they would argue, the ‘incidents' happened two decades ago, and the past is the past."
But the past refuses to go away, not for Nturo, and not here in Gataba. The bodies were lying on the ground in front of a white-tiled market stand, a sort of sales counter where the meat of cattle and goats was cut up. Four men beat his father and brother to death, says Nturo.
Their leader, a wealthy businessman, is now in prison, and his wife is running the business. Perpetrators and victims live side by side in Gataba, with its majority Hutu and minority Tutsi population.
The skulls of Rwandans at a genocide memorial in the church at Ntarama, Kigali. (Reuters)
Some try to suppress what happened 20 years ago but others are unable to forget it. Those who are too vocal about the Hutu-Tutsi question are accused of "divisionism" and given severe penalties for making incendiary remarks.
Rwanda's authoritarian government, which has ordered reconciliation, is still headed by President Paul Kagame, the Tutsi whose rebel army captured the country in 1994 and ended the genocide.
Today, Rwanda is an economic success, a dictatorship in the developing world, modelled on China or Singapore. And, just as in those places, anyone who opposes the regime is harassed and silenced, if necessary.
On the trip back to Kigali, we see prison gangs working in rice fields on the valley floor. Ordinary criminals wear pink prison uniforms and from a distance they look like a flock of flamingos. In their midst are those convicted of committing acts of genocide, who are dressed in bright orange.
"Everyone should see that they were génocidaires. They must pay for their crimes. It's justice," says Nturo.
He grew up in an extended family of 14, but he and his mother, two sisters and one brother were the only ones to survive the massacres. He has often been asked to guide tours in Murambi but he has always refused. He has built a high, protective wall around himself, a wall that begins to crumble whenever he returns to this place of death.
His strategy for overcoming the past is to suppress it through hard work and professional success. He studied business and finance administration at the University of Butare, and he earns a good living in his job at an aid organisation. He lives alone in Kigali. He doesn't want to be reduced to an abarokotse, a survivor, who is eternally imprisoned by his memory.
Some Rwandans are innocent prisoners against their will, including Dancille Nyirabazungu, who has been locked in the prison of the past for 20 years. Time has stood still for her since April 1994, she says. Every day, her poverty reminds her of the massacre that took place in the church in Ntarama, not far from her hut. She lost 20 family members and relatives, five of her nine children were killed and her husband was hacked to death with machetes in front of the church altar.
The 61-year-old now lives with her son and two grandchildren in a house consisting of two small, dark rooms. There are no tables or chairs, there is no electricity or running water, and there is only an outhouse in the vegetable garden. She has just come home from work; her clothes are tattered and dusty. Her job consists of carrying stones at a construction site for a daily wage of slightly less than $1.38.
Ntarama is in the Bugesera district, a swampy, inhospitable stretch of land plagued by mosquitoes to which, in the first major pogroms in the late 1950s, many Tutsi fled or were forcibly relocated. In April 1994, during the time of itumba, or heavy rain, they were to be destroyed, like vermin. The hate-obsessed Hutu called them inyenzi, or cockroaches.
Thousands of Tutsi fled from the surrounding areas to the church, in the hope that this holy place would be protected, because many of the persecutors were devout Catholics who, like their victims, attended mass every Sunday. Nyirabazungu and her family also sought protection in the church.
But on April 15, at 8am, militias surrounded the building. They broke holes through the brick walls and threw hand grenades inside. Then they forced their way into the building and killed the wounded and near-dead people inside.
A large, dark stain – the blood of battered babies – is still visible on the front wall of the building next door, which once housed the Sunday school. There is a stick leaning against the wall.
"That," says Nyirabazungu, "is what they used to skewer the women, from their vaginas to the tops of their heads."
Her voice is flat and matter-of-fact and, if it wasn't for her eyes, it would seem as though her story had left her cold. But the horrors of that day are permanently etched into those eyes.
Why? Why? She repeats the question over and over again. Why? She has no explanation for the acts of barbarism. How could one explain that doctors killed their patients in their hospital beds, that teachers massacred their students, and that nuns poured petrol on parishioners and set them on fire?
"Keep going! The graves aren't full yet!" announcers with the national radio station, Radio Milles Collines, told the unfettered mob. Killing became a civil duty of sorts, and ordinary people, raised to obey authority, complied. They kept on killing, driven by fear, hate and bloodlust, and by greed for the victims' property.
Child of genocide
Nyirabazungu, 41 at the time, hid in the vestry, under piles of bodies, pregnant with her son Eric. He was born in June 1994, a child of the genocide. She gave him a second name, Rucyamubicyika – "He who has survived terrible things".
Where was God in those days of murder? "He was here, or else we wouldn't have survived," says Nyirabazungu. And then she asks, in return: "Where were you? Why didn't you help us?"
These kinds of questions still make me ashamed today. It wasn't just the UN, the West and other African nations that failed; it was also journalists like me. We ran after the big story, paying little attention to Rwanda or merely spreading clichés about the country.
On April 15, when the massacre in Ntarama was in full swing, my quickly written remote analysis was published in Die Zeit.
I invented stories about the "gruesome tribal war" in the heart of Africa, where everyone was fighting against everyone else. Bellum omnium contra omnes – the Latin phrase for the war of all against all always works when you know little about what is actually happening.
At the end, I wrote that foreign intervention was probably pointless. That report contains the most unforgivable mistakes I have ever made in my professional life.
It is as silent as a grave in the Catholic Church of Ntarama on Sunday, April 24 1994. The bodies lie between the pews, a scene of unspeakable horror. Hecatombs of corpses lie in the church courtyard, in the surrounding bush and in the swamps in the valley below.
But on Sunday April 24, the congregation is singing in Regina Mundi Church, the largest Catholic church in Soweto. The early mass has begun, the election is only three days away, and the people are euphoric. They are singing the national hymn, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika as they celebrate life, freedom and the future. We reporters are swept along by the feeling of elation, and some sing along with the congregation.
There are holes in the ceiling, from the bullets white soldiers fired while hunting down black resistance fighters. The violent excesses of apartheid are nothing but vague memories by now. And in those hours of happiness, the violent excesses of Rwanda have yet to become a memory. – © 2014 Der Spiegel
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan.