About 150,000 refugees, standing shoulder to shoulder on a mountain plateau the size of three football fields. When I first see them, they’ve been standing there for almost three days. Somewhere in this sea of humanity there are supposed to be two small camps of the United Nations ‘ZamBat’ unit, peacekeepers from Zambia, but I don’t see them anywhere.
There’s no room to sit down on the plateau. The refugees are squeezed together above their belongings, their legs spread across the bodies of old people and children too tired to stand. Rwandan troops in long raincoats, guns slung over their shoulders, some wearing black berets, are posted every ten metres around the throng they’ve driven together. Kibeho refugee camp, the largest on Rwandan territory, was closed two days ago when the Rwandan government lost patience with the UN’s mission, Opération Retour, to return these refugees to their homes. It was taking too long; the government feared the social and political consequences of 150,000 alienated Hutu citizens packed together on its territory. The soldiers of the Rwandan government have chased the inhabitants from their huts in the surrounding valleys and herded them on to the plateau. Now they’re keeping them covered.
With the evacuation of the camp completed, the Rwandan soldiers, all Tutsis, have apparently run out of orders. Just like the Hutu refugees, they’ve been waiting for days for someone to tell them what to do. They’re drawing patterns in the dust with their truncheons, taking drags off each other’s cigarettes and wantonly kicking misplaced Hutu possessions into the deep valley. Down in the depths, it looks like a hurricane’s been raging. Tens of thousands of huts have been knocked down, trampled, some of them torched. Cooking pots, rice baskets and muddy blankets are lying among the nondescript heaps. Here and there a soldier skims the remains to see if there’s anything he can use.
Somewhere in the crowd people start pushing. An old woman is knocked off the crammed plateau and rolls on to the road that runs below, towards me. Swinging their truncheons, the soldiers drive her back into the crowd.
A few blue helmets loom up from the outer reaches of the crowd; my escort to one of the ZamBat camps. The UN is still here.
‘We’ll have to plough right through the middle. So take a deep breath,’ one of the peacekeepers warns me. I worm into the crowd after them. The refugees are paralysed with misery. They don’t seem to hear the blue helmets’ ‘Out of the way!’ or feel it when they’re roughly shoved aside. Step by step, we make our way through the masses. I see only faces, dull eyes and lips chapped with thirst. The ground beneath my feet is covered with anonymous personal effects and the occasional human. I can’t see the soil itself. At first I put my feet down carefully, until I become afraid of being left behind by the blue helmets. I have to be less careful, not care too much who or what I step on. ‘Excuse me! Excuse me!’ I hear myself mumble a thousand times over. Every time I feel my feet sink into something soft, I only hope I’m not treading on a human being. Or stepping in excrement. For the last sixty hours, the refugees have been forced to relieve themselves where they stand, or where they’ve fallen. The stench takes my breath away.
I trip over someone’s legs, lose my balance, and fall against people. By the time I’ve scrambled to my feet the trail the blue helmets blazed for me has disappeared. I’m stuck, with no idea which way to go. Just when I’m about to panic, a hand clamps hold of my wrist. One of the blue helmets drags me towards him, through the human mass. Hyperventilating, I hold on to his belt with both hands for the rest of the journey.
We reach a pole, painted red and white, serving as a traffic barrier. Behind it lies the former primary school of Kibeho, where the UN commander, Francis Sikaonga, and his eighty soldiers have set up camp.
Just as the Rwandan government soldiers surround their Hutu prisoners to keep them from escaping, so the Zambian blue helmets surround their school to keep the Hutus from trampling it. The Zambians are posted at intervals behind the wire around the former playground, which is barely large enough for the three white jeeps parked there now. The badly bent iron gates are locked, and guarded by Zambians as well.
The refugees try to stay as close to the UN soldiers as they can. They crowd on to the parking lot; some have managed to find a place to sit, their legs stretched out as far as possible into the safe territory beyond the barbed wire. The refugees do nothing, say nothing, just stare at the Zambians.
I walk up to a blue-helmeted soldier in shirtsleeves who’s fiddling with a broken pump. ‘Smashed to bits when the people made a run on our camp two days ago.’ He sounds angry, but his gaze is full of sorrow as he looks at the children with eyes and mouths open wide, gaping vainly at the drainpipe in hope of a few drops.
Two nights ago they heard gunshots, the UN soldier tells me. ‘We got down behind the sandbags right away, we had no idea who was shooting whom. Maybe they were even shooting at us. The ground was shaking, but we thought it was tanks, we couldn’t believe it was tens of thousands of people running. Not until we saw them climbing out of the valley towards us. They came running in from all sides, screaming, straight at us, with about a thousand government soldiers firing at them. Our commander stayed calm. It was because of him that we didn’t start shooting too, purely out of fear, not even when the refugees stormed our camp. I thought we were all in for it.’
His voice has grown hoarse: ‘We climbed up on to the sandbags and the roof as fast as we could. All around us people were stumbling, falling on top of each other and being trampled to death. There’s the proof . . .’ He nods at some bulky shapes beneath a neat row of blue tarpaulins next to the gate, towards which a Zambian soldier is walking at that very moment. He has a woman with him, and he lifts the canvasses one by one so she can see what’s underneath: eleven children, trampled to death during the nocturnal stampede. The woman shakes her head. She’s lost her child, but he’s not here. The Zambian leads her back past the barbed wire. She pushes her way through, falls backwards into the wall of people and stands perfectly still, fixing the Zambians with her gaze.
The human avalanche finally came to a halt against the walls of the school. After the Zambians had ventured down from their perches, it took them hours to direct the refugees back to the other side of the trampled barbed wire. ZamBat was just dragging the last bodies away from the school gates when the government soldiers came up to Captain Francis.
‘We’re taking over here. The refugees are going home,’ they announced. They didn’t say how the refugees would get home, and it still isn’t clear. The Hutus aren’t allowed to walk home: the Rwandan government is afraid they’ll settle down again after a few kilometres and erect a new camp. Loading the refugees into trucks and driving them to their villages isn’t feasible either: the Rwandans have no trucks. The UN has a few, but United Nations troops aren’t allowed to take part in the deportation of prisoners. Voluntary status is a criterion for UN passengers, and the inhabitants of Kibeho haven’t volunteered for this.
The two roads winding through the mountains to Kibeho have been closed. Food and water convoys from aid organizations are being stopped and sent back. As of the day before yesterday, the Rwandans have forbidden all refugee aid.
‘We’ve been here for sixty-two hours now,’ the blue helmet says, ‘waiting for somebody to do something.’ He nods towards the people behind the barbed wire. ‘They’re hoping we’ll do something. We’re hoping God will. But it’s the Rwandan government that will have to solve things. It’s their country; what we’re seeing here is their refugee policy. We’re not allowed to interfere.’
Suddenly angry, he throws down his pipe wrench and gropes wildly in a crate for another tool. ‘These people haven’t had anything to eat or drink since the day before yesterday. They’re going out of their minds with thirst. They think I’ll give them water as soon as I’ve repaired this pump, but there’s barely enough water for us.’ Provisions for the eighty Zambians are also being held up at the barricades on the mountain road, along with the food and water for the refugees. In the parking lot, an American UNICEF employee – who got past the roadblocks because he wasn’t carrying any relief goods – is talking to Captain Francis. The American says that he thinks he has convinced the Rwandan commander to allow a water tanker through by pointing out to him that water will help move the refugees. The Hutus can go without food for a while, but – as he’s pointed out to the commander – people who are half dead with thirst can’t go anywhere.
‘There’s a tanker with 18,000 litres of drinking water stuck at a roadblock ten kilometres from here. If the Rwandan soldiers let it through, that water could be here within half an hour.’
‘That’s fine,’ Captain Francis says, ‘except you won’t be able to distribute it. All the pumps in Kibeho have been smashed. We’ll repair some of them for you. But there’s not much more we can do.’ Francis pulls five soldiers away from the cordon behind the barbed wire and sends them into the crowd with the UNICEF man and some tools. Then he disappears as well. I hear his voice trailing off: ‘I must try to negotiate. There must be an authority somewhere around here who can be reasoned with.’
Why distribute water at all, when there are only 18,000 litres for 150,000 dehydrated refugees? One decilitre, half a teacup for every parched throat. To keep the refugees on their feet, to say nothing of keeping them alive, we’d need at least 450,000 litres, three litres per refugee. And we’d need it again tomorrow, of course.
And then how do you go about distributing 18,000 litres of water among 150,000 people?
By hand. One cup at a time. There’s no other way, because the blue helmets haven’t been able to repair a single tap in Kibeho. All smashed to bits, they’d need more than the pipe wrench they got from the UN.
And what about the speed you’d have to work at to pour half a cup of water for 150,000 people? And where would you find that many cups in a blue-helmet camp? Francis sighs very deeply.
‘OK, send that tanker of yours,’ he tells the American from UNICEF. ‘We’ll see what we can do.’
The lorry pulls into the Zambian parking lot with stowaways on the bumper, licking drops off the welding-seams. A little copper tap is sticking out of the middle of the giant reservoir. The blue helmets open it and start filling the cups, tins and pans that are being thrown to them from the crowd behind the wire. Full cups and tins and pans are carried back to their owners, who sob in anticipation. One of the blue helmets slips and falls in the mud under the tap. The containers he’s just filled spill all over him. He scrambles to his feet and goes to the end of the line of blue helmets waiting their turn at the tap.
I don’t see how this rescue operation can succeed, but what these blue helmets are clumsily trying to do, I can do too. This isn’t skilled work. Even a journalist can do it. I pick up the first empty can from the ground and hold it under the thin stream, then I carry it to the barbed wire and hold it up until its owner comes forward and claims it with a loud ‘Merci’.
The illusion that we’re rescuing refugees makes us euphoric. After discussing how we can speed up the operation, we find an empty oil drum in the kitchen. The cook asks us to bring it back before six: he needs it to fix ZamBat’s dinner.
We attach a hose to the tanker and use it to fill the drum. Some of us dunk the drinking vessels the refugees are throwing at us into the water, others trot back and forth between the truck and the barbed wire. Meanwhile, the rest of ZamBat is keeping the crowd covered. The sight of water, having to wait their turn before they can take a sip, is too much for most of the refugees. They push towards us, panting. The barbed wire bulges dangerously and the people who get caught in it scream and cry. The Zambians, who are becoming increasingly panicky themselves, admonish the people to remain calm. ‘Everyone will get a turn,’ they lie desperately. At the back of the crowd we see government soldiers using their truncheons to chase away those who’ve already had water.
When the tank is empty, a few hundred of the 150,000 people on the plateau have had a couple of sips of water. Those who haven’t are pleading and crying behind the barbed wire. Everyone is exhausted.
I’m drenched and shivering.
The first time I witness the logical consequences of the UN’s nonintervention policy, I fly into a rage. At the blue helmets. We watch as a group of refugees, about six of them, break away from the crowd and start running into the valley. They’re trying to break the siege! Rwandan troops start firing immediately. We see the refugees fall. Dead. Their bodies roll down the rocks to the bottom of the valley, and come to a halt at the trampled huts.
They’re being slaughtered!’ I scream madly at Captain Francis. ‘Stop them! Do something!’
Francis turns to me. ‘Such as?’ he says. ‘Shoot the government troops?’
‘Yeah, good idea,’ I bite back at him.
Francis regains his composure. ‘We’ve been wanting to do that from the start, of course. But we can’t. They’re better armed . . .’
‘Then do something else, but do something . . .’
‘There are a thousand of them and only eighty of us.’
‘Then call for reinforcements.’
‘We’ve done that, but even if all six thousand blue helmets in Rwanda came to Kibeho today, carrying the kinds of weapons we can only dream of, we still couldn’t fight. There are a hundred and fifty thousand civilians between us and the government troops. We’d have to shoot right across those people in order to hit one Rwandan soldier.’
I look around: from the Zambian parking lot I can see only three of the thousand Rwandan soldiers supposedly roaming around on the plateau. The trio in the distance is peering over the edge to see whether the bodies are still moving. Apart from them, I can see only a solid wall of Hutus. Some of them are doing their utmost to catch my eye, so they can direct their pleading looks at someone.
‘Besides, imagine the panic if we started shooting,’ Francis continues. ‘There would be another stampede. Even more casualties. Of course the government troops would return fire. More casualties.’
‘OK, OK, OK, I understand. Sorry.’
‘Furthermore,’ he continues imperturbably, ‘I’ve conveniently failed to mention that the mandate of the peacekeeping force in Rwanda doesn’t allow force. We’ve been ordered to cooperate with the Rwandan authorities, not shoot at them.’
For a moment I think I can trick Captain Francis: ‘But that wouldn’t apply if those authorities were killing innocent people before your eyes, would it?’
‘Yes it would. It does.’
I pass up what later turns out to be the last chance for a lift out of Kibeho. A few UN observers are trying to get to UN headquarters in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to alert it to the situation in Kibeho. I’m transfixed. I watch the blue helmets watching the killing around them, eyes and mouths wide open in disbelief, as if they’re screaming without making a sound. I keep watching until the sun’s gone down and it’s pitch-black on the plateau. Captain Francis looms up behind me.