For years, the rainy season would bring up bodies that had lain where they were slaughtered. You might see clothes floating in a flooded field or stumble across a leg bone or a child’s skull, half covered in mud. Nowadays, the rain lifts memories to the surface. It beats down on iron roofs like a manic drum, conjuring demons that Rwandans suppress for the rest of the year. Pastors, counsellors and doctors open their doors to find people they haven’t seen for months complaining of non-specific pains and worries, sleeplessness and headaches. Rain pitches them back to the second week of April 1994 when the sky opened up like a vast cataract and the killing began.
My own memories of that week are fragmented, like a reel of old film with frames missing. I can see a truck loaded with bleeding bodies driving at speed through the gates of a hospital in Kigali. Torrential rain washes blood across the yard and down the drains. I remember thinking: this is not a metaphor – the gutters are running red with blood. At first I believed the images would last forever, but memory is a tricky thing and the pictures in my head have shifted. Inside the ward I can see a woman holding a baby whose arm has been chopped off with a machete. Or is it a leg? She is wandering around trying to get a nurse to pay attention but the hospital is so full of grievously injured patients that no one is listening. Some frames remain clear and frozen despite the passing years: flies buzz over four women with their throats cut outside a clinic in the Kigali suburb of Gikondo. A soldier leans on his AK-47 on the path outside my house. Tracers arc through the night sky, the gunfire stops, the rain eases and there is silence.
I was living in Kigali when the massacres started, working for UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund. Having previously been a journalist, I began to report for newspapers and radio but it was not like other assignments where you go in search of the story – the story erupted around me. In the years that followed I spent many months in Rwanda; each time I left I found it harder to return. I was mired in that week, unable to subsume my feelings of guilt for having witnessed the horror without immediately understanding what it meant and why it was happening. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives were lost before I realized that I was witnessing not simply mass murder but genocide.
This spring I went back to Rwanda for the first time in a decade. The capital has changed from the small, shabby, low-rise city I knew in the 1990s. The twenty-storey Kigali City Tower is a symbol of a ‘new Rwanda’ touted by the government and enthusiastic aid donors. According to the website, the tower stands not only for ‘aspiration and power’ but also for ‘hope in a city rapidly becoming one of the most prosperous, cleanest and fastest-growing metropolitan centres on the African continent’. Billboards advertising a mobile network feature a handsome, smiling young man in a blue suit sporting the latest smartphone with the legend stop counting seconds, start growing business. The central roundabout, previously adorned with a peculiarly horrible sculpture that looked like a pile of concrete coffins, is fringed with neat flower beds surrounding a blue-and-white-painted fountain sponsored by another mobile-phone company. Kigali has a sense of order rarely found in African cities – the government has famously banned plastic bags and I was told you can be fined for driving a dirty car.
I set out to find François Kalikumutima. He had been among several UNICEF staff who had rung to ask me for help while soldiers and gangs of killers, armed with machetes and nail-studded clubs, roamed the streets of Kigali. The murderers were extremists from Rwanda’s majority ethnic group, the Hutus. Their targets were the minority Tutsis, and anyone who stood in their way. A smooth new highway leads from the city centre to the suburb of Nyamirambo, where I found him, retired but still living in the same small red-brick single-storey house where he had been nineteen years earlier. Twin babies in pale aqua-coloured Babygros – the unexpected fruit of a late third marriage – lay toe to toe on the sofa, gurgling happily. François, a plump, short man with splayed teeth, now in his mid-sixties, bumbled around, confused about who I was and why I had come – he had spoken to so many people in those terrible weeks, he said, and asked so many foreigners for help, he couldn’t remember what he had said to whom.
As a Hutu, François had not been in direct danger, but soldiers who were terrorizing the suburb shot dead his next-door neighbour, a Belgian whom he knew only as Monsieur Albert. (The Hutu government of the time blamed Belgium, the former colonial power, for many of the country’s ills.) The body had begun to smell and François rang me in some distress to discuss his dilemma: leaving the body to rot was unbearable, but burying it might provoke the killers to accuse him of befriending Monsieur Albert. He was especially worried for his son, who was officially a Hutu – the designation passing through the father’s line – but was tall like his Tutsi mother. He had tried to call the Belgian Embassy but they were not answering. François had a strong sense of the way things should be.
‘He’s a white man, he should have a decent burial,’ he told me on the phone. I advised him to bury the body. The next day he rang back.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I buried him and said a prayer.’
Nineteen years on, we peered over the vertical-slatted wood fence separating François’s veranda from that of his neighbour. The houses were semi-detached. Only now did I understand that Monsieur Albert’s body had fallen just two yards away. François showed me where he had buried him in the garden, near the avocado tree.
‘I didn’t kill Monsieur Albert,’ he said. ‘Nor did I kill his small dog and lay the corpse on top of him.’
It was the first time I had heard about the dog. Ten years after the genocide, in late 2004, I had received a call from a friend who still worked for UNICEF. François, she said, had been arrested for killing Monsieur Albert and she was gathering evidence in his defence. Convinced he was innocent – otherwise he would not have drawn my attention to his dilemma about the body – I had sent a letter describing how he had called me, and attached a copy of an article I had written at the time. I never heard what happened.
François shuffled off to the back of the house, returning with a brown-cardboard file of papers from which he pulled out copies of handwritten letters of support as well as his own account of what had happened. I leafed through and found a copy of my letter. He read it and looked up, startled. Memories trickled back as he put my face to a name.
‘You were the one who wrote this?’ he said in amazement. He called his wife. ‘She was the one who wrote this!’ he said. ‘It’s a miracle! You helped set me free.’
During the genocide, killers had frequently stolen the property of their victims, loot being the reward for murder. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a guerrilla force of Tutsis born in exile in neighbouring Uganda and Burundi, ended the genocide and took power in July 1994. Diaspora Tutsis arrived in their wake and appropriated the property of Hutus who had fled as refugees or been imprisoned. In the upheaval of subsequent years, it was only too easy to take revenge or extort money by making accusations. Family and land disputes were inflamed, and even ten years later new allegations could surface.
François realized that trouble was brewing when a man who introduced himself as a journalist appeared in his office. He claimed to know that François had killed Monsieur Albert, but offered to suppress the story for the equivalent of £500. As a Hutu, François was vulnerable to such an allegation. He had a suspicion about who was behind all this. His second wife, a Tutsi, had died in 2001 and her family resented his remarriage because it meant they would not inherit his property. This, he thought, was their way of pressing their claim. He mustered £300 to pay the supposed journalist. There were 130,000 genocide suspects in prison without trial and he feared that if he joined them he would never get out. But the pay-off wasn’t enough. A few days later a story was published in a Kinyarwanda-language newspaper called Umurage, or ‘Legacy’, under the headline: he killed a white man and buried him in his property. Bizarrely, it was illustrated by a photograph of François standing next to a Moroccan soldier in ceremonial regalia, taken during a trip to Rabat in the 1970s and apparently pilfered from his photo album.
‘They wanted to show a picture of me with a white man,’ explained François. ‘Maybe they thought it proved something.’
A few days after the newspaper article appeared, François was arrested on a trip to the north-west of Rwanda. The police said they had received a tip-off that he was about to abscond over the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was held for five months.
‘On January 5th 2005, my late wife’s relatives came to claim my property because I was in prison,’ he told me. ‘But my current wife and my son resisted.’
As he was shuffled between prisons and police stations in different parts of the country, François thought about his complicated family life – his two wives and son who had died, the covetous in-laws, the new wife who was half his age. He was innocent, but would anyone speak on his behalf? There were always those who believe there is ‘no smoke without fire’. It was hard to know what people outside your own circle really thought, and the genocide made people more wary and relationships even more complicated. Mistrust permeated every workplace and neighbourhood. He wondered whether his Tutsi colleagues would defend him. And what about Ngabonziza, the young Tutsi whom Monsieur Albert employed as a cook and cleaner who had asked François for protection after his boss was shot? François took me through his living room to a corridor and pointed at the white-painted wooden panels of the ceiling.
‘I told him to get up there,’ he said. ‘I cleaned the walls so they couldn’t see the marks where his feet had touched as he climbed up. I got him to crouch on top of one of the walls so even if they hit the ceiling with their rifles they wouldn’t find him.’
The day after they killed Monsieur Albert, the soldiers had returned, forcing their way into François’s house, accusing him of hiding Ngabonziza. François said nothing. After they had left, he brought the boy down and told him to run into the forest. He disappeared.
The case of François Kalikumutima was among the first to be heard in gacaca, the system of community courts. It would have taken more than a century to bring all the genocide suspects incarcerated in Rwanda’s overcrowded prisons to formal trial, so in early 2005 the government embarked on an experiment combining elements of traditional justice with modern law. Local judges presided over the gacaca courts in which witnesses gave testimony and suspects were encouraged to confess and express remorse. Only the most serious genocidaires – rapists, mass murderers and those who had incited and given orders – were returned to prison for longer sentences. On 20 March 2005, François was summoned to a local community centre where his neighbours had gathered to witness his fate.
‘I did everything I could,’ he told the court. ‘I told everyone what had happened, including the Belgian Embassy, so that the body would be collected and repatriated, but such was the situation no one wanted to deal with it. But I had nothing do with the death of this man.’
One by one François’s UNICEF colleagues, several of them genocide survivors whom he had feared might turn against him, testified that he was generous, kind and innocent. He breathed more easily – maybe he would be believed. Documents were presented, including the letter and article I had written. Then François’s accusers brought their star witness, Ngabonziza, to testify that he had seen François kill the Belgian. His in-laws, he later discovered, had paid the young man £50.
‘The judge asked him to tell the truth in front of the Lord,’ recollected François. Ngabonziza changed his testimony.
‘He looked at me and couldn’t do it, despite the money. He said the soldiers killed the Belgian and that I had hidden him. Everyone clapped.’
François showed me the most important document in his file, a typewritten certificate of immediate release, signed by the judge and other witnesses. He had a bureaucrat’s reverence for documents, or maybe it was just fear that if he didn’t hold on to every shred of evidence of his innocence, someone else might come for him. Life, he said, was fine now and he was no longer under threat.
‘Now, in theory, no one talks about Tutsis and Hutus any more,’ he said. ‘We’re all supposed to be just Rwandans.’
This was the new creed propounded and enforced by the government. The genocidal ‘Hutu power’ ideology had been replaced not with Tutsi power but with nationalism. At least, that was the stated policy.
After independence from Belgium in 1959, Rwandan children were taught in school that Hutus and Tutsis were separate ethnies, or races. Tutsis – stereotypically tall and slim with long fingers – were said to be Hamitic people from Ethiopia, invaders who set themselves up centuries back as rulers of the native Hutus. That theory has been discredited. Hutu and Tutsi, who speak the same language and do not live in distinct geographic areas, are not tribes in the classic African sense of the word. These days, most historians and anthropologists see the two groups as castes, Tutsis having been traditionally cattle herders and Hutus farmers. Over time, the Tutsis gained higher status, and became rulers. Physiological differences probably evolved gradually and are not absolute – one of the tallest Rwandans I know is a Hutu. The arguments go to the essence of Rwandan identity and history, from the sixteenth century when the distinctions first emerged, to the colonial period when Germans and Belgians classified Africans by measuring nose width and head length and, eventually, to the genocide when ethnie determined who would live and who would die.
When the RPF took power, they decided not to engage with the debate at all, but simply to abrogate the terms. Only one phrase mentioning the old divisions is approved: ‘genocide of the Tutsi’. I noticed that in every newspaper article, tourist brochure or policy document the phrase was used verbatim, replacing looser descriptions that had been common before, such as ‘genocide against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu’ or ‘genocide and mass killings’. Like so much in Rwanda, the words, while accurate, were redolent with hidden meaning. The genocide was indeed against the Tutsi, but some Hutus had protected their Tutsi neighbours and been murdered alongside them. They were being written out of history.
Implicit in the phrase was a denial that, as it moved through the country taking control, district by district, until it reached the capital in July 1994, the RPF had killed Hutu civilians. This was the biggest taboo of all. In August 1994, as the genocide came to an end, Rwandans had told me that RPF forces would call people to meetings in their localities and then kill Hutus, accusing them of being genocidaires. The same month, a team sent by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, headed by an American called Robert Gersony, interviewed two hundred people and conducted one hundred group discussions inside Rwanda and in the refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The ‘Gersony Report’, as it became known, concluded that as many as 30,000 Hutus had been killed by vengeful RPF forces and other Tutsis. The new Rwandan government was furious. During the hundred days of genocide, the UN had withdrawn its peacekeepers and failed to stop the killing, but now another part of the UN was accusing them – the RPF, the people who had saved Rwanda – of murder. The UN leadership in Rwanda, already struggling to regain legitimacy, put the report in a drawer. Rumours of its existence were denied – it was just an informal briefing that had been discredited. Gersony’s conclusions were dismissed without being publicly challenged or confirmed.
The government admits there were occasional atrocities, but in Rwanda today anyone who suggests that the killings were widespread and systematic, or invokes the ‘Gersony Report’, is accused of revisionism or genocide denial.
‘We’re not able to mourn our own,’ said a Hutu friend I met over a beer one evening. ‘It’s as if only one community suffered or was killed.’
The genocidal Hutu government’s myth of the Tutsi as a kind of master race that must be exterminated by their oppressed Hutu slaves has been replaced by two new myths: first that only Tutsis were killed in 1994 and second that there are no longer any distinctions at all. Those myths cloak a third, namely that Rwanda is a democracy where Hutu and Tutsi share power, because politics is blind to ethnie. It’s partly to please the donors, especially Britain and the US, which provide substantial development aid and insist on elections and the facade of a modernizing political system. But it is not true. A Hutu minister may look powerful, but the real decisions may be made by a Tutsi permanent secretary (not that you can say this, of course, because it would mean discussing ethnie). Real power resides with President Paul Kagame and a small circle of diaspora Tutsis from Uganda who returned with him after the genocide. No one needs to say it, because everyone knows.
I asked François if Rwandans really no longer distinguished between Hutu and Tutsi or whether that was just politics. Garrulous until now in telling his personal story, he fell silent, gesturing over the wooden fence to where his new neighbours were bustling about on the veranda, near where Monsieur Albert had been shot. I changed the subject. François had been through enough; there was no need for him to court more trouble.
The following day, I bought a map of the country from a street seller and recognized almost nothing. Poring over it I realized that the names of towns have been changed – Byumba is now Gicumbi, Gisenyi has become Rubavu, Ruhengeri is Musanze. The authorities are trying to liberate geography from association with the genocide, to wipe the map clean by reviving old names that date back to pre-colonial times. Rwandans are meant to define themselves by their place of origin rather than as Hutus, Tutsis or the pygmy Twa.
Kinyarwanda, spoken by all Rwandans, is a difficult language to monitor because meaning is hidden within words. During the genocide, the notorious Radio Mille Collines encouraged Hutus to kill their Tutsi neighbours with phrases like ‘Go and do your work’. Today anything that could be construed as incitement to kill is illegal under a law against ‘genocide ideology’, defined as ‘an aggregate of thoughts characterized by conduct, speeches, documents and other acts aiming at exterminating or inciting others to exterminate people’.
I thought of my friend Monica, whom I had recently visited in Kenya, whose five children were killed in the genocide. She was calm until I asked if she spoke Kinyarwanda to her two children born after 1994 and brought up outside the country.
‘Never,’ she said, anger flashing across her face. ‘Why should they speak the language of people who kill each other? I don’t want them to know it.’
I decided to go to Butare (now Huye), a two-hour drive south of the capital where I had spent some time in June 1994, when the town was still in the hands of the genocidaires. At that time Robert Kajuga, president of the bands of killers known as interahamwe – the word means ‘those who work together’ – was staying at the Hotel Ibis, a run-down establishment painted mustard yellow. I remembered him sitting in a courtyard round the back on a wooden chair, surrounded by menacing red-eyed bodyguards drinking beer in the morning, while a young woman he said was his wife had her hair braided. It was well known that Kajuga’s mother was a Tutsi. Some whispered that his father was also a Tutsi, which was significant because ethnie passed down the male line. If it were true, Kajuga had the zeal of a convert, justifying even the murder of children.
‘It’s a war against the Tutsis because they want to take power, and we Hutus are more numerous,’ he had told me. ‘We defended ourselves. Even the eleven-year-old children came with grenades. That’s why there are bodies at the roadblocks.’
One morning I went to the Ethnographic Museum just outside Butare. After the genocide, the government temporarily suspended the teaching of history in schools, and even now the subject is largely ignored. Museums have been renovated to fit the prevailing way of thinking. Seven galleries of baskets, spears, pots and black-and-white photographs were carefully categorized: ‘Games and Sports’, ‘Dance’, ‘Poetic Tradition’, ‘Different Breeds of Cow’. I read the exhibition notes, reproduced in French, English and Kinyarwanda, but could find no reference to Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. The Ethnographic Museum had been purged of all reference to ethnicity. Photographs of the six post-Independence presidents had been hung near the exit. Under the picture of Théodore Sindikubwabo, acting president 9 April – 19 July 1994, a caption noted: ‘It is under his mandate that genocide against the Tutsi has been committed.’ Anyone basing their knowledge of Rwandan history on the preceding galleries would have found that statement baffling because it was the only mention of the term Tutsi in the entire establishment.
An enthusiastic young man whose job it was to educate schoolchildren on the value of museums emerged from his office to answer my questions.
‘People should know that history is for all Rwandans,’ he said. ‘Those who write Hutu, Tutsi and Twa have their own intention to separate us.’
I asked if, in the interest of historical accuracy, they might explain somewhere in the museum how people used to employ those terms. He replied that the Germans and Belgians had invented the divisions, which had not existed in pre-colonial times, so there was no need to mention them.
‘Today we don’t agree that there are differences,’ he replied. ‘If you want to heal the nation you cannot write that.’
The new orthodoxy has spread beyond the remoulding of history. Every Rwandan knows that, even if a word is not formally banned, the injudicious use of certain terms can land you in trouble for ‘genocide ideology’, so the safest option is not to mention ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ at all. A 2010 ‘Reconciliation Barometer’, calculated by asking 3,000 Rwandans about their attitudes to security, politics, justice and other criteria, concluded that more than 80 per cent were ‘reconciled’, but it had proved tricky to question people about the unsayable.
‘Many participants […] incorrectly believed that references to ethnicity or ethnic groups are prohibited by law or instruction in Rwanda,’ said the Barometer report. In other words, the respondents didn’t dare mention the very issue the survey sought to assess.
The RPF’s heroic narrative, contrasting its success in stopping the genocide with the failure of the UN, forms the basis for its legitimacy to govern. But there is no space in the approved lexicon for the complexities of what happened – that the genocide was indeed against the Tutsi, but that some Hutus were also killed, and that Rwanda’s saviours and current rulers themselves used violence against civilians to end it.
History, however, leaks out, like water from one of the cracked terracotta pots I saw at the museum. Kagame’s political circle is a modern-day version of the court of the Tutsi kings in the nineteenth century, full of intrigue and back-stabbing. In recent years his closest friends in the RPF, several of whom I used to know, have gone into exile after power struggles within the inner circle. Every now and then there is a mysterious death or unsolved assassination attempt against someone who was once close to the president.
I thought of François shushing me when he thought the neighbours could overhear our conversation. In Rwanda today so much is unspoken or only whispered.
In Butare, unlike Kigali, you might have a nightmare about the past and on waking find it hard to push aside, because there is little in the physical environment to tell you this is a new country, that history has been banished, that you’re supposed to be safe now, or forgiven, that you’re living in a country with 8 per cent annual economic growth that serves as a model of development for the African continent. There are no shopping malls, and what passes for a supermarket boasts fewer than a dozen rows of groceries and other goods. Heavy trucks rumble through on the way to Burundi without stopping. Hand-painted signs (sun photo studio butare, victory pharmacy) mingle with ubiquitous Western Union Money Transfer and mobile-phone company logos. The tallest building is still only about five storeys high although new blocks are under construction.
The Hotel Ibis was being renovated, repainted in its distinctive mustard colour, two new floors rising from behind a temporary fence of iron sheeting, so I checked into the Hotel Credo, about half a mile down the road – it was shabbier but felt more neutral, less haunted. That night the downpour was so ferocious I was aware of it in my sleep. In the morning a small, bedraggled brown bird sheltered on my balcony to dry its wings. Mist rose from the hillsides across the valley, mingling with smoke from hundreds of kitchens where breakfast was being cooked on charcoal stoves.
Butare has a special place in the story of the Rwandan genocide. Six officials were tried together and convicted of conspiring to wipe out the Tutsis in the town and surrounding area. The case was one of the key trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. The most notorious of the six accused was the then Minister of Family and Women’s Development, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko.
Some months after the genocide, I had chased her down to a refugee camp across the border in what was then called Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she was looking after orphans for the Catholic charity Caritas. A short, plump woman, wearing a sky-blue dress like the Virgin Mary in a medieval painting, she agreed to speak but not to show her face. The cameraman filmed her back. I interviewed her in French as she spoke no English. She was, she said, an exemplary wife, mother and government minister. She knew nothing and had done nothing. I remember a sentence she spat out in anger when I confronted her with evidence I had heard from survivors and witnesses. ‘Je ne peux pas tuer même un poulet!’ (‘I can’t even kill a chicken!’) As the atmosphere grew tense, her acolytes closed in around us, eyes burning, weapons surely somewhere close.
‘Time to go,’ said the cameraman. We drove as fast as we could to the border, leaving the smouldering anger of the camp behind.
Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was convicted on seven charges, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Many of her surviving victims, including some who had testified against her, still live in Butare. Among them is Rose Birizihiza. A woman of medium height with delicate features, she came to my hotel wearing neither the traditional Rwandan long cotton-print wrap skirt nor Western clothes, but loose pink trousers and a tunic, like a Pakistani salwar kameez. She had a strong presence, a sense of self that was rare in survivors. I had taken a suite so I could talk to her somewhere private, where she would feel safe, but the Hotel Credo turned out to be a bad choice as it was a mere twenty yards from the house where a local official had kept Rose for three months as a sex slave during the genocide, and even nearer the place along the main road where she had watched people being hauled out of their vehicles and slaughtered.
‘I remember seeing people being killed in the rain at Nyiramasuhuko’s roadblock. There was a hole right behind this building where they would throw the bodies,’ said Rose. ‘She gave the men the idea of raping Tutsi women. She had a house in town where her boys could take them. Sometimes they stripped them there at the roadblock.’
The ICTR had concluded: ‘Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the Tutsi group – destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.’ It had not worked with Rose. Not only had she escaped death, but her spirit and will to live were remarkably intact. It was hard to stop the words that tumbled out of her, even to get her to pause for translation. Some inner force compelled her to keep talking.
‘Before, I used to cry when I told my story and sometimes I couldn’t finish,’ she said. ‘I had many things inside me. I could take a piece of paper and write everything. Many people encouraged me to talk because they saw how talking helped me.’
Rose had mended her broken life through bearing witness. Rejecting shame and silence, she had testified at courts in Canada and the US, where genocidaires from Butare had fled, as well as at the ICTR in Arusha and at gacaca. She was especially valuable in legal cases because she had witnessed far more than most survivors. As the genocide unfolded, a local official called Pascale Habyarimana had decided that not only should she be his to rape at will, but also that she should provide some kind of warped validation to his intent. He had put her in the back of his car, driven her to where her fellow Tutsis were being tortured and murdered and forced her to watch.
‘I want you to see everything,’ he had said. ‘Then when I kill you, you can go and tell the Tutsi god that Hutus are strong and have power.’
Rose and I drove along rutted roads, splashing though puddles in the potholes. It was just before midday and children were streaming home from school in their royal-blue uniforms and green plastic sandals. They had been born more than a decade after the genocide; theirs was the generation that was meant to know nothing of Hutus and Tutsis. She was taking me to Mukura, her home village, where she had formed a supportive community of women who had been raped.
In the years following the genocide, widows found themselves isolated in remote villages, often the sole survivors living among those who had killed their families. Haunted by memory, too weak and traumatized to earn a living, they were unwelcome envoys from a time that others want to forget, deny or exploit. Rose showed me a dozen cream-coloured cement houses that she had persuaded the government and non-governmental organizations to construct in Mukura. The women found that living together as a community eased the pain of survival.
Life in rural Rwanda was brutal even before 1994. As a girl, Rose said, she had dreamed of a life in the convent but that had been impossible. I asked why.
‘My husband loved me for a long time so one night he just took me,’ she said. ‘It’s a traditional way of marriage but it’s really like rape. It meant I couldn’t become a nun.’ She spoke as if to kidnap a young woman and assault her was normal, and in a way it was. So many terrible things had happened to Rose that forced marriage was nothing.
In fact, she had grown to love her husband, Innocent, and had been happy when their three children – two boys and a girl – had come along. Although she hadn’t finished her secondary education, she taught literacy. The genocide destroyed all that. Pascale Habyarimana, her rapist, forced Innocent, who was a construction worker, to build him a house. He raped Rose in front of her husband and then killed him in front of her. He threw her two sons to the dogs outside, but she rescued them and hid them in giant traditional milk pots. The details of her story were almost too grim to listen to: girls tortured, men skinned alive, her own toddler daughter strangled with a rope and dragged along the road.
‘For a long time I didn’t want to see any Hutus,’ she said. ‘I wanted them all to stay in prison. And I hated all men.’ She wouldn’t allow male doctors to examine her, nor could she bear the idea of being touched by a man. Habyarimana had forced her to milk his cows – she still couldn’t drink milk. Unable to sleep, for years she had no peace. But eventually Rose found that hatred itself was the heaviest burden.
‘A time came when I realized that I had two sons so I couldn’t hate men because I couldn’t hate my two boys,’ she said. ‘Now I’m better. I told them everything and they have heard me giving testimony. They say all men are not the same – do you think Kagame is bad? Or our dad? Or your father? They are good men. Kagame helped us. You’re free and considered as a human being. Now I am beginning to think they are right . . .’
Few of the people I met could reflect on their feelings and remake their lives as Rose had done. In the nearby village of Kibilizi I met a group of women who had given birth to children conceived of rape. Their counsellor, Marie Josee Uweye, herself a survivor, had written an academic paper in which she quoted the mothers and their children:
One day when the rains failed people said it was because of these children, of which there are many in this area. Everything bad that happens is because of them.
I don’t know what that child is thinking. He doesn’t speak often and when he does it’s to insult others. I think he is bad like his father.
Sometimes my mother looks at me and cries. I don’t know why, and it’s only me not my little sisters. When I ask her why she just cries more.
Marie Josee took me to meet Epiphane Mukamakombe in the half-built adobe house where she lives with her son.
‘It used to be the best in the village,’ she said. ‘But my father had a reputation for disliking Hutus so it was the first to be burnt down.’ She was rebuilding but didn’t have the money to complete it. Her son, Olivier Utabazi, otherwise known as Ninja, had written in pidgin English, no god not lif, on one wall. On another, he had stuck up posters of Tom Close, a popular Rwandan singer, and Miss Rwanda 2012. She wore a strapless red dress and a fixed smile. There was no electricity and the plastering around the window was crumbling.
Ninja half bounced, half slouched into the room in his yellow-and-blue football shirt and black shorts. Real Madrid was his favourite team, he said, but he also liked Liverpool. He spoke confidently and looked me in the eye. An air of unchannelled aggression hung about him, like a delinquent boxer before a fight. He was polite but I felt that at any time his mood might change. He preferred karate to football, he said, but didn’t like fighting. Sometimes when I asked a question, his gaze wavered, and his eye slipped from side to side. I got the impression he was lying. He shifted in his seat. This was a restless, angry boy.
‘I don’t know who my father is,’ he said. In fact, he knew exactly who his father was. Although his mother had not told him his father’s identity nor how he was conceived, others in the village had ensured that he knew.
‘When I’m asked to name my father I get a certain anger in my heart,’ he said later. ‘My father’s family don’t like me.’
Suffering had robbed his mother of mercy.
‘I didn’t love him when he was born and I don’t love him now,’ she told me when he had left the room.
Epiphane was a frail, tiny woman but she used to beat Ninja, she said, because he reminded her of his father and the other men who had raped her. Utabazi, the name she had given him, means ‘he belongs to them’. Now that he was eighteen she wished he would leave home, because she felt people, including her only surviving sister, avoided her because of him. They called him ‘son of the snake’ and interahamwe. He was a curse. The only useful thing he did was protect her when the men shone torches through her windows and threw stones at the house at night.
‘What men?’ I asked.
‘I think it’s those I witnessed against in gacaca,’ she replied. ‘I have nothing to steal so it can’t be robbers, but those people wish we were dead. They always say if they had killed us all they wouldn’t face the problems they’re facing now.’
Intruders had killed a neighbour, Anne Marie, just a few days before I visited the village. A genocidaire against whom she had testified in gacaca and who had recently been released from prison had been arrested.
Epiphane began to cry. She had no choice but to live with the men who had raped her, the son who acted as a perpetual reminder of her torment and the families of those who had killed her parents and siblings.
‘We talk with their families to show we’re all right, but we’re not really all right,’ she said. ‘We have no wounds you can see, but our injuries are inside. Our hearts are rotten.’
A baby, a basket, a hoe, a yellow plastic jerrycan, firewood – everyone walking along the roadside as I drove south from Butare was carrying something on their back or their head or in their hands. One small child had such a huge pile of fodder on his head that all you could see was long spears of grass proceeding on tiny legs. This was the Rwanda I had known before – poor, industrious, struggling. Development, according to the government, was the answer. President Kagame often said that poverty not hatred pitted Rwandans against each other. One school of thought even ascribed the genocide to competition over land and resources, a Darwinian struggle for survival in the most densely populated country in Africa. I turned into the hills. The dirt roads had much improved, thanks to the government policy of getting those imprisoned for genocide, in their distinctive pink prison uniforms, to level and grade them, the idea being that those who had destroyed the country should now rebuild it.
I stopped at a red-brick clinic, which had been renovated with aid money. Staff told me it was well stocked with drugs. Before the genocide, few Rwandans had adequate access to health care, but the government has recently introduced an insurance system. The staff said 90 per cent of people could afford the nominal annual charge while the poorest qualify for a subsidy. A few miles further along we came across a coffee-processing plant. At the top of a slope, a dozen women in brightly coloured wraps and headscarves were sorting through coffee beans laid out on long trestle tables. The owners, two brothers who had grown up in exile in Burundi and whose parents had brought them to Rwanda after the genocide, told me they had built the plant two years earlier. Business was good. They had the perfect combination of skills, one having studied business in Bangalore, the other agriculture in Butare. They employed forty permanent staff. Most local farmers cultivated a few coffee bushes and now there was somewhere to bring the beans, payment depending on the distance they had travelled.
There was nothing to criticize here – the coffee plant was providing jobs and livelihoods – but I found myself thinking how different the brothers looked from everyone around us. Diaspora Tutsis, the people who run politics and business in Rwanda, are bigger, stronger, healthier, better educated, more prosperous, more confident than survivors or killers. For them, Rwanda after the genocide was a land of opportunity, a place to build the life their parents had been forced to abandon when they fled after Independence. They were the only ones with the psychological strength to pull Rwanda out of the mire. Everyone else was too weighed down by memory, loss or guilt.
It was market day in the village of Nyakisu. Stallholders were laying out plastic plates, blocks of soap and batteries, all the basics of life in rural Africa. In the bar across the red dirt street, a few men were sitting on benches drinking Primus beer from the bottle. Viator Kambanda was riding through the village on a borrowed bicycle painted red, green and yellow with the legend: gikurundu, meaning ‘something beloved’. A cobbler by trade, he said most people in the area were too poor to bring him their shoes to mend. His own were made of plastic, repaired with crude stitches. His two sons had dropped out of school and had no work; a daughter had drowned when the river flooded. He wanted to go to Kigali to look for work but couldn’t because the authorities wouldn’t give him an ID card. Life was especially hard for him, he said, because he had spent nine years in prison and was yet to complete his community service.
He didn’t want anyone to see us talking, so we agreed to meet half an hour later at a glade of eucalyptus trees above the village. Dappled sunlight streamed through the branches as we sat on the grass.
I asked a few introductory questions before probing his role in the genocide.
‘It was my first time to kill so I was scared,’ he said. ‘Her name was Kandida Nyiramakonze. She was my neighbour.’
He had run with the pack, just one among a horde of killers.
‘There were many Tutsis in a group. I called her name and told her to sit down. Then I hit her on the head twice with a big stick and she died.’
A small cream-and-purple orchid was growing amid the coarse grass. A yellow butterfly flitted past. Viator spoke in a monotone. It was hard to tell if, like Rose, he had told the story so many times it no longer had the same emotional resonance for him as for the listener. He had been released after confessing and expressing remorse at a gacaca trial in 2008. I asked why he had killed Kandida.
‘I wanted to save her so they couldn’t kill her in a worse way or even rape her. Someone else killed her husband and four children.’
Children walked past on the road above, shouting and giggling. I looked across the valley to the next hillside, clad in a dozen shades of green, studded with little red houses with drainpipe roof tiles. White clouds stacked up in a bright blue sky. It was like a child’s painting of an idealized countryside.
‘It was not easy because you would see a person cutting someone with a machete when you might have been with the victim the evening before,’ said Viator. ‘I was not angry at the Tutsis. We lived well together before. I even loved them, but our leaders encouraged us to kill.’
A friend in Kigali – one of those tall, confident diaspora Tutsis who had moved to Rwanda after the genocide – had told me a few days earlier there were four stock answers to the question ‘Why did you kill?’
– God left during the day and didn’t come back at night.
– The devil got into our souls.
– Our leaders forced us.
– If I hadn’t done it I would have been killed.
‘No one will ever say, “Because I hate the Tutsis,”’ Viator said.
I asked him if hatred was still an issue in Nyakisu.
‘If we’re alone we can say what we like – I could even say bad things about a Tutsi,’ he said. Talking in a public place was quite different.
‘You can’t say those words,’ he said. ‘They’ll just kill you.’
‘Which words?’ I asked.
‘Words like, “Let’s finish the job.”’
‘Do people want to say those words? Do you?’
He stared into the distance and said nothing.
‘People here are ignorant,’ he said after a long pause. ‘If we had known there was no Hutu and no Tutsi we wouldn’t have done the genocide. But those feelings are still here.’
The villagers elected monitors who were required to report to the authorities if anyone said anything that could be designated ‘genocide ideology’. Viator described how they would listen in on people’s conversations, take notes and call local officials if they heard anything suspect.
‘We’re really scared of those spies,’ he said.
He thought the survivors in Nyakisu were doing fine – they had free health care, their children got free education, and some had been given houses. It was people like him who were really suffering.
‘We, the people who were arrested, they hate us so much,’ he said. ‘Even the Hutus who didn’t participate hate us. They just wish we would go back to prison.’
Is nineteen years a long time? Rose was a young woman of twenty-three at the time of the genocide. Epiphane, Ninja’s mother, was twenty-seven. Viator had been thirty-five. Nearly half a lifetime had passed since those days, but maybe it’s still too soon to let people say everything they keep in their hearts, to let out their pent-up hatred and fear. The sneaking and spying, the ban on ‘genocide ideology’ at least keeps a lid on it, apart from the occasional murder of a sad, raped woman. Or maybe that’s the problem, all the things unsaid, the barely contained anger and guilt that smoulder beneath the surface.
‘Anyway, Rwandans are like that,’ said another man I met in Nyakisu who had recently been released from prison. We were talking in a small room where no one could hear. He strenuously denied that he had killed anyone, all the while jiggling his hands, picking up my tape recorder and putting it down again, tapping his feet in a kind of St Vitus’s dance.
‘Rwandans are circumspect, they whisper behind their hands,’ he said. ‘We hide things.’
In Kigali I had a drink with my diaspora Tutsi friend.
‘Rwanda is a nation running away from its history,’ he told me. ‘We say: “The ploughman never looks back.”’
While the government controls language in an attempt to rework the nation’s sense of self, he was hungrily seeking out books by foreign anthropologists and historians who have analysed the power structures of the past and explained how the division between Hutu and Tutsi came about. After studying genetics he had concluded that the distinctions between races and tribes were tiny. To him the answer was to acknowledge identities and then dismiss them as unimportant.
‘Let’s demystify the whole Hutu–Tutsi thing with scientific facts and open discussion,’ he said. ‘As long as it’s spoken behind in tones then it is incubating hate. Let people know that Hutu and Tutsi all share 99.97 per cent of DNA as humans, and these are artificial terms.’
Transparency is antithetical to Rwandan culture as I understood it. Political power depends on circles of influence that have nothing to do with ministries or departments or official titles.
‘The problem is that we have informal and illicit power structures,’ said my friend (I’m withholding his name for a reason – talking about such things can get you into trouble in Rwanda). ‘That’s how you hear that so-and-so is powerful but has no official position. There’s no real party system or career path.’
In the past, the legitimacy of the king was established by his power over the rain, so he needed reliable rainmakers. President Kagame’s dwindling circle continues to make the rain – it’s a system of patronage, but the life of the average Rwandan has undoubtedly improved, and the government is efficient. The World Bank pumps out statistics to prove success and I have the evidence of my eyes: roads, clinics, schools. There is much talk of changing the constitution so President Kagame can run for office again in 2017. I suggested to a few people that in a society where the majority slaughtered the minority, democracy is difficult, but was assured that Hutus would vote for Kagame. He has delivered a better life. He has brought the rain. And he has ensured there is no credible opposition.
On my last day in Butare, Rose took me to see another of her projects. The governor had asked her to lead his programme of reconciliation and unity, and she had gone at the task with her customary enthusiasm. We drove to Akabakobwa, a forested hill twenty minutes’ drive from town. The rain had cleared, and the smell of freshly turned earth was in the air. As we walked through the trees I could hear the sounds of hacking, chopping and slashing. We emerged from the forest into an open field to see some four hundred people using axes, hoes and machetes – the implements of genocide – to clear tree stumps. Women, some with babies tied on their backs, dug around the base while men, dripping with sweat, attacked the roots. I watched the shadow of a machete moving across the red earth as a young man in a white T-shirt and rolled-up jeans set about his task.
Back in 1994, on 22 April, local officials told Tutsis to gather at Akabakobwa promising they would be taken to safety, probably in another country. Hundreds gathered, maybe thousands. Who knows when the Tutsis realized that this was not deliverance but a trap? None lived to tell the tale. Cold and wet, carrying their few belongings, they must have huddled together, confused and terrified, children wailing, no one knowing what would happen. The interahamwe hid in the banana groves and maize fields, until they had surrounded their prey. Then they fired at the hill. Once they were satisfied that the Tutsis were dead or fatally injured they closed in to finish off their victims with grenades and clubs. They left the bodies to rot. Two years later a local official planted eucalyptus trees on the site, the forest designed to hide and not to commemorate the dead.
It is a tradition in Rwanda that people should do community work, known as umuganda, one day a month. They labour together to clear ditches, tidy the village or plant flowers on traffic roundabouts. During the genocide, umuganda included killing – local officials told Hutus it was their civic duty to murder their Tutsi neighbours. Rose’s community labour project was to disinter the bodies of those who had died at Akabakobwa, so they could be reburied with dignity. A memorial, concrete pillars rising from the ground and rust-red struts in place for the pitched roof, was under construction at the top of the hill. In Rwanda there is no tomb for the unknown soldier, but dozens for unknown civilians.
Rose had been on a course organized by a German aid agency that had got her thinking about the relationship between survivors and killers. The first thing she had to do was overcome her own inability to talk to Hutus. Prayer had helped – she was a devout Christian – and then the thought that pain and anxiety were not the preserve of victims.
‘It’s not only survivors who have trauma but also perpetrators,’ she said. ‘One tried to commit suicide three times because he didn’t want to live with the people to whom he did bad things. We were taught how to take care of them.’
Over a period of months, she had persuaded perpetrators to pay compensation to their victims for property destroyed or stolen. Gradually, she said, some degree of trust had been established. This project was the result. I was watching killers and survivors working together.
I stood on the crest of the hill looking out over the rice fields planted in the valley below, and the slopes beyond covered with banana, maize and millet. Everything was green and lush from the rains, as it must have been nineteen years earlier. Five small boys with firewood on their heads stood watching the adults working; a few women were sitting on the ground in the shade of some saplings to breastfeed their babies. The landscape that had held such terror had become benign, even bucolic. In those days, banana groves were cover for the killers, millet patches places where interahamwe would take Tutsi women to rape them. Now they were just fields of crops, flourishing in good rains.
I thought back to 1994 and how I had paced about my house in Kigali listening to the rocket fire and the rain. How little I had understood; how much has been revealed in the subsequent two decades. Most of the leaders of the genocide have been arrested and tried at the ICTR. Academics, journalists and human-rights workers have written thousands of reports and books. Films have been made, documentaries broadcast, and a genocide museum built in Kigali. There are projects to identify each and every victim.
But in the hills of rural Rwanda, the unrepentant and the unforgiven are living alongside the unhealed. They abide by rules – spoken and unspoken – governing what is sayable and what is taboo. You could take umuganda at Akabakobwa – the rows of killers and survivors sweating alongside each other – as evidence of hope, proof that Rwandans can now establish a shared memory.
Or you could see it as something else entirely, a ritual of reconciliation masking far deeper feelings of anger and pain, proof that Rwandans – Hutu and Tutsi, perpetrator and victim – might live together for decades to come without betraying to each other what they feel inside.
Photograph courtesy of the author
Olivier Utabazi, aka Ninja, Epiphane’s son, Kibilizi, Rwanda, 2013