Evariste was the nightwatchman. He and I were alone in the house in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, when the killing started. It was on the night of 6 April 1994. A plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and its neighbouring state Burundi had been shot down, and everybody on board had died. In Kigali, there was confusion. Bands of men armed with machetes, rocks and clubs were roaming the town. Beyond the foliage that enclosed our garden, Kigali shook with rocket fire and grenade explosions.

I listened to the strokes of Evariste’s broom as he swept the terrace at the back of the house. He filled his hours cleaning, making tea and listening to the radio. I was usually on the phone, talking to people elsewhere in Kigali to find out what was going on, and calling London to report.

Every hour or so, I would go out on the terrace, and we would listen to the gunfire and exchange anxious platitudes.

‘It’s terrible, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it’s terrible.’

‘It sounds as if it’s getting worse.’

I tried to open the front gate and look outside. Two soldiers patrolling the dirt road waved their rifles to tell me to get back into the house.

During the day, I was too busy to feel scared. At night, I lay in bed and wondered if I would ever get out of Kigali. Evariste slept outside. Each day started with the crack and sputter of shooting. He showed no fear.

At first – isolated in the house with the taciturn Evariste – I didn’t understand that terror lay in the quiet times, when the killers moved undisturbed around the suburbs.

How many men, women and children were killed in Rwanda that year? Half a million? A million? Various organisations give various estimates, but nobody can be certain; for certainty you would require teams of reliable body-counters and grave-excavators, neutral statisticians free of the political need to exaggerate or diminish the number. And the total dead would take no account of the mutilated: men minus arms, children without legs. All I know is that the killing began in earnest during the time I spent trapped in the house with Evariste. My notebook doesn’t reveal much about those days; a few phrases, a few ‘facts’ which I relayed to the BBC and which later turned out (as is sometimes the way with facts reported from places of terror and confusion) to be not quite true. I still dream about that time – the dreams usually involve pits and writhing bodies. When I first got back to London, my friends were concerned. Had I had counselling? Surely I should talk to someone? I didn’t see how this would help – a therapeutic conversation with a well-meaning person in a consulting room in London – because the only proper reaction of the therapist would be horror; there would be no way of learning to ‘deal’ with it. What I witnessed in Rwanda was genocide – a word that needs to be used carefully, but which I use as Primo Levi defined it: as the ‘monstrous modern goal of erasing entire peoples and cultures from the world’.

In Rwanda, I couldn’t stop the smallest part of it. I am only slowly beginning to understand it. At the time, I could only watch and survive.

Why was I there? Because freelance journalism can be an unreliable and therefore varied trade. For the past ten years, I’d worked mainly out of Africa as a reporter. Occasionally, I work for aid agencies in what they call ‘emergency countries’, where war has brought destitution, hunger and disease. I’d never visited Rwanda. During the 1980s, when I was based in Nairobi, the journalists I met said it was boring – a place where farmers farmed and the government governed. It was the most densely populated country in Africa, more than seven million people trying to live off the land in a country no bigger than Wales. Coffee was its main export. Rwandans were obedient – only the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to perform umuganda, the obligatory unpaid communal labour that enabled the government to build a national network of roads, plant forests and construct terraces to contain soil erosion on the hillsides. Aid agencies were well disposed to Rwanda in those days. President Juvénal Habyarimana’s regime was seen as authoritarian, but efficient. Society was so constrained that there was little corruption – if money was provided for clinics, then clinics were built. The Swiss, seeing a society in Africa as disciplined as their own, gave more money to Rwanda than to any other country on the continent.

Last year, I was offered a two-month contract in Rwanda with Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund. I was to produce a newsletter which was supposed to help the dozens of aid agencies in Rwanda and Burundi work together more effectively, and to help them understand the politics of both countries.

There had, of course, been four years of war. But that had ended in a peace accord, and when I arrived in Kigali in February 1994, two months before the president’s plane came down, the country was peaceful except for sporadic grenade attacks and the occasional political assassination. Outside Rwanda, those hardly counted as news. Inside Rwanda, everyone was waiting for something to happen: for political accords to be implemented, for the war to restart, for something to give.

Kigali is scattered across a series of hills and, when I arrived, the country around it was covered in crops and flowers, and everything was a lush green. The city, however, was ugly. Paint peeled off the walls of the concrete blocks, and in the afternoons, the torrential rains that came each day would wash mud down the steep roads. When I walked in town, children followed me, calling ‘Mzungu, mzungu’ – ‘white person’, signalling a lack of sophistication that you wouldn’t find in Nairobi or Kampala or even in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Food purloined from aid consignments was on sale in the market – square cans of cooking oil marked with the Canadian maple leaf or the stars of the European Union. If you knew whom to ask, you could get a hand grenade for three US dollars.

‘Political power,’ an African diplomat told me one evening, ‘is the only way to wealth in Rwanda. Most of the politicians here don’t even have farms to go back to. If they lose power, they’ll have nothing.’

The diplomat took me to dinner at a restaurant owned by a Maronite Lebanese called Afif, whose chief business was construction. We were the only diners. A handful of musicians, in robes intended to represent traditional Rwandan dress, played mood music. The mood was glum. The Ministry of Public Works owed Afif money, and he couldn’t get his hands on it. ‘Since democracy, you can’t even drink the water,’ he said. He and the diplomat spent much of the evening on the phone, calling politicians to discover what deals had been brokered to shore up the government. I asked Afif about his contacts. He said he had bribed most government ministers, and they were afraid of him.

My daytime conversations were different. Western aid workers preferred to take another view of Rwanda, a humanitarian attitude expressed in terms of how many bags of food had been delivered the previous week and how many children had been immunised. Politics, how Rwandans thought and felt about their present and future, hardly existed in this world. The map on the office wall showed clusters of camps, inhabited by two sorts of refugee: in the north, those displaced by Rwanda’s war; in the south, those who had fled a coup attempt in Burundi a few months before. There was a drought in some places, incipient famine, and malaria was on the rise. Nearly half the pregnant women in towns were HIV-positive. The population was growing; land was scarce. Talk of food sacks and immunisation programmes was a way of avoiding the what-is-to-be-done conversation, the indulgence of despair.

Most of the Rwandans who worked at Unicef simply refused to talk about politics at all. The secretaries showed me how the computers worked and promised to introduce me to their dressmakers. They shrugged off my questions. ‘Rwandans are terrible,’ said one. ‘They will just lie to you.’

And then one day, I made a mistake. Compiling my first Unicef newsletter, I quoted an internal report by the Catholic Relief Services in south-western Rwanda on the problems faced by the country’s tiny population of forest or pygmy people, the Twa. ‘The Twa cannot find work as farm labourers because of the drought, so they have taken to stealing. When they are caught, they are killed.’

My draft came back from Unicef with a line through the offending quotation. I was told to expunge the reference and never to mention the Twa. Or Hutus. Or Tutsis. Referring to people’s ethnic group – their ethnie – was too sensitive, too dangerous. If one or other group was attacked, or suffered disproportionately, I shouldn’t draw attention to it. All the people of Rwanda were Rwandans.

This denied a truth that was obvious to the most ignorant outsider, though it was a well-meaning denial. When a foreigner comes to Africa and sees something cruel and ugly, perpetrated between citizens of the same country, then the easiest explanation is contained by the phrase ‘ancient tribal hatred’ and the idea that the neat colonial boundaries of Africa, drawn up by Europeans, are no more than a result of cartography; that they have disguised, but never resolved, long-standing struggles for territory or power between different peoples – tribes if you like – who happened to find themselves under the same flag of a new nation state. Then the foreigner meets Africans who point out that white people don’t talk about ‘tribalism’ when they analyse their own conflicts; that the European colonists have exploited tribal distinctions to retain power; and that ‘tribalism’ obscures the complexities of African politics and history. And so the well-meaning foreigner stops using the word: we are embarrassed by it, become frightened to ask about ethnicity in Africa in case it causes offence. Afraid of the words, we gloss over what the words are trying to describe.

In Rwanda, the idea of tribalism is particularly inappropriate. Most of the distinctions – language, customs, territory – that mark one tribe from another elsewhere in Africa do not apply. The people who live in Rwanda speak the same language, Kinyarwanda; share the same culture; and farm together on the same hills. And yet there is a division. There are the Hutus, who form the great majority (perhaps as much as 90 per cent of the population, though the census is unreliable). There are the Tutsis. And there are the Twa. A child’s guide to Rwanda would say that Tutsis are tall compared with Hutus, generally speaking, and then be stuck to find other obvious signs of difference.

Rwandans know better. They can tell each other’s ethnie through conversations about family and lineage. Foreigners are not so artful, so don’t know how to ask. Yet ethnie – a complex sense of self shaped by history and ideology – is the defining point of identity for Rwandans. It is something at once more subtle and more consuming than tribalism. Foreigners might believe that ignoring the politics of ethnic division is the safest course of action, but we didn’t understand it, and if we had understood it, we wouldn’t have believed its consequences. For ethnie was to determine who was to live and who to die.


I suppose I’d known for some years what this business of ethnie could do because I’d met Rwandan refugees in Uganda. They were the evidence that Rwanda, where the sole and ruling party described itself as a movement for development, had known violence and political strife. The refugees were Tutsis, the minority that had ruled Rwanda in the pre-colonial age and continued to dominate it during its time as a colony. They had been driven out after the Hutus, the majority, seized power when the Belgians left in 1962. The Tutsis lived in camps close to Uganda’s border with Rwanda, but they were a successful community; some sent their children to universities in Europe and North America. Then, in 1990, an army of these Tutsi exiles, calling themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded Rwanda. They were almost immediately beaten back, but they regrouped, and war began. By 1994, the RPF had become a sophisticated guerrilla army that had advanced and retreated and advanced again.

War had forced up to a million Hutu peasants to leave their homes. Several hundred thousand were camped uncomfortably on hillsides outside Kigali, but the plan was that soon they – and the Tutsi refugees from previous decades – would be able to return to their homes. A peace treaty had been signed at Arusha, in northern Tanzania, in August 1993 – a power-sharing arrangement between government and rebels and United Nations troops brought in to oversee it. Rebel leaders would become ministers in a transition government. Diplomats began to talk of the Arusha Accords as a model for the resolution of conflict in Africa. (And there was certainly a lot to resolve. Rwanda had another displaced population of about 400,000 people who had crossed its southern border from Burundi after an attempted military coup in that country in October, in which Burundi’s Hutu president had been killed. The Burundi army was dominated by Tutsis; the refugees in Rwanda were Hutus. They lived in miserable camps, which were marked on the map on our office wall. The international community had failed to provide enough food; many of their children were dying.)

In March, I went to an RPF rally on the Ugandan border. Busloads of RPF supporters, all Tutsi, drove up from Kigali, talking of the good times to come. Thérèse, a secretary with the UN, was excited at the prospect of finding a husband among the RPF. ‘These boys are handsome – when the RPF comes to town, we’ll even find one for you, if you want.’

She had spent four months in prison in 1990 on suspicion of supporting the RPF. She was in her mid-thirties and had never married. Her explanation was ethnie. ‘Hutu men who have good jobs like civil servants aren’t allowed to marry Tutsis,’ she said. That wasn’t strictly true. Only soldiers were banned from marrying Tutsi women – among powerful men, Tutsi wives were a status symbol. The real issue, I thought, is that well-educated, middle-class Tutsi women like Thérèse don’t want to marry Hutus.

I tried to settle into my rented house. With the foreigner’s tact, I had never asked Evariste his ethnie, but he was quite tall and slim, with a narrow nose, a typical Tutsi physique, and the owner of the house told me that she believed he was a Tutsi.

Anyway, I scarcely knew him, and his ethnie was none of my business. He was simply the nightwatchman. Expatriates and the native rich in Kigali employ watchmen, known as zammu, for their houses, as they do all over urban Africa. The wealthy live besieged and guarded by the poor. In Kigali, as crime and shooting increased, the zammu learned to open the gate only to whites or to black people who came in cars marked with the symbols of aid agencies.

Our exchanges were the routine greetings of employer and employed: ‘Bonjour, madame.’ ‘Bonjour, Evariste, ça va?’ His French was hesitant, and he didn’t invite conversation. He helped us install the generator. In the tense weeks before the president was killed, electricity in our part of town was restricted to two evenings a week. The growl of the generator masked occasional grenade explosions and gunshots; the light it powered enabled us to work or read. I didn’t go out much at night.

During my first weeks in Kigali, I had stayed at a hotel. I would sit at one of the rough wooden tables under the thatched roof of the bar and watch people. One evening, a young man in a leather jacket came over and started talking. He told me that he had a university place in Belgium but had been refused a visa.

I wanted to find out about ethnie – it was easier to talk to a stranger – so I asked to see his identity card. He pulled it out of his wallet. Name, father’s name, place of birth, place of residence, ethnie. The choices were Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, naturalisé. The last category was for foreigners who had taken Rwandan citizenship.

‘It’s the fault of the Belgians,’ he said. ‘The Belgians made us carry this card.’

‘But the Belgians left thirty years ago! Why didn’t you ditch the cards then? That’s what the Kenyans did,’ I said.

‘You don’t understand what the Belgians were like,’ he said. ‘They colonised us and gave us these identity cards. Now they won’t even let me have a visa. It’s racism.’

One Saturday night, a group of men threw grenades into the hotel bar. Eight people were killed and thirty injured. The hotel was owned by the only prominent Tutsi politician in the country. A few days later, fragmentation grenades were thrown into some Tutsi homes. The hospitals were filled with people slashed with machetes and injured by shrapnel. Soon after, I moved from the hotel to the house. I stayed at home in the evenings and read Middlemarch. And then, the president’s plane was shot down.

Agnes of Iowa