Yes, yes, we have guns.

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Africa » Rwanda » Province du Sud
March 9th 2008
Published: May 8th 2008
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There was a time when Butare, in the south, was on track to become capital of a post-independence Rwanda. Home to the country’s first university, a busy center of intellectual life, it seemed as good a place as any to plant the roots of a new nation. It was, however, buried deep in the south, just a few miles from the border with Burundi, and in the end, Kigali was chosen because of its more favorable, geographically central location.

Decades later, with development booming in Kigali, it’s easy to see how the two cities’ fortunes diverged. Butare is small, sluggish, provincial - a rough stretch of souvenir shops and guesthouses on the Kigali road, a handful of auto-part stores and dress shops scattered along a side road looping out toward the market. The drive into town carves through miles of farmland - clusters of banana plants, fields of maize and tea - with tiny hillside villages squatting in the distance. Villagers pass on the side of the road, tall and erect beneath their firewood and bundled banana leaves. It’s hard to imagine that much has changed in these parts in the last few hundred years. A storm blowing across distant hills. The sky darkens; fat drops of rain lash the windows. Outside everyone scurries for cover. In the towns we pass, in front of supermarkets and stationery stores, men and women and children huddle beneath the awnings, grimacing and watching the rain.

It’s late in the day when we arrive in Butare, the bus bumping along and sloshing through the mud. The windows are fogged and streaked with rain; outside, under low gray skies, I can just make out the name of my guesthouse receding in the distance. No sooner than we’ve arrived in town, it looks like we’re already leaving it behind. I make a few frantic, obscure gestures toward the front of the bus, and as the only white guy onboard, my panic has a Doppler effect on the rest of the passengers. Soon everyone is hissing and wagging their arms and half-rising in their seats, trying to get the driver’s attention. It’s one of those sweet moments you just don’t get on the Greyhound to Scranton. Finally I’m pacified by one of my neighbors: the bus, he assures me, is only making a stop at the university before returning to the center of town, not far from my hotel. I’m grateful for the reassurance, and also for the conversation: before long I’ll realize that English is scarce in Butare, and Jado - a law student at the university - will prove to be a friendly, useful, eloquent guide.

During the genocide, Butare was one of the main strongholds of opposition, putting up a valiant resistance against government troops and Hutu militias during those first brutal weeks. But when the city fell, it was with a particular vengeance: by the time the bodies were counted across Rwanda, the region around Butare was one of the country’s hardest hit. More than a decade later, the toll is still visible. Homeless mothers, ragged street kids, amputees vaulting across the potholes on crutches: for a small town, the suffering of Butare seems sadly disproportionate, and for the first time in Rwanda, it becomes an act of great willpower just to leave my hotel - the pretty, tidy, flowery compound of the Hotel Mont Huye - and venture down the street.

Admittedly, there’s not much to do in town, and part of my pleasure in being here is just to be somewhere other than Kigali. (Though the drive down, too, is worth the three bucks.) After a few days of dodging street kids around the market and knocking back 75cl - 75cl! - bottles of Primus at the Ibis Hotel; after listening to the birds in Mont Huye’s courtyard wreak havoc on the mango trees; after exploring the dirt paths that disappear into lush, ample fields as soon as you leave the main road, I’ve seen most of what Butare has to offer. I take a day-trip to Murambi - a sober, sprawling memorial near Gikongoro - where thousands of bodies have been excavated, blanched by the lime poured into the mass graves. The guide, after showing us into the first corpse-filled room, says there are twenty-four more just like it. But none of us has the stomach to pay our respects to each. There are limits to how much death any of us can stand.

Later in the week I meet Jado at the university, a pretty, leafy campus shaded by pine and bamboo and eucalyptus. Tall, flowering trees shake their blossoms onto the pathways; the air smells fresh, earthy. I’m reminded of my own college idyll, tucked away among the oaks and maples, the farms and cow pastures, of Vermont’s lushly rolling hills. Students are busily milling outside the lecture halls, full of purpose. A few latecomers dash across a field, checking their watches; others gather before a bulletin board, where the latest exam results have been posted. It’s election season in Butare, and campaign posters plaster the walls. Bright, resolute faces stare back from reams of A4. Everyone seems to have somewhere they need to be.

We tour the campus, even as the sky darkens and threatens rains, talking about life in America. Jado asks about my family, and for a few moments I’m distracted from thoughts of genocide, from that endless procession of the dead, to think of the sweet, peculiar, fondly recalled dysfunctions of the family life I left behind. The toiling father, a landlord, a frugal cynic, hanging drywall, tinkering with the pipes, doting on his sons to call home. The workhorse mother up at dawn, preparing her lesson plans over fat mugs of Folgers. The brothers in Brooklyn and Buffalo, our lives grown so strangely apart, remembering birthdays, occasional emails, looking so foreign to each other after all the choices, good and bad, behind us. And the long-suffering grandmother, fretful, wary, heaving her bosom onto the windowsill to watch the traffic on the street. And the grandfather bitterly waiting out the days in a nursing home. And the cousin not heard from in months. Shake the family tree, and what strange, precious fruits fall! The aunt still alive and kicking. The uncle collapsing on a golf course, rushed to the hospital, pronounced dead on arrival. They filled the church with flowers and well-wishers - everyone had such lovely things to say. It is a good thing to remember and be remembered. We walk quietly under the clouds, under the gathering storm. Jado says he’s a great admirer of Oprah Winfrey. The wind rasps through the treetops, the plump cold raindrops fall fatly over the whole blessed earth.

The storm begins to build and we run for shelter. We dash across a football pitch and huddle under the grandstand, listening to the rain pattering off the rusted awning. Quietly I ask Jado about his own family - an invitation to call up memories of the dead, to bring them back for too-brief, bittersweet visits.

“I was ten years old during the genocide,” he says, “but I remember everything - everything - like it just happened yesterday.” The militias began their killings the morning after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. “You saw your neighbors in the street with guns, and you were surprised. ‘You? I did not know you had a gun!’” (Guns were officially banned in Rwanda in 1994, though the militias had been stockpiling for months.) “And they would say, ‘Yes, yes, we have guns.’” His eyes grow wide, ominous.

Soon afterward he fled from his home in Gisenyi, across the Congo border nearby. The family was scattered. Some survived; many didn’t.

“When they came for my brother - this was told to me by my neighbors - they came with machetes and took my younger brother. And he cried and begged them, he said ‘I won’t do it again.’” Jado pauses and laughs bitterly. “Do what? What won’t he do again?” He seems genuinely mystified by this question.

That anyone could have survived the slaughter - could have evaded the checkpoints, escaped the militias - is a testament to forces beyond our comprehension. Fate, fortune - call it what you will. Survivors are burdened not only by memories of the dead, but by the guilt, the shame of their own inexplicable escapes. Why should a husband be spared when a wife wasn’t? Why should a mother witness the murders of her sons and daughters and live to carry those memories years later?

Jado’s father was a truck driver; in the early ‘90s, during the civil war, he was arrested under spurious charges. He spent six months in prison, where he was beaten often. The jailers broke both his legs. “When they brought him home from the prison, they had to carry him,” Jado says, cradling his arms, as if holding a newborn. Yet somehow his father - through luck and guile, through incredible perseverance - escaped the death squads. He is still alive, living in Gisenyi. Jado visits when he can.

“He has problems with his memories,” he says. Sometimes the old man will struggle to recognize his son; other times he is terribly, achingly lucid. Brothers and sons, wife and daughters: called up together on a cold, gray, bitter afternoon, a man’s dead can be more than his grief can bear. At what point does forgetting become an act of mercy? For the survivors of the genocide, there is too much remembrance; for many of the perpetrators, forgetting comes all too easy.

“These people do not regret,” Jado says of the killers. “They are not ashamed of participating in the genocide. They confess so they can benefit from the amnesty” - an offer made by the Kagame government to induce low-level genocide perpetrators to confess their crimes.

“It is not about reconciliation,” he says, with a resignation that suggests that whatever it is about remains elusive.

The court system had no way to prosecute all the accused - more than 100,000, by most accounts. With competing demands for justice and reconciliation, the government patched together a practical compromise that, to many survivors, was akin to betrayal. It was a compromise born from political necessity, an acknowledgment of the country’s legal shortcomings, as well as the fear that a decades-long search for justice would just perpetuate the country’s trauma, leaving it locked in an emotional stasis.

For survivors, though, the logic was hardly consolation. How could you rebuild a country from so many fractured lives? Reconciliation, in the end, is political shorthand for moving on; and moving on itself implies the act of forgetting - or, at the very least, processing your memories in a way that almost amounts to the same thing. It necessarily places a greater burden on the survivors than the accused. By asking them to accept this flawed justice, to work in the schoolhouse or shop in the market beside the killers of their mothers or husbands or sons, you were making them victims all over again.

There is no comprehensible way for an outsider to understand the madness that gripped Rwanda for 100 days in 1994, or to even begin to follow the trail of logic that could ultimately lead to healing. Faced with this impossible task, the government chose to class perpetrators according to the magnitude of their crimes: class I for the politicians and military figures, the architects of the genocide; class II for the local leaders, men respected in their communities, who chose to preside over the infamous road blocks and draw up lists of the condemned, rather than trying to restore peace; class III for the foot soldiers, the men tasked with the bulk of the genocide’s “work.” These men were necessarily followers; many were themselves threatened, forced to make the difficult choice between taking someone else’s life or forfeiting their own. While class I and II criminals were being shipped off to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, it was the class III perpetrators who would be tried in gacaca courts and, ultimately, offered amnesty.

Historically, the gacaca courts were small village affairs, used to resolve conflicts between opposing families. The heads of the families would gather in a clearing, or beneath the shade of a hibiscus tree - gacaca is Kinyarwanda for “grass” - and reach an equitable verdict. It was a tidy, localized way to settle disputes over land, or bring a thief to justice; it hardly seemed equipped to deal with the legal and ethical implications of a murder trial - or 100,000 of them, for that matter.

Under the current Rwandan system, the judges are drawn from the elders and respected leaders of each community. The accused sits before the panel, hearing confessions, answering questions, facing up to whatever ad-hoc justice might be served. But Jado seems unmoved by how much they can accomplish.

“Many of these judges are ignorant, they are uneducated, they are corrupt.” He shakes his head. “This is not a perfect justice.”

Given the circumstances, it’s impossible to imagine what a “perfect justice” is. Yet it’s just as impossible to imagine why the survivors would demand anything less.

Digging through his memories, stirring up the faces of the dead, Jado carries the conversation with great courage. At times, as we pass through crowds, he becomes uncomfortable with words like “Hutu” and “Tutsi” and “genocide.” Soon I’m uncomfortable with them, too, and before long I’ve picked up on the odd shadow language of post-genocide Rwanda. We seem to be talking about everything and nothing at once. Only when we’ve come to a quiet, muddy path - no one else within earshot - does Jado say to me,

“I can have Hutu friends, I can have Hutu classmates. But a girlfriend?” He shakes his head vigorously. “No no no. No, my family would never allow it.”

We follow the path back to the main road. Trucks and buses roar by, bicycles bump over ruts and potholes. Jado is intent on carrying on with his law degree, hoping to practice in Kigali, where a new graduate can expect to earn Rfr 280,000 - more than $500 - a month. Even in the booming capital, that’s enough to live reasonably well. With time, he should be able to make double that.

His prospects are good, yet there’s no telling what the future holds. Still, Jado remains insistent. “There can never be reconciliation without justice,” he says, bitterly implying that, in our imperfect world, the smart bet is to expect neither.


7th June 2008

Well written and very insightful. Thanks for the effort.

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