What's in a cow?

Rwanda's flag
Africa » Rwanda » Ville de Kigali » Kigali
November 14th 2009
Published: November 15th 2009
Edit Blog Post

Life or death.

It was as simple as that.

In 1932, the Belgian colonial authorities confirmed the divisions they were already using to their advantage in the population of Ruanda-Urundi by differentiating the “haves” and the “have-nots”, the old “divide-and-conquer” chapter of colonial governance. The result, for each person, was irrevocably set out in his or her identity card, and this assessment would apply to his or her successors ad infinitum.

The words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” derive from the names of the peoples who colonised this part of Africa, 1,000-1,600 and 300-700 years ago, respectively, the Bahutu people of the Bantu race and the Watutsi people of the Hamitic race. But, immediately prior to European colonisation towards the end of the nineteenth century, the terms appear to have been used more often as socio-economic delineations, cutting across the area’s eighteen clans. An individual could move between the two as his circumstances changed, but the clan remained key in defining his primary identity.

Suddenly, in 1932, if you had less than ten cows, you and your family would for evermore be Hutu; if you had ten or more cows, you and they would be Tutsi. The appropriate check-mark
such tragically aposite namessuch tragically aposite namessuch tragically aposite names

lists of the dead at Kigali Memorial Centre
was made on your identity card. End of story.

In the three-month period from April to July1994, this piece of paper would be enough to determine whether you lived or died.

Mention “Rwanda” to anyone in the West today, and the immediate word-association is “genocide” (as well as the hushed question, “Is it safe?”). Those who remember Dian Fossey and/or keep in touch with developments in African conservation might then go on to say “gorilla” as a secondary association, but it is the awful killing, at a rate never seen before or since - incredibly, even worse than the Holocaust in this grotesque respect (has someone really sat down and worked this out?) - of ordinary people and children, while the world stood by and watched, that remains foremost in people’s minds.

When I was thinking about this aspect of my East African travels in advance, I assumed that the echoes of Cambodia and the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge would be huge, and part of me dared hope that the awfulness of visiting the security prison, Tuol Sleng, and the “Killing Fields” of Phnom Penh last year might somehow soften the horror of seeing Genocide memorials here, if, indeed, one can - or should - ever become even slightly inured to such sights.

It didn’t.

Each memorial to what is now uniformly termed “the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi” is horrific, indescribable, heart-wrenching, even sickening. Rows of skulls. Piles of bones. A tangle of clothes. A dirty identity card. A Superman bed sheet. A single child’s shoe. Clothes found in the mass graves now hung up, suspended, empty and ghostlike. Preserved but already semi-decomposed bodies. And rows and rows and rows and rows of photographs, frozen in time, of those who would never grow old.

This might raise the question of how or even whether such events should be remembered. Is there not some kind of sick voyeurism involved in going to see such horrors, the very real remains of what were very real people? These examples of very real death being somehow titillatingly more awful than the Hollywood-and-ketchup version? How bad do the photographs have to be, how sickening the personal anecdotes, how blunt the words, to make us even begin to imagine what went on here? Are we not somehow commercialising, exploiting the very real, very human horror, by putting up these memorials and museums and preserving the locations where some of these atrocities took place? Do we - should we - want to see skulls lined up, bones piled high, clothes scattered on pews, room after room of lime-preserved bodies? Is what we “want” to see relevant? Should this not all simply be brushed under the carpet? Oops. Big, awful mistake. Really nasty things happened. Move on.

No, and emphatically NO.

At the entrance to Kigali’s Memorial Centre itself, I found a more comprehensive answer to this question, and one, more meaningfully, written by a Rwandan: “This chapter is a bitter part of our lives, but one we must remember for those we lost and for the sake of the future. This is about our past and our future; our nightmares and dreams; our fear and our hope…”

In Kigali, this purpose-built memorial therefore seeks to do two things: to remember the dead with mass tombs, walls of names, commemorative gardens and achingly personal photographs of the dead donated by their families; and to try and explain the inexplicable, both in the context of the events in Rwanda leading up to the early 1990s, and by
part of the Wall of Namespart of the Wall of Namespart of the Wall of Names

Kigali Memorial Centre
looking at other genocides in the twentieth century to see what lessons there might be for the future. Nuremburg’s “Never Again” must mean exactly that, and, this time, for all peoples of the world, if we are to avoid such carnage and horror again.

WHY did such things happen? How could purported differences between this man and his neighbour become so magnified, develop into a political philosophy (if you can call it that) propagated by politicians and the media, until one incident could trigger mass hysteria and brother turning on brother, friend on friend? After all, genocide is not one act of murder, but hundreds and thousands and millions of individual acts of murder. How did a peaceable, hardworking people become killers?

Frighteningly, terrifyingly, unbelievably, the entire event was orchestrated. Planned with minute-perfect precision, and to an extraordinary level of detail. At 20:23 on 6 April 1994, the aeroplane carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down as it was coming in to land at Kigali airport. (No-one has ever claimed responsibility for, or been found guilty of, this attack.) By 21:15, the first road-blocks were in place around Kigali. Within a further hour, the first shooting was heard. The next day, life in Rwanda stopped. Public transport was suspended, the prime minister and her husband were assassinated, and people were ordered to stay home, “for their own safety”. But the “death lists” of Tutsis had already been prepared, and the killers needed to know where their targets were. Make ’em stay home. Easy. From time to time during the next month or two, Tutsis would be told to gather at a particular location, a church, a stadium, a school, again “for their own safety”. No. Getting ’em together makes ’em easier to kill.

When Tutsis took refuge in the still unfinished Murambi Technical College, they were “softened up” for a fortnight beforehand, food and water removed. On 21 April 1994, approximately 50,000 people were massacred here and thrown into mass graves. Eighteen months later, their bodies were exhumed. Even with that amount of decomposition, some of the wounds inflicted are still evident on the now-preserved bodies, and faces still show the agony and the terror.

Killing wasn’t necessarily the sole aim. The extent to which victims were tortured adds yet another layer of horror, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. “Death was made a painful, agonising, frightening, humiliating end”.

Much of the violence was carried out by the Rwandan Army and the Interahamwe (“those who kill together”) - effectively, a Hutu youth militia, trained by the president’s own political party - and was primarily levelled against the Tutsi minority. Ordinary Hutu men and women faced a choice - co-operate (and join in) or die, facing torture and death as a Tutsi sympathiser. But these events did not come out of the blue: the Hutu had been prepared for this, subjected to an extraordinary fascist-sounding political ideology since the early days of Independence in the 1960s. By the early 1990s, this was widely and emphatically propagated by radio and the print media to a quite terrifying extent, with the aim of persuading and compelling people why they should now see their compatriots, neighbours, families as enemies. The word “Inyenzi” (cockroach) was widely used in this propaganda to dehumanise the Tutsis. One journal published “The Ten Commandments Of The Bahutu”, covering both personal and business situations, which stipulated that any Hutu who took a Tutsi woman as his wife, mistress or secretary, or who lent, borrowed or did business with a “Mututsi’s company”, was “a Traitor”. Members of the government, including Habyarimana himself, initiated and funded the hate radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines. There had even been “rehearsals” of the Genocide, with massacres of Tutsis carried out in October 1990, January 1991, February 1991, March 1992, August 1992, January 1993, March 1993 and February 1994.

“Even in genocide it is possible to make choices”, says an observer. Yet what choice does anyone actually have, faced with a frenzy of machete-waving, adrenalin- and drug-fuelled animals? And, more worryingly, what choice would each of us make, placed in that kind of situation? Would we be a Sifa, “so many came to her house that she placed blocks under the legs of her bed so that more could hide beneath it”? Let alone manage to rescue still-living people from mass graves, in addition to taking in nearly 400 orphans and refugees, as Damas Gisemba did? And my favourite, Sula Karuhimbi, a seventy-year old widow and traditional healer, who hid and protected seventeen people on her property, playing on her reputation for being possessed by evil spirits to scare away the killers:
optimistic clinic nameoptimistic clinic nameoptimistic clinic name

near Nyatama Church
“I said to the Interahamwe, if you want to die, go inside and the evil spirits will swallow you up”.

HOW, most incredibly, did the world stand by and let it happen? A bunch of black Africans in a tiny country no-one’s heard of killing another bunch of black Africans. On 21 April 1994, the UN Security Council passed a Resolution stating it was “appalled at the ensuing large scale of violence in Rwanda”… but then voted to reduce UNAMIR, the existing force there, to 270 volunteer Ghanaian personnel and also to limit its mandate. The UNAMIR commander, General Dallaire, estimated that as few as 5,000 troops with an authority to enforce peace could have stopped the Genocide. But “not one additional peacekeeper or armoured personnel carrier arrived in Rwanda” before the victory of the invading Rwandan Patriotic Front in July. “The world withdrew and watched as a million people were slaughtered.”

About two thirds of the population were displaced, fleeing out of fear, guilt, confusion or being held hostage.

Latest UN estimates suggest that at least 1.2 million people were killed.

Over 300,000 orphans are today still scarred by what they witnessed, and how they themselves managed to survive.

Rwanda was dead.

Sitting here, in the shade of the Virunga mountains, listening to the sounds of children playing and birds calling, with the scent of a freshly-rained world, the events of the first half of 1994 - and its precursors, the “rehearsals for genocide”, in the early 1990s - seem utterly unbelievable. Not these people, singing so beautifully in the church opposite. Not anyone related to the shy young woman practising her English earlier, to the young security guard trying to chat me up in French, to the children saying cheekily, “Muzungu! Muzungu!”. The progress that Rwanda has made in putting this ghastly nightmare behind it has to be seen to be believed. How democratic Paul Kagame’s government is might be open to question from our lofty esoteric and philosophical perches, but this is, quite frankly, an irrelevance. Without doubt, he has brought Rwanda back to life, rescued her from the dark hole over the edge of the precipice, given the people a new identity and reminded them of a country of which they can be proud. He continues to encourage vast amounts of investment, and is making Rwanda the safest place in this part of the world, if not the safest in Africa.

But Rwanda does not forget. And it is not over yet.

In Arusha, Tanzania, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is trying the masterminds, the financiers, the orchestrators of the Genocide. At least eleven of the fugitives considered to have been instrumental in the Genocide are still on the run, although a new suspect went on trial only last week and two more are in custody with trials pending. But the Court is due to be wound up at the end of next year, and negotiations are underway as to what will happen to the outstanding indictments, whether they will revert to Rwanda or transfer to the East African Community’s judicial system.

Those who carried out the killing, as well as the vast amount of associated theft, looting and property expropriation, are being tried at a local level, using a revived version of the traditional Gacaca courts. Suspects do not have lawyers, but give evidence to, and are examined by, a panel of five judges who have been chosen from the Inyangamugayo (those regarded as people of integrity in the community) and who are working on
poem beside the dead childrenpoem beside the dead childrenpoem beside the dead children

Murambi Genocide Memorial
a voluntary basis. Witnesses to the particular event or series of events under consideration are summoned and must appear before the Gacaca court, or risk a custodial sentence. In an echo of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, suspects can make public confessions of their crimes and seek forgiveness. As well as opining on guilt or innocence, the judges have the power to sentence and/or issue a judgment setting out compensation terms. If the perpetrator admits his crimes and seeks forgiveness, if the survivor or representative of the massacred family is prepared to forgive, and if each side accepts/can pay the compensation ordered - whether for the loss of life, or the loss of possessions and land, or both - the perpetrator will either not go to prison or get a much reduced sentence.

The evidence is harrowing.

Each of the judges has their own memories of the events of 1994.

The survivor will find himself standing next to, shaking hands with, a relative of the actual person who killed his family. Sometimes it is the perpetrator himself.

It is a deeply agonising process.

Even if you are only sitting on the sidelines, protected
but it's so beautiful here...but it's so beautiful here...but it's so beautiful here...

landscape outside Murambi Genocide Memorial
from the worst of the detail by a language barrier and a young interpreter’s kindness. But it is your friend standing up there. You see him shaking hands with, then standing beside, the son of the man who killed his family, while the judgment is read out. The man himself is in jail. This is only a trial for the relevant property offences, and the son subsequently reneges on the agreed compensation terms. Within hours of the judgment, your friend has to go round to the son’s house to resolve the matter. The man has yet to be tried for the actual killings.

The Gacaca courts are being criticised for spending too much time on the property aspect, but with this kind of process, who can blame them? How can you possibly evaluate any life rudely, agonisingly taken, for the purposes of assessing any sort of compensation for the survivors? How do you, the survivor, even contemplate forgiving those who have taken everything from you, who have killed your life? The process will be wound up in the next twelve months, with any outstanding cases going back into the modern legal system. At its conclusion, it is thought that the Gacaca system “will have been the most thorough process ever in bringing the rank and file of genocide to justice”.

In the meantime, you can see some of those convicted of, and serving time for, Genocide crimes as you drive around the countryside. Wearing their incongruous but conspicuous baby-pink shirts and shorts, they are frequently to be seen in teams working in the fields and carrying out other works for the common good.

The Genocide is always here, barely below the surface, for every person in Rwanda. Talking to people it seems unavoidable, however much you, the outsider, might have no desire to raise it, to pry into untold, incomprehensible anguish. But once this private people let you in to their lives, the subject has a darkly magnetic pull. You yourself are left harrowed by what little you’ve been told, guilt-ridden for having somehow caused this particular Balrog to rise yet again, and deeply distressed at this infinitesimal insight into the agony with which your friends live on a daily basis and have done for more than fifteen years.

Even in the newspapers, the subject makes a daily and frequent appearance in one form or another:
one of several mass graves found at Murambi Technical Collegeone of several mass graves found at Murambi Technical Collegeone of several mass graves found at Murambi Technical College

Poignantly, the French "Operation Turquoise", headquartered here for a few months in the second half of 1994, used to play volleyball only yards away from this site.
at an international level, the latest developments in the fight against the FDLR (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, aka the remains of erstwhile Interahamwe militias) in North and South Kivu, just over the border in the DRC; with the ongoing criminal process - new trials in Arusha, new convictions in the Gacaca courts, and an occasional astonishing Gacaca acquittal with speculation over foul play; and about those who survived - success stories about Genocide orphans’ academic achievements, and, sadly, corruption allegations relating to funds raised for Genocide widows.

So how can Rwanda progress? On the one hand, Paul Kagame’s widely-respected and successful administration, doing so much for the country’s security, infrastructure and economy, both domestically and internationally, with its “one country, one people” mantra. On the other, the man on the street or in the field, struggling with his own memories and nightmares and all the myriad associated emotions, trying to carry on life in close proximity with those people, or relatives of those people, or people of the same “tribal” label as those people, who committed the atrocities which gave him those memories, nightmares and emotions. What must it be like to stand next to the son of the man who massacred your entire family, to shake his hand, to say, “Waremuse. Amakuru?” (Good morning. How are things?) as the two of you stand before the Gacaca court? It is simply unimaginable. How can this country, on an individual by individual basis, possibly go forward? Who was not scathed by the Genocide? Who did not witness the horror of the aftermath, the dogs that had to be shot because they had developed a taste for human flesh amongst the carnage on Kigali’s streets, the piles of bodies, the stench of death that wreathed the countryside? Who did not have their lives, their careers, their educations massively, irretrievably, disrupted when the country shut down for a hundred days and a near-successful extermination took place?

Rwanda is working hard to prevent this from happening again. Many memorials quote Felicien Ntagengwa, “Si tu me connaissais et si tu te connaissais vraiment, tu ne m’aurais pas tué”: genocide education is a huge project here. There are various research centres round the country; Genocide Studies is a Masters option at the country’s National University. Some survivors, such as Olivier, are working hard to use the pain of their own experience to help others, through counselling and self-help techniques, transforming negative emotions into more positive energies.

Memorials and shrines are everywhere. There are simple monuments, shrouded in the country’s mourning colours of mauve and white. Some include frames full of photographs of the dead when they were full of life. Particularly poignant for me was the memorial at the National University of Rwanda, “You are the loss that shall never be replaced”. I had not realised before but, with students attending university a little later than in the West, this meant that most of those killed in the massacre here, students studying for their exams, were around my age, being born between 1965 and 1973. Here their youth is emphasised, with “fille de” and “fils de” set out under each formal black-and-white matriculation photograph.

There are memorials that seek to take you back to the second the attack took place, piles of the victims’ clothes now piled on the pews where terrified people were gathered when the grenades were hurled in: as you walk in, the piles look nearly human. Others deliberately create a different horror, lining up the skulls and bones and personal possessions with an order they could never have had in the chaos of life and death. Most shocking of all is at Murambi, where some of the bodies of those who died here have been exhumed, preserved in lime, and laid out in the rooms where they were massacred. This memorial in particular had caused me a lot of angst. Should I go? Could I cope with going? What was the point of going? Wasn’t it just on the Too Difficult pile, with an hour’s minibus ride from where I was staying in Huye and a moto-taxi beyond that? But those who died here had had no choice in the matter. What right did I have to exercise my theoretical right to choose? I went.

Outside each of these memorials, life carries on, immune to the horrors a key-turn away. Insects buzz and flit, swallows swoop, crows squawk, children play, people work in the fields. The greens and earthy reds are bright. The sun is shining. This tragic, traumatised, agonised country will survive.

In an earlier version of this blog, an ongoing work-in-progress during my five weeks in Rwanda, I talked more about the young interpreter who had accompanied me to the Gacaca courts in Gisenyi. I described how he himself was so traumatised by what happened at his home at three o’clock one morning fifteen years’ ago - he could only have been six or seven years old - that he broke down every time he tried to explain, though I had not asked him to do so and I begged him not to speak of anything that would upset him. Whatever the events of that night, he was orphaned and left for dead. One afternoon when I was with him, he thought he saw his mother on the far side of the road, and he broke down. I was heart-torn for him, for what he must have been through, seen, experienced in his young life. At the same time I was deeply impressed at his work to establish a home for orphans (I met the children), and his commitment to this project.

I should have figured he was too good to be true, but I guess I keep hoping. There are good people out there, after all…

Earlier this week, I found out that every single word he had told me, about his involvement with the children’s home and his experiences in the Genocide, was a lie. He’s Ugandan. His mother and assorted other relatives live in the same town. The children’s home is government-run; he doesn’t even work there. And, of course, he’s been swindling money out of gullible, guilt-ridden muzungus. Last week, a Canadian chanced to contact the children’s home to see if his donation to buy games for the boys had been well-received. The staff knew nothing about it. He went to the Gisenyi police, armed with a photograph he’d taken of the interpreter, and they picked him up remarkably quickly.

I didn’t lose much financially, though it’s yet another salutary lesson on the imperative to check and check again the fides of people trying to extract money from the Great White Piggy-Bank.

But what really hurt for me was the cold, efficient manipulation of my emotions, and the brazen use of Rwanda’s tragedy for his own gain.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


after the war...after the war...
after the war...

reconciliation efforts

15th November 2009

Very powerful story, excellently written. Your postscript nails it: total insensitivity.
18th November 2009

Thank you for writing this. It is a history that needs to be told, and you've done it really well.
18th May 2010
poem beside the dead children

thanks would have never seen this if you had not showed me thank you

Tot: 3.109s; Tpl: 0.036s; cc: 30; qc: 154; dbt: 0.0545s; 3; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 2.1mb