I met a girl from Gitarama, Rwanda at an expats drinks gathering the other night in Split, Croatia. I knew the anniversary was approaching, but I was not prepared for the emotions unleashed from within from that night.
We laughed. A lot. She was 29, pretty, funny, engaging. Happy.
She took me took me back to a place I need to go, but never will properly. I am crying for the first time in years as I write this.
Rwanda 1994. I want you to meet Rose and hear her story, and my return to Rwanda in 2001. April 6 is 20 years since the start of the genocide.
From my book, Lebanese Nuns Don't Ski.
Rose is one of the most astonishing people I have ever met. One of the things that had always bugged me about my time in Rwanda was that I did not really understand what happened there, for the simple reason that I never talked to a local about their experiences. I couldn’t. I mentioned earlier asking one of my staff about his family and he replied that they had all been shot dead and he only survived by pretending to be dead, escaping with a bullet wound to the neck. I never asked again. A few years later, while visiting them in Sri Lanka, I mentioned all this to Jeff. He told me to talk to Rose. I said I couldn’t, it was too intrusive. He said that Rose was Rose and she would be fine about it. So I talked to Rose, and Rose was Rose, and more. It was the most remarkable conversation I have ever had, not just for its content, but also for its conclusion
At the end of March 1994, Jeff's contract with the aid agency finished. Things were tense in Kigali and there were several reports of isolated killings. Jeff suggested to Rose that they went to Uganda for a while and although her French and Kinyarwanda would not be understood there, she agreed. She didn't say goodbye to her parents. Soon after they arrived, Jeff was asked to go to Angola on a three-month contract. He went three weeks later, leaving Rose with money and friends. In between his accepting the contract and actually departing, the plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down as it approached Kigali airport
The killing had begun and over the next hundred days, up to a million people would be systematically killed, mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus. Rose was a Tutsi and she knew that none of her family would survive the slaughter. She was twenty-six, in a country where she did not speak the language. Alone. There was no news coming out of Rwanda, phone lines had been cut. The only things coming out of Rwanda were the dead bodies floating into Lake Victoria. Thousands of them. She went once to help with the clean-up operation, but only once. She couldn’t bear the prospect of seeing someone she knew being washed up. Years later we were in a restaurant in Sri Lanka, which had great seafood. I ordered prawns and urged her to do the same. She smiled:
“I can’t eat fish. Not after Lake Victoria. I feel like I might be eating my friends or family.”
Not knowing what to do, she approached the Tutsi army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, volunteering to fight against the slaughter. She was turned down as they were not recruiting women. She vowed never to go back to Rwanda, preferring to live on the street if necessary. Jeff, who had left for Angola, could not be contacted.
A few weeks later she received a phone call from her former employer. A former employer because she had left due to his sexual harassment. She was terrified that he had tracked her down to Kampala. He said that he had news of some of her family. She did not believe him, thinking it was just a ruse to get her to meet him. Eventually she relented and he told her that at least two sisters were alive and a brother-in-law was a minister in the new government. Transport was almost impossible but an army contact arranged a shared car. She spent her remaining money on clothes to give her surviving family - they would not have changed for weeks. She went first to her parents’ house. It had been levelled. Then she went to her sister’s house.
There were no words. There were no tears. There was just shock. Her sister and brother-in-law had been a teacher and a lawyer. Now they were just shadows of their former selves. They were so thin, their heads shaved because of lice, their young child suffering from malnutrition. They had known all along that Rose was okay because she had got out in time, but all this was new to her. Now she was not alone, she had some family. But they didn’t talk and even today, there is so much that has remained unsaid.
Details began to emerge. Her parents and younger sister went to take refuge in a church. Her paternal grandmother was a hundred years old and wanted to stay in her home, the house next door to Rose’s parents. Rose’s father could not leave her alone and so went back to see if she was okay. The militia caught up with him. They interrogated him and for every question they asked, they cut off another piece of his anatomy. Then they left him to bleed for a while. His hundred year-old mother brought water to tend his wounds, but the militia took her back to her own house and killed her. Rose knows all this because her sister, Irene, was sitting in a mango tree in the back garden with her brother, Deicore. They heard their father’s screams as he was being tortured. After the soldiers left, Deicore saw that there was no escape and, rather than hide, he walked into the street where they quickly finished him off.
Irene went back to the church, but could not tell her mother what was happening at home. There was not much time left for conversation anyway, as the militia came to attack the thousands of frightened and defenceless people seeking protection in this holy place. The priest opened the door and fled. All the old women were taken out, blindfolded and bound by hands and feet. Then they were taken by truck and thrown in the river, alive. They later arrived in Lake Victoria, dead. Rose knows this because she later met an old lady who had somehow survived. Her traumatic experience had sent her mad and she screamed at Rose:
“Your Mum was an idiot. She couldn’t even swim.” Bound by legs and arms, she didn’t have a chance.
The killers returned to the church where they completed the job with machetes. Irene suffered a severe machete blow to the head. She passed out. (At this point in the story, I am sat in Rose’s living room in Colombo, fighting back tears, when she suddenly bursts out laughing).
“You know what, Paul, when she came round, she looked up to the top of the church and she thought she could see Heaven. Then she looked around her and saw all the bodies and concluded that God had thrown her out of Heaven. There could be no other explanation.”
The only survivor from the church massacre, she went to the local convent for help, but the nuns shut their doors; Tutsis were a liability. She went to the forest and found temporary shelter with a friend of her father’s. But neighbours had suspicions that he was harbouring a Tutsi and so she had to flee. She hid in banana plantations for a week and then walked to Kigali. The RPF had taken control and it was now safe for Tutsis. She had survived.
Another sister, Claire, was heavily pregnant. They came and took her husband and son and killed them, but she was spared by a Hutu soldier. He told her that if the baby was a boy, he would kill them both, but that if it was a girl, he would take care of them, the implication being he would take her as his wife, having just killed her husband. He took her to the forest for safety. She gave birth - to a boy. Just then the RPF overran the forest and the Hutu soldier fled to Goma. She had survived.
Another sister, Immacule, was at home with her husband and children. He was on a hit list. Managing to escape through a neighbour’s garden, he jumped over a fence and found himself face to face with his potential killers. He was saved only because they did not know who he was. Giving them all the money they had, he fled to a nearby orphanage. By chance, so did his wife and children. They were holed up in terrible conditions for weeks, not knowing of the other’s existence. The RPF eventually liberated the area. They had survived.
A brother, Aimable, was trapped in his house and needed something for his small baby. As soon as he left the house to look for it, he was captured. He took hisfate calmly, asking only that he might be allowed to smoke a last cigarette. They granted his wish and then hacked him to death. Another brother was reported killed in Gitarama to the south, but there are no details. That left only the final sister, Leah.
She lived some way from Kigali and they came for her husband. While she was pregnant and cowering in one room, they were dealing with her husband in the next room. She heard his screams as he was tortured. She heard how it was explained to his killer that if he cut out the heart while the man was still living, and then ate it, he would not be troubled by the dead man’s spirit. His killer slept soundly that night. She somehow managed to escape to Burundi. She had survived.
Jeff, meanwhile, had had no news whatsoever, except for periodic reports in Angola from the BBC. He was sent back to work in Rwanda via Burundi and eventually managed to get to the house of Rose’s parents. Seeing it destroyed, he went next door and found Rose’s sisters. They informed him that she had left to go back to Kampala twenty minutes previously. She was living with different people now and it took them a long time to find each other.
In June, 2001, the day before her wedding, Irene assembled her sisters together and took them to their father’s grave. There she told them, some seven years later, what her father had said just before he died:
“Tell whoever survives that I am dying with my mother. Death is not so bad.” They found his body eight months later. I remember the day well. Jeff came to the house and informed me quietly. I went out. This was no place for a foreigner who simply did not understand. They could only identify the body by the clothing - everything else was too disfigured. I asked Rose how she felt about finding the body:
“I felt good. You know, Paul, the nicest thing was that when I got my first pay packet, I bought my Dad a shirt. And that was the shirt he was wearing when he died.”
This was close to the end of the story. It had taken four hours, four of the most absorbing and compelling hours of my life. Throughout it all, I was close to tears, even though I had not suffered. Looking at me, with her braided hair, her big brown eyes and one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen, revealing a set of perfect white teeth, she finished with this thought, which for me was more breath-taking than everything I had just heard:
“You know, Paul, life is good, life is bad. People live, people die. Shit happens.”
I couldn’t respond to that. We sat down again in Nairobi to talk about the events one more time so that I could get the accurate facts. At the end she thanked me because for her it was a release to actually talk about it. As she sat in the yard, sunglasses on, hair tied back, engaging smile, Liam asleep on her lap, I asked her about hatred. Didn’t she feel hate towards the people who had killed her parents, grandmother and brothers?
“No. It wasn’t their fault. They were used by the authorities. I don’t blame the people who actually did it.” We talked about reconciliation and about Hutus. “You know, Paul, I don’t see a person as black or white, Hutu or Tutsi. I see them as a person. If I find a Hutu I like, and I have, they will be my friend.”
From that lonely person in Kampala at the start of the genocide, Rose has blossomed. Jeff and Rose married in California. They have two lovely boys. She showed me her house and her new life. It is impossible to detect signs of the tragedy that she has been through. For someone to have been through so much and to have come through the other side seemingly so unscathed and not bitter, is a shining example to us all.
And there was I sat in the Blackbird for months in a vat of beer, because I could not deal with a tragedy that would not even register on Rose’s scales.
Rwanda was everywhere in Nairobi and I could not escape it. I was reunited with Jeanne-Francine, the only secretary I had ever had. She terrorised me and bossed me around in Rwanda and it was lovely to see her as she waltzed into Rose’s house some six years later, as beautiful and dominant as ever, complete with lovely husband and three kids. Although I had forgotten my French, she insisted that that was the language we speak. One of the first things I asked was what had happened to Augustin after I had left. Augustin Sagahutu had been my warehouse manager. He had stolen $5,000 worth of stock and I had caught him red-handed through the documentation. My boss had insisted that we prosecute. Prosecution in Kigali in 1995 was an interesting affair. There were 15,000 prisoners awaiting genocide trails, but the killing had left only two judges alive. The military had stepped in to administer arbitrary justice.
We were both summonsed to appear before a major in battle fatigues. As he sat behind his desk, he motioned for me to open the case for the prosecution. I showed all the documentation and put over a convincing case for the theft. Defence council, Augustin himself, admitted the crime. With a bored look, the major turned to me once again.
“What do you want us to do with him?”
What indeed? If I had asked for Augustin to be executed, I have no doubt that it would have happened. People were dying of disease, AIDS, stabbings in the prisons, and it was not certain that he would have survived an extended stay there.
“I expect him to be punished according to the law of the land.” It was agreed that he would be imprisoned for a few days while a formula was worked out whereby he could repay the money. I left the case with my very inadequate American assistant, because I flew out of Rwanda the next day for good. I had never found out what happened to him since and I had been plagued by the thought that I had not made better provision for his release. It was with much relief that Jeanne-Francine informed me that he was set free less than a week later, only to be re-arrested some months later, for stealing from another warehouse.
At least he had been freed. Now all I had to worry about was Albert, the author of the tatty Russian letter.
Chapter Twelve: The Great Lakes – Goodbye Genocide
The dreams are getting more bizarre. Consider last night. My dream started with a breakfast of rum and coke, followed by champagne. Soon after that I was transported into a field of mud, where all the ladies were wearing evening dresses, fabulous hats and expensive perfume. The point of the meeting was to watch a bunch of goats, resplendent in numbered jackets and doing a perfect imitation of the reluctant greyhound, careering round a racetrack. In my dream, I soon fell into conversation with a cute girl from Byelorussia, who had not spoken her native tongue in depth for almost two years: she was so excited that she completely abandoned her Australian-Greek pilot boyfriend, took my hand and wandered off into the sunset. Sometime later I found myself holding the knee of a young Ugandan prostitute called Alison, as she poured out the tears over her wretched life. Declining Alison’s generous offers of hospitality, I left the bar and realised I was completely lost and alone in the middle of Kampala. I ended up in an unlit industrial estate and survived an attempted mugging, finally arrived home about 4.30 am with a packet of Rich Tea biscuits, only to find the guard could not hear my banging, so I was forced to spend the night on the street with the mosquitoes. Two soldiers woke me about six and aroused the guard, taking the remainder of my Rich Tea in payment. I finally got to my room to find my host and hostess asleep on the floor there. As if to confirm that all the above must have been a dream, England beat Germany 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier - we had watched it on a giant screen with the goats. Thank God my life was not as exciting as my dreams.
The Sunday paper headline was Germany 1, England 5. Did all the above really happen?
Kampala rocks, like no city I had been in thus far, with the possible exception of Beirut. Of course, impressions of a city depend largely on the company you keep and I was once again fortunate (although my liver will not agree) with my hosts, Shelly and Moses. I met Shelly once in 1995 in Armenia, when she gave me a lift from Yerevan to Tbilisi. I remember only two things about the drive; firstly, I thought it would be highly amusing to smear an After Eight chocolate into her thigh while she was driving; and secondly, I insisted that she stop so that I could pick a bunch of wild flowers for Keti, whom we were to meet later at a party. The flowers had wilted by the time we crossed the border and I was laughed out of the party. Flowers have always been an Achilles heel for me. I remember once sending a Russian girlfriend a dozen red roses for her birthday. She did not speak to me for three weeks, because, I was later to find out, even numbers of flowers symbolise death in Russia. We split up a month later.
Shelly was busy so she sent Moses to meet me at my hotel. Within minutes, we had retired to a lively bar, consuming pints of Pils and listening to conversation-drowning renditions from Oasis, James, REM. It could have been anywhere in England on a Friday night. It had been a while and it was good to touch base briefly with my former life.
“Do you want to meet a bunch of black blokes?”
“When I say a bunch, I mean a lot.”
“How many are we talking?”
“My entire extended family. But there’s good beer.”
“Let’s go. What’s the occasion?
“Jasper’s going to China.”
I briefly debated to ask who the hell Jasper was, but decided to keep quiet, as I was sure Jasper’s mission would reveal itself in due course. We pulled into a Soviet-style set of apartment blocks, built in the Sixties by Israel, long before Idi Amin rerouted Uganda’s foreign policy into anti-Zionism in return for Libyan dollars.
It was a special part of the night. I say part of the night because it was not possible to be in just one place in Kampala - you just kept moving on until you fell over. Jasper was Moses’ cousin and, at nineteen, he had never been outside of Uganda. But on Saturday he was flying to China to study international law at Beijing University. He will not return for four years and he speaks no Chinese. As the beer flowed, so did the oration. The only person not to make a speech was myself, fortunately, as I had arrived that morning on the overnight bus from Nairobi and was fading fast on my one-hour’s sleep. I was not only the only mzungu (white man) but also the only non-family member. The bar was owned by Alfred, a brother, and I was made very welcome. I fell into conversation about the politics of the Great Lakes region with a Presidential advisor, but we were soon hushed as the speeches were getting to the important people.
Jasper admitted to being terrified. I didn’t blame him. His female cousins joked that he would return with a harem of Chinese wives, an uncle lectured him on the evils of drink (although his slurred words indicated he did not practise what he preached), another uncle, the master of ceremonies, spoke movingly about the contribution of the various aunties, who had done all they could to keep the family together, especially after Jasper’s father died. Another uncle made an authoritative speech. I was later informed that he was the Minister of Agriculture, after he had introduced himself to me. It all ended with prayers. A special time for me, because I have never been close to an extended family and it was nice to see such strong bonds.
Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa and is one of the continent's best-kept secrets. I met people from the British Embassy who describe it as a choice posting. It is one of the most fertile parts of the continent, there is reasonable infrastructure left by the British colonial legacy and it one the few countries in Africa which has a declining AIDS rate, the result of intensive education (in stark contrast to Kenya, for example, whose President Moi recently gave a newspaper article under the headline ‘Why I am embarrassed by condoms’). President Museveni has held the country together reasonably well, despite internal divisions and unstable neighbours, and, while the country may not be as democratic as it is hailed, it is much better than in the recent past. You will all have heard about the rule of Idi Amin in the Seventies, whose forces raped and pillaged the country for an eight year period, killing several hundred thousand at will, and expelling the entire Asian population, who were allowed to take out just one hundred dollars per person, while everything else was confiscated. Amin’s rule was preceded and succeeded by Obote, as ruthless a killer as Amin himself. There seems to be little trace of those horrors these days, but the memories live on. I met the son of Uganda's UN representative in Alfred's Bar, who told me about his family's flight during the Amin years. His mother and six-year old brother were caught and spent six months in brutal custody. His mother has to this day never spoken of what she went through.
I was keen to learn more of Ugandan politics but failed, because most of what I experienced was through a beer or rum bottle. I don’t think I would have survived if I had been sober that Saturday in Kampala, because it was one of the most surreal days of my life. The capacity was there from the start, especially as I watched Shelly make a perfect ladies hat out of a piece of fabric and part of a cereal packet (Blue Peter, eat your heart out), but the most normal thing about the Royal Ascot Goat Races was the goat racing. Everything else was just too bizarre.
As the name suggests, it is an event where the cream of Ugandan society dresses up to the nines, quaffs champagne and indulges in false conversation. The most important thing is to be seen and to get an invite to the right hospitality tent. I was much pleased that it absolutely pissed with rain and so many of those wonderful outfits were ruined by mud. I was also much impressed by our hospitality tent, the Sheraton Kampala, whose generous barman filled my gut with beer, rum, champagne and wine over a six hour period. I drank more than I should have because I have a grudge against the Sheraton, ever since they fired me in Munich over the snake episode.
Germans. They just never see the funny side. As the evening progressed, a giant screen appeared and the football started to wild enthusiasm. The Germans scored first and half the locals went crazy. I had just been introduced to Tina, a slim, bespectacled brunette.
“So do you follow football?”
“Used to, but not so much now. Although I hope we stuff the Germans. Hate the buggers.”
“Yeah. Can’t explain. Anyway, you don’t look as though you want to talk football. Where are you from?”
But back to the goats. There were ten in each race and they were for sale before the race, for up to $400 each. Winning prize-money was in the thousands.
They really did look like shy greyhounds as they lined up. I watched the five o’clock race. Basically, the goats had to get round (I refuse to say run round, because I would be sued for misrepresentation) a grass circuit twice. There was a commentator in the middle, who did a marvellous job through his microphone.
“And... they’re off. What a blistering start. All jockeying for position. No clear front runner yet.”
No goats had actually moved.
Goats are not aquatic animals, but they struggled on in the pouring rain. An ingenious method of encouraging the competitors forward was an advertising board on wheels, which was gently prodded into their behinds until they moved. And so, to tumultuous cheers and inventive commentary, our heroes moved forth. My favourite moment was the climax of the race.
“And as they dash into the home straight, it’s number four, Specialised Cargo, who has it by a nose.” At this moment, Specialised Cargo and all his chums stopped dead. Only when the boarding hit them where it hurts did they saunter over the finishing line.
More beer and garlic shrimp was followed by the 6.00 Emirates Derby, sponsored by Emirates Airline, a two-furlong dash. Goat 5, Poster Board, a huge black creature, stole the show, and probably a competitor’s virginity, in what proved to be a hilarious finale. The race started normally enough (in as far as the word ‘normal’ applied to the day’s proceedings), with the goats in a tightly-packed bunch. Poster Board then came into his own with some innovative tactics. He started mounting Goat 10, a rather frightened Silk Purse. This emboldened Silk Purse to run faster, as she was fighting for her honour, and she quickly took the lead. All was going well for her, until Poster Board caught up and made another attempt to climb on top of her. Silk Purse turned backwards and headed into the field for protective cover, only to find herself being entered while facing the oncoming advertising board. The final lap brought her to the fore again, and she won the race quite literally with Poster Board riding on her back.
The victory celebration lap was something I have never seen or will see again. Poster Board had got his girl and he was busy consummating the relationship for a full minute amid delirious cheering from the crowd.
“And the winner is Goat Number Ten, Silk Purse. After a steward’s enquiry, Goat Number Five, Poster Board, has been disqualified for interfering with another competitor.” A novel way of interfering, I am sure.
I was disappointed to learn that the goats did not become kebabs in the evening. But the day was all about drinking. Olga, the Byelorussian, spirited me away from the rest and I soon found myself talking French to her prospective mother-in-law somewhere in Kampala. I liked her boyfriend, but he did not speak Russian and Olga wanted to speak Russian. She was a nice lass, but I was aware that Boyfriend was getting a little impatient with her, so when Alison approached, I was more than happy to talk.
I had, by this stage, been drinking for thirteen hours and through my beer goggles, Alison appeared the most beautiful girl in the world. Although I have many bad habits when I am drunk, I still manage to detect a prostitute and am able to explain that I am not interested. She just wanted to talk, which struck me as suspicious, but as I had no money (Visa cards don’t work in Uganda, something I learned at 3.01pm on a Friday, just after the banks shut), I was not unduly worried.
I am a bit hazy as to what happened next, but we fell into earnest conversation. She was twenty, beautiful, lost and miserable. I kept a supportive (for her an emotional support, for me a physical one - I was totally pissed) hand on her knee for the next two hours as she cried her eyes out. I remember only snatches of phrases.
“I do this as I need to eat... I am scared of AIDS but I am scared of hunger... You are the first mzungu who has been nice to me... I hate this life but I am alone in Kampala... You can pay me whatever you like.” At one stage I became aware that she was supposed to be working and I apologised for taking her time as I was not interested in her services, but she replied that it was just so nice to be able to talk to someone who was prepared to listen and was interested in her for herself, not her body. I found her telephone number and email address in my pocket the next morning.
Alison offered me a place to stay for the night, but I thought it prudent not to accept. The thing was, I was totally lost in the middle of Kampala. Everyone I knew in the bar had gone. I had no idea of Shelly’s address, although I knew roughly where it was, past an industrial estate just off Jinja Road. I staggered off.
As I entered the industrial estate, I became aware of two youths following me. There wasn’t much I could do except continue, but I tried to walk in a straighter line, in order to give an impression of sobriety. When we turned the corner into an unlit part of the road, they quickened their pace.
“We have come for your money.” I made a drunken calculation. They didn’t look armed. Or particularly scary. But then I was not scared of anything at the moment, for I had drunk too much.
“Are you prepared to kill me for my money?”
“Well fuck off then.” They fucked off.
I passed a 24-hour garage and bought chocolate, water and Rich Tea biscuits. Soon I was home. Champion. I knocked on the metal gate, but not too loudly as
I did not want to wake the neighbourhood. The guard did not hear me, so I decided on a lush clump of grass by the side of the road. It was 4.30am. I was bitten relentlessly by the mosquitoes, but I did not mind as I was fortified by lager. Just after six, I was awoken by two soldiers on patrol, who were concerned for my welfare. They awoke the guard and the neighbourhood and I was soon in my room, only to find Moses and Shelly on the floor there, laughing at my adventures. A great night.
It was the calm before the storm, for the return to Rwanda was about to become a reality.
I last went camping nine years ago, a totally forgettable do-it-yourself Russian holiday on the Black Sea. It had seemed a good idea at the time, as both Fiona and I were new to St. Petersburg, broke, and keen to improve our Russian language and cultural understanding. We both jumped at the chance to spend ten days with Volodya and his friends in this “unbelievably beautiful spot on this pristine beach.” Ten days at the beach, as well as forty-four hours on the train down and fifty-six on the way back. We wouldn’t have minded if the beach had been all it was cracked up to be, but the pristine beach was all pebbles, the Black Sea lived up to its name, there were no facilities, the company was dull, we even came home one evening to find some Russians asleep in our sleeping bags. The only bright spot in the whole trip was Fiona’s admirable decision to go topless for the first time. Apart from her delicious state of undress, it ranks as the worst holiday of my life. Both of us resolved never to camp again. She never has and I was as good as my word until I returned to Rwanda. I doubted that anything could surpass the previous weekend's entertainment of the Royal Ascot Goat Races, but Jungle George’s Hippo Safari proved me wrong. It also showed me that there was an enjoyable side to camping.
George was a white South African diplomat (an oxymoron I know) and a good friend of my excellent hosts, Chris and Maria. With a Swiss diplomat called Marc completing the quintet, we prepared for an overnight stay in Akagera Park, in the east of Rwanda, in order to escape the masses and see what game we could spot. George was my real life Crocodile Dundee and he emerged with the vehicle for the trip, a Toyota Hilux pick-up. But not your ordinary pick-up, this one had been modified and included impressive gadgets from satellite tracking (do you realise we are sixty-four hours from Kigali at the moment, as we jumped from pothole to pothole), to a tent attached to the roof which unfolded and was supported by a ladder, to a self-winching kit (useful when we got stuck in a hole the size of Wales).
I have never been a great animal person, but driving around the park (with two of our number sat on the roof with binoculars) there was something fantastic about seeing animals in the wild. The park itself was diverse, ranging from thick forest to open savannah. And there were no other people at all, except for a few Belgian fishermen. To be able to find a space in Rwanda where you are not constantly addressed by the phrase “Mzungu, donne-moi cent francs a manger” is bliss indeed. To think that the whole of Rwanda must have all been like this several generations ago was astonishing. It was how I had pictured Africa in my childhood - vast open spaces, a rich variety of green shrubbery, tree-infested hills and clear tranquil lakes. And wandering around aimlessly were the zebras, the impalas, baboons, monkeys, oryx, maribus and another mammal that we didn’t recognise and whose name George only knew in Afrikaans.
And there were hippos. Lots of them. All in the lake. It was decided that we should pitch tent there and, after having checked with the Belgians that the spot we had chosen, some ten metres from the lake, would be safe from hippo attack, we started to make camp, erecting the tents and gathering the firewood. The hippos occasionally raised their heads above water, croaking deeply and lazily. I didn’t know much about them, but I was certainly not feeling relaxed at the proximity. Still, Jungle George knew what he was doing.
“Hippos are responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other animal,” he reassured me cheerfully, examining his tent. “The trick with hippos is not to get in their usual path, because you will be toast if you do.” As the light faded, the kerosene-assisted fire provided the only light. The croaking seemed to get louder. And nearer. It was like that Budweiser advert with the three frogs, just deeper and with more menace and with a lot more frogs. Was this how I was to go, after having come so far?
Dinner was among the best I had had on the trip. Maria, despite being born with the misfortune of Swedish parentage, had made a go of things and married Chris, a Brit who excelled in toilet humour and extremely funny stories. She had prepared dinner beforehand, and we four boys were treated to fresh avocado in a caviar mayonnaise sauce, followed by deliciously marinated kebabs, cheese and biscuits, coffee and chocolate. Lots of great conversation, some bad singing from Chris, and a chance to enjoy the peace that the clear sky, so full of stars, offered.
“It’s a nice night for a genocide.” I can’t remember who said it, but the phrase stuck with me. April 6, 1994 could have been a clear night like that night.
When it came to bedtime, Marc and JG climbed the ladder and slept in the tent on top of the jeep (very safe from the hippos I thought to myself), leaving the newlyweds and myself to doss down in the six-man tent on the ground. There was a double air mattress, which we positioned vertically, so that at least our heads and backs would receive some sort of cushion.
We brushed our teeth, said our goodnights and wandered into sleep. At least Chris did. Budweiser Hippo seemed to be outside the tent. I was just as scared as Maria, but she hid her fear less well. Soon she was sat bolt upright, panicking. They are coming closer, I think I can see them. The only time Chris was even slightly ruffled during the night was when Maria and I were awoken from a very light slumber by the sound of a hippo baritone duet. We both woke with a start, sat up immediately and listened. The effect on the mattress of our sudden movement meant that Chris found himself lowered to ground level. It was enough to waken even him.
Maria could bear it no longer. Clad in knickers and t-shirt, she ventured forth, determined to confront her fears. Chris, loyal husband that he is, watched her go, then drifted back to sleep. She found nothing amiss and returned to continue her tortured night. I was having problems myself, as there was something running close to my right ear. I tried to ignore it and eventually drifted into sleep. Things were by now getting too much for Maria - she heard a baby hippo inside the tent, before concluding that it must be the gentle snoring emanating from somewhere in my sleeping bag. I had no idea what she meant. I now understand the phrase, a rumble in the jungle.
It was nice to be back on terra firma in Kigali, but an excellent weekend, with some very good company. Again. These friends of friends really were an excellent mode of travel. Having said it was nice to be back, I was awoken a couple of days later by a sound more terrifying than a (whatever the collective noun is) of hippos - the family cat was giving birth. Poor thing, it had no idea what was happening. I escaped to the Congo and learned on my return that she had given birth to four kittens, but only three remained as Callous Chris had brutally massacred Number Four, one over quota, with a combination of a spoon and bucket of water. I shall spare you the details.
Returning to Rwanda was always going to be an emotional time for me. I didn’t do it sober. Moses looked delighted in Kampala when I said that there was not much point going to bed if I had to be up at five to catch the bus. Another tour of Alfred’s Bar and several others culminated in us arriving home at 4.45am, just enough time for fifteen minutes kip on the sofa, before Shelly's smiling face greeted the new day. I was totally drunk and would not have made the bus, had it not been for help from Shelly’s other guests, also destined for Kigali.
I am glad I was drunk, as I would not have survived sober. The bus journey was scarier than flying Yemenia. Strictly sixty passengers, it stated. Was that sixty sitting and sixty standing? The driver was in a hurry, achieving speeds I never managed in my Landcruiser. That was all very well, but what really freaked me was the fact that the body of the bus did not seem to be secured to the rest of the vehicle. I lost count of the times I seemed to be at a 45-degree angle as we careered around corners at improbable speeds.
My mind wandered back to that extraordinary summer in 1994, where events had taken on a life of their own.
After graduating, I had moved to Moscow, for my megabucks graduate job in freight forwarding, only to quit after a month, once it became obvious that the company was just a pawn of the mafia, and was heavily involved in shipping arms. A chance encounter with a friend in a bar sparked a phone call to my old boss, who was just being transferred to Rwanda; on learning that I spoke French, he assured me that a job would be waiting. I knew nothing of Rwanda, had never been to Africa, and it was only that night, in a Moscow sports bar, that I saw for myself the graphic pictures of the camps in Zaire and Tanzania.
Things moved quickly after that. Within a week, I was in Nairobi, having passed through the office in London for a briefing; the problem was that nobody really knew anything there as the genocide had only finished a couple of weeks earlier and there were no telephone links with Rwanda. I bought water-purifying tablets, a first aid kit and malaria pills, searching also for a map of the country, but London’s map shops had long sold out of its 1960’s map of Rwanda and Burundi.
My one night in Nairobi was spent in the company of an American press officer, also an African first-timer and, at the famous Carnivore restaurant, we gorged on zebra, alligator, wildebeest, eland, perversely I thought, as the following day we would be entering a country with almost no food. We flew to Entebbe and were chauffeured to the office in Kampala, where there was just time for a coffee, before I was handed the keys to a white Peugeot 405 and informed that I would be driving to the border town of Kabale, following a mad Ugandan in a Landcruiser. I remember little of the scenery on the way down, for I was concentrating on keeping up with Gordon, while avoiding obstacles such as donkeys and pot-holes; I do remember inadvertently destroying a police roadblock, but it was either that or lose Gordon for good.
In Kabale, I met my new supervisor, a weird American woman, deaf as a post, who had no idea what I would be doing, which proved to be the case for most of my time there. Rwandan operations were being run out of a small sub-office there, as things in Rwanda were too tense, although I had been informed in London that I would be working in Rwanda proper.
The following morning I drove across the border, changing from the left (British influence in Uganda) to the right (Belgian in Rwanda) and whatever tension I felt at this unfamiliar territory was magnified by the first roadblock, a crude affair consisting of a rope attached to a couple of rusted out oil drums; the soldier, in smart battle fatigues, Kalashnikov and toothy grin, was no more than twelve years old.
Any relief I might have felt at finding a familiar face was short-lived, for my Moscow boss looked exhausted and could barely manage more than a handshake and the following words:
“Great to see you. No time to talk. Have a nice agricultural project for you. Proposal is here. East of the country. Driver and interpreter will be here in the morning. Do your best. Gotta dash, another meeting. See you at dinner.”
Accommodation was insane. We were billeted at the boss’ house, a picturesque four-bed in quieter times, but now a morass of bodies, as fifteen expats struggled for sleeping space. There was no running water, just a few jerrycans in the morning, never enough for everyone, but then thirteen of the fifteen were turned around in 24 hours and sent on to the camps, and the new arrivals never knew of the lack of water until it was too late.
The ‘nice agricultural proposal’ sounded a challenge. As the country had been emptied of living people during the preceding murderous months, due either to death or flight, nobody knew how many people had returned. What was known was that all the harvests had rotted in the field, that most houses had been looted and destroyed, and that food was scarce. So scarce in fact, that there were no restaurants and scarcely any markets in the capital. There was also no electricity, no telephones, no nothing, apart from that wartime essential - beer. Crates of Primus saw us through the first few weeks.
My job was to assess how many people were back, to get them organised through their villages and communities, and organise distributions of food, seeds and tools. By providing enough food until the next harvest a few months hence, it was hoped that the majority would be helped back to self-sufficiency, which is broadly what happened.
Not that it looked as though it would in those early months. We headed east that first morning, to the first small town, our destination the district authorities. If anyone had information, then they would be the ones to ask. I had some idea of the enormity of the task that lay before me when we arrived at the building. I had been hoping to meet some officials with a broad estimate of people around, but instead found a shell of a building, with no roof, doors or windows; papers were strewn liberally about and there was a giant safe whose door had been forced. There were no signs of recent human life there.
But slowly, surely, patiently, we built up a picture, we found local officials, we talked to village leaders, and a distribution plan to help 320,000 people was put into place. Warehouses were filled with the seeds and tools that we had bought, as well as the food from the UN, fuel was purchased for the trucks that we hired, and all was ready within a month.
Of all the extraordinary experiences of my life, nothing has come close to those distributions; it was awesome. Having arranged for the trucks to be fuelled and loaded the previous day, our convoy would set off at five or six in the morning, arriving in a field in the middle of Africa some hours later. Local helpers would then start to unload the cargo, neatly arranging the fifty kilo sacks of food and seeds in piles to ease the distribution process. My team of five local staff would erect a simple distribution site, with stakes and rope, and all would be ready.
At around eight in the morning, we would see the first of the beneficiaries on the horizon, walking, often barefoot, having come distances of twenty kilometres or more. Upon arrival, they would simply sit in silence and wait until it was their turn. Local authorities would then arrange people by village and they would be given their allocation after being checked against the previously compiled lists. Ten kilos per family meant that a 50kg bag was given to five heads of family and then split afterwards, always under supervision. The heads of family were often small boys, no older than six, the only surviving males.
And as the five local staff processed up to four thousand people an hour, my supervisory role became redundant, and I would walk around, the only white man in a field of twenty thousand Rwandese, who had all come here because we had announced that there would be food. And when they had divided the food, they put their new supplies into smaller bundles, placed them on their heads, then quietly walked the twenty kilometres home. There was rarely any shouting, any fuss, for the genocide had placated the nation. One of the most gratifying moments of my life was touring the fields a few months later, as these same beneficiaries were harvesting their beans. Back on their feet, trying to get back to normal life.
The hard work had all been worth it.
Those local staff worked hard, day in, day out, and I did my best to keep morale high. We would stop for beer and goat kebabs after distributions at my expense, and while I don’t kid myself that I belonged, there was a warmth, a mutual respect that meant something.
Which made the events of early 1995 all the more difficult. It started with Josef, the tall Hutu with a stammer, as gentle a giant as I had come across. He was popular amongst all the staff, and Jeff rated him highly, having worked with him for five years previously. He was always punctual and never ill, so we were surprised when he didn’t show for work for a couple of days. We were even more surprised when we were told that he had been arrested for genocide.
Jeff went to visit him, to put a stop to what was obviously a trumped-up charge, but Josef asked him to leave, not to come again, to accept his apologies for letting Jeff down, for all the charges were true. This same gentle Josef had been accused of first raping, then murdering, then cutting up numerous women. We had been laughing over beer earlier that week, just as we had every week for the previous six months.
Emile was the next to disappear, although I suppose I should not have been too surprised, for there was something sinister that lurked in the character that hid behind those metallic sunglasses. He was wandering through the market when he was accosted by a wide-eyed eight year-old, who pointed to him determinedly and uttered two sentences over and over, getting louder with each utterance:
“You killed my father. I saw you kill my father.”
Emile tried to brush the boy away with a couple of hundred francs for a Coke, but the boy would not be deterred. He knew what he had seen and he was not going to be silenced. Eventually, a crowd surrounded them both and the boy’s story was told – Emile and his accomplices had killed the entire village, with the exception of this boy, who had witnessed the whole thing from the safety of a banana tree.
More were arrested until I lost all faith in these people. People I had relied on, trusted. Murderers, rapists, sadists. And then they came for Albert, my Russian-speaking friend. Not him, surely?
The thought of Albert brought me back to the present. We were entering Kigali, my home for nine mind-numbing months after the genocide. Memories, memories. But Kigali was my home no longer. And Kigali was not the city I remembered. Some parts were still the same, the single-storey, corrugated roofed buildings dotted randomly in the numerous lush, green hills. But there were new buildings, smarter, grander, built from the proceeds of stolen minerals from the Congo. Internet cafes abounded, businessmen walked around with mobile phones clutched to the ear, the streets were full of orphaned beggars, teenagers selling postcards, trousers, themselves, anything to keep the devil of poverty at bay. Flash new bars were two a penny. But my first impression was how quiet the place had become. Gone was the multitude of aid agencies, which dominated the roads in the posh white jeeps. Expatriate population was back to its pre-1994 days.
Some agencies were still here, as well as the UN, but diplomats and mineral dealers were all the rage these days.
I wandered down to my old house, which I shared with Jeff and Rose. So many memories, many happy, the 5am starts, the whisky-fuelled cursing of our boss until late at night, the parties, the fleet of jeeps in the drive, the opening of my office downstairs, the balcony with a G&T at sunset, finally leaving the house with Jane early one morning and being hurt that Jeff had not come to say goodbye (I learned later that he spent the next two days in bed drunk and physically could not move), all those memories. And as I approached, I noticed the Red Cross still rented next door, the makeshift wall having been rebuilt after I had destroyed it with a spectacular piece of speed reversing. But my house was empty. Peering over the barbed wire and broken glass that lined the gate and walls, I saw the windows smashed, the air of abandonment. It was a tremendously sad moment. I went to the office, but that too had moved on, now rented by another organisation (I later discovered that the new director decided the building reeked of genocide and the past - a fresh start was required. I think she was right).
Walking slowly up the hill in the midday sun, I took solace in the fact that The Ministry would still be there. The Ministry was our local, a spit and sawdust kind of place, where beer came in bottles, seating in plastic chairs and comforts were limited. The only advantages it had were proximity to the office, a constant supply of cold beer and the fact that one of our expats fancied the waitress. It was basic and I loved it. It was called The Ministry because the same expat was expected home at a certain time by his wife. She would radio to ascertain his whereabouts. I'm in a meeting at the Ministry, dear. Home in twenty. Just time for another quick one, he would wink at us.
But now The Ministry has become the Crescendo Bar, specialists in barbecues.With its bamboo fence and roof, lilac plastic chairs, floral tablecloths, hanging pots, walls ‘tastefully’ decorated in turquoise and light pink, waiters in bow-ties, who pour beer into glasses for the customer, The Ministry was not as it had been. The only improvement was that it served my favourite Mutzig in bigger, 72cl bottles. I was mourning the passing of the Kigali I had known over another cold one when I realised I was glad. Kigali had moved on and so had I.
The one person I really wanted to find was my assistant, Felix, a large and jovial Burundian. He was my Mr. Fixit and the project would have collapsed without him. I found his number, called and introduced myself by the old radio call sign. His surprise was total after a six-year silence, but he was soon round to collect me, insisting on paying for the beer and brochettes, driving his jeep and talking importantly into his mobile phone. He used to rent cars for the aid agency - now he sells them to the same organisation. He has become a successful businessman and I was tremendously pleased for him.
The other person I wanted to find was Albert. I don’t remember now exactly what he looks like, just that he was the only Russian-speaking Rwandan I ever met, a supremely nice guy, and as unlikely a killer as I am likely to meet. He was arrested a week before I left. I got involved, went to the prison, demanding to know the charges, only to be informed that there were no records of his case and that the arresting officer was now elsewhere. Nothing could be done. I learned that Albert’s father had been in dispute with a local leader, and that the latter had accused him of genocide crimes. On that basis alone, he was arrested with his sons and beaten up. About this time, United Nations Human Rights monitors were trying to get their teeth into all the claims of false arrest.
They agreed to take on the case but they had no transport to investigate the claims. I arranged for a car and they left the same morning I flew out of Rwanda. I had heard nothing since. All I had was the scrawl of a letter written in Russian, which he had smuggled out of the prison the day before the UN was due to investigate.
I was reasonably confident that enquiries at my old office would yield something, which indeed they did, but they had nothing to do with Albert. I knew that he was friendly with two other colleagues, both of whom I liked. Investigations revealed that one had disappeared but the other, Faustin, a tall and amiable agronomist, who had bridged my insufficient agricultural knowledge on several occasions, was in prison, having been arrested for ‘genocide’ in 1997. I should have been prepared for this but I wasn’t. Prison visits by non-family members where not necessarily allowed, but I determined to give it a try and was happy to hire the former head driver, Joseph, now a private taxi driver, for the day.
As we drove south past Gitarama, Joseph and I swapped information on former colleagues, laughing at the good times, pausing at the deaths from AIDS, imprisonment for genocide and firing for thieving. We talked about the effect of the genocide on his friends and family - it is okay to talk about it now, it is something that happened in the past already for many Rwandans. I just could not get my head around this attitude, which I encountered again and again. If it were me, I could not simply forget. If I found Joseph’s attitude bewildering, it was nothing compared to meeting Faustin again after six years without a word.
The guard was accommodating, probably bemused that a mzungu was taking an interest in a prisoner in a rural detention centre. I was nervous as I waited. I remembered his face well, I liked him immensely, but what a strange location for meeting after all this time. I was the subject of curiosity, not only because I was white, but also because I was one of the few people not wearing pink. I have no idea why, but all prisoners in Rwanda are forced to wear a regulation light pink outfit, a loose-fitting shirt, and shorts. Looking at these poor wretches so effeminately attired, it was hard to believe they were the perpetrators of such butchery.
“Monsieur Paul, comment ça va?” He had not changed a bit, outfit notwithstanding, since 1995. Still the same broad smile, still the same closely cropped hair. One of my former colleagues told me before I left on this trip that the one place she would never return to was Rwanda. Because of the mentality. It was too bizarre. I now know what she meant. Here we were, chatting nonchalantly about life, friends, genocide, the future, the past, as though we saw each other every day. That I had turned up out of the blue after six years and found him imprisoned did not phase him at all. He told me that someone had accused him of genocide crimes and he had been arrested. That was in 1997. In March 2001, he was tried and sentenced to five years imprisonment, including time already served. There was no evidence, he said, and his appeal is scheduled for November (I later learned that a five year sentence equates to being at a roadblock and not killing, or showing the killers where the victims were hiding, both of which he denies). His humour and sprits were positive as ever, he looked in good health and he showed neither remorse (should he need to have any), nor bitterness at false imprisonment. It was extraordinary.
I asked if there was anything I could do for him, and he asked me to call his brother in Kigali. He also told me that he thought Albert had been freed eight months previously, but that his brother would know. He took my hand warmly and waved me off and then cheerfully wandered back whence he came. I was spooked. Joseph shook his head and declared that he would visit Faustin, because he was sure he was one of the good guys. We decided to proceed to Albert’s house.
Addresses in rural Rwanda don’t come with street names and postcodes. All you get is the name, the hillside, the cellule (perhaps a couple of hundred people), the district and the county. After that, you are on your own. I gave thanks that I had found Joseph - there was no way I could have found the place on my own. I did not realise it was so far into the interior. Nor did Joseph. As his already battered Toyota Corolla left the last of the tarmac, the permanent smile gave way to a slight frown, as he negotiated pothole after pothole on the red dirt track. Cars were a rarity here, mzungus even more so, and suspicious looks were the norm. We eventually found the hillside, only to be directed down the wrong side of the hill. I had my doubts that we would be able to climb back up, but Joseph was determined to take his former boss all the way. I finally convinced him that this was madness and he agreed to turn around, but found he couldn’t. We were stuck. As always happens in Africa, just when you think you are all alone, a throng of people descends from the bush. Within minutes, we were mobile once more.
We decided to walk the rest, down a rough path. The house was pointed out to us, a much more impressive affair of brick and a tiled roof, than its mud-caked neighbours. We approached the front door and knocked. My heart was beating - I was about to find out what happened to him, after six years of wondering whether I could not have done more for him.
No answer. As far as anti-climaxes go, this was pretty big. We walked around the back and found a simple hut, smoke rising from the chimney. Two small children came to greet us, followed by a young woman. My heart was beating faster. Finally. Joseph posed a question and the reply was one that neither of us were expecting, a high-pitched wail. She was deaf and mute, and, looking closer at the wretched creature, I had misgivings about her sanity. I wonder what she had been through in 1994. The kids were too young to be of help, so we wandered down the hill to the next house, which was abandoned and roofless, like so many in the area. Further down, we met an old peasant woman, a bright scarf covering her hair, a grubby torn t-shirt covering most of her upper torso, although the rips exposed both jet-black nipples and her sagging breasts. She did not seem to care. Resting her weight on her stick, she shook hands solemnly and informed us that Albert and his brother were freed in March and are now in Kigali, but that their father was still in custody. They had been arrested, as the village leader did not like them due to a personal feud. They were innocent. The village leader is still the village leader. She shrugged her shoulders. Such tales are not uncommon in Rwanda.
She continued on her way and Joseph and I paused on the hillside, each lost in his own thoughts. I have stood on many hillsides in Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills, but I had never taken the time to think, to try and imagine. And so I took the time, standing there, next to the cassava plants, the sweet potatoes, under the banana trees, looking into the valley, at the other hills, every inch under cultivation, the randomly designed and randomly spread houses, many deserted, destroyed, the sound of birds, but no humans. A chill went down my spine. Now, for the first time, I could picture the killers climbing the hill with their blood-soaked machetes. There could have been no escape.
Once back on the tarmac, Joseph loosened up once more. I bought him lunch and he insisted I visit his mother on the way back. She was a lovely lady, although I caused a logistical nightmare as I asked to use the toilet. A niece was dispatched to make the preparations and I was eventually ushered into a simple room with a hole in the ground. The stench of air-freshener was overpowering. We returned to Kigali and called Faustin’s brother. He was suspicious that someone was enquiring about Albert, but eventually told me that he now lives in Nairobi. He promised to ring the following day with a number. He never did. I suspect he never will. But at least Albert is free, albeit five years too late. Yes, it would have been great to track him down when I returned to Nairobi, but that was only for my selfish gratification. Either he feels let down by my inaction or else he is trying to start afresh, not wanting to be reminded of the past. I suppose I could have tried harder to find him, but he knew I was looking for him and he chose not to reply. I respected that.
Talking about Rwanda without mentioning the genocide is impossible. I came across a very bizarre column in a local newspaper. It was one of those Did You Know sections, containing facts on Rwanda. I forget all the details but it went something like this: Rwanda’s literacy rate is 49%. Average income is $290 per annum. Population is 9 million (a few more facts like this and then the statistic that will forever set Rwanda apart). Rwanda holds the world record for the quickest extermination of people ever. On average, over a three-month period, people were killed at an average rate of 467 people an hour.
That’s an impressive rate of killing, especially as only basic tools were generally available. From our television screens in the West, it looked barbaric and it was, and we asked how people could kill their neighbours just like that. It could never happen in England. So it’s quiz time. Put yourself in this situation. A bunch of armed killers come into your house with your neighbour. They give you two options, either you kill the neighbour with the machete provided (collective guilt was part of the plan) or you are held while your wife and daughter are gang-raped and then murdered. Your choice. What would you do? I was having this discussion with the Papal Nuncio from the Vatican Embassy as he gave me a lift to the Congolese border. He was new to the country, and I told him Rose’s story.
He was shocked, but the shock seemed to be more the fact that the priest gave the keys of the church to the killers before fleeing. He was adamant that he would have stood in front of the church and would have had to have been killed first, martyred for his faith. Yes, Father, you say that now, but would you say the same if it really happened to you? It reminded me of Bosnia - so easy to pass judgement on others, because we have the luxury of knowing that such a thing can never happen in our societies. But what if it did? How would you really react?
The genocide was holding Rwanda back. There were 115,000 awaiting trial. So far only 6,000 cases had been judged, since 1994. It was going to take generations at the current rate for everyone to be tried, and so a new idea, the gacaca (pronounced ‘gachacha’) was being introduced. Basically, these would be village courts, with appointed leaders, and accusers and accused would meet and justice be meted out accordingly. There was much emphasis on confession - sentences would be reduced by half - and reconciliation. While these people remained in prison, the families were burdened: the head of the family is not in the fields, time and food are required for the regular visits to prison. There was a feeling that gacaca would quicken the judicial process and help with reconciliation and economic growth. But it would not be easy.
Imagine a woman whose family was wiped out living next to the murderer’s family. Confessing to his crimes, he is once more a free man and moves back to his old home, next to the woman whose family he murdered. Yet surveys show that reconciliation is happening and old wounds are being healed. It will obviously take time. Gacaca is seen as a participatory process, which will give the whole community a chance to deal with the past. I wish them luck. If the UK had 115,000 prisoners awaiting genocide trials for seven years, it would be hard enough, but for the tenth poorest country in the world, the burden is more severe.
On the subject of reconciliation, I was told the inspiring story of a nun who is working for this important goal. She encouraged some remorseful killers to write to the families of their victims, to express regret and encourage forgiveness. Sixty percent of families wrote back, many arranging meetings with the prisoners. One of the topics for discussion is how the criminals can help their victims in practical ways (farming the land etc.) on their release. In the course of her work, the nun met her own family's killers. They are now working closely together on the project.
Kigali felt safer than ever. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, the incoming Tutsi army, had imposed discipline and security as best they could. They were mostly returning refugees from Uganda, victims of genocide in 1959. They were English-speaking and Rwanda had become a dual mzungu-language-speaking country.
Advertising was sometimes in French, sometimes in English. Taxi drivers spoke one, but not the other. The British were the largest bilateral donors, although the French and Belgians were not ready to give up their Francophone influence just yet.
Rwanda should not feel as safe as it does. The talk in diplomatic circles was that another war is imminent. The murderous interahamwe and former government troops are massing on the borders in Burundi, Tanzania and southern Congo. Many have lived in the forest for years now and have little to lose. The RPF use this as justification for incursions deep into the Congo, much to the annoyance of the international community. They are controlling vast areas of the Congo, areas rich in minerals and yet thin in rebels. The rape of the Congo continues. In some ways, the attitude of the government reminded me of another country I was in earlier: Israel.
Both are bloody-minded in their approach, using as justification for their policies the fact that the international community did nothing to prevent genocide and holocaust and so they are perfectly within their rights to do whatever it takes for their own security, since they cannot depend on anyone else.
Jesus looked like a Tutsi and that’s why he had to die. He was hacked to pieces and there is nothing left of him. The Virgin Mary fared somewhat better, escaping completely unscathed. Were I religious, I might attribute her wholesome state to a miracle, for there she stands today, hands held together in prayer, face towards the floor, her expression one of, what? Before the killing, I would have described it as serene, but now only sadness. It really is incredible that her statue was not damaged at all - she reminded me of the glamorous lady in the knife-throwing act at the circus - completely unharmed while the knives flew all around her. There are no knives at Nyamata church, a short drive from Kigali, but there is precious little left intact. The blood has dried with the years, but it still lines the walls, bullet holes and grenade shrapnel give the simple brick walls an acned look, the sun shines through the shrapnel holes in the corrugated iron roof, the benches are thick with dust, the tabernacle has been vandalised. You can still smell the fear.
As far as genocide memorials go, it has the power to shock. Nyamata is a simple rural community, no different to so many others in Rwanda. Some ten thousand people took refuge in the church and surrounding compound as the killing began in April 1994. Within five days, all but a handful had been butchered in cold blood. The government decided to preserve the site with its dark past. There are a couple of simple banners as you enter the church: “Non aux revisionistes, non aux negativistes” and, in Kinyarwanda, a more potent one for me: “If you know me and you know yourself, how can you kill me?” - a clear reference to the hundreds of thousands killed by neighbours and family. The padlock is still intact on the iron door, but the door was forced. There was no protection here.
As with most museums, there is a guided tour, this one in French. In the middle of the church, a large hole has been dug, steps constructed and pristine white tiles line the descending walls. I felt as if I was visiting a public toilet as I descended. Below, there was a central glass case on three levels: the top shelf contained bones - arms, legs and so on; the second shelf contained skulls, dozens of them, staring blankly forward, many with visible cracks where the machetes had sliced through - they should have made an impression on me but they didn’t, I don't know why; the bottom tier was below our feet and contained a simple coffin, that of a twenty-five year old woman and her child. Apparently, her body did not decompose for months, nobody knows why. What we do know is that she met a vicious end, a branch being inserted into her and forced through until it came out of her head. Her baby was clinging to her breast all the while.
My solemn guide took me outside and showed me another coffin. The body of Tonia Locatelli is contained therein. Some two years before the genocide, in 1992, the local authorities in Nyamata decided to kill all the Tutsis in the area. There were rounded up and locked in the church without food or water and simply left to die. Tonia, an Italian volunteer, managed to get word to the international press and the ensuing uproar ensured that the Tutsis were freed without any casualties. Tonia’s reward for her courageous act was the full vengeance of the local authorities. She was the only victim.
Behind the church is another hole in the ground. The musty smell of a cellar hit me as I descended - it reminded me of many a customer's wine cellar in my previous job. No vintage claret here, but it was certainly fully stocked - coffins on the top shelf, skulls just below, and bones, so many bones at the bottom. Someone told me recently that you cannot detect terror in a bare skull, so I decided to look deeper to see if he was right. Looking at most of the skulls, I was detached, they seemed almost like the skulls you play with in biology classes, but there was one which caught my eye. The jaw was wide open, all the front teeth missing, except for an improbably long wisdom tooth protruding out of the bottom left hand side. I could almost see the pain and the terror of the face, could almost hear the scream. Just along was the top half of a small skull, from the eye sockets up, perched on top of another random head - were baby and parent reunited in death? I doubt it.
There was a visitor’s book at the end of the tour. What struck me was that all the comments were almost the same - monosyllabic or single word entries - speechless, tears, shocked. I don't think it is possible to put into words the whole experience. The church has not been used for services since the tragic events, although there was a move to clean things up and get back to normal, but the surviving locals refused and a new church was constructed. As I left the church and silently sat in the taxi on the way home, I reflected that the visit marked the end of my Genocide Tour. I hadn’t meant to embark on such a journey, it just happened, and although I was deeply disturbed by what I saw, I was glad that I had made the effort to visit the sites in Armenia, Israel and Rwanda.
Which site moved me the most? Not the Children’s Room in Yad Vashem, not the terrified skull in Nyamata, no, and I don’t know why, as they were powerful and immediate images. The memorial that moved me the most was the simple and dignified construction in Yerevan: the simple wreaths, the lack of words, the air to breathe and remember, the only sound apart from the distant barking dogs being that of the eternal flame, the magnificent backdrop of snow-capped Mount Ararat, formerly Armenian and now in the territory of the perpetrators of the genocide, Turkey.
As I walked over the border back to Uganda a couple of days later, I looked back at the Land of a Thousand Problems. I looked full on for a minute or so and then turned my back on the troubled country and ventured forth, thereby closing a chapter of previously unfinished business. But before heading north and back to Nairobi, there was one more small diversion that I felt was necessary - a brief foray across the border into the Congo.
The Congo. I have always been curious about the place and a trip to Goma was essential if I was to put Rwanda to bed in my head. This was the town made famous by the biggest refugee camp in the world, back in 1994. I went to one of the camps, Mugunga, a few kilometres by moped taxi (lots of fun) from the town itself. With a base of black rock and volcanoes in the distance, it did not make for an ideal site, but then UNHCR did not have much choice. I met Xavier, a local who lived in one of the ten shoddily constructed rotting wooden huts that comprised the community. He had been here in 1994, minding his own business. Suddenly they came, in their hundreds of thousands and moved in next door, felling trees, erecting tents, terrorising the locals. And then one day in 1996, they all left, his environment trashed. There is little reminder of what was once there, and I was amazed at how many trees were now occupying the site - young trees, for a million refugees over two years do need their heating sources.
And it was in Goma that I spent that infamous day, September 11, 2001. News of the tragedy in America spread quickly. I myself was in the town’s only Internet café when news came through from an incoming email from Edinburgh. Initial Internet news was sketchy and so I decided to seek out a bar with a television. The next few hours were freaky, as I am sure they were the world over. In what has been the only time that I have been glued to CNN for hours, the drama unfolded before our disbelieving eyes, as we all downed more Primus, the local beer. Apart from the waiters, we were all Westerners, mostly American pilots. The reaction was unexpected – there was the initial shock of the pictures, then almost a jokey atmosphere. A moustachioed middle-aged Yank had parked himself in the chair next to me. After his fifth Primus, he spoke:
“I am not surprised. We have been asking for something like this for years. It was obviously Saddam. Now we will bomb Iraq to shit and start a world war.”
Other Americans in the bar concurred – there was little of the outrage that I encountered when I got back to ‘civilisation,’ more a notion that American foreign policy had invited something like this for some time. I left the bar after one Primus too many, with heavy heart, thinking of the thousands of dead in New York, but also the hundreds of thousands of civilians suffering in Iraq and other countries, largely as a result of sanctions, and I just wanted to crawl into my room and be depressed alone, but there was one more shock waiting for me that night. A Congolese teenager, perhaps sixteen, barefoot and sporting a ragged navy blue shirt, strutted towards me:
“Vous êtes americain? Ha ha ha.” And with that, he walked off in hysterics.
On reflection, my choice of the Hotel des Grand Lacs on September 11 was ill-advised, given my recent flying experiences and the day’s events. I awoke from fitful sleep the following morning to the sound of a plane flying through my room. And then another. Not quite in my room, but upon leaving the hotel, I noticed that I was staying precisely ten metres under the flight path of Goma Airport and the Twin Otters and Antonov 24s were hurtling in.
In 2002, I accepted a position to go and work in Somalia. We took off in John Travolta's former private plane - which would never fly again - and a guard was soon offering to attack my injured ankle with a razor blade after our emergency landing. Those where the days...