top of page

Killing ground - Rwanda - Part 1 (1994)

Rwanda. Even the name evokes an uncomfortable response. Perhaps it’s the unusual juxtaposition of the two consonants at the beginning of the word, alien to the Western eye. Is it RUE-WAN-DA or ER-WAN-DA? Is one or the other silent? Is there some other rule with which I’m not familiar? Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve read the press accounts and the Human Rights Watch reports of what happened there - even argued the issue on a radio show. Maybe all of the above. Maybe more.

It’s discomfiting to admit that the image of a screaming mob of bloodthirsty, machete-wielding savages pops up from some Robert Ruark-inspired Mau Mau horror story and strikes a chord deep within, provoking a terrified, primal, sphincter-tightening response. The idea of such unreasoning, overpowering, incomprehensible rage has always been at the root of my deepest fears.

Whatever; as events unfold and the name comes up on my radar screen, there’s the uncomfortable sense, call it premonition, that I’m going to see Rwanda and it’s going to leave its mark.


Early in the summer of ‘94, as confused stories of genocidal slaughter in Rwanda were being overtaken by reports of a mass exodus of refugees, Barbara Francis, my old friend from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) called and asked if I’d consider a trip there. The refugee situation was horrific, unprecedented in size, with hundreds of thousands pouring out of the country and an overwhelmed and under-supplied effort by the UNHCR was not getting the help it needed. Perhaps, she thought, a quick trip there would generate some press coverage and greater public support.

I agreed to the idea in principle and she said she’d check with Geneva and get back to me.

Events quickly overtook us, however, as the flood of refugees, particularly into Goma, Zaire, and the resultant cholera epidemic caught the attention of the world’s press and the chaos became grist for the daily papers and evening TV screens. With Geneva’s approval, Barbara and I debated the idea of going anyway, since the UNHCR’s efforts deserve all the attention they can get, but with the incredible strain on the staff on the ground there already, we finally decided that the last thing they needed was to have to pull someone away from the important work in order to walk me through it all. So we’d wait.

A couple of weeks later I got a call from Richard Walden at Operation USA, who wanted to know if I’d go with him to Goma to help deliver a plane-load of medicine they’d had donated. He still had to work out the logistics of getting the plane, but thought we’d probably be able to take off within a week or two. There was even the possibility that Jonathan Estrin, my compadre from the Somalia trip two years ago (and now President of the Board of Operation USA) would be able to go with us.

As the days flew by and the situation in Goma went from horrible to impossible, dates for departure came and went and still no plane. Richard introduced me to the representative from the new government of Rwanda (prior to its recognition by the Clinton Administration) who was heading for Washington to give them a sense of the situation in the country from his perspective, but nothing anyone could do seemed to be successful in springing loose a plane to deliver the medicine. (By this time, while the U.S. Government had finally decided to respond to the humanitarian emergency in Goma and other areas, the only planes allowed to fly in were from the U.S. military and Richard was having a hell of a time getting any cooperation from them in spite of the fact that he was sitting on 60 thousand pounds of much needed medications.)

So, as the world watched on CNN, bodies stacked up like cordwood in and around the refugee camps and finally, painstakingly, the U.S. military and the humanitarian organizations operating under the aegis of the UNHCR got the situation in hand.

Then in the Fall, about the time I was getting ready to leave on a trip to Cuba, Barbara called again. She was going to put together a trip to Rwanda at the end of the year, she thought, and try to get some members of the Writer’s Guild to go, a la the Somalia/Bosnia expedition of a couple of years ago. Would I come?

So it began.


Saturday, January 21, 1995 -

Agnes (my mom), my sister Kathy, her husband Pat Rogers and Shelley take me to LAX for the evening flight to London. The trip has kind of sneaked up on all of us, so there doesn’t seem to have been the worrying that associated itself with leaving for Somalia/Bosnia in ‘92. Getting more blasé about all this globe-trotting?

Kathy, Pat, Agnes and Shel are wonderful. Warm and attentive. We scare up a meal at what passes for a restaurant at the International Terminal and talk about all sorts of things, but not much about Rwanda. When the time comes, we wander over to the gate and stand around a bit, delaying the good-byes. As we’re standing there, Daryl Nickens, one of my traveling companions, comes by and I introduce him around before he boards.

And then it’s time. Kisses, a few tears and hearty hugs all around and I make my way aboard carrying with me all the love and support one could ever hope to enjoy.

Once aboard, the Club Class aisle seat looks as good as can be expected. It’ll be home for the next nine or ten hours. Daryl is situated a few rows back and seems to be comfortable by himself. I don’t see any of the others, so settle in and get out the reading material.


It’s a small group this time. I had met the four from the Writer’s Guild for the first and only time a week earlier at a lunch at Chasen’s arranged either by the UNHCR or the Writer’s Guild, or both. Richard Walden, who had finally gotten his medicine shipped over by the U.S. government and had himself been over there only a few weeks earlier, was present to offer a few sage words of advice (he told me, for example, to “forget about being a vegetarian” for the time I was going to be there. He also suggested, lending a certain inferential credence to things I’ve read about chaos and lawlessness in the country now, that we should bring travel bags “with locks.”). Jonathan Estrin stopped by for a while, too, to wish us well, but had to leave early because of WGA contract negotiations.

My colleagues in this adventure were to be Daryl Nickens, David Koepp, Caroline Thompson and Bobby Smith, Jr. None of them had done anything like this before and no one had a lot to say at the lunch. They listened, mostly, asked a few questions and, I assume, shared some version of the “How in the name of God did I get myself involved in this?” second thoughts. Shots, medication, side-effects, how-much-money-should-we-carry? kinds of issues were in the forefront. What-would-we-see and how-would-we-react was just beneath the surface.

Daryl, a thick-set, barrel-chested man in his mid-forties, is an officer of the Writer’s Guild and has written a number of television series episodes and telefilms. He’s now working in features. An African-American, though it’s not an assumption one would automatically make, he’s never been to Africa. Actually, other than Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, he’s never been out of the U.S.

Caroline Thompson is in her late 30’s but looks about 22. Evidently very successful, having written “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Secret Garden” and the new “Black Beauty,” she’s going to be meeting us in London where she’ll be doing some pre-release publicity on the new film. She has done some traveling, including at least one trip to Kenya.

David Koepp is a tall, thin, pleasant looking young man who looks to be straight out of the mid-West. I’m not surprised to learn later that he’s from Wisconsin. At thirty-one, he’s had a phenomenal string of successes, probably the most noteworthy being “Jurassic Park.” He also wrote “Carlito’s Way,” a film I liked a lot. He has traveled around Latin America, he says, and is married to an Argentine.

Bobby Smith, Jr., is a quiet, intense young African-American whose most recent film, “Jason’s Lyric,” won considerable praise. A Texan, twenty-six years old, he graduated from Vassar (where my daughter is now a senior) in 1990 and seems to have hit his stride in the business right away. He hasn’t done much traveling, at least not to the under-developed world, and has not been to Africa.

I seem to be the old man of the bunch and the only one who’s experienced refugee camps and the like.


The flight is smooth, quiet. Time to read a bit and think about what’s ahead.

Rwanda is a small country just below the equator on the cusp between Central and East Africa. It is bounded on the north by Uganda, on the south by Burundi, with Tanzania to the east and Zaire to the west. Much of its border with Zaire is formed by Lake Kivu, one of the string of Great Lakes of Africa that runs north from Mozambique and appears to hook around east into Lake Victoria. Its pre-war population of approximately 9,000,000 (making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world) was made up primarily of two tribal groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi, with a small number of a third group known as the Twa. The Hutu were the largest group, making up about 85% of the population, with the Tutsi about 14% and the Twa 1%.

The history of the country is somewhat complicated and remains the subject of some debate, in part due to the desire of its colonizers to institute a system by which they could maintain control, but much is now coming clear.

Though the Twa were probably the first to settle in the area, their relatively small number and their essential lack of involvement in the political/social structure and recent fighting makes them largely irrelevant to this discussion.

Of those who later settled the region, the Hutu were primarily farmers, or cultivators, while the Tutsi were cattle-herders. Though the differences in appearance between the two groups have in significant part disappeared through assimilation and intermarriage, the “classic” Tutsi is tall, thin and has a straight nose, while the “classic” Hutu is short, more broad and has a flatter or wider nose. While there were certainly shifts as the social order was worked out between the groups, it is widely agreed that the Tutsi eventually achieved dominance over the area, in large part because status was ultimately determined by one’s possession of capital (how unusual!) and the primary form of capital was cattle (importantly, Hutu who owned cattle were automatically considered Tutsi, which demonstrates how vague, elastic and ultimately political this tribal designation was even then). That being so, the cattle-herding Tutsi rose to dominance.

When the region was colonized, first by the Germans and then more importantly by the Belgians, Tutsi dominance was used as a form of control, with the Belgians exaggerating and exacerbating the differences for their own purposes and establishing what was essentially a caste system with the Tutsi on top (directly under the control of the Belgians). They even went so far as to adopt and spread an ugly idea that had some currency at the time; namely that the Tutsi were racially different from the Negroid Hutu, being of the Hamitic race, a supposedly mongrelized form of the Aryan or Caucasian race. The natural superiority, then, of the white race was granted the Tutsi, whose taller, thinner frames and straighter noses were held as signs of racial superiority.

This racial aspect was even used by the Catholic missionaries who proselytized in the area (the majority of the total population is today [at least nominally] 60-80% Catholic), referring to the Tutsi as a lost tribe of Ethiopian Coptic Christians who had lost their faith in a southern migration and needed to be brought back into the fold.

As ill-defined and meaningless as the “tribal” differences were in actuality (during a census in the ‘30s, for example, the Belgians had so much trouble determining the difference between the two groups by appearance that they automatically ascribed Tutsi status to anyone who owned more than ten cows) they became ingrained in the minds of the populace through custom, training and lore with terrible consequences in recent times. For decades, at least, the Tutsi were seen as intellectually and socially superior while the Hutu became the underclass, with all the political ramifications that status suggests, and these differences were legally emblazoned on identity cards issued by the Belgians in the middle ‘30s which labeled the bearer either Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. Trading or forging of cards in order to advance socially became a regular phenomenon and continued through recent times (though for different reasons).

After World War II the Tutsi-dominated nation began agitating for independence, with a forward-looking faction urging the elimination of the tribal designations, which they saw as “alien impositions.” But the ingrained belief in their differences, or resentment at years of having been relegated to an inferior status, resulted in rivalry between emerging groups of Hutu. While some saw the inherent logic in a more liberal and integrated society, others simply wanted to reverse the existing polarity.

The Belgians, seeing the writing on the wall, sided with the most powerful Hutu party in a 1959 uprising that resulted in the death of approximately 10,000 Tutsi, the expulsion of many more and the emergence of a Hutu-dominated governing structure that simply reversed the old discriminatory order.

The next three decades saw mounting tension between the groups and a solidifying of Hutu political thought in an increasingly more extreme posture. Tensions continued to ratchet upward as groups of Tutsi exiles formed guerrilla bands, pejoratively dubbed “Inyenzi” (cockroaches) by the Hutu, and mounted attacks from Zaire, Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania aimed at destabilizing the government and allowing a return, by force if necessary, of the exiles. Inside the country, the resultant violence against Tutsi who had chosen to remain was considerable. In 1963, Hutu gangs killed another estimated 10,000 Tutsi and forced the flight of thousands more. The same type of thing occurred again in ‘67 and ‘73, along with ever-increasing social pressures on those who chose to stay.

In 1973, a coup d’etat led by Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana brought about the establishment of what became a single-party (MRND) state under his leadership. Though there were no more pogroms against the Tutsi and Habyarimana made a show of trying to establish a more balanced society, what in fact developed during his tenure was a proto-fascist system in which not only Tutsi but Hutu from different regions and with different political views were reviled and made the objects of discrimination.

While Habyarimana secured his power domestically and hardened his position against the return of Tutsi who had fled earlier, the refugees themselves were organizing outside the country, with many of them joining a revolutionary army in Uganda to overthrow the unfriendly regime of Milton Obote in that country. The training many Tutsi received during that period was put to use as they joined the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) which, with Tutsi and some Hutu in its ranks, launched an attack on Rwanda in 1990.

Fierce fighting resulted, in which both sides suffered heavy losses. The Rwandan Army (FAR) had at its side French troops (President Mitterrand of France and President Habyarimana were said to be close personal friends whose children went to school together, and France was underwriter for a multi-million dollar purchase of arms for the government) who were able to contain the RPF advance. But the military conflict continued, with the RPF ultimately forcing the government into political compromise, some small steps toward opening up the system, and peace talks.

The Arusha Accords, named for the Tanzanian city where the talks were held, were a significant victory for the RPF and the opposition Hutu parties within Rwanda as well as a signal defeat for the extremist faction of Hutu around President Habyarimana. They provided for the creation of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), a UN peace-keeping force to oversee the implementation of the agreements, which themselves promised peace, democracy and reconciliation. But the requirements of the agreement, such as power-sharing, an end to privilege and a requirement of accountability for past crimes, were anathema to the extremists, who saw that they had everything to lose and nothing to gain.

President Haybarimana was killed on April 6, 1994, when his plane was shot down by rockets fired from, according to many first-hand reports, the grounds of or directly adjacent to Kanombe military base - the headquarters of his own forces - just outside of Kigali. It is the view of a great many that the still-unsolved murders of Habyarimana, the members of his staff, the newly elected President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, and the French crew, all of whom perished in the explosion and subsequent crash of the plane, were the result of a plot within the ranks of his own extremist supporters who felt that he was betraying them by compromising with the enemy.

Whatever the case, the president’s death was the trigger for the unleashing of an horrific tidal wave of violence that caused the deaths of 500,000 to 1,000,000 people within what was essentially a three-month period. This slaughter, which was directed at moderate Hutus as well as Tutsis, was conducted essentially by four groups; that portion of the military that was not involved in the war with the RPF (the truce fell apart immediately), the gendarmerie, or police force, the Presidential Guard and the Interahamwe, a youth group that had been trained as a militia and heavily propagandized by the extremists. Much of the killing was incited by radio broadcasts over Radio Rwanda and particularly over Radio Milles Collines (actually Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines), a source of such garbage as to be almost beyond belief.

During the months of bloodbath that followed the president’s death, the RPF prosecuted the war with a vengeance in order to vanquish the killers and save the lives of those they could. Despite the utter abdication of responsibility on the part of the international community, the withdrawal of the international peace-keeping force (UNAMIR) and the last-minute intervention by the French to create a “safe zone” for retreating Hutu, the RPF succeeded in driving the government and its forces from the country (or into the zone temporarily held by the French). As Rwanda’s (FAR) forces retreated, they continued to use the radio, this time to drive Hutu non-combatants out of the country with them by nurturing the seeds of fear and spreading panic about anticipated reprisal killings at the hands of the hated Tutsi.

The flood of refugees created by these events swarmed across Rwanda’s borders, especially those in the southeast, at Ngara, Tanzania; in the south, toward Burundi; and in the northwest, at Goma, Zaire. The sheer force of numbers nearly overwhelmed the international humanitarian community’s capacity to respond, and in Goma the combination of the unprecedented size of the refugee population, the inhospitable, lava-rock soil and the incapacity of the initially under-staffed and under-supplied responding organizations to fully respond led to the cholera epidemic, thousands of deaths and the chaotic conditions we all witnessed on the nightly news through the summer and into the early fall.

In the ensuing months, the situation in the camps has improved from a public health point of view, but the political fall-out is still smoldering. There has been much criticism based on the claim that the camps are essentially run by the former government and military who control the civilian (Hutu) population through terror, intimidation and propaganda while they live off the largesse of the international community at the same time as they are training and rebuilding to take Rwanda back.

Inside the country, the triumphant, largely Tutsi RPF, under the leadership of General Paul Kagame, has renamed itself the RPA (Rwandese Patriotic Army) and governs in tandem with an appointed civilian government which is of mixed tribal background but has a Hutu majority. They claim to want an open, inclusive society and are trying to rebuild a country left in tatters by the war and at the same time establish credibility (not to mention credit) with the international community. There are accusations of reprisal killings of Hutu civilians, but the claim is that these are isolated acts committed by ignorant, emotionally over-wrought and/or less-well-trained soldiers and are neither orchestrated nor condoned by the new government. In fact, it appears that some soldiers have been tried and punished for such actions.

So, that’s where we’re headed.


Sunday, January 22, 1995 -

I manage to fall asleep for a while and after a bit David Koepp comes back to say hello. He and Bobby, he says, are up front, so the four of us have gotten this far, at least.

The landing at Heathrow is one of those dreams. Such an incredibly soft touch-down that you’re not actually sure you’re on the ground until the engines reverse and the slowing begins. How these people can handle these huge machines with such finesse amazes me. Actually, considering their size, it still amazes me that they get off the ground at all.

A bit gritty-eyed but surprisingly alert, David, Bobby, Daryl and I gather outside and head for the connecting flight to Brussels. The sign directs us to Terminal 1 and we trudge down and around and finally out into a rainy evening with the rest of the transit passengers to a bus for that destination.

Reporting to the Sabena Airlines counter, we’re attended by an Irish colleen from Aer Lingus (evidently they cover for each other) who directs us to the floor below to await the designation of the gate, which will be in about an hour. A kind of Keystone Kops episode occurs as I lead us onto the wrong escalator. Discovering part way down that it’s going to pass the floor we want and seeing no way back once we’re at the bottom, we turn and head back up, laughing like fools as we struggle, complete with luggage, against the mechanical tide.

Once in place, the hour or so we have to wait gives some time for beginning to get to know each other and reflect a bit on what’s coming. A few jokes are shared about adventures at camping and outfitting stores and who brought what. Bobby is funny, saying he bought everything the salesman thought there was the most remote possibility he’d need. “Well, you know, you might want to...” “I’ll take it!” He’s embarrassed, he says, about the size of the duffel bag full of gear he ended up with, but in the end I don’t think it’s much more than anyone else brought.

After flying all night and sleeping only a little it’s weird that it’s evening here instead of morning, but after calculating the 8 hour difference it does add up, somehow. Noting the time in LA, Bobby figures he can call someone at home and David decides to try a friend who lives locally.

Our flight is called, finally, and we make our way to the Sabena gate where we find Caroline and, our troupe fully assembled, climb aboard for the next leg of the journey.

The one-hour flight to Brussels is truly lousy. The light rain over London becomes a storm over Belgium and the aircraft does some serious rocking and rolling on the way in. Turbulence is one thing, but this is no fun. I long for the pilot who brought us into London so smoothly, but I guess it’s not fair to blame this one for the weather. As we jerk and leap our way toward the strip I find myself waiting tensely for that moment of surcease that usually comes when you reach the calm pool of air just above the surface, just before touchdown. Not this time. This poor guy has to fight it all the way in and finally bang us down onto the ground. A hard but welcome landing and we are all very glad to get back onto terra firma - particularly Daryl, who has said he doesn’t much like flying anyway and is prone to motion sickness. He’s got plenty of company here.

Through passport check without too much hassle, then there’s a bit of a crimp as Caroline’s bag doesn’t show up. After some investigation it turns out that London tagged it right through to Kigali, so it’ll be held here for the flight tomorrow. Fortunately, she’s able to persuade a helpful guy to find it and he does, so after a bit of a wait (she’s embarrassed to cause the delay, but it’s not a problem - we’re not in a hurry - and everyone seems pretty easy about it) we head out into a hell of a blow. Caroline and David get our vouchers for the hotel at the Sabena desk and we stagger around in the cold wind trying to find the stop for the bus to the Sode Hotel. After finding it and waiting for a while - getting ever colder in the process - Caroline suggests that we grab a cab. She has some Belgian Francs and evidently David does, too, so, there being no objections, we gratefully pile into two cabs and head off.

The driver of our cab is, I think, related to the pilot who just brought us in. Undaunted by rain, wind or slick highways, he steers a terrifying course through the Belgian night as I try to remember how to say “whoa, boy” in French and hang on for dear life.

The Sode Hotel seems a particularly calm and peaceful oasis after the last hour and a half, and I’m even happy to see the narrow, cot-like bed that European tourist hotels seem to specialize in.

We meet downstairs after taking a minute to freshen up and have a quick dinner together. Caroline and I try to find something that passes for vegetarian (remembering Richard’s admonition we’ll get it while we can) and the talk turns to the point of the trip. The four are still unclear what’s expected of this adventure, having made their respective ways in a business that goes out of its way to prove the old maxim that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I assure them that my experience from the Somalia/Bosnia trip of ‘92 indicates that it is what it’s advertised to be. The UNHCR wants to expose people, in this case people who have access to many others through their writing, to the reality of the refugee situation in the world and the work that is being done in response to it. If they’re moved to write something for publication after this trip, great. If this experience prompts an idea for a project that will in some way sensitize people to these realities, wonderful. If they’re inclined to do something to support the work of the UNHCR and/or other humanitarian NGOs in some way, so much the better. But, at least in my experience, there’s no hidden agenda here. If their reaction at the end of all of this is to want to go home and stick their heads under the covers and not come out again, that’s OK too.

And so, a quick call to Shelley to let her know I’m OK thus far, and off to my cot.

Monday, January 23, 1995 -

We assemble for a bite of breakfast before the bus ride to the airport. Everyone seems OK so far. It’s still blowing a bit outside, but not as bad as last night. Daryl is sweet, openly enjoying checking everything out. He’s not been in Europe before and, rather than putting on a show of sophisticated disinterest, is absorbing everything. A nice man, he seems to be utterly lacking the slick veneer one runs into all too often in this business; that which mistakes innocence or naiveté for weakness.

Once in the terminal our check-in area is, of course, the farthest one from where we’re dropped, so we schlep everything over and get in line. (Sabena, in case you haven’t guessed, is a Belgian airline [perhaps the Belgian airline] and is the only international airline, as I understand it, flying in and out of Kigali on a regular basis. The fact that Belgium was the colonial power in the country for so many years and has/had ties to the government that was just defeated in a war provides an interesting backdrop for what proves to be an interesting trip. Lots of loaded, slightly sticky connections all over the place, I would think.) Most of the people queuing up for this flight seem to be (surprise, surprise) Africans, with a smattering of Europeans. One wonders what opportunities become available in a country that is having to rebuild everything from the ground up and what kinds of people leap into the opening to take advantage - or, to be fair, meet a need.

The two men in line ahead of me seem to be having some trouble. One of them is a tall, beefy, rather imposing, kind of important-looking man. The other is much smaller, slight, thin and, to judge from his manner, subordinate. It seems he was assisting the bigger man in getting his ticket processed and then taking responsibility for getting both of their bags on the conveyor belt when one of the bags came open. Whatever the case, there is either something complicated about the way in which one closes that particular bag or this man is so nervous about his responsibilities that he’s all thumbs. He can’t get it done. It’s like a trick suitcase. Every time he closes one catch, another pops open. He opens it again, adjusts something inside and pushes on it, but it won’t close. Then, when he finally gets it to close - flop! - out comes the tail of a garment or a piece of material or something. When he addresses that, the other catch pops open. It’s awful. It’s like he’s doing a number, but he’s sweating so profusely and looking so miserable that it’s clearly not an act. I expect him to start jumping up and down on it in a minute. The other man is alternately watching him and looking around at some others with whom they’re traveling. He doesn’t seem to be upset. I don’t know. Maybe he’s making nice. Maybe he’s doing business. Maybe he’s trying to find out why this guy, of all people, was assigned to him. I find myself wanting to help the poor guy, but I’m afraid it will only succeed in making him feel that much more an incompetent. Finally, finally, he gets it together and they move on. Poor fellow. I was beginning to think heart attack.

It’s another long sit ahead of us. Ten hours, or something like that, to Kigali. We go through a little shop and pick up a couple of newspapers. It’s distressing to see O.J. Simpson’s face in the papers over here, too. Then it’s down the way and through passport check and on to security, where they stop me and want to go through my bag. With a kind of “Ah ha!” look on his face, the security officer pulls out my flashlight and studies it for a while. (Having a flashlight came in very handy on the Somalia/Bosnia trip) Finally, I offer, “It’s a flashlight. Is there a problem with that?” He looks at me, hefting it, and says, “With this one, yes.” (It’s a magnum-light, I think they call it, like the police carry. It’s solid, fairly heavy, and you could give someone a hell of a whack with it, if you chose.) He takes it, and me, to a stand where two women in uniforms are looking at something another man was trying to bring through. My compatriots are all standing off to the side, trying not to be too smug as I’m put through this and they’re not. As one woman takes the batteries out of my flashlight and examines it I glance down at the item in the hands of the other woman and see that it’s a clip full of bullets for an automatic pistol. Uh huh. Now that, I think, ought to be a source of concern for someone interested in airplane security. As the woman explains to me that they’d like this put in the bag I have checked, and I explain to her that I have checked the bag I have checked, thus making it impossible to put something in it at this point as best I can determine, the other woman is giving the man next to me back his clip of bullets! Sooo... As I’m taking in the breath necessary to tell this fine woman that the worst I can do to the pilot with this flashlight at ten paces is dilate his pupils, while the fellow they seem to be now letting go on his merry way toward the plane could... she hands it back to me and says, “Okay,” and waves me along. -- Now, I guess what I’m to learn from this experience is either that she read my mind and was so impressed by the logic of my argument that she chose to avoid hearing it aloud and being forced to acquiesce publicly, or that all you have to do in order to take a dangerous weapon aboard a Sabena flight to Kigali is to let them play with it for a minute. In the meantime, I’m about to get on a plane with a guy who’s packing a gun. Or at least some bullets in a clip. What fun.

Pleasant surprise once on board. The seats we’ve been assigned are in the first-class section. Maybe there is no club class on this flight. Maybe if they know a flight is going to be hijacked ahead of time they’re less picky about where you sit. Maybe... Oh, well. No argument here. My seat is in the center section of the nose portion of what appears to be a 747. It’s one of those wide seats in a two-across row that leans back and has a foot-rest and teases you mercilessly with the idea that if it would only lean just a liiittle bit farther back you could actually be almost comfortable.

As we’re getting situated I recognize some of the people who were in line with us, though not the poor man I thought would have a stroke. Nor the gunman. Many suits and ties, a sense of import about. A man drops some of his stuff in the seat beside me and goes to say hello to some of the other passengers. In his 50s, possibly early 60s, with a pleasant face and a kind of Eastern seaboard manner, he’s dressed nicely and at the same time comfortably. Gives me the feeling he could be a college professor. As he comes back he says hello and offers his hand, saying, “David Rawson” and then something that sounds like “with the U.S. Embassy,” but I’m not sure. I introduce myself and say I hadn’t heard him clearly, so he says it again and gives me a card. Sure enough, he’s the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda. Well, how’s that for access?

Ambassador Rawson (“David, please.”) seems a nice man. Most of the people in this section of the airplane with us, he says, make up the new government of Rwanda (which, interestingly, he pronounces ‘Randa,’ with the ‘w’ so barely passed over that it’s almost inaudible). Of the twenty members of the new civilian government, fourteen are Hutu, which is an indication of the seriousness of the RPF’s stated intention to have an all-inclusive, non-discriminatory society. They are all, including Rawson, just returning from a UNDP (United Nations Development Program) “pledging conference” in Geneva where the international community has finally shown some support for the new government. The hundreds of millions of dollars in pledges and loan guarantees should go a long way toward helping the society function properly once again.

Ambassador Rawson, who, I’m told, was born in the region (Burundi, I believe) to missionary parents, seems to have a real regard for the people and the area. He talks a bit about the history of the peoples in the region, noting the tensions between Hutu and Tutsi, and observes that the tension within the country prior to the war was regional, between the north and the south, as much as it was ethnic. He talks a bit about the violence of 1959, 1963, 1972, etc., and about the hopeful nature of things as a result of the Arusha Accords of August, 1993.

I ask him to respond to four areas of concern regarding the U.S. response to the tragedy. First, as I understand it, the U.S. opposed the sending in of peace-keepers, who I believe might well have saved lives. Ambassador Rawson says that’s not the case, but that the U.S. wanted the duties of such a force to be clearly laid out and understood before a commitment of troops was made. (This, I think, a result of what might be identified as ‘The Somalia Syndrome’) The arguments/discussions pertinent to these concerns, however, did have the net effect of delaying the troop disposition, it is agreed.

Second, the U.S. military is said to have dragged its feet in making available military equipment to the peace-keepers once they were agreed upon. The ambassador says it is his view that the U.S. Government was very generous in its response, but that the military was very reluctant to get involved. As to a story I had heard about a Pentagon official bragging at having dragged on negotiations over prices to be paid for the rental or leasing of armored vehicles, he says he doesn’t know of that particular event, but did express some dismay at the lack of organization and coordination of the over-all effort. Vehicles were to be made available in Entebbe, Uganda, I think he said, and then had to be transported to Rwanda, which caused a delay. The reason, as I understand it, is that the officer in charge of a contingent of Peace-Keepers (Ghanaians, I believe) demanded that the armored vehicles be “tracked,” rather than wheeled vehicles (they should have tank-like tracks instead of wheels). The reason for this request, per Rawson, is that the tracked vehicles make more noise and are thus thought to be more impressive to the observer. The problem here is that tracks are not necessary, given the relatively good roads in Rwanda, and that the wheeled vehicles could have been driven down themselves, while the tracked ones had to be transported. All of these negotiations caused unnecessary delay.

(Without attempting to put words in his mouth, I got the impression that the ambassador was saying that while the State Department and the Administration were generally more inclined to get involved, the Pentagon was a continuing drag on such efforts. That is not, however, the view of Holly Burkhalter from Human Rights Watch, who had the sense after talking to some Pentagon types that they were ready to go and stalled by Administration delays. [??])

“What about the delay in calling it genocide?” I had read a New York Times report claiming that the Administration had asked its people not to use the word genocide with regard to the slaughter in Rwanda because they were afraid the American people would become caught up emotionally and insist upon our involvement. Rawson, it turns out, was interviewed for that article or a related one, and says he was mis-quoted - or, as he re-states it, “selectively quoted.” The point he says he was making to the reporter was that the official declaration of genocide by a government carries with it certain automatic legal requirements, or steps that must be taken, and that it is therefore the job of a specific investigative body or organization to look at the evidence and make a factual, legal determination of genocide which then binds the government or body in question to these follow-up acts. He says it was clear to him that a genocidal campaign was being waged by the Hutu government, but that it was not his place to make that legal determination. He then offered that perhaps, in hindsight, he might have been less circumspect in the hopes that more would have been done.

He says what was happening was clearly visible to anyone who was there - and he was there - at least for a while. He talked of the courage of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) who stayed through the worst of it. He said it was chaotic and very frightening in the days following Habyarimana’s killing and that he and his staff hung in as long and they could and finally got out of there - and he’s glad they did.

Finally, I ask him one last thing. In view of the fact that much of the hysteria was promoted, much of the killing was encouraged and in fact generated through the use of radio broadcasts, why didn’t we jam the radio waves? We certainly have the technology and the capacity to do so with planes flying over with jammers, and if we had, lives could have been saved, would they not? Here, he says with a bit of a grimace, I think you’re right. We could have done so. He goes on to say that it is, of course, not a simple thing from a legal point of view. There are those who would argue that it is an unacceptable breach of sovereignty to go into someone’s airspace and do such a thing, but, yes, it would have saved lives and “we blew it.” We should have done it.

Later, he tells me a story of the difficulties people face in getting to the facts of some of the situations that arise. A group of RPF soldiers had been at a refugee or displaced person’s camp on or near the border with Burundi. (Technically, one who has left home because of some force beyond his/her power to control it, and is maintained in a camp but is still within his/her country’s borders, is a “displaced person”. If the same person steps across a national boundary and into another country, he/she is a “refugee.”) Through circumstances that are unclear, either because of provocation or simply in reprisal for the massacres, they killed 14 Hutu an altercation. UN Peace-Keepers, who were nearby, came to the scene immediately, disarmed the soldiers and turned them over to government authorities by whom they were jailed, tried and punished. Very shortly after this happened, Rawson was in the area and met his counterpart, the American Ambassador to Burundi, who told him about the incident, saying that 1,000 people had been killed over a number of days, their bodies stuffed in latrines, that the UN Peace-Keepers stood by and let it happen and that the RPF had gotten away with it. Rawson discovered that the man had been told all this by people who claimed to have been on the scene. He explained the truth of the situation to his colleague, but says it is an example of the hyperbole with which the people in this region often tell their stories. He says exaggeration of numbers and stretching of time-frames are used to convey the drastic nature of the experience they had and their feelings about it, but they are not necessarily factual by our standards. It’s an example, he says, of how important it is to get independent corroboration of “facts” as related here before you repeat them.

Between the long conversations and some sleep the flight goes fairly quickly and before I know it we’re losing altitude, beginning our descent into Kigali. The land is green and mountainous in the twilight below. Rwanda.

After a smooth landing we taxi to the side of the strip and file out and down a gangway. At the bottom are all kinds of reporters and official cars, there to meet the returning government officials. Ambassador Rawson seeks us out on the way to passport control and introduces his wife, Sandra, who has come to meet him. Then he points the way for us to go, saying he hopes we get a chance to talk after we’ve had a chance to look around a bit. Nice fellow.

Passport control is a disaster. Two booths, with lines forming in front of each, present themselves. I make a choice and it turns out to be the wrong one. But by the time that becomes clear, with everybody who has pull or special credentials or whatever else they can show to jump the line coming to the booth on our side, the other one is too long to consider switching. What a drag! Stand and wait. Maybe move an inch, then somebody’s relative or some official type or, I begin to think, people who have been rousted out of bed and brought in just to make our wait longer show up and have be attended to. And it usually seems to involve a certain amount of laughing and scratching and general jollying with the men in the booth. During this interminable wait I look over at a glass door on my left and see a woman looking at me. As she waves, I realize it’s Cathy O’Neill, who told me she was going to be here the week before I was, traveling with, I believe, the International Refugee Committee. She, it appears, is in the transit lounge waiting to leave - probably on the plane that brought us. Talk about your small worlds.

Finally, after an unbelievable wait, I get to the counter, with the other four right behind me. At one or another of these borders we’ve been told there could be problems with medical certificates (our immunization records). Most countries in this region have the same requirements, but one or two of them officially require a cholera immunization, while others only suggest it. U.S. doctors don’t recommend getting the cholera shot because it is at best 50% effective, so I didn’t. At the clinic to which I went for my immunizations, the doctor said he’d stamp the cholera vaccine as if I’d gotten it, in order to eliminate the possibility we’d been warned about wherein a border guard would check for the stamp, not find it and force one to go to a local clinic and get a shot. Given the conditions in some of the local clinics I’ve seen on these trips, that’s an eventuality I’d just as soon avoid.

Anyway, the smiling fellow inside the booth takes my entry card and passport and shot record and immediately becomes the very officious and patronizing bureaucrat. Do I speak French? No, I don’t. Why not? Well, I actually speak a little French, a very little, but it would be presumptuous to say I “speak it,” so I don’t. Why not? Sorry, I just don’t. Well, then, after a nasty little shake of the head, I hadn’t properly filled out the landing card, he says, because I hadn’t explained my business in Kigali. Sorry, I offer, but I don’t exactly know my business in Kigali, since we’re here with the UNHCR, and that’s being determined by them. Well, then, I should have put that down. Sorry, I offer again, where would you like me to put it? Never mind, he clucks, as he notes something on a sheet, shaking his head. It’s one of those times when you want to reach through the window and grab somebody, you know? Shake him a bit and say, Look, it’s been a long flight and it’s been almost as long standing here in this damned line while you gleefully served a lot of people who didn’t even have the courtesy to do that. So give me a break, will you, and stamp the bloody passport? But, of course, I didn’t. And after a little more clucking and a bit more shaking of the head he stamped the bloody passport and waved me on.

Barbara Francis, who I had half expected to see miraculously appear and whisk us through the stupid line, evidently had to wait downstairs outside the baggage selection area, so I hang around and continue to act the role of shepherd she had asked me to assume in her absence. Daryl, David, Bobby and Caroline come through without much apparent hassle and downstairs we go to collect our bags, which by this time I expected to find covered with mold. Once we find our bags we have to get into yet another line, this time to have them searched for any contraband we might be trying to bring into the country. I again manage to get into the wrong line and end up being the last one out.

Through the door and into a large crowd of folks welcoming friends and family members, I find Barbara and Chris Bowers, her UNHCR counterpart in Kigali, waiting patiently. They have already gotten the others and their bags out and into one or another of the two vehicles that are waiting outside, so out we go into night. Barbara, still the gamine, with short reddish brown hair and a ready and up-beat air about her, welcomes me back to Africa. Chris, a bright, good looking, bespectacled young Englishman with curly brown hair, is driving the wagon I pile into and we’re soon racing down the dark roadway into the city. Off to the left Chris points out the lights on a hillside directly across what looks to be a dark valley and announces, “downtown Kigali.”

He drives a bit like the Belgian cabby, it seems to me, but safely takes us through the dark streets and up, down and around the winding roads until we pull into the driveway of the Hotel des Milles Collines (The Hotel of the Thousand Mountains), where we’re to stay.

This hotel was the site of a number of dramatic events during the killing. UNAMIR Peace-Keepers are said to have been quite heroic in standing off Interahamwe mobs who wanted to get their hands on some of those who had taken refuge here. Chris, who was a journalist before coming to the UNHCR, tells us that the manager of the hotel also saved the lives of great numbers of people by refusing entry to the same mobs at great personal risk. I believe it is this island of relative safety that Monique Mujawamariya (the Human Rights Watch honoree who barely escaped Kigali with her life) finally reached after hiding first in the bush, then for a week in the rafters of her home after a killing squad came for her during the first days of the slaughter. As we dismount and check in, Chris gives us photocopies of some pages of a report by African Rights, a human rights organization run by Rakiya Omaar, formerly head of Human Rights Watch/Africa.

After checking in and finding my way to the room, which is simple, neat and apparently clean, with two narrow beds, a phone and the usual amenities, I look over the pages. What Chris has given us are a few pages selected out of an exhaustive report that is itself over 700 pages long. Selected because they refer to massacres in an area we’ll be visiting tomorrow, these include harrowing transcripts of testimony by survivors which give a first-person sense of immediacy to all the horror stories I’ve heard thus far.


Aside from the almost unbelievably brutal behavior described, one of the testimonies, that of an 18 year old shepherd from the town of Kanzenze in the Parish of Nyamata, stirs something deeply personal within me. On pages 217, 218 and 219 of the report, it is his relating of his observations and his personal experience. Having heard tales of horror from people in prisons and other meeting places in Latin America, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia and having been struck by the flat, almost impersonal way in which people sometimes distance themselves from their own recitation of the incredible indignities that have been heaped upon them, I read that tone into this testimony. This young man relates that “on Thursday, the radio said the president had died and we should stay at home. So that’s what we did.” He then says that local officials urged the Interahamwe to act, “asked the Interahamwe what they were waiting for,” and the killing began. He tells of days of killings and terror, detailing some event or events that occurred on each day, during some of which the group he was with were able to repulse the attacks of the killers and band together for safety. Then, he says, the soldiers came and shot people because the Interahamwe weren’t having enough success with their machetes (known here as ‘pangas’), and at that point “the rest of us rushed to the church in Nyamata in the belief that they would not touch us in a church, especially in the presence of a white priest.”

So many people crammed into the church “that you could not find anywhere to put your feet.” On the next day, he says, “there was of course no food” and tells how they organized to survive. He talks of the rumors that the priest was going to help them, but nothing coming of it. Then “On our fourth day in the church... the white priest came in and apologized for the fact that he did not have much to give us, saying, ‘But I want to share what I have.’ He then added: ‘You will be killed anyway.’...” On the next day, as he tells it, some refugees brought some food and soldiers came and killed more people. “On the sixth day, the Interahamwe and soldiers came” and killed more people. “On the seventh day, the white priest drove away in broad daylight.” “Then disaster came on the eighth day” as most of the people in the church were slaughtered.

I’m not sure what it is, but I think the combination of the Biblical turn of phrase, “on the seventh day” and the idea of this white priest, whoever he is, leaving them to die, forges an image in my brain that I can’t shake loose. This is not to say I think he should have stayed and died, necessarily, if that was the choice he was facing. I don’t know that and can’t say what I would have done under the circumstances. Perhaps he took children away with him in the trunk of his car. Perhaps his leaving was a signal for the killing to begin. Perhaps he went to find someone with the power to stop the slaughter he saw coming. I, of course, have no way to know, but find myself wanting to know who he is and whether or not anyone has talked to him and asked him what happened. His perspective, at the very least, could be an invaluable one for anyone wanting to understand what happened here, it seems to me.

As it is, the young shepherd was left for dead after being hacked with a machete and is now recovering. He lost his entire family except for a younger sister.


Putting aside the pages after a while, I leave my stuff in the room and head to the hotel restaurant to meet the group for dinner. A lizard makes its way up the wall as I walk by. When I mention it to Daryl a bit later he thinks I’m joking, but I tell him to get used to it. And to be grateful for them - they eat the mosquitoes.

Barbara has been here for a few days and is getting the lay of the land. At dinner, she and Chris tell us a few stories about what is going on - as well as what has gone on.

The political situation here is still unstable, it is felt, to the point that the High Commissioner, Mrs. Ogata, is not yet willing to have the UNHCR on record as openly encouraging repatriation of the refugees. She is fearful that the stories of reprisal killings represent more than spontaneous acts by outraged individuals and may reflect either official policy or at least a willingness to look the other way. Though that view doesn’t square with what Ambassador Rawson told me on the plane, it’s clear that Mrs. Ogata remains unconvinced and feels their responsibility for the safety of the refugees supersedes the need for repatriation. Some of the non-governmental organizations working here are not in agreement with this position, believing that the government is doing its best, has been judicious about punishing transgressors among its own troops, and assert that the return of the refugees is necessary to re-establish the proper functioning of the society.

After a surprisingly good dinner of vegetables and rice, we head for the pad. The screens in the room seem to be in order and I don’t see any mosquitoes, so I hit the sack.

Tuesday, January 24, 1995 -

Not much in the way of sleep. Up at about 3AM making notes. The birds outside certainly make it sound like the jungle. Soon, the pre-dawn light exposes a cloud of mist through which the tall trees peek. Very exotic. At some point it sounds like a walrus leaps into the pool below my window, so I assume I’m not the only one awake.

Finally I head downstairs and find the outdoor cafe for breakfast where Caroline and David are already eating. Continental breakfast is available. Eggs are possible, so I get some.

A UNHCR car shows up at the appointed time, but no Chris or Barbara and the driver doesn’t say anything, so we stand around for a while. After a bit Barbara comes up in another car, apologizing. Some snafu, but not a big problem. We pile in and head for the UNHCR compound.

Through the dusty, tree-lined streets, one has the sense of being on the outskirts of a major city rather than in the center of it. With a population of about 300,000 before the war, Kigali has grown back to near that number, we’re told, but it sprawls up a hillside and off in a number of directions to the point that it’s difficult to get a sense of city. Most of the buildings are one or two-story, traditional square wood and plaster construction. A lot of cement-block construction is also visible. The streets are full of bicycles and pedestrians, with a fair number of cars and trucks, but most of them appear to be the Toyota Jeep-type or Land Rover-type, such as the one we’re in, and most of those are likely owned by international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

At the UNHCR residence, a house used as a dormitory for staff and those passing through, we see a few people who are apparently going to or from an assignment. Across the way we go through security and into an office building where we’re given ID cards and sit down in the office of the head UNHCR Representative for Rwanda, whose name is Urasa. He is away today, but we’re to meet with his deputy, Sten Bronee, at 9AM.

A good looking Dane in his forties, Sten has wavy brown hair and great features (could be a model - amazing how many of the people associated with the UNHCR are great looking - maybe their personnel chief was once a casting director), he chats with us a bit about the flights, accommodations, etc., and has a warning about the malaria medication we’re taking; says some of it can make you weird. Side effects can be paranoia-like symptoms. You mean they aren’t really out to get me?

Bronee says the “safe zone” in the southwest set up by the French had as many as 1,000,000 displaced people at one point. Now its camps are home for about 200,000. While UNHCR doesn’t traditionally deal with DPs, in this case it has had to, with much of its focus being on getting these people resettled back into their home areas. Their traditional work, dealing with refugees in their camps, still gets most of the focus.

An additional consideration here is an understanding of the differences between the two types of refugees from Rwanda. The “old caseload” is made up of those who fled in 1959, 1963, etc. These long-term refugees are primarily Tutsi and now feel comfortable in coming back to the country, but create a problem because they have been resettling in some of the areas they left years ago and still feel entitled to.

The Arusha Accords speak to that, saying that those who left prior to 1983 would not have the right to occupy old land. Because, he says, Arusha was negotiated with and agreed to by the old government, one might expect the new government to refuse to honor it. But in fact, the new government, in its capacity as an opposition party under the old regime, is a signatory to the Accords and is therefore obligated by them as well. Complicated.

In the camps of recent refugees (primarily Hutu) the representatives of the old government and the military are still pressing people to stay put in camp rather than return. There has been a good deal of this pressure, he says, including some killings and much intimidation.

Lately, however, more are returning voluntarily.

There is, Bronee says, military activity in the camps outside Rwanda’s borders. At some of the camps the old military people are training infiltrators. At Cyangugu, for example, on the southern tip of Lake Kivu (on the western, or Zairean, border), there is much military activity. “Anyone on the lake at night is shot at,” he says. The locals in that area won’t eat the fish from the lake because of the sense that they have been “nourished” by eating the bodies of the dead.

So, Bronee goes on, resettlement - dealing with the problems presented by the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ refugees, is a major problem.

A second problem is presented by the lack of a judicial system in the country. Rwanda now has a prison population of 14 to 16,000 people in prisons which have a capacity of only 6,000. Lack of a system means people continue to be fed in, but there is no capacity to determine guilt or innocence and therefore no one comes out.

Control of the army is another issue. The expansion of the military from 15,000 to 45,000, as has been necessitated by winning the war and having to run the country, exacerbates the inherent difficulties. The relatively small number of acts of retribution on the part of RPA soldiers demonstrates an admirable degree of control within the organization. The killing of 18 people south of Butare (the incident Ambassador Rawson told me about, though I’m pretty sure he said 14 people) is one example. The RPA said they were ambushed. Bronee doubts that. But the important part is that the incident resulted in the conviction and dismissal of a number of the officers deemed responsible.


Running late, we quickly say our thanks and head out of the office and down the street for a 10AM meeting with the Prefet (mayor) of Kigali, Major Rose Kibuye.

The mayor-major’s office is at the back of a dilapidated block building only a little way down from the UNHCR HQ. Despite its grungy appearance, this is evidently the main street in the city. We pass unmolested by the uniformed military at the front entrance and into a courtyard, through that into a building on the right side and through that to the back. After a brief wait in a small room with brightly colored animal murals on the wall, we’re shown past a machine-gun toting ten year old (or so he looks) and into her office.

Mayor Kibuye, a former freedom fighter, is in uniform. Tall, thin, regal, poised, one can see in her what the classic Tutsi is said to look like. Soft spoken, with a sweet smile, she tells us, in answer to our questions, that she was born in 1961 as her parents were making their way to Uganda. Raised there, she became a soldier in Uganda in 1979 and later joined the RPF. In 1990 she came to Rwanda with the RPF and fought here until 1993. Asked about the Arusha Agreement, she says “it didn’t work.”

Q. - Were there many women with the RPF? A. - About 200.

Q. - Weren’t you tempted to stay in Uganda? A. - When I was young I had no thought of Rwanda. But when we began to think of Rwanda I could think of nothing else.

Q. - How do you deal with the problems in the city? A. - The city is in chaos. We are attempting to arrange a social structure on a cell basis. One person is responsible for 10 houses (responsible for reporting on and seeing to it that needs are met for the people in them). We are set to repair the water and electrical systems. America is helping with that. NGOs help with food. The population is now over 300,000.

Q. - So it’s back to what it was? A. - More. Schools are a big problem. Many were destroyed, few are left. Another problem is that people came back in from Burundi and settled where they chose. We have a policy - if you had a house you can come back to it. We give a letter (authorizing ownership) and if you go back to your house and someone is in it, they have to be evicted.

“Tell America we need big, big assistance in housing.”

Regarding the lack of clean water and electricity, “people are used to that kind of hardship.”

Trash collection and disposal is a problem. AfriCares is helping with that.

Problems with prisons. She mentions Kigali Central Prison and we ask if we can see it. Yes, she says, but we must talk to the Minister of Justice. She speaks of complications there (in the prison). Many people there are accused of complicity in the genocide, but the law requires that five people accuse one person before he or she can be imprisoned. That is, she points out, not possible if there is only one person left as a result of a massacre.

Q. - What are your three biggest problems? A. - Housing, schools and sanitation.

Q. - How do you intend to deal with the psychological trauma associated with the killings?

A. - For that we have to rely on the NGOs.

Q. - What about the problem of reprisals? A. - “Our main task here in Rwanda is to bring about a sense of unity.”

Q. - How do you establish a justice system? A. - The Minister of Justice is conducting seminars, teaching lawyers to take over and run the justice system.

Another problem is that of orphaned children. Many are simply taken in by families, some of them very poor. (She has taken in some of these children herself.) The problem needs to be addressed by a Save The Children-type effort.

She is coming to the U.S., to Salt Lake City for a UN sponsored mayor’s conference. Says, “I hope you will talk to America so when I come I won’t have to tell them all over again.”

She’s got other things to do, so we thank her and take our leave. An impressive woman.


Into the car and back to the HQ. Our driver, Khassin (I think), will be with us through our stay, Barbara informs us. He’s a Tutsi, short and thin with a pointed face and a ready smile. Though it’s a bit hard to call, I’d say he’s in his 30’s. He came here from Burundi after the war so I’ll assume, if I’m right about the age, he’s the child of some of the “old caseload” refugees.

Once back at the staff house, Chris introduces two reporters. Chris Jennings is a Brit, a stringer for two British papers and a magazine. The other, Tom something (I never could hang onto his last name) doubles as a reporter for the London Times and is connected in some way with MSF (Medecin Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders), the French group that does so much heroic work around the world).

David, Caroline, Daryl and Bobby are understandably uncomfortable with some of the questions, not wanting to pretend to an expertise they don’t have and uneasy about the possibility of being made to look either foolish or trivial - or both. The first thing we have to deal with is putting to rest the notion (probably a logical surmise, given the fact that they are screenwriters) that we’re here doing research for a film, or are “interested in putting together a film project” on Rwanda. Just as it was hard for the four of them to get, at first, it’s hard to explain to reporters (who tend to be a cynical lot and are always looking for a good, juicy hook for a story) that they are simply concerned people who happen to be screenwriters and that there’s no quid pro quo involved in their being here. As to why they were invited - ask the UNHCR.

We then have a bite of lunch, nicely prepared by Ben, the UNHCR’s dorm supervisor, chief cook and bottle washer. Ben and I met two years ago in Mandera Camp, a refuge for Somalis in the northeast corner of Kenya. He seems to specialize in scrounging, finding and preparing decent food and living conditions for UNHCR staffers who badly need both, and takes a quiet pride in the work they do with his support. A soft-spoken man, he’s one of those procurement geniuses - sort of a Sergeant Bilko without the bluster. His food is good and it’s clean, all prepared with boiled water so there isn’t any concern about contracting some awful bug, which makes being able to stop at one of his places a double pleasure.

Having been told that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has staff here, I ask Chris and Barbara to see if it’s possible to get a meeting with someone there. Chris agrees to try to set that up - as well as to try to see if the Minister of Justice will let us visit the Kigali Prison - while we’re gone to the massacre site this afternoon

After lunch we head south out of Kigali, with Khassin at the wheel. He seems to have a cold, as he’s sneezing periodically. We’re headed for the church at Nyamata, which is the site of the massacre to which the shepherd boy’s testimony referred. Indications are that one can still see the scars from the battle that took place there - possibly even blood on the walls. (Barbara had asked me if I thought it would be too much for the others. I said I didn’t think so, but they were certainly adults who could say so if they didn’t want to see a particular sight. The important thing is to let them know what’s coming and that they have a choice in the matter. She agreed, saying that with all her misgivings she’d finally included it in the schedule because it was, in a way, what the trip was all about.)

Again, driving through Kigali feels as though we’re either coming into or leaving a real city. It’s as though we never come to a “city center,” as it were. Many bicycles. We’ve been told that the highways in the country are good, but heading south on the road to Nyamata doesn’t prove it. When the city stops, the pavement stops. Red dirt road is all we see for miles. Not in bad shape, but not the well-paved highways we’ve heard about.

We bounce along through beautiful countryside covered with lush green growth, most of it cultivated. Bananas, coffee abound. Mountains, though not extremely high ones, surround us. And the roads are lined with people dressed in bright colors, striding purposefully along. Many of them with baskets, jugs, firewood, barrels, almost anything you can imagine balanced on their heads.

The wagon we’re in is the one Chris drove in from the airport and seems to have been designated as ours for the duration. It has seats for the driver and a passenger in front and two benches in the back running lengthwise, one on each side, so that those in back sit facing out one side or another and the taller ones have to make room for knees and bags and things. It’s a bit cramped, but not too bad. Daryl, who tends to suffer from motion sickness, and Barbara, who has a bit of the same tendency, trade off in front. David and Caroline have staked out the forward end of the benches, David behind the driver and Caroline on the other side, and Bobby and I are in the back.

Every once in a while we slow down and periodically have to stop to be looked over by very youthful soldiers at RPA checkpoints. It seems a formality, with rarely more than a cursory glance cast our way, but the guns are real enough to get your attention. I’m sure the UNHCR designation on the side of the car helps with our ease of passage.

I find myself wondering, rolling down a back road in a small, out-of-the-way country, about the lives of the people we’re passing. All sorts of shapes and sizes and ages, large numbers of children - many of them running, rolling sticks with hoops - what are their lives like? What’s in their future? Then, as I think about what happened here, how do they transcend their past?

After a long ride, we pull up in front of an official-looking bungalow and get out for a much-appreciated stretch. No one seems to be about as Barbara and Khassin go looking for some help.

(Rwanda is a Francophone [French-speaking] country, by the way. The primary languages here are French and Kinyarwanda. Much of Central and West Africa speak French along with their local languages, reflecting the influence of that part of Europe in this region’s history. Tanzania, Kenya and others to the east are Anglophone [English-speaking] countries. So our driver, Khassin, speaks French, and Barbara, who has been brushing up on hers to considerable success, and Caroline, who says she hasn’t spoken it since school, are our channels of communication with him.)

Back in the wagon we head to another part of town. Seems this was the wrong place. Soon we find what is apparently the right place and stand around and wait while the local honcho (a woman - does that make it honcha?) takes care of some business. Then our papers are requested and we wait some more. This building is particularly dilapidated, with plaster off in great gobs and doors that hang by a hinge. One door looks very much like it was kicked or bashed in. Like much of the country we’ve been passing through, evidence of the recent war is everywhere, with bullet holes, ruined buildings, shredded walls and roofless structures a regular occurrence. Wasps making an interesting nest in a corner of the ceiling provide a bit of a diversion as we wait in the heat. (This comment about the heat is not a complaint, mind you. Though it is hot and the ride has been dusty and more than a bit uncomfortable, it’s not awful and reminders are everywhere one looks that things could be a hell of a lot worse.)

Finally we mount up again. We have gotten the necessary permissions and some interesting information. The church at Nyamata has been cleaned up and is in use, to some degree, but there is another church not far away, at Ntarama, that we can look at. OK? Sure, why not? And off we go, back the way we came, but this time with a guide from the local prefet’s office riding up front between Khassin and Daryl to show us the way.

Not too far up the road we come back to the small town of Kanzenze and take a left off the main road onto a dirt track. Still the same red dirt, but this one is a truly lousy road that defies any attempt to go over fifteen miles per hour or so, though Khassin gives it the old college try. The bush is closing in pretty well out here, and one is moved to think that anyone who came all the way out here to kill someone had to really want to do it.


Finally, after a long bout of jouncing and bumping in the back of the dusty wagon, we slow at a wooden barrier. A man raises it for us and we roll into a tree-shaded area with a building, possibly a school, off to the left and three or four others up a track to the right. Our guide pointing up to the right, we pull thirty yards closer to three deserted buildings huddled together and come to a stop.

It is very quiet as we climb down. We’re in the courtyard of what is or was the church at Ntarama. After the quiet, one notices the smell - a faint, thick, sweet smell that gets stronger as you approach the shattered building. The yard before the church is overgrown and littered with rags. Then you see that they aren’t rags, exactly, but piles of clothing, some still wrapped around what’s left of the body that bore them. This entire yard, it suddenly becomes clear, is littered with the remains of human beings.

A pile of skulls, perhaps fifty, perhaps more, have been gathered for some reason in the middle of the yard. It is too much to take in at once. The senses rebel. This can’t be real. These can’t be human remains. We’ve all seen too many movie sets to be able to comprehend this as what it is.

The skulls, as I look again, appear to be small. Is it that they were all children? Is that why someone has gathered them together in a pile here amidst so much human wreckage; so that they will be noticed, have attention paid, and not be lost in the overwhelming sense of revulsion that sweeps through one casually deposited here?

Not only are they, on closer inspection, probably the skulls of children - dead children, murdered children - but many show signs of having been hacked with what was probably a machete; a split through the center of the head. Someone opened this child’s head as if it were a coconut.

The silence remains unbroken. No one says a word. Each of us walks through this lawn of remembered pain in his own way, with her own thoughts. Cameras work. One steps carefully so as not to further insult those who are clearly now beyond feeling but somehow still deserve the special care that is taken.

Caroline covers her nose and mouth with a bandanna. David is transfixed by the figure of a man whose skeleton remains exactly in the posture in which he died, his clothing still intact for the most part, his arms and legs permanently fixed as if in motion. Was he going to rescue one of the children? Was he fleeing a pursuer? Did he know death was behind him?

Daryl walks, looks, stares. Bobby stands, unbelieving. Barbara too. When one converses it is in whispers, as if something here might be disturbed.

The doorway pulls me. There is no door, or if there is it is open and held so by the remains of those who fell. The smell, the indescribably thick sweet odor of death, is almost overpowering when I look into the darkened chapel. It defies breathing. My lips clamped shut so as to avoid taking in too much of what is here, I find myself breathing as shallowly as possible through my nose, full of a growing sense of fury, unwilling to leave, unable to go in.

Walking around the yard again, Daryl and Barbara point out a small adjacent building with a closet-sized room filled with remains. How many crowded in here in an attempt to hide from their murderers? How could they breathe? What frenzy drove them to crush into this small space? Around the back, Daryl and I look through holes in the wall (probably made by hand grenades, according to the testimonies) and find another, smaller building. My sense is that these two rooms served as a school for the smaller children - perhaps those whose skulls decorate the front yard. Up on a hill behind the building in back, more remains. Those who ran, perhaps.

I walk, feeling the need to keep moving. Careful where I step, it’s impossible to avoid the bones. There must have been hundreds of people here. Thousands. A shoe, a hat, a lunch box. The lunch box makes me want to weep, scream, rage, put my hands on somebody, something responsible for this carnage.

Back to the chapel. To the back door, the one nearest our vehicle. A double door, this. I enter. Though careful where I step, there is no way to avoid treading on a garment, a bone, a piece of person. The floor is carpeted with them. If I am to enter, and somehow I must, I’ll have to accept that. It is as though to be a witness to this degree of monstrosity, this evil beyond knowing, I have to risk insulting these poor souls and have faith that they’ll understand I mean them no ill.

Every step takes me further into corruption. The smell is beyond overpowering, it clings to me, works its way inside me. The pews are but benches without backs and I step up onto the last one and walk to the center aisle feeling for an instant that if I lose my balance and fall I’ll join them forever. Every ogre, every fear, every superstitious notion I’ve ever been subject to crowds around me and I want to scream. At the center aisle I stop and wait, looking about.

It is a rude church. Simple. Wood and mud brick construction like most of the buildings we’ve seen here. Maybe forty feet wide and sixty or seventy feet long, with two ranks of benches, perhaps twenty five or thirty on each side of the center aisle leading to the altar. A cross. Holes in the wall near a window to my right, the corner behind me blown out. And what were once human beings everywhere, in every imaginable posture, strewn about like so much detritus, piled one on the other.

How, I ask the altar, can you have let this happen? How can this be? I am in the presence, I know, of something profoundly disturbing to the very essence of what I think I know. It makes me want to run and shriek and hide away, to go home and never go out again, to weep and never stop. I don’t want to kneel. I don’t want to pray. I want to comprehend. I want to find a place to stand in a world where this grotesquerie can exist alongside laughter and innocence and love.

I am in the presence, I somehow understand, of unutterable evil. At the same time, though I can’t quite grasp it, there is a sense of something deeply holy as well.

I remember once reading about Luke standing on a mountainside cursing God. It was the author’s contention that this was the purest declaration of faith. I thought I understood it then...

There is movement as I stand there in the silence. Lizards, roaches and others make their living doing what they do. I think, somehow, I hear something unearthly, a sigh, an exhalation of breath that embodies all the pain and fear, all the burdens carried by so many for so long.

At last I can turn and go.

(And now, so many days later, transcribing these notes, I am finally able to weep.)

Outside, I have to walk and look. I have to keep moving. When the others are ready, we get in and go. Words are used only as necessary. There is a kind of shock. We’re quiet on the ride back down the red dirt road. When we get to Kanzenze and the driver turns back toward Nyamata to drop off the guide, I ask him to stop. Knowing they’ll have to come back this way to get to Kigali after dropping off the guide, I need to get out. I’ll wait here with my thoughts and breathe deeply.


Kanzenze is a small, poor, quiet, dusty town. Single story buildings, some wood, some mud-brick, line the road. As the wagon drives away to the south I stand for a minute, looking around. It suddenly feels very big, this little country. The African sky is bright above and I am alone.

On the side of the road under a tree there is an open door, a small store. Dirt floor, stacks of soda pop, a few items line the dusty shelves. Nothing in there that I need, certainly, but it’s reassuring, in a way, to see that life and commerce continue in spite of the horror down the road. A man comes out as I pause to look into the store. I nod, smile, say “bonjour.” He returns the greeting, if not the smile. A small boy pushes his bike to the front and stops to look at me. He returns the greeting and the smile. Bless the children.

I am quickly an object of considerable curiosity, it appears, as people first peer out of doors and windows and then step out to look at the stranger in their midst. Except for an exchange of “bonjours,” there is little we have to say to each other, and the first of the crowd that finally appears makes a bit of a show of having something else to do that brings them out. Finally the charade is set aside and they openly gather around and look and talk about me.

There is nothing particularly threatening about their attention, though it’s obvious that some are making points at my expense, but I begin to experience sympathy pangs for animals in the zoo. Making periodic attempts at conversation is the best I can do. No one speaks English and my French is rudimentary at best, so the gathering crowd and I stand and look at each other as I explain that I am waiting for my friends to pick me up.

Then two guys in their thirties or forties coast down on their bikes and come right up to me in a way meant to be intimidating. This one’s not an easy conversation to work my way through. It’s also not one that I can dodge, given the circumstances. It’s fairly clear these two are intending to show the rest that they’re not in the least frightened by a stranger’s presence and that in fact they expect some straight answers to some not-necessarily-friendly questions, so I try to find a way to convey an attitude that is friendly, casual and non-threatening at the same time that it is straightforward and unapologetic. Some fun.

In fact, after a bit of struggle it turns out to be kind of fun. Making an earnest effort to understand what the other is saying and then investing the same effort in making oneself understood in response is a great way to head off trouble, I find. I’m able to tell them where we’ve just been, where I’m from, why I’m here (in the country, not in their town - that took a bit more explaining and I’m not sure they got it) and that my friends will be here at any moment. (In fact, why they weren’t back by now is a mystery. I didn’t figure it to take this much time to cover the distance to Nyamata and back.) I’m also able to tell them that I haven’t a job to offer them but that I wish I had.

Finally, the two tire of their game and go back where they came from. Their parting shots, whatever they are, elicit laughter from some of the crowd that has stayed around for the sparring match, but not, interestingly, all. As they leave I get a sense that some of those around are friendlier than they were before. In fact, one young woman, who had come out with a baby a bit earlier and had been very pleasant when I said “bonjour” to the baby as well as to her, goes inside and comes out again and offers me a banana.

If this, I think, as I take it from her with as large and genuine a “merci” as I can manage, is the thing that gives me dysentery, so be it. Given the two that just left and the scene at the church, this gesture of human kindness is much too important to let a little thing like ones continuing good health stand in the way.

After eating the delicious banana and smiling my way through a few more minutes, the wagon comes pounding its way back up the dusty road. I wave to all my new acquaintances, thank my generous friend and climb in.


On the drive back to Kigali I learn that what took the extra time was that they had gone into the church at Nyamata after all. Though it had been cleaned up, there was still blood visible on the walls and around the church in various places. David was particularly moved by the fact that there were human bones and bone fragments on the grounds and that children were playing on them.


On the way back we also learn that the meeting with the UN Human Rights investigator had to be canceled because he wasn’t able to wait for us (this trip took much longer than expected), but that Ambassador Rawson had contacted the office and asked if we could come by his home for a drink. It will also be too late to go through the Kigali prison, but Chris has got the approval from the Minister of Justice for us to do so. We’ll have to try to work it into the schedule in the next few days.


After a good, quick dinner at the staff house, we load into two cars and head over to the Ambassador’s residence. The second car is driven by Mr. Urasa, a Tanzanian who is the UNHCR Representative for Rwanda. Sten Bronee, who we met with this morning (was it just this morning?), is his assistant. Mr. Urasa is a small, soft-spoken man who has an enormous responsibility here and seems to think highly of Ambassador Rawson.

The Rawsons welcome us as we pull up. Their home is inside a walled compound not far from the staff house and they graciously usher us through and out onto a screened porch. It all has the feel of colonial times and seems perfect for an ambassador’s residence. The Rawsons themselves seem perfect casting for the roles they’re playing, but in the best sense, without any of the too, too superior air that one might assume would go with the job.

Once drinks are handled, Rawson asks us about our day. Hearing that we’ve been to Ntarama and Nyamata, he’s curious as to our reaction, but it’s too new, too raw for anyone to yet put into words.

We’re joined by a young woman named Kate Farnsworth, who is part of the ambassador’s staff - on the investigative side. She’s very knowledgeable, one gets the sense, and I’m sorry we don’t have more time to talk to her.

In response to my asking “how could this have happened?”, Rawson launches into an interesting disquisition on Rwanda. He says that, as is the case in many emerging African democracies, there was great strain on the economic and social front. The extended family idea was taken seriously here, but with one-half the population under fifteen years of age, a great shortage of jobs and the simple reality of population density, tensions were inevitable. On the political front, he says, there was the intense competition for power. And, he says, there is a spiritual dimension: “Evil was at large.”

He says when people are asked how they could kill children, they say ‘Kagame was three years old when he left and look what he’s done.’ (Paul Kagame is the leader of the RPF, now RPA, and is acknowledged to be the most powerful figure in the country. His leadership of the RPF was responsible for their victory. The fact that his parents left the country when he was a child and that he was allowed to grow up as a refugee and eventually return in this way is the primary justification now used for infanticide.)

Mr. Urasa talks a bit about “conflicting jurisdictions,” by which I think he is referring to the conflict in the community between the laws of the church and those of the government as well as to the power struggles within the social arena.

Ambassador Rawson says there was a good deal of tension generated by the notion, held by some and used by others, that the Tutsi were “God’s chosen people.” The issue of one group being superior and the other inferior, he says, has deep roots in the local mythology and is expressed in surprising ways. He quotes the ambassador to the U.S. from the former government, a Hutu whose name is, I believe, Remana, as saying “the Tutsi must learn that they are the minority.” At another time, Rawson says, he was in conversation with the man on another subject when he blurted out, in a very emotional way, “I cannot accept the thesis that the Hutu are intellectually inferior to the Tutsi!” He says it came from nowhere and had no reference to their conversation, but was obviously very much at the forefront of the man’s thinking.

Mr. Urasa, going back to the question of the spiritual dimension of the problem here, refers to the relatively recent recurrence of the practice of witchcraft. He identifies it as being associated with a place called Benaco (which is one of the refugee camps near Ngara, Tanzania, I believe). This raises the question of involvement in the massacres by people in the Catholic Church, of which there has been some mention, and I ask if anyone has made a point of trying to talk to the white priest from Nyamata who is mentioned in the shepherd’s testimony. No one knows of this particular man, but there are many who evidently have pertinent knowledge and who have since been interviewed.

It is acknowledged that the past respect for the churches as places of asylum was used in this instance to lure people to the churches where they were killed. The ambassador suggests that as a result there will be a great need for “re-consecration” of churches in the countryside.

On Urasa’s point, someone suggests that the primary perpetrators of the massacres have reverted to practices associated with witchcraft or voodoo.

How, I find myself wondering, do the victims retain their faith in the face of all this?

In attempting to make sense out of it all the conversation begins to run a bit far afield, but Kate rounds it out by making the point that “Rwanda is for all of us, not just for the Rwandans.”

As we’re taking our leave I ask if anyone knows anything about “Operation Blessing,” a Pat Robertson-affiliated NGO I’ve heard some dicey things about that’s said to be working in the Goma area. Kate offers that she wishes there were more time to look into it, but that she has heard stories indicating they’re involved in some pretty bad dealing with Mobutu, and are rumored to be taking diamonds and gold out of the country.

We head for the hotel and turn in.


Recent Posts

See All

Killing ground - Rwanda - Part 3 (1994)

When the little alarm wakes me it’s the first time I haven’t been up before its call, still negotiating as I am with time-zone-differential.

Killing ground - Rwanda - Part 2 (1994)

At 6:30AM there’s a call I have a hard time understanding. It’s from the police and there seems to be some problem with a form. My “fiche,”


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page