Wednesday, January 25, 1995 -
At 3AM I’m up, trying to exorcise the demons of Ntarama by writing out my feelings. I call Shel to try to touch something whole and warm and healthy.
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,” as he calls it, has not been filled out properly and I need to come down and do that. Amazing. Without letting him know in my rudimentary French that I’ve been up for hours, I ask this bozo if he has any idea what time it is and tell him he’s got a hell of a nerve calling this early. I’ll be checking out later this morning, I tell him, and I’ll fill out whatever the hell it is then. Merde!
Sure enough, I’m down to check out at 8AM and ask the Belgian at the desk what the call was all about. He gives me a blank look and says he doesn’t know anything about it. He checks and comes back and says no one at the hotel has any problem with my papers and no one knows anything about a call. It must have been the police, he says. Well, that’s who he said he was, I respond, but I assumed he was down here. Nope.
I ask the group and Daryl is the only other one who got a call and he handled it about the same way I did. The only thing that makes sense is that it must have something to do with the papers at passport control. So, they can’t collect the trash, but they can hassle visitors who come in and don’t fill out their “fiches” correctly. That officious little bureaucrat is coming back to haunt me. Oh well. We’re about to head up to the Zairean border anyway. If the police are looking for Daryl and me they’ll have to be good.
Nothing out of the ordinary about the checking out process except for the discovery that my emotional purge on the phone to Shelley in the middle of the night cost $225. The price of therapy these days! (The good news is he let me use a credit card. We were told they wouldn’t take them here, so each of us brought a good deal of cash which is strapped to various parts of our bodies and has made it through all the security checks and friskings so far.)
Because we only have the one wagon, Barbara has suggested that we pack enough into one small bag to get us through the next couple of days at the camps in Goma and leave the rest here at the Mille Collines, as we’ll be staying here again on our return to Kigali. It will be a tight enough squeeze for each of us and a single bag to make the three-plus hour drive to the border - unlikely to impossible if we try to fit everything. The man behind the desk agrees to let us leave some things here, which will provide a test for Richard Walden’s lock thesis.
Heading west-northwest out of Kigali, the day is nice, with a few clouds suggesting the possibility of rain. The road, a good one built by Chinese laborers (a roadside monument pays tribute to some who died in the process), climbs through the mountainous terrain at a pretty good angle at times. The land is beautiful. Green, lush, “incredibly fertile,” per David, it is cultivated to an astonishing degree. The steep mountainsides are terraced and planted on inclines that it exercises the imagination to understand how they go about working.
Again, we pass few vehicles and most of those we see are associated with non-governmental organizations of one stripe or another. People line the roadside, walking with their burdens to market or homeward.
Many of the kids we see on this leg of the journey are riding a particular design of wooden scooter. It has two wheels, like a bike, with an angled piece in the middle for resting on when they coast. It rises from the back to connect at the front below the hand-grip/handle-bar affair and looks in design to be similar to a two-wheeled Big Wheel (for those of you with kids) without the pedals and seat.
Mile after mile we go through rich, green land along a road virtually lined with pedestrians struggling through lives of grinding poverty. How, I find myself wondering as we pass the squalid houses, towns and settlements beside the road, do they keep from having the humanity ground out of them? At one stretch of the highway we pass two or three groups of men carrying rude stretchers in which are the bodies of others. A funeral? Are they taking someone to the hospital?
We stop for a leg-stretch at a town which Khassin says is about the half-way point to Gisenyi, the Rwandese border town just across from Goma. This place is depressing. Dirty, noisy, it’s got none of the beauty of the surrounding countryside and all of the people and problems one can imagine would be associated with city life.
We head onward. Khassin is sneezing fairly regularly. Caroline, who said something earlier about her tendency to catch any germ that’s around, has her bandanna out over her mouth again and I wonder if she’s sorry she has adopted the seat so far forward.
Up higher in the mountains it gets fairly chilly - enough to put on jackets for a while - and starts to rain. But before long we head down again and toward the lake that peeks through the mountains in the distance.
After a very long, wearying ride, we come into Gisenyi. A resort town, as was Goma before the onslaught of refugees, this city in northwest Rwanda is on the eastern edge of the northern tip of Lake Kivu, one of the Great Lakes of Africa. The Zairean border, with the town of Goma on the other side of it, is a stone’s throw up the highway. Flowers abound and there is a much more pleasant feel to this town than there was where we stretched our legs an hour ago, even with the knowledge that bodies have been known to float ashore with some regularity here; victims of the war or the intimidation in the camps. This is the lake from which Sten told us the locals won’t eat the fish, given the presumption of what they themselves have been eating. It’s noticeably hotter here than it was in Kigali, which is probably much higher, though it’s still not the oppressive tropical heat one tends to expect this close to the equator.
Through another gate and we’re into the UNHCR compound, a complex of small buildings where Barbara promises there is a toilet (if not a particularly modern one).
We’re greeted by Alexandra, a vivacious young Italian woman who heads the international team of UNHCR staffers here. In her 30’s, I’d guess, Alexandra is a magnetic fountain of energy with a round face and flashing dark eyes. She keeps apologizing for having to delay or interrupt talking to us because of a squawking walkie-talkie, a beeping cellular phone or other pressing matters, but we assure her that we’re OK with waiting, well aware that there are higher priorities in terms of her attention.
She has been dealing with another group of international visitors (from Australia, I think) this morning, and is trying to clear up some schedule problem with regard to a meeting with them.
Overlooking a well-maintained tropical garden, in the open main room of the building, with a woman sitting by handling incoming calls, Alexandra tells us that her first priority is to “ensure the safety and dignity of people who are voluntarily returning.” (This office and her staff, being inside Rwanda, have primary responsibility for transporting, relocating, settling and monitoring the safety of the [Hutu] refugees who opt to come out of the camps in the Goma area.)
At this point, because of High Commissioner Ogata’s continued concern about the possibility of reprisals against returning Hutu by the RPF/RPA military now in control in Uganda, the UNHCR does not actively encourage repatriation. (There is a division, we learn, inside UNHCR on this point, with many believing that the High Commissioner is wrong, that the risks are acceptably small and that repatriation should be encouraged.) That being her view, the only way in which one can come back is to volunteer to do so and Alexandra’s staff is here to see to it that those who do so are well taken care of.
Of the camps just across the border, she says, Mugunga Camp is the worst one for creating difficulties for those who want to return - this because of the large and obvious presence in the camp of members of the military of the former government.
Making the decision is difficult for these people, she says, because of the degree of pressure and propaganda aimed at them by the former government and military. There was an effort made to encourage some repatriation by some of the UNHCR staff a while ago (I have the sense she’s talking about a few weeks ago) and one of her staff was attacked by some of those opposed, thus demonstrating the lengths to which these guys will go. Things are calmer now, she says, so once again the process is under way - and it’s meeting with some success. 500 people are scheduled to be loaded on trucks and buses and brought across the border tomorrow.
A major problem they are having to deal with is the now fairly common development that once a refugee decides to return, he/she may find his/her house occupied by someone (probably a Tutsi from the ‘59 or ‘63 “old case-load” refugees) who has come back to claim it.
Some of the returning Hutus also face the possibility of being named as complicit in the massacres. With so much killing - and so much participation in the killing - it’s hard to sort out the legitimate charges from the false ones. Under current Rwandan law, one cannot be jailed as a result of being accused of a crime unless 5 people concur in the accusation. Given the country’s recent experience, when there have been whole communities wiped out with sometimes only one survivor, the requirement of 5 is impossible to maintain. It’s a thorny problem.
Despite these problems, Alexandra says, the primary reason for refugees being unwilling to repatriate is the intimidation and propaganda coming from the military, the militias and former authorities in the camps.
We then meet Holly, an American UNHCR staffer who works for Alexandra. Probably in her twenties, short and cute, Holly is fairly new to the area, but has worked in the non-governmental humanitarian world for a while. She’ll show us around the local facility.
First, though, Alexandra is finally successful in contacting Major McComber, a Canadian officer stationed here with UNAMIR, the UN Peace-Keeping force provided for in the Arusha Accords. McComber comes in just as she has about given up hope that her messages have gotten through and gives us a run-down from his point of view.
A big fellow with reddish-brown hair and a full mustache, he’s wearing a uniform with a Canadian emblem on one shoulder and a UN patch on the other. He wears the familiar blue beret of the UN Peace-Keepers.
“Officially,” he says, “the situation is calm.” He and his people have good relationships with the UNHCR and the rest of the NGO community and he’s pleased with the way the current effort is shaping up.
This part of Rwanda, he tells us, is very much a stronghold of support for the former government, which explains, to some degree, why so many of the military and former government leaders came out of the country by this route. That being so, the RPF/RPA is seen by the local citizenry as very much “an occupying force” and relationships have been tricky. There have been incidents in the past of harassment and intimidation of locals and returning refugees by RPA soldiers. (The RPF versus RPA designation, as I mentioned above, has to do with the developments pertinent to the war. The RPF [Rwandese Patriotic Front] became the RPA [Rwandese Patriotic Army] after they triumphed and took over the country. They are still often referred to by the old letters, hence my continuing use of both.)
Recently, McComber says, the RPA has had “the light bulb come on” and is behaving in a much smarter and more appropriate way. He says the new government is “very serious” about the refugees coming back (“They need these people.”), so they have reassigned their most professional officers to this area in an attempt to better control the troops and to foster better relations with the local citizens. And, he says, it’s working.
An example offered is the story of the government’s issuing new currency (a smart political as well as economic move that made worthless all the paper money the former government and military had taken out with them and was using to support themselves as well as their sporadic military operations back into the country). In an attempt to have the new issuance be as effective as possible, the government mandated that the borders be sealed for a short period of time. During that time, McComber says, refugees who wanted to return began piling up at the border and creating a tense situation. The local commander of the RPA “took a risk” and made a decision to open a “humanitarian corridor” so that these people could come through and be fed and cared for. It went directly against Kigali’s orders, but it made a lot of points with the local citizenry, he says.
McComber says he calculates there are about 23,000 former government soldiers in Mugunga Camp. They are armed, though primarily with small arms, and are seriously intimidating refugees who want to return.
The current UNHCR strategy to deal with the security situation is to hire Zairean Green Berets to protect the refugees who choose to come across. This is problematic, he says, because the Zairean Army is not paid (this statement was made a number of times by a number of people and I never got clear whether it was meant literally or to infer that they weren’t paid enough) and as a result tends to resort to strong-arm methods and extortion. Regular Zairean troops had been brought in originally. They were OK for a while, then “they became the problem.” After that a special unit was brought in. Same scenario. Now, he says, the Green Berets will be OK for a while and “then they’ll become the problem.”
Here in the town of Gisenyi, the RPA is doing the work of a local police force as well as national security. There have been some problems, he says. Some human rights violations, some killings. Robberies occur with some regularity, evidently, and most of the criminal activity is generated from out of the camps.
Of the other side of the border, “It’s Dodge City over there,” he says, which is certainly heartening, considering we’re on our way.
There have been some cross-border raids staged out of the camps. Some of it is to harass the RPA and the government, but some of it is aimed at returning refugees.
There is “good leadership in the RPA here.” They “had lost the Robin Hood approach” that attached to them during the war, but “now they’re working to get it back.” They are
doing serious human rights training of the troops, he says.
As to the situation in Zaire, McComber says the US Ambassador told him, off the record, that “it is no longer a country. It’s now a group of principalities.” If the Prefet, or Mayor, of Goma, for example, gets an order from Kinshasa that he wants to obey - if it profits him in some way - he will. “If not, not.”
McComber has to take off, so we thank him for his time and Holly takes us over to the Repatriation Center run by CARE, where we meet a soft-spoken staffer named Innocente, who shows us around. A Rwandan, Innocente speaks good English, having spent two years (‘89-’92) in the U.S. I ask, per the dates, “You came back in the middle of the war?” “In the middle of the war,” he nods, then adds, “Everyone has the right to love his country.”
Innocente was aptly named. There is an admirable calm about him as he walks us through the CARE compound, showing us the procedures by which they deal with those who come back. From the gate (where there are now perhaps a dozen or more people lining up, patiently waiting - and a separate group of about a dozen kids inside who have been designated “unaccompanied minors” and will be given special consideration) [the issue of unaccompanied minors is a particularly tough one for UNHCR - it’s hard to know in a situation like this if these children are orphans or simply separated from their parents. Often the children don’t know themselves. Reunification is obviously the optimum solution, but given the reality with which they have to deal that may not be possible, so the question of what to do with them is daunting] each person is brought in and registered. The registration card then tells the size of the family with which the individual is traveling and where they are headed. On the basis of this information, the staff decides how many jerry cans of cooking oil, how many blankets, how much flour and other food to give.
To safeguard against repetition, each applicant dips his/her finger in ink before passing through the line. Most get what is called a “Transit Pack,” which provides some comfort and enough sustenance to get them to the next processing center. (As Alexandra had pointed out to us, they have set up a line of these centers on the routes back into the interior.) Some, if they are going an unusual direction or distance, get a “10 Day Pack.”)
This compound, Innocente tells us, used to belong to the president of the country. When it was turned over to CARE after the war for this project they had to go through a serious process of de-mining the yard and removing unexploded shells and grenades.
The legacy of war.
The border area is an intimidating place, probably at least in part because of the stories we’ve heard both here and at home of the tendency toward corruption, cruelty and fractiousness on the parts of some in authority here. There is considerable resentment of the relief effort by some Zaireans who feel that the refugees are getting better treatment than the local poor (which is sometimes the case in these situations) and then there’s the unfortunately common phenomenon of opportunists who exploit these situations to their own advantage in various ways. Add to that mix the combination of politics, guns and ethnic tension that are abundant here and it’s a pretty volatile situation.
Stopping on the Rwandan side is a fairly straightforward process. The usual wasp’s nest is in a corner of the ceiling, which is comforting. Consistency is all. The process of checking papers and logging us out of the country is a bit tedious because everything here is done by hand, so we have to make ourselves clearly understood and simply be willing to be patient as the necessary details are completed. One of the advantages to having things done in this laborious, old-fashioned way is that it makes it less likely, it occurs, that anyone here will know that Daryl and I are fugitives wanted by the police in Kigali for not having properly filled out our “fiches”.
Once through this bureaucratic tangle we load back into the wagon and move through the military checkpoint, into the No-Man’s-Land between countries, and then up to the Zairean border post. Holly, who has been riding with us to be of whatever assistance she can be in the event of any problem, will only go this far.
Into the line in the small, dirty building and wait. Shuffle forward. Wait some more. A man who has a kind of fierce appearance but turns out to be fairly friendly asks the necessary questions about occupation and purpose of visit and enters the information into a log, passes the passports on to another, who writes down more information and we’re out. As some of us are waiting for the others who are still being processed, Daryl wants to take a picture of some of the machine-gun toting soldiers at the barrier across the road, but has been warned against doing so. Having had this experience in other parts of the world, I step down onto the road between Daryl and the soldiers and suggest he simply take my picture (with them in the background). As he’s lining up the shot a man shouts and waves at him, warning him off. We explain, all innocence, that he simply wants a picture of me at the border, but the man isn’t going for it and tells me to move to a different spot for the picture.
There seems to be a second part to the process here, a screening of shot records, etc. But since no one told us we had to do it, we all head for the wagon once the last of our group is through passport control. Of course, just as we’re about to mount up we’re accosted by a man who tells us that we haven’t completed the process and must go to the health station. Not a big problem but, as mentioned above, this is the place they can arbitrarily decide one’s shot card isn’t in proper order - or can declare we need an immunization for something that we don’t have - and it can become a problem. Oh well.
As it turns out, this fellow is a very affable guy who is quite taken by Holly and passes us all through without a hitch. It’s a particular relief because it turns out that Barbara has left her shot records in Kigali, but between Holly’s charm and Barbara’s UN identification, he is satisfied that we won’t carry the plague into the country and gives us all a smiling stamp of approval.
So it’s good-bye Holly and hello Goma.
The city is virtually on the border. We’re driving west, with the lake on our left side, down a palm-tree lined road toward the heart of Goma. Off to the left ahead a sign points to the offices of CONCERN, the Irish-based parent organization of CONCERN/America, with which I’m associated. Nearing the center of the city we pull into a fenced-off lot crowded with UNHCR vehicles similar to the one in which we’re traveling (many of them Toyota Land Cruisers bearing a sign or painted logo in the window stating that they are here “Courtesy of the Japanese Government”), all of them four-wheel drive, but none of the heavy, armor-plated, bullet-proof types that were so popular in Bosnia. People dash about, vehicles move in and out and a large group stands outside the gate. “Looking for work” is the response to the obvious question.
The bustling lot is the motor pool for the UNHCR and sits adjacent to the modern two-story building, once a bank, which now houses its offices. Climbing out and heading into the building to meet some of the staff, my eyes stray to a group of Honda dirt bikes sitting before the shed. They’re small engines, only 125 ccs, but look like fun. I find myself wondering which lucky stiff gets to ride those around and under what circumstances.
Inside the busy building and through a temporary door we go to the reception desk where Barbara makes the appropriate connections. Through another door and into a busy hallway lined with copy machines, bulletin boards and other signs of activity. People move through the hall and in and out of doors at a pace somewhat reminiscent of a Marx Brothers movie.
In short order we’re introduced to a number of people. Joel Boutroud is the senior representative here. A dark-haired, bearded young Frenchman, probably in his middle thirties, he’s harried and apologetic about not being able to give us much time, but explains that they are coordinating the first census of the camps’ populations and the size, complexity and politics of the situation are clearly overwhelming. (The idea of a count has a number of important facets to it. The fact that UNHCR can require it and carry it out is a statement of their authority over the camps, a point that is highly contentious. For quite a while the military, militia and former government types had a stranglehold on the camps to the degree that they handled distribution of the food and supplies, therefore giving themselves additional power over the refugee population. It was not in their interest to allow a census to be taken because if they could, as they certainly did, inflate the numbers, it resulted in more food and supplies for them to distribute, perhaps sell outside the camps and/or use for their own purposes. So one of the UNHCR’s first steps was to reassert their authority over distribution of the food, arranging a system by which it is handled through group elders, families or elected representatives. This census is another major step.) We also meet two striking young women. Betsy, a Dutch lawyer, probably in her early thirties, is a great looking, kind of no-nonsense type who moves about with clear eyes, a calm smile and a sense of authority that communicates itself impressively. Nici Dahrendorff, who is apparently the senior Protection Officer, is a strikingly beautiful woman with a thick mane of dark hair and flashing eyes. She’s the kind of woman who makes you stop and look. Also in her thirties, I’d guess, German-born and raised in England, she has the kind of cultured English accent that makes people seem incredibly intelligent and poised, even when they’re not. She is.
(It’s remarkable, to the degree that we find ourselves remarking on it later, how many of the UNHCR staffers we have run across are knockouts. On so many fronts, physically, intellectually, energetically, they are an impressive crowd.)
Nici is also apologetic about not being able to give us more time, but arranges for Betsy to accompany us on a quick trip through the nearest camp, Mugunga (the one with the large contingent of military that we’ve heard so much about), once we drop our bags at the hotel.
There’s an interesting beat when the issue of transportation is brought up. Barbara asks about a car and driver and Nici is confused, not understanding why we can’t use the driver who brought us up. Barbara says she isn’t sure, but he said he had something to take care of in town and assumed we’d get a driver from here. For a moment I can see that Nici is annoyed that Khassin would be so impertinent as to make the assumption that he can just drop us here, then just as suddenly the annoyance is gone, replaced by a flash of understanding. “Oh, my God,” she says, “how stupid of me! Of course he can’t take you into the camp, he’s a Tutsi.” (Never occurred to me, but it clearly did to Khassin.)
So, with Nici’s assurance that we’ll have a driver waiting once we get back from the hotel, we head back to the motor pool, find Khassin and climb aboard once again. Driving through the center of Goma is an interesting experience, to say the least. With cars, motorbikes and people everywhere, the town is a beehive. With few exceptions, the buildings are single story cement block construction and dirty. Everything is dirty. The streets, with a large roundabout in the center of town, are pitted with holes and full of people racing to one place or another. UNICEF, UNHCR, CARE, CONCERN, and other organization’s cars and trucks are everywhere, as are local buses, trucks, broken-down cars and bicycles. In a stalled lane of traffic on one side of the divided main business street men are walking from car to car with large wads of cash in their hands, evidently carrying on a lucrative trade in currency exchange - dollars for Zairean, Zairean for Rwandan, etc. It’s so blatant that it’s either not illegal or there is no law here. I fear it’s the latter, but we do see the occasional soldier, or group of soldiers, their submachine guns at the ready, standing around or driving by.
A wretched place, Goma. Everything is relative, as they say. If what I saw a few short hours ago in Rwanda was poverty, this is squalor. As we pass out of the center of the city onto the “Western Axis,” the main road leading to Mugunga Camp and beyond that, I assume, to the interior of Zaire, we’re treated to the sight of masses of people either walking along the road toward the camp, walking along the road away from the camp, or squatting by the road trying to sell something to those walking by. Food is for sale, and merchandise of various kinds: supplies, probably purloined from one of the camps. Terrible shacks dot the roadside, the kinds of places you’re sure will fall in a stiff breeze. The ground is hard, harsh, lava rock. Everything about this place seems to be inhospitable. How in the name of God do these people survive? The place teems with humanity, and as Khassin races us through it all, honking his horn at the children playing, people walking out into the road, animals and carts and vehicles and everything else that conspires to jump in front of us, it seems certain that we’ll kill someone, run over something, before we get past this crush of people.
But we don’t. Soon we turn off south toward the lake. We turn right again as the road ends at a sprawling place on the lake shore that we’re told is or was Mobutu’s (the president of Zaire) summer home. (If half of what is said about him is true he’s an incredibly wealthy, incredibly corrupt man.) After winding along for a few minutes, passing a turn-off indicating one of the UNICEF bases is nearby, we come into the open gravel parking area for the Hotel Karibu.
Built on the lake, the Karibu is a run-down African version of a classy lakeside resort. Certainly it has seen better days. Animal skins, African art and travel posters decorate the walls of the reception building, which houses the desk, the bar, a TV area, the kitchen and a large dining room, outside of which is a patio and swimming pool. It seems clean, though, and modern enough to have all the necessaries.
We check in, are assigned rooms and head for them to stash our bags. The rooms run westward on an angle away from the reception area in two rows separated by a nicely tended stretch of lawn and flowers with paths. They are separate units, all connected in the style of condominiums. The heat is more noticeable here, for whatever reason, and given the generally run-down condition of the place I wonder about what shape the screens are in and what to expect tonight in terms of mosquitoes. (Every time I think of mosquitoes and Africa I’m reminded of Mombasa, Kenya, two years ago, with the giant picture of the mosquito on the wall at the airport and the warning about “cerebral malaria” - then going into the hotel room and finding a canopy of mosquito netting over the bed and a fresh can of mosquito spray called “Doom!”)
This room makes the Milles Collines look like the Ritz. No canopy, no spray. The usual narrow bed with hard mattress (which, when it comes down to it, I much prefer to a soft, saggy one), an uneven field-stone or lava-rock floor with jagged edges which seems to have either been over-used or badly designed. Whatever, one can’t walk on it barefoot. But then, as dirty as it is, one isn’t likely to want to. It has a toilet that works, but the tank runs constantly so has to be turned off after it refills. There is a ragged remnant for a towel and one of those hose-extenders that serves as a shower, but no shower curtain. The screens seem to be in good shape, though, so thanking God for small favors, I set my bag on the table, wash my hands and head back out to the reception area. Both Nici and Betsy have given the impression that we’re cutting it close by trying to go through Mugunga this late in the afternoon. All internationals are out of the camps by nightfall for security reasons, so we’ve got to get moving.
Back at reception some of our group are ready to go and we’ve been joined by two others. Barbara has arranged for a camera crew to accompany us through the camps in the hope of getting some good footage that can be used to help publicize the UNHCR’s work. Whether it will be in the form of a documentary film or public service announcements or something else remains to be seen, but the people that have been hired to do the work will be with us for the next couple of days.
Simon Cox, our cameraman, is a 29 year old Englishman who has lived in Africa for the past ten years and now makes his home in Nairobi. Married to a nurse who works in a missionary hospital and the father of one girl with another on the way, Simon is energetic, experienced, opinionated, articulate, witty and fun to be with. He saw most of the ugliness of the Rwandan war, traveled with both armies as a news cameraman, is full of stories about it and says it was without question the worst he’s ever seen.
Hannington Osodo, the sound man, is a Kenyan. Quiet and reserved, his observations, when offered, always prove to be keen and insightful. He’s one of those people who the more you get to know him the more you like him. Usually a cameraman in his own right, Hannington has signed on as Simon’s assistant on this one - perhaps for want of a job, that part isn’t clear - but never offers the slightest sign that he resents being number two. Nor does he ever, as far as I’m aware, second guess Simon in any way. Hannington’s also married, lives in Nairobi and has two daughters.
Both of them, it turns out, were friends of Hoss Mena, the Kenyan photographer who was with us in Somalia two years ago. It was painful to hear, months later, that Hoss was one of the journalists killed by the angry mob in Mogadishu.
Everyone is ready and we load up and head back to UNHCR headquarters. We need two wagons now to accommodate our passengers and their equipment. Heading back, Simon is asked what he thinks was responsible for the massacres in Rwanda. “Unemployed, uneducated kids and two years of propaganda,” is his off-the-cuff response.
If possible, HQ is even more crowded and crazy than when we were here earlier. Joel says a quick hello and offers another apology then heads off for a planning session for the upcoming census, which has everyone on edge. Nici gives us a quick sense of the meaning and importance of the census and therefore the reason for all the nerves, then adds that the plans are made for a pre-dawn gathering for those who have volunteered to repatriate tomorrow. This is an attempt to avoid a confrontation with those military types who might want to “dissuade” the returnees. There will be buses or trucks to transport the volunteers, about 500 people, and Zairean military to provide security. All of it could easily come unstuck, is the sense one gets, and the contingency plans are being developed as we watch.
Betsy shows up and we head back out to the motor pool. Our wagon and one other are made available, so the others go with Betsy and I ride with Simon, Hannington and their equipment. Back out the Western Axis, through the madding crowd and past our earlier turnoff. The crowds on the roadside seem to get thicker as we get further out of town, which seems weird, but is actually a testament to the trade being done in and around the camp.
Now the tell-tale blue plastic sheeting begins to show up on the roadside. Draped over make-shift shelters to provide cover from the weather, it is one of the hallmarks of UNHCR provisions. All over the world where the UNHCR operates in support of the human needs of refugees, these plastic sheets are in evidence, providing shelter from the rain and some minimal degree of creature comfort.
Groups of people by the road are now seen to stretch off into the hillocks on either side, gathered around shelters, simply standing or sitting together, trading, eating, grousing, talking or cooking up who-knows-what kind of mischief.
Soon the crowd has thickened on the roadside to the degree that it spills into the road, causing our vehicle and the one in front to slow. Coming to a turning place, we see a lone uniformed Zairean soldier acting as a policeman, holding some trucks coming from the other direction as he allows another to cross in front of us. The crowd is amazing; people are everywhere, hauling wood, water and supplies on their heads, in arms, on their backs, on wheelbarrows, bicycles, on the backs of animals. Sort of an African Times Square. We pull past the soldier and I see some of his fully-armed compatriots off to the side in a jeep which probably makes him feel a bit more secure, but it occurs that if this crowd decided to get ugly he and his small crew would be history in no time. That, of course, is true for us as well.
Mugunga Camp - The camp’s southern edge is evidently the road we’ve been on. A right turn onto a dirt road, up a slight rise and we pull through a wooden gate into the UNHCR compound. (To call it a “compound” overstates by some degree. It is an area, perhaps 100’ x 100’, if that, bounded by a canvas fence strung with rope or wire, which encloses two tents and room to park a few vehicles.) Simon and Hannington have put their cameras and sound equipment down out of sight, covering them with jackets, saying that the last time they were here they were chased out by an angry mob that blamed them (as western journalists) for the bad things that were being said about them. This time they’ll take the temperature a bit before declaring themselves (which is fine by me). A look at the crowd that gathered at the gate upon our arrival points up the wisdom of their decision - most of them are relatively young and fit-looking men, all are regarding us with frank curiosity, not to say open hostility, but it’s clear the welcome mat is not out.
We’re introduced to another in the dazzling array of impressive UNHCR volunteers; Elizabeth Reglat. A petite French woman in her early 30’s who looks to be in her late teens, Elizabeth is a nurse with dancing eyes, brown hair in a pony tail, a wonderful smile and an apparently iron will. This tiny package runs this camp of over 200,000 refugees, many former soldiers and/or militia, and clearly brooks no nonsense.
Earlier today, she says, when introduced to a group of the camp’s leaders, she was identified as being French and they broke into applause (this because of France’s historic relationship with and support for the Habyarimana Government). She says she told them in no uncertain terms that she was embarrassed at what their reaction implied, that she was here as a nurse on a humanitarian mission and that she was ashamed of many of the things for which her government was responsible in their country. (Simon says later that the French started the Interahamwe, the youth group responsible for much of the slaughter. Subsequent reading suggests their connection may have been a bit less direct - that they trained the military which in turn trained the Interahamwe. Whatever the case, he says, when the French came back and set up the Safe Zone in the southwest, they were cheered and welcomed [“it was a two-day carnival”] by Rwandan Government forces who believed they had come to take over and prosecute the war for them. And some say, in fact, that the French intervention allowed the time and opportunity for additional massacres of Tutsi as well as the successful escape to safety of many of the worst of the war criminals associated with the government. It is this tortured relationship, at least in part, that led to the pull-out of MSF [Medecin Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders] from the camps. That and the inescapable awareness that they were ministering in significant part to the very murderers their government’s support had empowered.)
Elizabeth wants to show us some of the camp, so she and Betsy confer and decide we’ll walk around a bit first, then come back for the vehicles and drive out to see the rest. Because Caroline, David, Bobby and Daryl have not had this kind of experience before, Barbara is intent on making sure everyone understands the situation and the rules of the game, so asks Elizabeth if there is any reason for concern when walking around. Elizabeth is quite candid in her response, and Betsy concurs, that “we feel safe being here until 6:00 (‘til dark).” Since it’s now after 4:00, I’m not sure how reassuring that is to my colleagues, but to their credit no one flinches and we head for the gate. Elizabeth goes on to say that one has to be aware of the temperature here, as things can turn violent very quickly. She tells of a recent incident where an angry mob was organized in a flash by some leader with a grievance and it created a very scary time for the staffers caught in the camp at the time. There is a good deal of tension currently due to the upcoming census and the repatriation of some 500 volunteers scheduled for tomorrow, she says, adding “We have many Interahamwe here. I am afraid if the convoys (loads of repatriating refugees) continue, they will start again.” Though she doesn’t spell out what she means by “start again,” the inference is clear.
As we walk out of the gate and up the road, the crowd has dwindled a bit and those remaining let us through without comment. Some follow along, others remain at the gate or go about their business. The crush of humanity in any refugee camp is impressive; here it is palpable, probably because there is such a sullen, heavy, almost leaden sense of hostility. Children, as always, are the saving grace, with their light energy and ready smiles, but even the little ones who dance among us asking for money and gum or food refer to us as “Muzungu,” which Betsy says means “white man,” “white person,” or “stranger.” It’s a bit like any situation where you’re viewed as the outsider. For some of the adults here it clearly means “hated other”, for the kids, though certainly not all of them, it’s probably as simple as “you who are not like me.” Everywhere we walk, the call is “Muzungu!”
Simon says to watch for boots, which will be a clue as to how many are former military. Sure enough, most of the young, fit, sullen men who watch us pass by or trail along in our wake are wearing them. Some still wear parts of uniforms. And if looks could kill...
The structures in the camp are traditional. The hard soil has provided problems for digging latrines and such, but some of that has been overcome with time. Wooden frames with the blue plastic sheeting are the primary form of shelter. Businesses line this main road, with stores selling everything from soap and soda pop to shoelaces and tobacco. Undoubtedly there is a good deal of contraband here, from stolen or extorted supplies to whatever you can name that is brought in from the outside. It is a city. Restaurants and bars line the road, some of which are decorated relatively attractively by lacing, fringing or cutting the plastic in clever ways. Compounds set up by other NGOs are interspersed with these establishments, with a water treatment facility here, a sanitation unit there and a clinic around the next corner. An occasional vehicle goes by, with a UNICEF or CARE logo on it. Supplies are brought in and life goes on.
As we walk, Betsy is warm and open with everyone, particularly the children. Daryl takes to the kids right away and has a number of them hanging onto him, wanting their pictures taken - a request he responds to with great good spirit and a big smile. David, Caroline and Bobby are also besieged by the kids and seem to be dealing with it all well. They are taking pictures and smiling, responding to the children all around. (A camera is like a magic wand in these situations, at least with the kids. Simon and Hannington, on the other hand, walk with us simply as visitors because their equipment, if visible, could inflame the adults.) As we walk, Betsy, Elizabeth and to some degree Simon are kept busy providing information as questions occur.
Per an attempt to understand the massacres, Betsy offers that “they didn’t have an experience that taught them humanity” and “they are a disciplined people.” She also is quick to point out that many Hutu families were quite heroic in risking their lives to hide Tutsi friends in the rafters of their homes and other places during the massacres. The penalty for this courageous act, if discovered, was immediate and painful death.
Walking with Betsy, I keep looking back to check on the others, concerned as to how they’re doing with all this, but everything seems OK. Caroline’s expression of concern about being susceptible to “whatever’s around” must be causing her some degree of discomfort, given the crush of kids hanging onto all of us, but if it is she’s certainly game in the face of it. Bobby and David seem to be handling it well, too, and Daryl’s good nature comes through with flying colors. I know, though, after the reaction we all had to the massacre site at the church, that the hostility around us has to have an eerie and extra threatening quality.
After walking up the road for a half-mile or so, we come to another compound, this one used by a group that is screening potential returnees. No one is about, and the representatives of the group (I think they’re UNHCR personnel as well) are wrapping up for the day. “Isn’t this a bit public?”, I wonder aloud, expecting people to come up in the light of day and express their willingness to go back when there’s so much reported intimidation? “Yes,” is the response, but what other way do they have to offer assistance? Once an interested party makes contact, we’re assured, the arrangements are handled with great delicacy and what degree of secrecy can be achieved.
After looking around a little more we turn and head back for the vehicles. Elizabeth and Betsy, I note, are keeping a close eye on the time. Simon keeps up a running commentary about the prevalence of military types around us, including speculation about the number and variety of weapons in the camp. I ask him about the testimony of the shepherd from Nyamata, particularly as regards the white priest. He says no one, priest or otherwise, should be condemned for running from that situation. It was the most terrifying experience of his life, he says, and he has nothing but compassion for anyone, no matter how they did it, who got out alive. Pointing out that my question has more to do with trying to understand the dynamics of the situation than with judging that particular priest (though I confess to some ambivalence about what his responsibility might have been under the circumstances), I ask what he knows about the possible involvement of church people in the killings. He says the church hierarchy was deeply involved with the Habyarimana Government to the degree that the Bishop refused to recognize or condemn the genocide for the first three weeks of the slaughter. He said this and other demonstrations of sympathy for the Hutu point of view resulted in the RPF’s execution of the bishop and a couple of his aides when they took over. He also says that in past emergencies the churches were recognized as sanctuaries to which those hunted could and did flee and in which they were safe. With that history, one of the evils of this campaign was that this time they were encouraged, by radio and by word of mouth, to go to the churches for safety and were then slaughtered there by the thousands, sometimes with the complicity of the nuns and priests. There were also extraordinary demonstrations of courage on the part of some priests and nuns, he says, both Hutu and Tutsi, who refused to participate and put their lives at risk to protect their charges. Some survived, miraculously; many were martyred.
Once back in the compound, I suggest to Bobby, Caroline, David and Daryl that they make a point of washing their hands well as soon as they have a chance. They had all been generously responsive to the army of kids around us, holding their hands as we walked along, touching them, etc., and the level of sanitation in a situation like this is generally so bad that it’s best to take no chances. (A friend almost lost his hand last year after suffering a simple pin-prick when going through a camp like this. He didn’t give it much thought at the time, but clearly whatever bugs he had on his hands invaded the tiny wound and he was hospitalized for quite a while.) We load into the wagons, most of the group going with Betsy in one and Simon, Hannington, Elizabeth and I in the other. Though we’re still in the middle of the camp, the relative protection offered by being in the vehicles is a source of comfort until Elizabeth points out that ours still has the tell-tale red dirt from Kigali all over the back of it and she has been wondering when someone will make note of it. (Being identified as having come from Kigali, she’s suggesting, could create big problems for us with some of the more scary types here!)
Pulling up the road and out to the northern fringe of hill so we can look over the entire camp, Elizabeth expresses further concern about the volatility of the situation, but always from the point of view of finding the best and most effective way to do her work. She is clearly a dedicated and passionate believer in the need for humanitarian intervention and is frustrated and angered by the imposition into this equation of the pressure and intimidation brought here by the military/political component.
As we get out on the fringes of the camp, particularly into what is obviously a newer area, there is not only a marked increase in the number of military types, but less apparent interest in disguising the fact. Some of these men are openly wearing whole uniforms. There are vehicles, usually pickups (I see none of the overtly military vehicles I’ve read about), parked next to some of the structures. This is one strange refugee community.
Simon notes, and Elizabeth agrees, that people are growing marijuana plants - some have cultivated little plots of the plant. Elizabeth says there is apparently a fairly sizable trade in marijuana in the camp (Simon says that surviving Tutsi said many of those who did the massacres were loaded, probably stoned and drunk, during the height of the frenzy) and that there is also a thriving market wherein housing is sold or traded. How can this be, I wonder, when the plots are on land borrowed from the Zairean Government? She says it’s a function of control; a way in which power is demonstrated and money changes hands. It’s not so much, as Elizabeth explains it, an issue of true ownership of a certain plot of land as it is one of vying for position and power within the community.
We pass a video-screening room.(!!) A theater, in effect, where people can come and watch videos. The usual wood frame and plastic sheeting, but a theater all the same. People are amazing. (I’m reminded of one of my first refugee experiences, on the Thai/Cambodian border in 1979/80. Getting out of a jeep on a dusty, God-forsaken road and walking over a dry river bed into a make-shift camp, we walked into the middle of this settlement and found a thriving marketplace. Going down a lane, I heard a familiar noise and turned to see someone operating an electric blender, making drinks for sale. I remember then, as now, being struck by the incredible ingenuity and irrepressibility of people in difficult circumstances.)
As if there isn’t enough to consider already, the threat of a volcanic eruption hangs over the camp. Three of the mountains just north of here, visible on a clear day, are active volcanoes. A group of Japanese vulcanologists is on the most active one now, studying it, and indications are that a major eruption may occur in the next 4 to 6 weeks. Contingency plans are in the works to deal with the possibility of yet another potential calamity.
As darkness hurries us along, we head down the hill to drop Elizabeth, but before we do so I ask her if there is any possibility of meeting one of those likely to have been involved in the massacres; one who will admit to having been in the military or, preferably, a member of the Interahamwe. I think it would be interesting to hear from someone willing to talk about the experience from that perspective, perhaps even articulate a rationale for what happened. Elizabeth gives me a look that suggests it’s matter of some delicacy, but says she’ll think about it. She is certain she knows who some of the people are who fit that description, but the question of whether or not they would be willing to talk about it is another thing.
Again we meet the others at the compound, head out of the camp and through the crowded roads back to Goma. On the road back, Simon points out a beat-up bus and says it’s from Rwanda. When this horde of refugees left, they brought everything with them but the kitchen sink, he says, including the country’s entire fleet of buses.
Back at the HQ we offer our thanks to Betsy, find Khassin and wend our way to the Karibu. After scraping off some of the dust from the camp we meet for dinner in the restaurant. The talk is about the experience of the camp, of course, and reactions to it, but quickly becomes more general. I’m whipped, and what looks to be a loud band is about to strike up, so I make my excuses and go out into the dark night to make my way to my room.
Again, relativity teaches its lesson. If this hotel is the pits as compared to the Milles Collines, the quiet and personal space offered are welcome luxuries when contrasted to the claustrophobic and threatening conditions in the camp, so I gratefully stretch out and let the events of these few days wash over me.
Thursday, January 26, 1995 -
Awake early to the sound of chanting of some sort. (It turns out, Daryl reports, to be fishermen working their boats on the lake.) Operating the shower is a bit of a joke without a curtain, but I do my best and then have to figure out how to wipe up the resultant mess with the scrap of towel available.
Caroline, David and Bobby are already at breakfast when I get there, at a table outside on the patio. A large bird, sort of like a peacock, saunters around and we have some fun feeding it.
People seem to be doing OK with everything so far, though Bobby confesses to be going through something of an identity crisis. The fact that the people in the camps think of him - refer to him - as “Muzungu”, really got to him, he says, and he’s having some trouble dealing with it.
The rest show up and the cars are expected, so we head out to the front of the hotel. We’re to drive to Kitale Camp this morning. It’s the northernmost of the camps in the Goma region, and I think the largest. At the last minute I decide I’d better get my jacket and run back to the room.
I don’t think I was gone all that long, but when I get back, they’re gone! At first I think it’s a joke, of course, but pretty soon it becomes clear it’s not and I have to try to figure out what to do. I assume that once they get to UNHCR HQ in Goma they’ll discover that I’m not there and either come back or send someone back, but perhaps I ought to try to grab a ride out that way in order to save the time.
There is no phone at the hotel other than a cellular, which they guard jealously, and a two-way radio. The man at the desk speaks English about as well as I speak French, so it’s a torturous process to get him to understand that I need to reach UNHCR. He’s busy, the lines are tied up, this phone is only to be used for incoming calls, etc. In the meantime, every time I hear a jeep outside I assume it’s someone coming back for me, but after a while I become concerned. As time goes on and no one shows up and I can’t get to the phone all the old insecurities set in. Maybe they had an accident. Maybe they hate me and have decided they’ll go on without me. A UNICEF car shows up and I try to hitch a ride with them, but they’re going to Mugunga, which is to the west. HQ is the other direction and we’re to head up the Northern Axis today. And if I do get a ride to HQ, will they pass me coming the other way? What a hell of a mess. (In the back of my mind I am hatching a plan all this time, you understand, that involves getting to HQ and grabbing one of those motorcycles I saw in the motor pool and fighting my way up the good old Northern Axis on that. I’ll show them. I’ll magically appear at Kitale in spite of their attempt to ditch me!)
As I’m waiting, a young red-haired woman I saw talking to Simon earlier comes out of the hotel. An Englishwoman, Ruth, she’s producing a documentary about the situation here. When she understands my plight she’s very sympathetic and tries to help figure things out, but is up against a schedule herself and can’t offer a lift because she’s going the other way, to Mugunga. As she awaits her driver we talk a bit about the bleak situation here. She tells me to take a look, if I have a chance, at another camp, Kibumba, which is on the Northern Axis before Kitale. She was there yesterday, she says, and thinks there are more military types there than in Mugunga.
I finally get access to the cellular (at a cost of “une dollar per minute, monsieur”) and get through to HQ, but Joel, Betsy and Nici are in a meeting and no one knows Barbara or where she or the group of Americans might be. Growing more frustrated by the minute, I leave a message which I’m sure will be lost and go back outside to try to bum a ride.
After a long and unsuccessful struggle to find a way out of this fix, the whole gang suddenly appears in two jeeps, terribly embarrassed and trying to figure out what to say to make amends. It seems three jeeps had showed up shortly after I ran for my jacket and in the confusion everyone assumed I was in one of the others. When they got to HQ, arriving at slightly different times, the same assumption was made. In fact, David and Daryl tell me, when they started looking for me it was at HQ and someone there told them they had seen me, so they spent a lot of time looking around the building before finally coming to the conclusion that they should think back. Once they walked through who was in which jeep they understood what had happened and raced back here.
Well, I don’t want them to waste a lot of time feeling bad about it (though it did soothe my hurt feelings a bit that they were so contrite), so make a joke, shrug it off and we load up once again. Back through town and up the Northern Axis we go, and again I’m riding with Simon, Hannington and the equipment. This route will take us right past the volcano, Simon says, so if the clouds lift it should be quite a view.
The land is greener here, looking more like pasture land than the hard, gray rocky scape around Goma and in Mugunga. In short order we pass some of the refugees who are being repatriated, truckloads of them going the other direction with jeep-loads of heavily armed Zairean soldiers riding guard.
After another fifteen minutes or so we slow to go past Kibumba Camp. To the casual observer, it would appear that Ruth was right. Soldiers, most wearing some part of their uniforms, are everywhere. This camp, it seems, is a more recent addition to the mix. Made up out of necessity to handle the overflow from the others, it now is home to some 220,000 people and has no natural water source nearby, thus requiring an incredible trucking operation to deal with that need. During the cholera epidemic, Hannington and Simon recall, bodies were stacked along the side of this road like so much firewood.
As we drive, and the country becomes more lush and beautiful, Hannington and Simon talk about many things. AIDS, they say, infects about 35% of the population of Rwanda. (!) It is particularly rife, says Simon, in the southwest and in Burundi. It is also reported to be heavy in Zaire. They think about 10% of the people in Kenya have it. Hannington tells of 80 prostitutes in Kenya who were diagnosed with AIDS 11 years ago and who seem to have developed some sort of resistance to it, showing no manifestation of the disease at all (at least so far). He says, and Simon agrees, that children born to AIDS infected mothers test positive at first, but often test negative in later years. (None of this makes any sense to me - and sounds frankly like folk wisdom, but I don’t know enough about the phenomenon to even be able to comment intelligently, so just listen.)
Simon, who obviously needs to get a lot of the experience of the Rwanda war out of his system talks about it a good deal. He tells of a particularly bleak moment when he was sure he couldn’t deal with any more of the horror, when he called his wife and told her that he was pulling out and coming home. She told him, he says, not to wimp out; warned him that if he left in the middle of the job he’d have a hell of a time getting another one. He tells the story in a way that suggests he’s half proud of how tough she is and half embarrassed at this own weakness. He finally decided he simply couldn’t do it any more and left. And, he says, she was right; it was a long time before he got another job.
He talks of the enormous courage of Ghanaian members of the UNAMIR force, either unarmed or only in the possession of small arms, who stood off Interahamwe mobs in front of the Mille Collines during the height of the massacres when they were determined to come in and take out some of those inside. Says they did it without firing a shot, simply by facing them down and refusing to back off. Then he talks about a Ghanaian sergeant who was driving him around Kigali when they were stopped by Rwandan Government (the Hutu government) forces, who were at that time totally unpredictable. He says you never knew what they were going to do, but if they only robbed you you felt as if you’d gotten off lightly. Anyway, he says this driver was stopped by a roadblock and they started giving him trouble and the guy, who was built like a bull, got out of the car and started throwing people around and knocking heads together. Simon says he was cowering in the car, sure they were both going to die, but the Rwandans evidently decided the driver was crazy, backed off and let them through unmolested.
He and Hannington talk of a man they both know, a Frenchman who was diagnosed with AIDS, who decided to come to Rwanda and set up a place for homeless and destitute people. It was shortly before the awful trouble started, evidently, and he stayed through the whole thing, saving many Tutsi lives.
Simon tells of interviewing women who were part of the Interahamwe. He would come upon a massacre scene just after the slaughter, when the dancing and the singing were still going on, and ask them why they were part of it. One told him, “I didn’t really kill anybody. I just finished them off.” Another’s response was, “I wasn’t part of the killing. I just killed children.”
He says you’ll see many people who were hamstrung (the Achilles Tendon at the back of the ankle, just above the heel, is cut) so they couldn’t get away. The killers would leave them and go after others, knowing they’d still be there when they got back. He met a Hutu man whose wife and daughters had their feet and ankles in bandages. He pressed the man for the story and finally learned that the women were Tutsi and therefore had been hamstrung and left for later. He had come home, found them and begged for their lives when the killers returned. He was told they would be spared if he would work at a roadblock in his neighborhood pointing out his neighbors who were Tutsi, so they could be killed. And, Simon asked, did he do that? Yes, was the answer, he did.
I find myself wondering, watching the pain in Simon’s face as he tells of these experiences, what one does with that kind of knowledge?
Kitale Camp -
After about an hour or so, past the volcano and through a thick patch of jungle, we come over a rise and see the camp laid out in the valley before us. Perhaps because we see it from this height, this camp looks gigantic. 230,000 people are sheltered here, they tell us, which is not so much larger a population than either Mugunga or Kibumba, but seeing it all at once is striking.
We pull into a fenced compound (again “fenced,” while technically correct, is a bit of a misnomer in that it suggests a protected border - this is strictly for purposes of demarcation and wouldn’t stop anyone who was intent on coming through) and get out, grateful for the chance to stretch. A few large tents provide cover from the sun. In one, people are being taught how to do the census, which seems to loom large in everyone’s mind. (It’s to start in two days, and even though there have been indications of cooperation so far, the staff is clearly concerned that things might blow up at any moment.)
We meet Lino, the UNHCR rep in charge of the camp. He’s an Italian in his forties with one of those deep, resonant voices with just a touch of rasp that reminds one of the valiant, wounded, heroic characters you run across in some movie made from a Hemingway novel.
With Lino leading and Simon and Hannington filming this trek, we head out for a walk through the camp, and are immediately besieged by a sea of kids who reach out, leap around, beg, pull on our hands and attach themselves to us however they can, all shouting “Muzungu!” They want money, they want to walk with us, they want their pictures taken; in short, they want attention. It’s the Pied Piper routine again, but the crush is worse here. People are everywhere. Some of these kids are heartbreaking in their need to hold your hand; pushing each other out of the way, getting in between your legs, under your arms, prying their way between you and another child. Soon I’ve got one holding on to each finger as we walk along, trying not to step on or trip over anyone. Caroline and David, Bobby (smiling in spite of his discomfort at being Muzungu) and the incredibly good-natured Daryl are traipsing along, going with the program without any apparent problem. David remarks on the difference here, noting that the atmosphere is lighter than in Mugunga, less openly hostile. Lino says it’s because they’ve been able to break the stranglehold of the military here. In concert with acknowledged tribal elders and other popular figures, the UNHCR has been able to arrange an election wherein the refugees choose their own representatives - and those representatives in turn deal with the organizations to work out the distribution of provisions, etc. There is no guarantee, of course, that the people selected aren’t the same old bad guys, but there is at least an attempt to empower the individual refugee and the results appear to be worth it. (There are still some suspicious and hostile-appearing characters around, no question about that, but there is a markedly lighter atmosphere.)
After quite a walk through the camp, including heading off the main track and winding through what are essentially people’s front and back yards, excusing ourselves as we go, we make our way up a fairly steep hill to the main distribution area (where the crush of people is so intense that it becomes actively uncomfortable), then head back toward the compound. The oppressive feeling associated with so much need, so many bodies pressing against you, so many hands and faces and voices reaching out, calling, wanting something, anything, from you, becomes overpowering and by the time we get back to the compound a couple of our group need to take a minute for a few deep breaths.
This is not, we try to reassure them, an easy thing. Many in my experience have faltered well before having gotten this far.
After a few minutes we load in the wagons and head down the road a ways to the CARE-Australia compound and the orphanage they’re running. We’re introduced to a number of CARE volunteers and have a chance to wash our hands and have a drink. The Aussies are typically warm, friendly, hospitable and generous.
A doctor named Kathy, a pediatrician who has committed to a six-month stint here, takes us around the area. First she shows an emergency medical facility they have set up for people from the area (refugees and locals, I think) who are in need of attention. There is a line of people waiting at the moment. Their primary charge, she says, is orphans and unaccompanied minors. They find a 30% AIDS rate among these kids, which is heartbreaking. Crossing the road to the school area, we pass through a wooden gate with an open dirt compound surrounded by tents which serve as classrooms, housing, mess areas and anything else needed. There are 12,000 kids here, divided into groups, one of which is just finishing an activity and about to break for lunch, so we’re able to meet them.
Of course we’re once again surrounded and pulled, pushed, etc. The staff has a bit more control here, though, so it’s not as overwhelming as in the main camp. Soon some are doing a dance and song, following a powerful young lad with a whistle who sets a fierce pace with a specific rhythmic step. It’s impressive and fun, but there’s something vaguely troubling about its militarism and ferocity (later Simon says he was very much bothered by it because the Interahamwe were known to dance and sing in much the same manner after the massacres).
There’s a dugout in the middle of the yard, evidently a trench with some material over the top, all covered with dirt. It has entrances at regular intervals and I ask what it’s for. Kathy says it’s effectively a bomb shelter. She says the camp has been shelled in the past and this is for the kids’ protection. Asked who did the shelling, she indicates that it may have been the Hutu military’s attempt at intimidation, or it may have been Zairean forces, she’s not sure.
In one crowd of kids we meet, Kathy singles out a boy a bit smaller than the others who, she says, is actually a few years older. He is, she thinks, one of the Twa people, the Rwandan minority said by some to be related to the pigmies. He’s a sweet kid with a friendly air and a slightly chalky coloration
Next she takes us to the infants’ medical area, where we see tiny, sick children with a variety of problems lying on blankets in small tents. A hydrocephalic child, one with a microcephalic condition, some with AIDS; an amazing array of medical problems. This is always the toughest part. Suffering children are so hard to deal with in the first place, but to see them under these conditions and try to fit it into some understandable scheme is next to impossible. In each tent are adults; some wet nurses, others simply caring for the children, all volunteers drawn from the ranks of the refugees. It’s heartwarming to see the special meaning these kids apparently have to the community. And the quiet, sweet, simple, positive attitudes exhibited by the CARE volunteers is enormously touching.
The suffering makes you want to weep.
Bidding our good-byes, we load up and head out. Barbara had arranged for sandwiches to be made up at the hotel this morning and Lino has a place he wants to show us for a picnic lunch, so we drive about 15 minutes further north and the lead car turns east onto a dirt lane into the bush. Another 10 or 15 minutes in and we stop. It’s thick bush, not what I would call jungle, but serious outdoors with a heavy canopy of trees off to the side and a dense tangle of weeds all ‘round. A steep trail off to the south side of the road takes us down to the bank of a good sized river and leaves us under a giant tree. Just up to our left is a splendid waterfall that cascades from a ledge about 75 to 100 feet above. A great spot.
A trail threads its way up the bank toward the waterfall, so I head up that way and Daryl decides to join me. Once at the foot of the falls it’s pretty wet and slick and just as Daryl comes up beside me his foot slips, or the ground gives way, and he’s suddenly gone, it’s only a flash and he’s down, barely stopped by the tangled growth only a matter of inches from the rushing water! It’s amazing; one of those freak occurrences that can change, or end, a life. As it is, he’s able to get enough support from the growth to right himself and scramble back up on to the path in seconds, but the reality of what might have happened had he gone through into the water and been swept onto the rocks downstream is enough to make you lose your breath. Daryl’s fine, so we head back toward the others, but the sense of what might have happened had things been only a little different gives us all pause.
Once back with the group, it’s soon on to other subjects. Isn’t life funny? What might have been a tragedy that marked us forever is now a matter of some excess adrenaline, a few jokes, a bit of cleaning up and back to the business at hand. Perhaps it’s what we’ve seen in the past few days - that, I guess, and the exotic circumstances - but the sudden nearness of the possibility of death stays with me for a quite a while.
Lunch is plentiful, if dry and not particularly tasty. The hotel has eggs, I’ve discovered, so I asked if they could make a couple of fried egg sandwiches. The rest have cheese, or some kind of meat and cheese. Mine are essentially two pieces of dry bread with an even drier fried egg between them - and they’re simply wonderful! A couple of these washed down with an ample supply of bottled water supplied by the UNHCR and the meal is one of those experiences where you feel very alive, very much aware of textures and tastes and sounds and feelings. The fact of being here in the African bush, being witness to this combination of horror and human triumph, and then having it capitalized by a split-second flash of the imminent possibilities, brings with it a sense of appreciation, of awareness and gratitude, of nerve endings atingle.
After lunch we climb up the hill and load into the wagons. Back along the dirt track we pass some people working their land. Smiles and waves are exchanged and we note the care with which the crops are tended, the beauty of the flowers surrounding the flimsy dwellings, the children playing. It’s a simple life. Not an easy life. A different life.
Heading back out we pass through Kitale Camp again. The contrast between the crush of people, the vehicles pulling in and out with their loads of supplies, the oppressive sense of human need here and the calm and quiet existence a few minutes up the road is even more striking. Lino wants to stop at MSF headquarters which is just to the south, but before we head for it Simon wants to get a shot of the camp from this vantage point. We pull to the side of the road and he and Hannington set up their camera quickly - and just as quickly, with Simon totally concentrated on what he’s seeing through the lens, Hannington has to push him out of the way to avoid being run down by one of the trucks coming off a side road. It’s tough out there. After Simon chases the truck down the road a bit they scramble back into the wagon, swearing a blue streak about the idiot who, if not for Hannington, would have ground him and the camera to pulp under his wheels without even noticing. The experience again makes me wonder about the seemingly endless, ant-like train of people on both sides of the road, children dancing in and out. How many are crushed without a blink of the eye?
Down the road through a gate and up a dirt lane past a fabulous garden of tropical flowers, we pull up before a villa on a hill. Owned by a Belgian and leased to MSF/Holland for the duration, the back patio offers a panoramic view of the valley. Kitale spreads out below us in all its squalor. Here is a stark picture of two faces of Africa: the political and demographic reality below and the colonial legacy on which we stand. And the camp below provides a contradiction in itself; at once an extraordinary feat of organization and an unbelievably huge, angry, hungry maw.
The villa, though a bit run down, is the perfect African colonial manse. Tiled roof, thick walls, paved patio amuck with flowers. The back is terraced and the level below us boasts a pool, though dry and crumbling. There’s a meeting going on inside with representatives of most of the NGOs from the camp, working out logistics and other concerns, so we seat ourselves on the patio. Coffee is brought for those who want it and we have a chance to reflect a bit.
Perhaps in response to a question, I’m not sure, Lino launches into an explication of the political situation that I find more and more troubling as he goes on. His affection for the Hutu refugees, and his sense of responsibility for them, is clear, but there’s a note of defensiveness on their behalf, coupled with a kind of derision of the Tutsi that bothers me more and more. Finally, I believe in response to a question from Caroline, he makes a comment that seems to suggest that the “western” response to the genocide was an imposition of our values onto a situation we didn’t understand or fully appreciate. Finally I can’t sit quiet about it and take exception to his view, wanting to make clear that it’s not representative, as far as I’m aware, of the UNHCR position. Nor is it, from my perspective, a fair or healthy one in terms of international laws, covenants and understandings based upon the international community’s aspiration for a more decent and civilized world.
The discussion goes on, probably to a point that it bores everyone else to tears, but I am more and more frustrated by what I hear as a kind of jaded, cynical, world-weary view that effectively argues that we can’t hope to understand these kinds of (inevitable?) tribal rivalries and are being arrogant neo-colonialists when we assume we can or should come in here and impose our standards on them. He argues that the Tutsi are impossibly arrogant (a fact that, given the historic social stratification mentioned above and some of the things we’ve heard and learned here, may be true, at least in part) and overstates, in my view, the reports of danger of reprisals against returning Hutu (using words like “all” and “in every case”) and blends it all into a position that, without saying so specifically, at least infers that the West can’t understand the situation, so should stay out of it and let what comes come - and if it does maybe they deserved it. (Now, in fairness, maybe I’m exaggerating his position, but that’s what I thought I was hearing. At one point in the discussion Bobby says he doesn’t think Lino is saying what I think I am hearing, so perhaps I’m wrong. But I don’t think so.) I think there is a common basis for agreements between peoples and nations and that we can articulate them (in fact have articulated them) in international human rights understandings. In fact, those understandings are agreed to and signed off on by most of the nations in the world, cultural differences notwithstanding, and one of the fundamental planks is the covenant against genocide to which we (the U.S.) and the government of Rwanda (all governments of Rwanda) are signatories. I don’t agree that this tribal bloodshed is either inevitable or appropriate and to argue, as I think Lino is, that we should effectively let them solve their own problems their own way (even when that means the slaughter of innocents) is to abdicate our responsibility as members of the civilized community.
Finally we grind to a halt, realizing we’ve gone on too long and aren’t likely to change each other’s view, and turn to other business. The meeting over, a representative from MSF has come out and will make himself available for Simon and Hannington’s camera so that his perspective can be incorporated into whatever Barbara ultimately uses this footage for.
His name is Michael Hoffman and he is with MSF (Medecin Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders) Holland. (MSF France has pulled out for political reasons, as stated above, by obviously MSF Holland didn’t feel compelled to join them.) MSF Holland has been here since the major exodus in June/July and has primary responsibility for sanitation and health care in Kitale and Kibumba Camps.
Q. - Major problems? A. - Gaining unimpeded access to the people in the camps (again a reference to interference by the military and militia types) and setting up an infrastructure system that works. They got a new group of between 70 and 90,000 last month, so the problems continue. They had tremendous difficulty, particularly at the beginning, in dealing with the hard lava surface and even now are in need of machinery which will make this condition more easy to deal with.
Q. - Greatest achievement? A. - Having brought down the death rate in the camps.
Q. - The future? A. - His greatest concern is that these camps are simply too large to be sustained over the long term. There are too many people in too small an area.
Q. - What is the answer? A. - Either relocate the camps or repatriate the people.
Out in the car as we’re loading up to leave, Hannington, with his slow smile, offers an insight in to what happened between Lino and I. Lino, he says, has been “Africanized.” When I ask what exactly that means to him, he and Simon work it out between them and finally suggest that there is a certain type of white man to whom Africa becomes so much a part of their lives that they feel they are the only ones who can understand it - that anyone who brings a view, no matter how positively intended, that is contrary to the way things have always been done here, is an unwelcome intruder who doesn’t understand the innate wisdom of the continent and its peoples. The problem with that view, at least in Hannington’s mind, is that it not only disparages any modern or outside view, much of which can be beneficial, but that it is most strongly held and articulated by those who are colonials themselves or are the descendants of same.
Hannington is an interesting guy. He’s got a wonderful smile and easy manner, doesn’t say much, but clearly watches and listens with great care and I have the sense that he’s fully aware of what’s going on at all times.
Heading down the road toward Goma, Simon and Hannington again talk of the AIDS problem. Simon says he thinks Khassin, our Tutsi driver with the tendency to cough and sneeze, is an AIDS victim. He says the runny nose and frequent cough are two of the signs he sees most often. Khassin is from an area with a high AIDS rate (Bujumbura, Burundi. Both Simon and Hannington tell stories of the open and aggressive prostitutes who work there.) Also, as he points out, Khassin is very thin. In Kenya, he tells me, that’s the name they use for the disease: “thin.”
Getting back to the massacres, Simon says there were two radio stations broadcasting during the war and the period leading up to it: Radio Rwanda and Radio Milles Collines. Both were encouraging the killers, but Radio Milles Collines, he says, was particularly ugly. Its announcer was a white man, a Belgian (Georges Ruggiu, subsequently named by the Belgian government as one “inciting to violence” for his diatribes against Belgians and calling for attacks against Belgian citizens living in Rwanda), who was as much an extremist as any Hutu and trumpeted the call to young people to get involved in the massacres, to kill the “cockroaches.” There was also a very sultry-voiced woman, he says, who would ask, “Morning, boys. Who’s going to help us fill the graves today?”
Back at HCR HQ, we check in and Nici tells me that Elizabeth is working on my request, trying to find someone who will talk to me privately. Joel stops for a minute and I ask him about the rumors I’ve continued to hear about “Operation Blessing.” He smiles and says it isn’t, from his perspective, either an effective or particularly legitimate organization. It does not operate in harmony with the UNHCR or the other NGO’s here, seems to have its own (heavy-handed religious) agenda, has only a small medical staff attached and therefore has little impact on the situation. In short, it simply isn’t a serious effort as far as he can see. On the other hand, and one can speculate that this is the sole raison d’etre, it’s a great photo-opportunity for those who choose to “drop in” and, indications are, its existence here is very useful in leveraging contributions out of Stateside constituents. The discussion continues in a general way about some of the other people and organizations who use this emergency situation to their own personal, political or fundraising advantage. He sees them, unfortunately, with some regularity. One he mentions is Americares, a group out of the northeastern U.S. that is very good at getting publicity for its “good works.” They tried to generate a publicity bonanza out of having been able to alleviate the terrible distress during the cholera crisis by bringing in, of all things, a planeload of Gatorade. Joel just shakes his head at the memory, suggesting that the idea was not only lunatic, it was medically counterproductive and dangerous.
Outside, we find Khassin and head back to the Karibu to clean up a bit. We’re to meet a group from HQ for dinner at the restaurant Richard Walden told us about a hundred years ago in Los Angeles. Owned by a Belgian, he said, it boasts a $12 chocolate mousse and T-Bone steaks on the menu.
Khassin tells us on the way to the hotel that he was hassled by some Zairean soldiers today who took $20 from him. He wasn’t doing anything, he says, they just stopped him and pushed him around. We hear a lot of that kind of talk, since the Zairean soldiers are notorious for extorting money from people, but this is as close as it’s come to us. Again, the point is made that they’re not paid, suggesting that this behavior is what’s to be expected. I ask Simon and Hannington if it can be true that they’re not paid anything and the response is that if they are, it’s so little it’s virtually nothing.
A quick change into something a bit less dusty and we gather again and head back into the city. The restaurant is surprisingly nice; open, very European in feeling with a long wooden bar, sofas and over-stuffed chairs in the waiting area where we gather. All of our gang is there (including Simon and Hannington), plus Lino, Nici, Elizabeth and some of the others from HQ. Talk centers mostly on preparation for the census.
Elizabeth says she is to have a “security meeting” in the morning at Mugunga Camp with a group of “representatives” of the various factions within the camp. It certainly won’t be one on one, but some of the people there certainly fit into the category I had mentioned to her, would that be of interest if it can be arranged? It sure would, at least for me, so she’ll see what can be done.
When we’re taken into the dining room and seated at a long table, Nici ends up seated between David and I, and we get a chance to find out more about her. A lawyer, she spent a couple of years working with Amnesty International in Asia before coming on as a Protection Officer for the UNHCR. Smart as a whip, experienced, extremely articulate and remarkably attractive, she presents quite a dazzling picture of the young, committed, humanitarian activist professional. I’m reminded of Nina Winquist, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) representative we met in Somalia two years ago, who impressed our group there in the same way. It’s heartening, actually inspiring, to meet people who have so much going that it’s clear they could succeed on probably any level they chose back “in the world” who have instead chosen to serve in this way - in these kinds of circumstances. After a while, I ask for clarification of the UNHCR position on the various issues that pertain here, citing my earlier disagreement with Lino.
It’s interesting to hear her launch into an impassioned description of an organization (UNHCR) very much torn by the situation in which it finds itself. She describes a split in the thinking within the group on this very subject and, I’m pleased to hear, says she has had “screaming fights” with Lino on the matter herself. The High Commissioner’s position, currently held, is that they should not encourage repatriation of refugees because of the danger of violence to them once they return. Instead, they are to “facilitate” the return of any who wish to volunteer to go back. This view is shared, Nici indicates, by a minority of the people on the ground here, with the majority believing that conditions in the country have stabilized to the degree that return should be encouraged (and, I think it’s fair to infer, is being encouraged, if subtly). She says the High Commissioner will be coming out soon and this view will be expressed to her as forcefully as possible. Further, she says, the UNHCR has a mandate to not only provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, but also to interview applicants for refugee status with an eye toward determining who does and who does not have a legitimate claim. It is, in her view, inappropriate for them to be providing shelter, comfort and support to many of these people who are in fact simply a vanquished army and are using this respite for their own purposes of rebuilding and re-supply. Further, and more disconcerting in this situation, she indicates, is the problem that many of them may be perpetrators of human rights violations on a massive scale.
Questions of how one goes about separating the good ones from the bad are big issues for a later time, she says, but indicates her own view that it is imperative that the process begin. Separate camps for military might be one possibility, with a declared, short-term life. Closing all the camps at a date certain, carefully pre-planned and pre-announced, might be another. And certainly moving the camps further inland, away from the border so they aren’t such a convenient launching pad for cross-border raids should be an immediate consideration (if such can be worked out with the Zairean Government).
She’s interested to learn that I know a human rights lawyer from Goma, (Joseph Mudumbe, who was one of the Human Rights Watch honorees this past month in Los Angeles) and offers to try to contact him since I’ve been unable to do so. She says he might well be a valuable person for her to know. She’s going to try to help Elizabeth arrange to get us into the security meeting tomorrow and if they’re successful perhaps a meeting with Joseph would be possible afterwards. Simon says he would like to go to the meeting as well and Nici says if it can be arranged at all he’ll be welcome, but won’t be allowed to bring his camera. It would certainly set things off, she says.
An interesting evening. Certainly an interesting and helpful woman.
Soon eyelids begin to droop and we pay the bill and head for the wagons. Nici is staying at the Karibu as well, so drives me back. When we all get to the hotel, Barbara comes over and expresses her concern about Khassin. She says he’s afraid to drive back through the city (he’s staying at or near the HQ) alone and wants to know if Nici can help. (It’s interesting to watch the process, because Nici has just been talking about how exhausted she is from all the tension associated with the preparations for the census, the negotiations, the security considerations, etc., and how much she’s looking forward to a good night’s rest, but it takes her only a moment to say that he needn’t worry, she’ll follow him back and make sure he gets there safely.) With that, Caroline, David and I decide we’ll go as well and in a moment we’re off again. An eerie touch at that very moment is a burst of automatic weapons fire coming from the direction of Mugunga Camp. Training, or intimidation? Nici says it could be either.
The trip riding shotgun for Khassin is relatively quick and easy, and the trip back uneventful, so we say our good nights, walk down the path to our rooms and turn in. God, it’s dark out here!