A former aid worker remembers the silence, pain, and foreboding of Rwanda -- just after the 1994 genocide.
I was detailed in August and September 1994 to help assist the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) disaster-relief team working in Rwanda in the aftermath of that country's genocide. It was my first humanitarian field experience. These are some of my recollections from my time on the ground.
There were two other passengers on the small United Nations World Food Program plane headed to Rwanda's capital, Kigali. We did not talk during the short flight from Uganda. As the aircraft banked sharply toward the Kigali airport, I looked down at the local soccer arena, which had been converted into a makeshift parking lot for a fleet of white U.N. armored personnel carriers.
After landing, we loaded our bags and several boxes of medical supplies into the back of a U.N. vehicle parked next to the plane and drove out of the airport and onto the road; there was no passport check, luggage carousel, or customs.
Ours was virtually the only car on the road. As our driver snaked his way along curves, he casually pointed out several spots on the street where someone had painted white lines around potholes. "See those circles? Those are land mines and unexploded ordnance --mortar shells, rounds from rocket-propelled grenades -- that kind of thing." Almost as an afterthought he added, "You'll want to avoid those when you are driving."
I was dispatched from our base at the embassy with a colleague, Kim Maynard, to assess a cluster of displaced-person camps in northwestern Rwanda. As we drove west, the low, rolling hills were green and lush, but the entire countryside was vacant. Just months before, Rwanda had been the most crowded country in Africa, its roads thickly congested with people, vehicles, and livestock. Yet now there were no workers toiling in the fields; the markets were empty; schools, churches, and businesses were abandoned. Those few people we saw lingered nervously near their homes and melted away upon our approach.
Stark numbers told the same story that we saw as we drove: Eight hundred thousand people had been killed in 100 days not long before our arrival. Over 2 million people -- most of them Hutu -- had fled the country as refugees, primarily to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Countless more had fled their homes but stayed within Rwanda, living with relatives or gathering in large camps. More than 40 percent of Rwanda's population was either dead or displaced.
* * *
In contrast to the stillness of the countryside, the first displaced camp we visited was teeming. There were thousands of people. Some were living in a low-slung building that looked like it had been a school, but the majority of families sprawled out across a field stripped of its vegetation. Most were living out in the open, or in ramshackle temporary huts made of plastic, cardboard, or scavenged pieces of corrugated tin. Implausibly thin mothers clutched sickly newborns and begged for medicine. An old man lying prone in the red clay had flies resting on his sunken cheeks.
As we worked in the northwest
over the days that followed, we came across scene after scene of horror. In a
hospital outside of one camp, a nurse explained how the Hutu doctor that had
run the facility had methodically killed most of his Tutsi patients and staff. "Right there in the beds," the nurse
said: "He was
very involved in politics, and he was very committed to Hutu power, but we
thought it was just talk. We did not care so much about politics, and he was a
doctor. He was a big man. He gave the same speeches over and over again. It was
silly. We joked about it when he wasn't listening. He said we should be more
patriotic. He was always saying, 'Tutsis are criminals; they want to kill us
all. We must organize against them.'"
"I could not stop this," the nurse added. She fled into the countryside, taking refuge with family members, and had only just returned. She was hoping that the hospital would start functioning again. She needed the work. The nurse had heard that Hutu fighters had forced some of her coworkers to retreat with them to "take care of the wounded." She did not expect to see them again.
The Rwandans, both Tutsi and Hutu, tended to be painstakingly soft-spoken, and it was difficult to imagine such personalities erupting in violence. One day, stopping by the side of the road, I listened quietly as a young mother described having last seen her husband and two children six weeks earlier: "We heard stories that the Hutus had lists of names and were starting to kill people. It was no longer safe to stay in the house, and we went to hide in the fields. They had set fire to some houses near ours, and one man -- we had known him all our lives -- said, 'We will be back for you very soon.' It was as if we had never met before. Our children used to play together. At first, we thought they just wanted money, but you could see it was more. These men could do what they wanted. We had no time to take any of our things. There were checkpoints on all of the roads."
It was unclear from the woman's story exactly how she had been separated from her husband and children. I did not ask. "I hid in the fields for days, and I could hear the men searching," she told me. "They were drunk. They were singing and blowing whistles, celebrating when they found someone. I do not think I slept. I saw many bodies. Even then, some of the other families in the fields wanted to return to their houses. They thought it would be safe. This was so foolish. It made me angry."
* * *
Almost every Tutsi we spoke with offered an incredibly long list of dead relatives. A Rwandan working with one aid group calmly ticked off the names of 17 of his murdered family members.
To understand the amount of human labor that went into the massacres was to acknowledge how successful the hard-line Hutu government had been in drawing the public to its cause. At the height of the genocide, people stacked bodies in front of the houses of important Hutu leaders to demonstrate their fealty to the cause, like cats proudly depositing eviscerated mice on a doorstep.
I often spotted single shoes lying in the roadway or on the front lawns of houses. They bothered me. In a poor country, you do not just lose a single, perfectly good shoe. A solitary shoe meant that a person had fled for his life, or was pushed into a truck, or was torn apart from a loved one. With each lone sandal, slipper, or sneaker, you could imagine panicked last moments.
But while Rwanda had brought out the very worst in some people, it had also revealed remarkable strengths. There were Hutus that risked their own lives to save Tutsi friends and neighbors, sometimes literally hiding them under the bed or floorboards. Hutus helped Tutsis forge identity cards or claimed them as family members. Bizarrely, we even heard stories of Hutu soldiers who hid Tutsi friends in their closets -- but then went out during the day and slaughtered other Tutsi.
* * *
Goma is located at the northern end of Lake Kivu in eastern Congo, a very short distance from the border with Rwanda. Having watched scenes from a refugee camp there on the news before I arrived, I was startled to find that Goma itself was a dilapidated resort village. Congo, having long suffered under the horribly corrupt leadership of President Mobutu Sese Seko, was lawless and run-down. The government could not provide security for its own citizens, much less the refugees pouring out of Rwanda.
As we approached the Goma refugee camp, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of women wearing brightly colored wraps walking on the shoulder of the road. The women, most of whom carried bundles of sticks on their heads, were scrounging further and further away from the camp each day, looking for fuel for their fires.
A rush of movement caught my attention. Not far from the road, I could see three Hutu savagely beating a man on the ground. We could do nothing. We were unarmed, and there were no peacekeepers in sight. The women with the sticks walked faster.
Death in Goma was unceremonious. Bodies were stacked by the side of the road. The bodies were tangled, their clothes dirty and disheveled, looking like discarded, broken dolls. A heavy truck half-full of the dead moved slowly down the road, and the men in charge of its awful cargo wore bandanas over their mouths to dampen the stench.
The Goma camp was perched in the shadow of an active volcano. The ground was craggy volcanic rock that was sharp enough to tear through sneakers. The air was caustic with the smell of wood smoke and far too many people living packed together. The scene was a vast, grim tableau of green and blue tarps providing temporary shelter, as well as lean-tos, huts, small igloo-shaped creations, and A-frames made from plastic sheeting, bamboo, cornstalks, wood, old raincoats, and straw. Mothers, often grasping children, waited in long lines for meager rations of food. People clustered around huge temporary rubber water tanks 30 feet tall, eager for their moment at a spigot.
Hutu soldiers and militia men sat around drinking and playing cards, killing time. The anger and bitterness was plain on their faces. None of their grand conspiracies for wiping out the Tutsi were supposed to end up with them sitting powerless in a refugee camp. Yet they -- and innocent Hutu civilians who had also fled their homes -- believed that facing dysentery, disease, and deprivation was preferable to risking Tutsi retribution for the incredible slaughter of the preceding weeks.
Goma was bitter duty for relief workers. Armed and uniformed men were present throughout the camp; most did not bother to conceal their weapons. Relief workers were delivering aid not only to innocent refugees but also directly to mass murderers. Could they let thousands of innocent people die because they did not want to feed those killers?
* * *
Near the end of my time in Rwanda, I drove back to the border crossing between Rwanda and Congo. The people I was picking up were late, so I struck up a conversation with a Rwandan Tutsi border guard.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Butare," he replied, one of the larger cities in southern Rwanda.
"When was the last time you were there?" I inquired.
"Oh," he said, with a fleeting look of embarrassment, "I have never actually been to Butare. That is where my parents are from, so that is my home."
The soldier's parents had fled to Uganda from Rwanda in 1959 during an earlier round of ethnic violence. He had lived his entire life as a refugee. The first chance for him to return to his home country came when he and other Tutsi refugees invaded Rwanda in an effort to stem the rapidly expanding genocide against his own people.
He would finally be able to return to the modest house and small piece of farmland that his parents had abandoned 35 years before. But the return of Tutsi forces had also triggered the new, large exodus of Hutu refugees. Just miles from where we stood, countless young Hutu boys in the Goma refugee camp were darting between temporary huts and cook fires, playing with toy guns and dreaming of leading a triumphal army back into Rwanda.
The people I was waiting for appeared. Thanking the border guard, I tossed some bags in the back of the Land Cruiser before setting off. I wanted to make sure we got to Kigali with plenty of daylight.
Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images