In the Wake of Mass Murder

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


When Is a Rock Not a Rock?

A small court in The Hague wrestles with an existential question that could put a stop to China's maritime power grab.

A diplomatic standoff between China and the Philippines that flared up two years ago in a dispute over fishing rights at a tiny shoal in the South China Sea is coming to a head after Manila decided to ignore Chinese threats and sue Beijing in an international tribunal.

The legal case marks the first time that an arbitration panel will examine China's contentious, and oft-disputed, claims to most of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest byways for shipping and a potentially rich source of oil and natural gas.

The suit itself, a gargantuan, 4,000 page "memorial" filed before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, amounts to what is basically an existential question about rocks. Or rather, it's about the Philippines' desire for scores of specks in the South China Sea to be officially classified by the international panel as rocks, rather than islands. On such arcane definitions can hang the fate of nations -- or in this case, the extension of economic rights of states to the seas and seabed off their coasts.

Simply put, islands are land, which entitle their owners to enjoy exclusive economic rights for 200 nautical miles in all directions, including rights to fishing and energy extraction. Rocks aren't, and don't.

If the tribunal rules against the Philippine claim, then the stakes in the battle for those specks of land would be much higher: whichever side eventually has its claims to the specks recognized by international law would be able to lay claim to vast areas potentially rich in resources. If Beijing loses the case, it will have to choose whether to abide by an international court or ignore its ruling and claim those seas anyway.

"What kind of great power will China be? Are they willing to play by the rules of the game or overthrow the system?" said Ely Ratner, deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank. "As much as there ever is, this is a clear-cut test of their willingness to bind themselves to rules that may end up not being in their favor."

It hasn't started well. China has refused to participate in the international arbitration, and has several times admonished Manila for what it calls "unilateralism" and "provocation." Beijing summoned the Philippine ambassador Monday for a tongue-lashing, two days after Chinese coast guard vessels tried unsuccessfully to block a Philippine resupply run to another disputed shoal.

Much of the world is watching. The United States has expressed support for the Philippines' effort to seek arbitration under international laws governing the use of the sea; Japan, embroiled in its own volatile territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, has also publicly backed Manila. But other countries in Southeast Asia who have their own territorial disputes with China have stayed quiet so far. Meanwhile, big oil companies are watching the legal showdown to see if it helps establish clarity that could make it easier to explore for oil and gas in a region that could have plenty of both.

The case is meant as a frontal challenge to China's infamous "Nine-dashed line," Beijing's vague but threatening effort to lay claim to nearly the entirety of the South China Sea to the detriment of neighbors including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Beijing inherited that map, and its ambitious claims, from the Nationalist government it defeated in the Chinese civil war in the 1940s. The expansive map has even become a fixture inside new Chinese passports.

Many scholars, though, think that China's claims are essentially bunk. The Law of the Sea Convention, which China signed and ratified, abolished the idea of historical claims as a way to determine maritime rights. Not surprisingly, Paul Reichler, the Washington lawyer who helped craft Manila's lawsuit, agrees. China, he says bluntly, "is violating international law and the [Law of Sea] Convention."

The suit doesn't seek to determine who actually owns the disputed specks of land, which include, fittingly enough, Mischief Reef. Instead, the issue is who owns the waters around them. Manila argues that the waters between its shores and the specks belong to the Philippines, because they are inside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone every country has. China says those waters belong to it.  

The suit has enraged Beijing, with the Chinese foreign ministry this week vowing that the Philippines will "face consequences" for making its legal case. While China refuses to take part in the arbitration -- which won't stop the process -- it has fired off a volley of arguments in recent days, the most detailed of which came from the Chinese embassy in Manila. In a nutshell, China says that it has the right to defend its own territory, and any disputes should be settled in a bilateral fashion, rather than through international arbitration.

"No matter how the Philippine memorial is packaged, the direct cause of the disputes between China and the Philippines is the latter's illegal occupation of some of China's islands and reefs in the South China Sea," Zhang Hua, the embassy spokesman, said in a posting on its website. "The Chinese side is steadfast in defending its territorial sovereignty and maritime interests and rights. The Philippines' plot is doomed to fail."

The standoff is sparking fresh fears of an armed conflict in the region. In recent years, China has ruffled feathers throughout Southeast Asia by pressing what many see as excessive territorial claims, and beefing up its civilian and military forces to back up its aggressive diplomacy.

"China was winning all its neighbors over to China's peaceful rise, and they have completely unraveled that in the region. Now, there are very few countries in the region who are not somewhere on the wary to skeptical to outright scared part of the spectrum," said Holly Morrow, an Asia expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center.

Particularly acute have been the naval tensions between China's muscular civilian patrol vessels and the overmatched coast guards of neighboring states. U.S. navy ships, including a guided missile destroyer, have also recently had close calls with Chinese vessels in the South China Sea. Experts worry that the lawsuit will prompt Beijing to take an even more aggressive stance in a bid to cow Manila.

"The rhetoric is becoming more shrill, and it's designed to dial up the pressure on the Philippines. In my mind, it's to threaten the use of force to change the dynamics in the negotiations" between the two sides, said Peter Dutton, the director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College.

Manila's quest for legal satisfaction in The Hague is an uphill struggle. The arbitration panel can't impose a settlement, and relies on the acquiescence of both parties to implement any ruling; China has made clear it will not cooperate. But in the court of public opinion, a Philippine victory sometime next year would make it much easier for Manila and Southeast Asian nations to push back against what they see as Chinese encroachment.

"The Philippines and other regional states would gain a strong public relations edge," making it easier for beleaguered countries in the region push back against Beijing, said Caitlyn Antrim, an expert on the Law of the Sea at the Stimson Center. Given China's interests in ensuring free navigation in more distant waters such as the Indian and Arctic oceans, the case may force it to rethink its strategy, she said.

"At some point China will have to choose either to fight for regional control, or global freedom of the seas."

Jay Directo - AFP - Getty