Prison of the Past A Reporter Revisits His 'Shameful' Coverage of Rwanda

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Part 2: Time Standing Still


There is probably no other memorial in the world where human bestiality is on such blatant and brutal display. Nturo pushes his Ray Bans up onto his forehead. He has stopped speaking and is fighting back tears.

He only finds his voice again when he goes back outside, stepping onto a concrete slab overgrown with grass. "Under here is the mass grave that the French played volleyball on top of," he says. The French, who had cultivated a close friendship with the Hutu regime, supplied it with weapons, advised its military and trained its militias. The French also sent a "rescue mission" to Rwanda, Opération Turquoise, when the murderous orgies were over. It created a safety corridor through which the killers, mingled in with hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, were able to escape to Burundi or Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Some boys holding up homemade pinwheels wave at us as we drive away from the memorial. "The normalcy is eerie," says Nturo. "Sometimes I'm amazed that grass still grows here, that life goes on."

He wants to go up to Gataba, where his father and brother were beaten to death. They too managed to flee from Murambi, but they only made it to the small village on the next hill. We encounter a man on a bicycle with a stack of brand-new machetes on his rack. The smooth blades glitter in the sunshine.

Nturo intended to speak with the wife of the man who murdered his family members. But as we drive slowly past her shop, he loses his resolve. "No, not today," he says. "The mood is strange." In fact, the mood is hostile, as people on the village square stare at our off-road vehicle. Nturo doesn't want us to get out to interview them. Their answers, he says, can be read in their suspicious faces: Here comes that guy with journalists, stirring up the old stories. It's time to finally let it go. After all, as they would argue, the "incidents" happened two decades ago, and the past is the past.

But the past refuses to go away, not for Nturo, and not here in Gataba. The bodies were lying on the ground in front of a white-tiled market stand, a sort of sales counter where the meat of cattle and goats was cut up. Four men beat his father and brother to death, says Nturo. Their leader, a wealthy businessman, is now in prison and his wife is running his affairs. Perpetrators and victims live side-by-side in Gataba, with its majority Hutu and minority Tutsi population.

'It's Justice'

Some try to suppress what happened 20 years ago, while others are unable to forget. Those who are too vocal about the Hutu-Tutsi question are accused of "divisionism" and given severe penalties for making incendiary remarks. Rwanda's authoritarian government, which has ordered reconciliation, is still headed by President Paul Kagame, the Tutsi whose rebel army captured the country in 1994 and ended the genocide. Today Rwanda is an economic success, a dictatorship in the developing world modeled after China or Singapore. And just as in those places, anyone who opposes the regime is harassed and silenced, if necessary.

On the trip back to Kigali, we see prison gangs working in rice fields on the valley floor. Ordinary criminals are wearing pink prison uniforms, and from a distance they look like a group of flamingos. In their midst are some dressed in bright orange: They have been convicted of committing acts of genocide. "Everyone should see that they were 'génocidaires.' They must pay for their crimes. It's justice," says Nturo.

He grew in an extended family of 14, but he and his mother along with two sisters and one brother were the only ones to survive the massacres. He has often been asked to guide tours in Murambi, but has always refused. He has built a tall, protective wall around himself, a wall that begins to crumble whenever he returns to this place of death. His strategy for overcoming the past is to suppress it, through hard work and professional success. He studied business and finance administration at the University of Butare and he earns a good living in his job at an aid organization. He lives alone in Kigali. He doesn't want to be reduced to an "Abarokotse," or a survivor who is eternally imprisoned by his memory.

Some Rwandans are innocent captives, including Dancille Nyirabazungu, who has been locked in the prison of the past for the last 20 years. Time has stood still for her since April 1994, she says. Every day, her poverty reminds her of the massacre that took place in the church in Ntarama, not far from her hut. She lost 20 family members and relatives, five of her nine children were killed and her husband was hacked to death with machetes in front of the church altar.

The 61-year-old now lives with her son and two grandchildren in a house consisting of two small, dark rooms. There are no tables or chairs, there is no electricity or running water, just an outhouse in the vegetable garden. Nyirabazungu has just come home from work, her clothes are tattered and dusty. Her job consists of dragging around stones on a construction site, for a daily wage of just under €1.

A Large, Dark Stain

Ntarama is in the Bugesera district, a swampy, inhospitable stretch of land plagued by mosquitoes and where, in the first major pogroms in the late 1950s, many Tutsi fled or were forcibly relocated. In April 1994, during the time of "Itumba," or heavy rain, they were to be destroyed once and for all, like vermin. The hate-obsessed Hutu called them "Inyenzi," or cockroaches.

Thousands of Tutsi fled from the surrounding areas to the church in Ntarama, in the hope that this holy place would be protected, because many of the persecutors were devout Catholics who, like their victims, attended mass every Sunday. Dancille Nyirabazungu and her family also sought protection in the church. But on April 15, at 8 a.m., militias surrounded the building. They beat holes into the brick walls of the church and threw hand grenades inside. Then they forced their way into the building and killed those who were still alive.

A large, dark stain -- the blood of battered babies -- is still visible on the front wall of the building next door, which once housed the Sunday school. There is a stick leaning against the wall. "That," says Nyirabazungu, "is what they used to skewer the women, from their vaginas to the tops of their heads." Her voice is flat and matter-of-fact, and if it weren't for her eyes, it would seem as if she felt no emotion whatsoever. But the horrors of that day are permanently etched into those eyes.

Why? Why? She repeats the question over and over again. Why? She has no explanation for the acts of barbarism. How could one explain that doctors killed their patients in their hospital beds; that teachers massacred their students; that nuns poured gasoline on parishioners and set them on fire?

"Keep going! The graves aren't full yet!" announcers with the national radio station, Radio Milles Collines, told the unfettered mob. Killing became a civil duty of sorts, and ordinary people, raised to obey authority, complied. They kept on killing, driven by fear, hate and bloodlust, and by greed for the victims' property.

A Dark Feeling of Foreboding

Nyirabazungu, 41 at the time, hid in the vestry under piles of bodies, pregnant with her son Eric. He was born in June 1994, a child of the genocide. She gave him a second name, Rucyamubicyika, or "He who has survived terrible things."

Where was God in those days of murder? "He was here, or else we wouldn't have survived," says Nyirabazungu. And then she asks, in return: "Where were you? Why didn't you help us?"


These kinds of questions still shame me today. It wasn't just the UN, the West and other African nations that failed; it was also journalists, like me. We ran after the big story in South Africa, paying little attention to Rwanda or merely spreading clichés about the country.

On April 15, when the massacre in Ntarama was in full swing, my quickly written remote analysis was published in Die Zeit. I told tales of the "gruesome tribal war" in the heart of Africa, where everyone was fighting against everyone else. Bellum omnium contra omnes -- the Latin phrase always fits when you know little about what is actually happening.

At the end, I wrote that foreign intervention was probably pointless. That report contains the most unforgivable mistakes I have ever made in my professional life.

On Sunday, April 24, 1994, it was as silent as a grave in the Catholic church of Ntarama. The bodies were lying between the pews; it was a scene of unspeakable horror. Piles of corpses lay in the church courtyard, in the surrounding bush and in the swamps in the valley below.

But on that same Sunday, the congregation in Regina Mundi Church, the largest Catholic church in Soweto, was singing. The early mass had begun, the election was only three days away, and the people were gripped by euphoria. They sang the national anthem, Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika, or God Protect Africa, as they celebrated life, freedom and the future. We reporters were swept up by the feeling of elation, and some sang along with the congregation.

There were holes in the ceiling, from the bullets white soldiers fired while hunting down black resistance fighters. But by then, the violent excesses of apartheid were nothing but vague memories. And in those hours of happiness, the violent excesses of Rwanda had not yet entered our consciousness, not even as a dark feeling of foreboding.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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pretextat86 04/04/2014
1. Again writing stuff you will be ashamed off
You're implying that the French were part of the genocide. Actually cooperation with the Rwandan government had started more than a decade before the killings. So the officers might have been French trained, but it's certainly wrong to say that they were in any way responsible for the genocide. Operation Turquoise was the only international action taken in the middst of the massacre. Most of the people fleeing were refugees with some killers mingling in. If you, as a journalist, are saying (and not quoting) that the French are responsible for the se killings, you should be able to back that with facts. Otherwise it's just as worthless as calling a genocide tribal warfare.
Frans van Pallander 04/04/2014
2. optional
I hope you are not equating the violent excesses of Apartheid with what happened in Rwanda. The total body count of 50 years of Apartheid is way below 15.000 and many of those were bearably 'excesses'.
peskyvera 04/04/2014
3. optional
And the Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who had warned of the imminent massacre, left to fend for himself and his meager UN troops. I can't help but feel that the West looked the other way on purpose.
charlesmayson 04/04/2014
4. Shameful coverage of Rwana
This journalist deserves recognition for his honesty and confession.Pity that France and the USA didn't have the same balls to follow suit. This genocide could have been stopped in its tracks had Bill Clinton not been such a coward having just before this had the Mogadishu experience with his speclal forces in Somalia. Our country (NZ)was chairing the UNSC at the time and and Colin Keating sought to bring a resolution to have the UN to become involved urgently but was blocked by the USA,France and Belgium. It was like Vichy France in the second world war with their complicity with the Nazis. I have a friend who served with the UN detail in Eastern Congo, which I know well and he saw the results of Kagame's revenge against the Hutu which continues to this day through the M23 and other Rwandan proxies. It's a blot on the history of the West's colonial exploitation of the region and its cowardly indifference to the ethnic factions its polarises and inflames.
conlaw 04/04/2014
5. Rwanda genocide 20 years on.
Man's inhumanity to man, knows no bounds
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