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

Twenty years ago on April 6, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda began. At the time, many Western reporters played it down as "ethnic warfare," including Bartholomäus Grill, now a correspondent for SPIEGEL. He looks back with shame.

By Bartholomäus Grill

It was April 1994, and Princess was infected by the feverish mood that had taken hold in all of South Africa at the time. She was our housekeeper in Johannesburg, a plump, sedate and humorous woman, whose real name was Nolizwe Mneno. She had changed her name to make it easier for white people to remember.

The first free election in the country's history was slated for the end of the month, an election in which all citizens -- black and white -- would participate for the first time. The end of apartheid made headlines around the world, an epochal event with more than 400 correspondents reporting on it. I was one of them.

On April 16, 11 days before the "mother of all elections," a press contingent accompanied Nelson Mandela, the future president, to the Umlazi Township near Durban. It was one of his final appearances before the election, and about 50,000 people had gathered for an open-air rally, dancing, singing and celebrating the freedom fighter as though he were the Messiah.

White domination was coming to an end; an African dream was becoming a reality. It was the news story of the day, but only because no one -- including me -- was aware of the sheer magnitude of the nightmare unfolding in the center of the continent at the same time. I was working for the German weekly Die Zeit at the time and, like others, I too wrote unforgivable stories from afar for which I am ashamed today, 20 years later.

The first reports from Rwanda, 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the north, were confusing: accounts of military showdowns, bloody unrest, ethnic squabbles and fraternal strife. SPIEGEL published a story in its 16/1994 edition which spoke of "anarchy that feeds on itself." Rwanda was dismissed as a typically African conflict. "Rwanda?" a British colleague asked, "Oh, it's just the Tutsi and the Hutu smashing each other's heads in. It's never-ending tribal warfare."

The "tribal warfare" was in fact genocide, the most horrific since the Nazi murder of Jews during the Holocaust and "Killing Fields" of Cambodia.

"We were left alone. The entire world looked the other way," says Jonathan Nturo, 34, a slender, small-boned man. He is sharply dressed, wearing a red leather jacket, Burberry jeans and sunglasses. He wants to look cool when he visits the hell he managed to escape.

A Mystery to This Day

Standing on a hilltop in Murambi, a scattered settlement in southern Rwanda, Nturo recounts how he and his family and their five head of cattle arrived there. He describes how they, together with tens of thousands of terrified people, set up an emergency camp on a construction site for a high school, next to the same three, now-rusty yellow cement mixers that are still standing there today. Government troops had promised to protect the refugees, and they were still hopeful they would escape the mass murderers. Jonathan Nturo was 14 at the time.

On April 6, at 8:20 p.m., a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down as it approached the airport in the capital Kigali. The circumstances of the incident remain a mystery to this day. But the apparent assassination marked the beginning of the genocide. That same night, the presidential guard and Interahamwe militias ("fighting together" in the official Rwandan language Kinyarwanda) went on a murderous and incendiary rampage through the streets of Kigali. A group of fanatical Hutu had seized power and decided to wipe out the Tutsi minority, which made up about 10 percent of the population, once and for all. The violence swept across the entire country within a week.

"My father didn't want to believe it at first," Nturo recalls. "Only when villages began burning in our region and three of my siblings had been killed did we leave and head for Murambi." They reached what they believed was a relative safe-haven on April 10, at around 4 p.m.

At 10:30 that evening, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, in Kigali, called his operations center in New York. The Canadian officer was the head of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Its mandate was to keep the fragile peace and safeguard the transition to democracy that had been negotiated in the 1993 Arusha Accords.

For months, Dallaire had been issuing dire warnings about escalating violence in Rwanda. In January, he had reported on secret weapons caches, hit lists and death squads in an encrypted telex. Now the peacekeepers' worst-case scenario had become a reality. Dallaire requested immediate reinforcements, arguing that disaster could be averted with about 4,000 troops and a strong mandate. But his superiors in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, headed by the later UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, turned down the request. They refused to believe that a crime against humanity was about to unfold in Rwanda.

'African Holocaust'

During the next 100 days, the Hutu regime and its accomplices murdered some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu -- the equivalent of five killings a minute. It is likely that never before in human history had so many perpetrators murdered so many people in such a short period of time. Roméo Dallaire would characterize it as an "African Holocaust."

The inferno erupted in Murambi at 3 a.m. on April 21. Suddenly, soldiers began shooting indiscriminately into the crowd and tossing hand grenades, says Nturo. An hour later, militias from the surrounding hills forced their way into the camp and started systematically slaughtering the helpless refugees, using machetes, knives, spears, sickles, hoes and clubs.

The Nturo family was torn apart in the chaos. Jonathan joined a group of young men who desperately tried to defend themselves by throwing bricks from the construction site at the assailants. But they were greatly outnumbered. Almost miraculously, about 100 of the trapped refugees, including Nturo, managed to escape in the midst of army gunfire. They ran down into the valley and swam across the Murambi River.

Nturo points to a banana grove on the opposite hillside, where he hid in the early morning hours. He is trying not to let on how disturbing the memories are to him.

Nevertheless, he seems distraught, gesticulating wildly, speaking quickly and stuttering occasionally. "We are afraid to talk about it," he says. He tells us about the sleepless nights when the ghosts of the past return to haunt him, and about the unsuccessful attempts to treat him for post-traumatic stress disorder in therapy.

At least 40,000 people died in Murambi, the scene of one of the most horrific massacres. No one knows the exact death toll, but skeletons are still being found in the area today. "Kubera umurimo wari wakozwe" ("You've done good work"), the prefect of the Gikongoro administrative district said, thanking the hordes of killers.

The first TV images appearing around the world during those initial days were so monstrous and inconceivable that commentators referred to the slaughter as an "aberration of nature," a murderous frenzy, a "maladie de tuer," or "killing sickness" -- as if the genocide had descended on Rwanda like an insidious virus.

Naive Global Press

Today we know that the genocide was not the work of archaic, chaotic powers, but of an educated, modern elite that availed itself of all the tools of a highly organized state: the military and the police, the intelligence services and militias, the government bureaucracy and the mass media. The killers were no demons but the henchmen of a criminal system. They pursued a simple logic of extermination: If we don't wipe out them, the Tutsi, they will destroy us, the Hutu.

A national memorial was built in Murambi, where the unfinished school buildings were left untouched. "The media didn't describe what happened here as genocide, but as ethnic warfare," the first informational panel reads. Rwandans haven't forgotten how naïve the global press was at the time.

The murderous excesses had nothing at all to do with "tribal warfare." The Hutu and the Tutsi have shared language, customs and culture for centuries. There were mixed marriages, and many Rwandans were unable to tell whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi. The causes of the tragedy were to be found elsewhere: the pressures of overpopulation in a small, agricultural country, the struggle over scarce resources, colonial segregation policies that had fueled latent racism between the ethnic groups and the ruling elite's thirst for power.

A sickening stench of decay emerges from the open doors of the classrooms in Murambi. Hundreds of chalk-wide bodies, preserved in lime, lie on wooden platforms inside, people with severed limbs, beheaded children, crushed skulls with spearheads protruding from them, women whose legs were ripped apart to rape them -- and faces frozen in expressions of horror.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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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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