Today is no ordinary day in Rwanda or Burundi. But no one would call it a holiday. 20 years ago last night, the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over Kigali (Rwanda). There were no survivors.
No one really knows who shot the plane down; everyone has his or her own conspiracy theory. Most now believe that extremist members of the Hutu caste* (Habyarimana’s caste) shot down their own president’s plane in order to provoke a “spontaneous popular uprising” (quotation marks because there was nothing spontaneous about it) against the Tutsi rebels, who would be immediately suspected, and the entire Tutsi caste. It was basically Rwanda’s Reichstag.The circumstances surrounding the crash may be in doubt, but the consequences are unquestionable. In Rwanda, those who had spoken out against the Hutu extremists’ ideology were the first to die, no matter what their ethnicity. The next morning, the methodical, house-to-house murders started, and this time members of the Tutsi caste were explicitly targeted. Every Tutsi was a dangerous rebel, the the theory went, even if they were still in the womb. Nearly a million Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were killed in cold blood in 100 days. At least two million, both Tutsis trying to flee the genocide and Hutus terrified of reprisal killings, were displaced. Thousands of people, including Béatrice Mukamulindwa’s children (link in French) , disappeared without a trace and remain missing to this day. In July of that year, the real rebels, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who were mostly Tutsi, chased the remnants of the old government from power ands set about rebuilding the country as best they could**, under the leadership of ex-rebel leader Paul Kagame . But who can imagine a bigger task?
In Burundi, President Ntaryamira’s death could have made things go from bad to much much worse. Burundi had already lived through its own genocide. Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, the country’s first elected president, had been killed in a coup d’état in October 1993. Some have attributed a major role in the coup d’état to the Tutsi ex-president, Pierre Buyoya. Ndadaye’s killing had set off waves of reprisal killings in the countryside, which left several hundred thousand dead, mostly Tutsis, and hundreds of thousands more displaced. My friend Diomède Niyonzima, who was only an 11-year-old kid, was one of the thousands of displaced. Over 40 members of his family were killed, including his father, grandparents and brothers. Watch his video capsule: one story out of hundreds of thousands. President Ntaryamira, Ndadaye’s agriculture minister, had been appointed president after long and painstaking negotiations within the Ndadaye government***. On April 6, all of that went up in smoke.
While the machetes came out in Rwanda, Burundi’s National Assemby speaker Sylvestre Ntibantunganya asserted power and gathered the remaining members of the government, sending them into the countryside and onto the airwaves to appeal for calm. Against expectations, it worked. Ntibantunganya was not particularly effective in office and was later forced from power in a coup d’état himself. But he was at least effective in this.
The slow-burning Burundian conflict, which only ended on paper in 2005, and the 100-day Rwandan inferno, had one thing in common. At the time, the dying was met with indifference.
Flashback to my visit in 2011 to the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, Rwanda. Here and here.
Photo credit Alan Martin
The following text is written by a fellow journalist and former professor of mine, Alan Martin, who covered the Rwandan genocide aftermath:
When I left journalism school in Montreal there were two promises I made myself: a) I would never cover town council meetings; b) stick a microphone in the face and of a grieving family member and ask “What are you feeling?” and “How’s about a picture for the front page?”
Both, I felt, were below me.
The first promise fell by the way side within three months of graduating when I found myself covering the rural satellite towns of Sudbury, at the time a struggling mining centre in Northern Ontario. For $3 a column inch I did that. It was my baptism to the darkside of the business.
The other earnest pledge took longer to catch up to me.
Almost six years later I went to Rwanda to write a magazine piece about the pursuit of justice in a post-genocide era.
Within a day of being there I had asked more people about the intimacies of their grief to last a lifetime. For if one is to write about genocide how can the privacies of both the deceased and the survivors not be invaded? Everyone has a story. Horrific stories of butchery, rape, and betrayal. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to find people who continue to endure the profound losses that come with the extinction of their entire family.
Asking questions of genocide survivors was exactly as unpalatable as I expected it to be. Many assured me to ask whatever I wanted—they had been through it countless times before with other mzungu journalists on their fleeting genocide tours—but that did nothing to assuage my guilt. It was as classy as rubber-necking a bloody accident scene.
I first got to plumb the depths of man’s depraved indifference an hour’s drive south-east of Kigali, at the end of a red dirt road that leads to the parish of Ntarama.
The journey there is enough to lull you into a sense of amnesia. The way is lined with fragrant eucalyptus groves and over-sized aloe trees. The countryside is stunningly beautiful, a series of rolling, terraced hills that stretch for miles until they melt into the rose haze of the horizon. Beside the road goats graze under the watchful eye of herdboys, and in a lush valley below women wash clothes in a slow moving river while peasant farmers work their plots in the simmering equatorial heat.
It is as it should be, but not as it was.
There at the end of that dirt road is a church—a simple red-bricked number that now serves as one of many grim and poignant reminders of the nightmare that visited in 1994.
Littered across the church floor are the human remains of a massacre that claimed an estimated 5,000 lives. A child’s broken rib cage lies next to a pelvis. On a kneeling bench someone’s lower jaw rests beside a corn pipe and a rosary. Scattered between the bones are some of the personal belongings of the victims: a pink shoe, a blue kerosene lantern, a couple of soiled mattresses.
Outside in a makeshift shack hundreds of skulls are piled neatly on a table, row upon row, as if to give order to the unthinkable. Among the heads, some scared by single bullet holes or the hacks of machete blades, toy figurines of Jesus and the Virgin Mary keep a vacant watch.
As I browse the skulls, not unlike someone inspecting the cabbages in a grocery store, an elderly man approaches.
“We took refuge here for four days before the Interahamwe came,” explained Pacifique Rutaganda, a retired farmer who lost his entire family of 12 and serves as a guide at the memorial.
“We thought we would be safe inside the church, but they broke open the walls and threw in grenades. When people tried to escape they were waiting for us outside with guns and machetes.”
As we speak my eyes kept drifting to the figurines. To my lapsed Protestant mind their presence there seemed off. How does a believer reconcile their faith in a God when the sanctity of His house was so disrespected in His presence? Do the locals really hold no hard feelings towards the Virgin Mary?
These are questions I should have asked the old man but did not have the nerve to do so. I chickened out. I convinced myself that inquiries of his religion would be an indignity too far.
But my self-censorship was more for my sake than for his.
I have seen the aftermath of other episodes of human cruelty—apartheid, the silent killer of famine and poverty, the broken lives of former child soldiers—but there is something different about coming face to face with the world’s first televised genocide.
How many of us watched the savagery on the evening news and still ate our dinners without pause? Or worse, turned the TV off?
God was not the only one who stood aside and let it happen.
So did we.