A Horse With No Name

The vase

I ran my fingers across the aluminium wreckage. We were standing in a garden bordered by a neatly kept lawn on the outskirts of Kigali. There were artificial rock formations, covered in flowers and lined with succulents and bamboo, and a small pond with a fountain. A low brick wall surrounded the land and the villa on it. But our attention wasn’t with the flowers, nor with the birds around the pond, nor with the villa, built in a strange mix of styles incorporating elaborate brickwork and different shades of wood panelling, giving the building a stylishly schizophrenic look, like something a Bond villain would inhabit. Instead our attention was with the aircraft parts scattered on the ground in front of us: a piece of landing gear, bits of metal that at some point had been part of a fuselage or cockpit, and compressor blades and rotors from a turbine engine. A sign by the entrance of the property had made it clear that taking pictures wasn’t allowed under any circumstances. Watching us walk around in disbelief among the bits of wreckage, our guide stood off to the side with a stern look, and solemnly repeated: “No pictures please”.

Jordan and I had been on the same flight from Accra to Nairobi, and then on to Kigali. He was from California, taking a short holiday from his exchange year in Ghana, studying political science. Upon arrival in Kigali we had gone off together to purchase local SIM cards, all the while wondering about the remarkable state of the Kigali airport. It was modern, clean, and with orderly queues in front of the VISA offices and customs inspection desks. Outside stood a neat row of buffed and shiny taxis, their drivers well-dressed and polite. Much of this was unlike the other African airports I’d seen and stood in stark contrast to the squirming chaos that I had faced arriving in places like Accra and Antananarivo. No hustlers, no touts, no aggressive drivers claiming your patronage by snatching your luggage and running off to their vehicle. But the atmosphere and the climate were unmistakably African.

The bits of aircraft in front of us had once been part of Juvénal Habyarimana’s private aircraft. He had served as president of Rwanda from 1973 until April 6th, 1994, when his aircraft was shot down on approach to Kigali airport. In a bizarre twist of fate, the wreckage crashed in the garden of his own villa on the outskirts of the city. It has been left there ever since, a grim reminder of his assassination and the events triggered by his death. Like the bullet that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the missile that brought down Habyarimana’s aircraft set in motion events that had long been anticipated by some, would cause untold suffering for millions, and had lasting consequences that are still being felt today throughout the continent.

Our guide and driver for the day was Jacques Ntagerura, although he explained that he planned to have his named changed to Jack, because he wanted to get rid of his French heritage. Jack seemed burdened by the wreckage and what it had meant for his country, because as soon as we left the gates of Habyarimana’s estate his smile and good cheer returned. He spoke English with a light accent but reverted to French for his swearing and interjections, or whenever he had strong feelings about a particular topic. At the time of the genocide Jack had been in primary school. His mother was a Tutsi who had given up her work as a nurse to marry his father, a Hutu and local politician in the Gitarama district in southwestern Rwanda. About a year older than Jack, I was seven in 1994 when the Rwandan genocide happened. I vaguely remember there being something on TV about people dying in Africa, and the words Hutu and Tutsi had suddenly become part of everyday speech. Practical distinction between what were originally the Bahutu, Batutsi, and Batwa tribes of the East African forests and highlands is difficult, with often similar physical characteristics. Whether someone was part of one group or another was in 1994 based mostly on one’s family tree, although the distinctions have changed throughout history based not just on looks but also on occupation and wealth. In 1994 Rwanda was in a fragile state of peace, after decades of internal turmoil and near civil war. As a result, there was deep mistrust between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.

Mere hours after president Habyarimana had died in the plane crash, a small group of Hutu hardliners seized power. Their first task was to purge the government and remove from power all Tutsi's and moderate Hutu's. To this end, Hutu extremist youth militia or Interahamwe simply executed all Tutsi politicians, journalists, and their families. Moderate Hutu's meanwhile received warnings to resign their positions and not to interfere in the events that would follow, although some resisted and were also killed. Since most of this took place in Kigali, Jack's father did not hear about the events until he received a phone call late that evening from a friend in Kigali, who warned him of impending danger because he was married to a Tutsi. He decided to hold on to the news in an attempt to keep the peace locally, while preparing to evacuate his family to the farming estate of friends further south, near the border with Burundi.

The next morning events escalated rapidly. A detachment of Belgian paratroopers that served as personal security to moderate Hutu prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana were intimidated into giving up their weapons and promised safe passage to the airport, only to be tortured and executed by the Rwandan army. "Madame Agatha" was executed, while her children were saved last-minute through intervention from UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. This small UN peacekeeping force had been dispatched to Kigali six months earlier, to oversee negotiations between the Hutu-dominated government and army, and the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel force operating from the border area with Uganda in the North. Months prior, UNAMIR had received warnings about an impending genocidal conspiracy but these signals were ignored by the higher-ups in the United Nations. “Inyenzi, they called us. Cockroaches”, Jack explained. On April 8th, his father received a phone call at work, telling him to go home for he had been relieved of his position due to his Tutsi connections. On his way out he destroyed his address book and phone contact list containing everyone he’d worked with, because many of his friends and co-workers were Tutsi's, or Hutu's that had worked across the ethnic division for years. Back home he had told the children that they would soon be taking a vacation with the family, and Jack had looked forward to spending time on the shores of lake Kivu, as they had done the previous year.

Within days of the plane shoot-down, Hutu extremists had taken control of the entire Rwandan government and army. All possible Tutsi or moderate Hutu opposition had been eliminated, and the slaughter could begin in full. A radio propaganda campaign was launched, accusing the Tutsi's of sabotaging the Rwandan economy, poisoning the minds of children, and labelling them cockroaches, subhuman vermin that needed to be exterminated. The Interahamwe, armed mostly with machetes and axes, and facilitated by the Rwandan army, were set loose on the general population. In Kigali, and later throughout the entire country, they went door-to-door murdering Tutsi's and any opposition they encountered. Neighbours, friends, and family members turned on each other as the bloodbath took shape. Roadblocks were erected around Kigali and anyone travelling was questioned, and if there was any indication of being a Tutsi, or having Tutsi sympathies, they were killed. Piles of corpses soon littered the streets, and a massive exodus of refugees began. Hutu's and Tutsi's alike fled the violence, displacing more than 2 million people and creating a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions in neighbouring countries. Meanwhile the commander of UNAMIR, Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, watched in horror as the country around him erupted in murderous chaos. For months he had witnessed the growing tensions, but his orders restricted him to neutrality, and his rules of engagement prevented any kind of interference. He had repeatedly petitioned the UN for increases in funding, firepower, and operational freedom, but time and time again his requests had been turned down. President Clinton would later remark that he considered his inaction on Rwanda to be the greatest failure of his presidency.

In Gitarama, on April 9th, Jack went to school as usual. Around lunchtime trucks full of soldiers and militia rolled into the neighbourhood and began rounding up people on a local football pitch. A Hutu neighbour came by the school in a rush and picked up the children from the Ntagerura family. Jack and his siblings were hastily moved out of town, first to the house of one of his neighbour's friends, and later to a farm down south, where they were adopted by the family and given new names. The farmer was a prominent Hutu, in whose large family four more children would hardly seem out of place. Jack never saw his parents again after that morning.

Over the next three months as genocide and civil war swallowed Rwanda and a million people died, Jack and his siblings played around the farm. “I remember that there were goats, little ones, that would climb up the branches of trees and who bleat like babies crying. I remember how one of the women there made us draw pictures of ourselves in the sand with sticks, and taught arithmetic, and French. There must’ve been over a dozen children there, although several times large groups of people came by, only to move along south across the border after a few days. Then one day, soldiers came by. They didn’t hurt anyone, but they did take all the goats. Soon after it was all over, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the Rwandan Army and conquered Kigali. We stayed on the farm for another year, until an aunt and uncle came by and took us to live with them in Kigali”.

His expression during the entire story was one of quiet resignation, and I realized that he probably told this story at least once a week, each time to a different group of tourists. We were on our way into town, driving past large construction sites bustling with activity, despite the fact that it was a sunday. A large convention centre was being erected on the road between the town and airport, and everywhere we went colourful flowerbeds and palm trees lined the roads. Kigali is situated on several hills, meaning there’s hardly a straight road around. At every intersection people in hi-vis jackets were directing traffic, picking up rubbish, or watering the plants. Driving around this green, clean oasis while learning about the horrific events that took place in these very streets not 25 years ago was a bizarre experience.

In his late teens Jack returned to Gitarama, now renamed Muhanga, to learn about the fate of his parents from one of the Gacaca courts. Originally a system of community law, these courts had been repurposed post-genocide as a means to provide truth-finding and communal healing. The new RPF government had deemed it an impossible exercise to jail the estimated 150,000 suspects of murder, torture, and other crimes against humanity, and as such had only gone after the big fish, leaving the majority of the suspects to be tried in these local courts. Jack had sat on a bench with his older sister, while they listened how witnesses and survivors described the events that had unfolded in their neighbourhood during those days in April 1994. They had heard how the slaughter had begun as soon as the militia dismounted from their trucks, and how their entire block had been rounded up, and only those capable of showing Hutu identity papers had been lucky enough to escape. Their parents had most likely been brought to the football pitch among a large group of Tutsi's and "Tutsi sympathizers", where they had been ordered to strip, before being gunned down. Their clothes and possessions had been burned in an attempt to erase the existence of these "cockroaches". Nobody knew exactly what had happened to the corpses, but it was thought that they had been brought to one of the many mass graves in the district.

The commander of the Interahamwe unit that had done most of the killing in the area turned out to have been only 19 years old at the time. One of the witnesses retold how the militia had entered the local school and how this man had personally shot more than a dozen children. He had since been executed by RPF forces while hiding in a refugee camp in the Congo, but several of the militiamen and soldiers involved had been arrested and were facing trial. After two days of hearings, Jack and his sister had been allowed to make a statement. The next morning several of the accused spoke, confessing their crimes. After public deliberation the court sentenced them to time served, along with a sentence in community service, to be carried out one day a week for the rest of their lives. Families of the victims had then come forward and embraced the convicted, welcoming them back into the community, while Jack and his sister had sat in silence. “I like to think that my father knew what was going to happen, but he didn’t want to leave my mother alone”, he told us. Despite more than two decades of attempted justice through the Gacaca courts many perpetrators of the genocide remain at large. Some have been swallowed by Rwanda’s immense neighbour, the Congo. Others have fled the continent, while many may have died since, naturally, or perhaps quietly assassinated. Meanwhile tens of thousands of victims remain unidentified; entire families and villages erased from history, classrooms full of children vanished in the inferno.

Jordan and I listened to this epic story of atrocity and forgiveness in a slowly deteriorating state of Weltschmerz, while we sat with Jack in the courtyard of a pizzeria just off one of the main streets of Kigali. Outside fancy cars and taxis occupied the streets, while men and women in suits looked busy on their phones and sipped coffee. The buildings around us were new and crisp with glass facades and plastered with company names that wouldn’t seem out of place in London or Tokyo. Just down the street was the Hotel des Milles Collines, the centrepiece of a heroic effort akin to that of Schindler’s list and retold in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. During the genocide Paul Rusesabagina, the well-connected hotel manager, had sheltered refugees in the hotel compound while the genocide raged outside. Buying protection from the army with bribes of money and alcohol, Rusesabagina saved more than a thousand people from certain death, while himself in constant danger through his marriage with a Tutsi woman.

Through the chaos of the genocide one man emerged victorious. A stateless refugee boy turned rebel commander; the rebel commander turned conqueror; the conqueror turned dictator. Paul Kagame, the former general of the RPF, has ruled Rwanda with an iron fist for more than twenty years since the genocide. His rebel forces, ultimately victorious over the Interahamwe and the murdering, rampaging Rwandan army of 1994, have been accused of a myriad of war crimes during and after the genocide. But Kagame has in turn accused the former colonial powers of being complicit in the genocide, and of standing by idly while Rwanda’s people turned on each other. The United Nations has on more than one occasion accused Kagame of prioritizing development over human rights and democracy, and laments the Stasi-like grip he has on his people. Elections are occasionally held, but they are more of the North Korean kind than anything else. Yet under Kagame’s leadership the country has squarely positioned itself as the future Singapore of Africa, opening up to the world. English has been introduced in schools, turning the country away from its francophone history. In 2009, in a decisive political move and major gesture aimed at its former colonial ruler Belgium, Rwanda became only the second country after Mozambique to voluntarily join the Commonwealth of Nations despite not having any colonial ties with the United Kingdom. What was in late 1994 a ravaged wasteland is now a rapidly industrializing economy, among the fastest growing in the region.

We tried to get Jack to talk about the current political situation, but he refused, feigning ignorance and disinterest. Before dropping us off at our hostel and saying goodbye he did return to the topic, speaking cryptically: “Imagine knocking over a large, beautiful vase. You can try to stick the pieces back together, but if you let go too soon, it will just fall apart again. You need to hold it together until the glue has set. Only then can it stand on its own again”.

On the long list of dictators and autocrats the world has seen, Kagame's legacy might well be more permanent than most. The Gacaca courts have brought a semblance of justice and closure to one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, and the atmosphere on the streets of Kigali is one of nervous tension as hotels and other businesses are rapidly growing all around. The Rwandan government makes a point of no longer recording any formal or self-identified ethnicity on official documents. Except for Jack we didn’t meet many Rwandans who were willing to talk about the past, however the monuments and memorials erected since do most of the talking. The most impressive of these is no doubt the Kigali Genocide Memorial, on the spot where an estimated 250,000 people were buried in mass graves. I felt physically sick when exiting the memorial, and together with Jordan sat in silence on the steps outside facing the lush green hills and the sprawling city in front of us. Some months later, I read a piece by a Tanzanian writer who lost an aunt and niece during the genocide. The author had explained that he had not only felt sympathy and horror when confronted with images of the genocide, but also guilt. Guilt because he was afraid that he himself would be capable of such things if only the right circumstances arose.