‘A Killer in the Eye’, No Twinge of Conscience


IT IS SAID THAT MANY OF THE Hutu tribespeople who crossed the Rwandan border into Tanzania by the thousands in a massive wave of refugees a few weeks ago had “a killer in the eye.” That was the same maddened, pitiless look they had when they raised their machetes against men, women and children of the minority Tutsi tribe and even against moderate Hutus who sought to protect them or were associated with them, and sliced open their arms and chests, stuck blades into their mouths and genitals and lopped off their heads. It was the same look evident on the faces of those who did not commit such acts but nonetheless stood by and cheered the genocide on. Most of the 200,000 who have come here to this refugee camp at Benaco fled out of terror, fearing revenge at the hands of the Tutsi guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (R.P.F.), who have been fighting the Hutu Government of Rwanda since 1990. But even now, in the din, smoke and squalor of the camp, a hardened glare will show itself from out of a tent or a crowd, sufficient to remind one of all that is murdering Rwanda.

And there are the facts: the mountain of machetes brought in by the mostly Hutu refugees and surrendered at the border; the admission by Hutus in the Kibungo district that they were forced to kill Tutsis or be killed themselves; the Red Cross medical worker in Benaco who was made to stand aside as Hutu killers invaded his Rwandan hospital and hacked his patients to death in their beds. He has recognized one of those Hutus in the camp.

I approach a huddle of teen-age boys, who glower at me. “Did you participate in the killings?” I ask them in French, which is spoken by most Hutus.

“We did nothing,” says one.

“Did you see others do the killing?”

“We saw nothing,” he says.

“Why are you here?”

“We are afraid of the R.P.F.” Several of them speak at once.

I ask: “How many Tutsis are left in Rwanda, do you think?” A boy of 15 who wears a green baseball cap, grins and slowly draws his index finger across his throat.

Current wisdom has it that this is a political war, devised by the hard-line anti-Tutsi Hutu Government. It is said to be aided by the military, which used the excuse of the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6 to put an end to their “Tutsi problem,” and solidify their power. The theory is supported by reports of well-planned roadblocks immediately following the assassination, hit lists of political enemies prepared long before the assassination and use of the Government radio station to exhort people to murder. In part, the political explanation is advanced to counter an initial impression in the West that this is merely mayhem-as-usual tribal warfare, a savage freak show.

Politics, however, is only part of the story. The events in Rwanda have picked up a lot of buried ethnic hatred along the way. From the 15th century on, Hutu tribespeople have been dominated by the Tutsis, their ancient feudal lords. When Rwanda was mandated to Belgium by the League of Nations in 1919, the Tutsis — taller and more European in appearance — were the favored class; the smaller, broad-featured Hutus were treated like dirt. But in 1959, as many as 100,000 Tutsis were massacred and 200,000 more forced to flee the country during a Hutu uprising; soon after, the Belgians ceded power to the Hutus. Yet even after Rwanda achieved independence in 1962, there were more bloody clashes. The following year saw an estimated 20,000 Tutsis killed by Hutus. In 1972, Hutus were murdered by the thousands in neighboring Burundi, after the Hutu tried to overthrow the Tutsi government there. In 1973, Rwanda was taken over in a military coup. By 1990, Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, aided by Uganda, marched into Rwanda to wage a battle against the Government, an act that fostered the climate that bred the events of the past weeks.

In the middle of one night in Benaco, there was a sudden eruption of laughter and cheering. People had heard a (false) rumor that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda — a hated Tutsi — had been assassinated. In a frenzy of joy, Hutus danced around a fire.

Yet there is something deeper even than historic horrors and tribal hatreds in all this. It owes more to evolutionary biology than to history; it reaches into hearts of darkness located far beyond Africa. Under certain circumstances, not always predictable, people will do anything to one another. Going by the descriptions of events in Rwanda, it is doubtful that the Hutu killers felt any twinge of conscience as they went about their torturing and murdering. The same is true of Americans, Europeans and Asians when they have been caught up in their own spasms of depravity.

Now a vast population has reassembled in Benaco as refugees, having fled a slaughterhouse for a disaster. Refugees make countries of their own. They represent a nether world condition that is neither that of citizen nor immigrant, and, though it is shared by millions of others in the world today, exists without the dignity of outside recognition. But in this camp, at least, they recognize one another. There are many more Hutus here than Tutsis; the Tutsis, out of fear, have established their own separate camps at a considerable distance. Yet there are thousands of them in Benaco as well, and thousands of moderate Hutus, and Hutus who have intermarried with Tutsis, and thousands of apolitical, unmurderous innocents — all of whom now live side by side with other thousands who have or had a killer in the eye.

They live together here as the Khmer Rouge and their victims did in the refugee camps on the border of Thailand, or as Jew and Nazi might have lived as refugees together. This makes the Benaco camp feel surreal, and not a little menacing. There are those for whom one’s heart breaks, and those at the sight of whom it freezes, and they are all packed into the same miserable place.

Benaco is in the middle of nowhere. Flying toward it from eastern Tanzania, you see only an empty landscape. Hills rise gently to mounds of green velvet; dark groves of trees fill the creases in their sides; shadows cast by the clouds make smudges on the vast plains that show no roads, huts or people. Then suddenly the camp comes into view, a flat square on a hilltop, a layer of white smoke from cooking fires clinging to the earth.

Beneath the haze the ground appears to be covered with bright blue sprinkles — the tarps provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, used as tent covers. There is the brown lake, which is Benaco’s water supply, and at the periphery of the camp lie several red-earth gashes, which are freshly dug latrines. Finally, the masses of people appear, looking from that altitude like slowly moving nailheads.

At ground level, the white smoke chokes the air and mixes with the smell of earth and excrement. The smell goes from sweet to rancid as one walks in different parts of the camp. There are practically no trees; those have been cut for firewood. People are everywhere. They move in hundreds of short parades on the main path: women with blankets and large yellow plastic water containers balanced on their heads; children pushing up against one another; young and old men riding bikes, holding portable radios next to their ears, carrying goods or on their way to get goods to carry.

Now four or five long-horned cows. Now goats. Now a man in a brown rain hat and a corncob pipe in his mouth, dragging a reluctant goat by a rope. Now a woman trudging along wearing a colorful cloth, a khanga, with which she supports a baby boy on her back. His legs are curved around her sides, making it appear that she has two small extra feet at her hips.

“Where are you going, madam?” I ask her.

“To get food from the distribution center.”

“And after that?”

“To go back for more food.”

Except for the waa-ing of babies, no voice rises above the others, but the accumulation of the voices makes an ocean of noise. People seem to wear everything possible: raincoats, sweaters, khangas, colorful kerchiefs, formal suits, track suits. A boy saunters by wearing a San Francisco 49ers hat and a Nintendo T-shirt.

It is a marketplace, perhaps the largest in the world. One man sells radio parts, another watch parts — faces, hands and wristbands; another, beer made from maize. A medicine man has hung up his shingle advertising the many diseases he can cure with the various dishes of grains at his feet. He practices across the road from the Red Cross medical center, which draws more customers. There is an outdoor butcher shop, with animal parts presented on the grass. A cow’s bloodied horn lies beside the animal’s astonished head and its buttocks, to which the tail is still attached.

“Who are these children?” I ask a Tutsi woman, sitting on a green tarp off to the side, surrounded by seven little ones.

“These two are mine, the boy and girl. These two are my friends’. I don’t know the others.”

The camp is half children, who, along with the elderly, are most vulnerable to diseases, especially those involving diarrhea. Many babies are left unclaimed, even though their parents are in the camp, because of the burdens they impose.

“Where is your husband?” I ask her.

“Dead. I am sure he is dead. They took him, even though he is Hutu, because he married me. He would not tell where I was hiding.”

“Where were you hiding?”

“Under a sheet of aluminum, an unused part of a roof in the back of my house,” she says. “I took the babies, and I put my body on top of them. I almost crushed that one to death, because she was crying. We lay on the ground for many hours, listening to people running, and the soldiers shouting and slashing at the bushes. Then there was silence. But I waited more hours, to be sure. When I came out, no one was to be seen. They had taken away everyone I knew.”

Other stories make that woman seem lucky. One witness saw a Hutu mother who had married a Tutsi dragged from her house and made to stand in the middle of the road by the Interahamwe, the largest militia group sponsored by the Government. Their name means “those who stand together.” They had come to this woman’s village, had blown their whistles to signal the beginning of their onslaught and then hacked to death all the men, women and children in the area. They made two piles of bodies — one of the dead, one of the bleeding-to-death.

The woman in the middle of the road begged them for her life as the slaughter continued, and the Interahamwe men poked her with their machetes and laughed at her. Hutu bystanders also laughed. At last, when there were no more left to kill, the militia men picked up the woman, tossed her on top of the pile of the still-living, and then hacked them all to death, scattering arms, hands, legs and heads on the blood-soaked road.

One of the earlier stories, which has never been fully told for fear that it would incite reprisals, involves 10 Belgian soldiers, United Nations peacekeepers who were guarding the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, when she was dragged from a United Nations compound by Hutu army men and assassinated. Because of a United Nations mandate, the soldiers could not fire on the Hutus, and they complied when told to surrender their arms. The Hutus then turned on the Belgians, first cutting their Achilles tendons so that they could not escape. Then they cut out the eyes of one, sliced off the nose of another and plunged a machete down the throat of a third — before they shot them in the head.

Ten miles or so from the camp, dead bodies make a journey in the Kagera River, the brown-orange body of water that lies like a long worm along the border between Rwanda and Tanzania. This is where those who came first crossed over — on the yellow bridge that spans the Kagera.

The bodies appear in an explosion of spray at the top of a steep falls, and then spin and tumble down like logs on the way to a mill. Some are caught behind rocks, and are borne heaving up against them, again and again, by the force of the river. Others are swept into small pools. Most of the bodies are bleached white, having been in the water several days. In one pool, four whitened men lying on their bellies are tossed apart, then come together in an unending round of huddles.

A naked child has been caught on a large rock; it is also lying on its belly. Standing on the yellow bridge, one cannot tell if the child is a boy or girl, because its head is concealed under a blanket of curled leaves. It lies there pink as a doll, as the river smashes at the sides of the rock.

The falls make the roar of loud applause. A new brown body of a man rises over them, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and plunges down with its arms flinging wide as it goes. At the bottom, the arms are swung into a swimming motion, as if the man were in a race. The body is carried past the rocks and the pools, then under the bridge, and it continues on, moving faster on the other side; it appears to be doing the butterfly. Now it is nearly out of sight, one sees only the soles of its feet, rotating slightly in the tide.

The living refugees who continue to cross the bridge pass over the dead, who float under it. There are fewer new refugees here these days, as they are able to cross over at three additional points. Up the hill they climb to the camp, pushing bicycles overloaded with mattresses, clothing, furniture. One bicycle is piled so high with boxes and a wide board at the top that it looks like a large-wheeled airplane. These newcomers will see a different camp from those who arrived in the first wave — both better and worse.

Benaco is in better shape because it is more organized now, and routines are in motion. In a kind of biological act of order and discipline, the Hutus and Tutsis who live with them have divided the camp into 11 sectors that mirror provincial districts of Rwanda. One group, the Hotel Akagara, has created a subdivision consisting solely of the former employees of a well-known hotel in the capital city of Kigali. Visitors ask to see the maitre d’hotel. People have set up shops. And the relief organizations — the Red Cross, CARE, Medecins Sans Frontieres, all working under the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which coordinates those agencies — have seen to it that there is a steady flow of food and medical services.

It is worse because there is an increase in diseases that took root before medical attention could prevent them. A new pump is being installed in the lake to filter and purify the water. But for weeks, people have urinated and defecated in that lake, and the seeds of an epidemic may already have been sown. Pulmonary infections are rife. Several people have died of pneumonia from having slept outside in the cold rain. The winding line to the medical center has a thousand people by 7 in the morning. Nearly everyone is coughing. An old man has so severe a coughing fit that he loses his breath, faints and falls to the ground.

Things are also worse because the camp is coming to be recognized as permanent, with all the attendant cursed blessings of the refugee condition. The largesse and the efficiency of the relief agencies are having the negative effect of making the people more dependent. The shops the people set up are not really necessary for their survival. Initiative is rapidly being eroded, and a “gimme” attitude is taking over, among children especially. Ten days ago there was no street begging in Benaco. Now one cannot catch the eye of a child without prompting the question:


“Why do you want a shilling?” I ask.

The boy rubs his small belly in a much-practiced gesture. “For food,” he says.

“But you can get food at the distribution center,” I tell him.

“Shilling?” he asks.

The worst sign of deterioration is also the most inevitable — boredom. There is nothing to equal the corrosive, debilitating boredom of refugee-camp life. Every morning in Benaco, the people crawl out from under their bright blue tarps and greet a day that will be just like yesterday and tomorrow. It will be filled with repetitive gossip, aimless walking and a feeling of waiting that becomes an end in itself.

However the camp improves or deterioriates, it will retain its strange character, the mixture of normal life and the presence of evil. Amid the routine chatter about business or news from Rwanda, killers move. They sleep and eat with the others and brush alongside them as they walk, and, possibly, wait for another opportunity to strike. Other people may not always know these killers as surely as the Red Cross worker knows the man who murdered his patients. But they know that in the world of Benaco, killers are once again close by.

One late afternoon, the people begin their routine trek to the lake for water. Hundreds, thousands, move up and down the path, bearing the yellow plastic containers and speaking pleasantly with one another. The heavy rains of the season have softened the ground but the sun is out for the moment and everyone seems in good spirits. Girls flirt with strangers. Young boys play games, and hurl themselves down the hill ahead of the grown-ups. Near the bottom, a family has made a house out of a cast-off tank from a gasoline truck by cutting holes in its side. They peer out like voyagers on a steamship. A young man who has filled his container pushes his bike uphill with considerable effort, and sings in French as he goes.

“Ca va?” I ask.

“Ca va un peu,” he jokes.

Suddenly there is an outcry near the top of the hill. A waterbuck, an African antelope, has been set loose on the road, and prodded forward by some kids, so that it must pass through a gantlet of people. All at once it seems that everyone has a machete in his hands. The children squeal with delight. The women begin to trill in a half-shriek, half-song of excitement.

The waterbuck walks slowly at first in its normal dumb lope. Then, sensing danger, it quickens its pace to an awkward trot. A boy brings his machete down hard in its side. There is cheering. The animal bleats and runs uphill, its great body wobbling like a water bed, its horns thrust high in the air. Its eyes show white and terror. It moves as fast as it can now. But the crowd engulfs it — 50, 60 people — hacking again and again at its rump, its legs and back, until the accumulation of the blows cuts the animal in half. Then the crowd hacks at the two separate halves. They cut off the hooves, then the head. The trilling grows louder, then stops.

Now the pieces of the animal lie scattered on the road, wet with blood. Several hands grab hungrily at each piece, and there is nearly a fight. The people seem inches away from turning their machetes on one another but they do not. And no sooner has this moment occurred than it passes. The whole event, from the loosing of the waterbuck to the division of its body, has taken but half a minute. In a few more seconds, the pieces are gone and the people are back at their tasks. Only the bloodstains on the road testify to what happened here, and the rain will soon wash them away.

By Roger Rosenblatt; June 5, 1994


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