By: Venuste Nshimiyimana*
In 1994, I was the information officer of UNAMIR, The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. I had been with the UN since the start of the mission when the massacre exploded. In the thick of it, I witnessed atrocity of apocalyptic proportions. I saw what could have been done, but was not done. And as well, I was a witness to what, of course, never should have been allowed. Here is my account of facts as I entered them in my diary.
Against the heavenly vault, memories of the dark nights
20 years to the day, I was here in this school better known as ETO Kicukiro,Don Bosco School or just as Don Bosco.I found refuge here with some 2,000 other fellow Rwandans, hunted down by killers who sowed and spread death around the country.
I returned here as part of a homecoming. In previous years, I had the opportunity to reflect and meditate in this school, which, for nearly two decades, had come to epitomize all the notorious places where time came to a standstill for Rwanda in 1994. ETO Kicukiro achieved eternity as symbol of the eternal curse of Rwanda.
Innocent people came to this school to seek shelter. But the demons of death howled after them. They came to snatch them, squeezing life out of them in ways unimaginable.
Reaching the main entrance to the school, I remember the heavy machine guns that Belgian soldiers set up to protect refugees against the frenzied militiamen who loitered around, armed with machetes, axes and clubs, and watched for the slightest flaw in the armour to break into the school to carry out their macabre business.
When I got to the building, I felt the smell of damp wood and the tender morning dew that refreshed us from the slackness of a sleepless night; a tortured night of repeated explosions, the raspy cracks and groans of automatic weapons –the noisy fabric of the infamous soundtrack to the Rwandan winter of 1994.
And that was the beginning of it: the second genocide to betide Rwanda within a century. The 20th Century. And as it came to be common knowledge, the agenda was not hidden. The extermination of the Tutsis had been planned and orchestrated.
When it started, we ran across the capital, aiming for this school. It was our hope of escape. And we hoped because it was our belief that the peacekeepers in the neighborhood would grant us protection. But when this bastion, besieged, became no longer tenable, the peacekeepers decided that leaving was their best option.
On 11 April, when the last convoy packed away with the lucky ones, the vehicles had to drill a way through a murderous mob. Refugees desperate to make it dived hard to cling on to the military truck, which brought up the rear of the procession. In the imminence of death, there still was hope that life could be salvaged.
The last convoy. All of us wanted to leave with it. Of course, only a very few could. Amid the general atmosphere of bedlam, Belgians, French and Italian soldiers came. Their orders were plain simple: to wedge out their own and careen them to safety. That was when the curse of being a Rwandan in this bloody winter felt the most oppressive. The rule of selection enforced here meant that you were staying behind, powerless, with the prospect of horrible death hanging heavily in the heat.
The curse. Well, what else could we call it? The foreign soldiers who rolled in here, brandishing their fully-loaded weaponry had no interest in the fate of the Tutsis or the moderate Hutus — the defenseless preys in this debased and unrelenting game the extremist militiamen mounted and entertained.
Having returned to this now-infamous place, I can sense the secrets it holds: the betrayed wishes of the thousands of fugitives, abandoned to their piteous fate and taken to the Golgotha of Nyanza Hill.
Now, in the peace that had resettled here, I watch the blue sky devoid of clouds. But what I see against the heavenly vault is my memories of the dark nights when tracer bullets chased the stars in the dark sky of April 94. It was the time when death was bold enough to come to you with no veil, knocking on the door, forcing it open, and working its terminating effect upon its preys. It was the time when we waited helplessly for her to strike. And here at Don Bosco, she repeatedly dealt her deathly blows every night. Until none was left to be battered.
Ngulinzira was a prey, not a murderous hunter
It was dusk when I arrived at Don Bosco on 7 April. The day had already recorded many deaths –the early casualties of the genocide. When we set foot in the compound, we were a mere lot of 30 asylum seekers–an absurd but accurate designation of people who were in their own land.
The first tenant, the former Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Boniface Ngulinzira, had been brought here by Belgian soldiers who were in charge of his personal security. The custodians of his safety would later deny him room on the last convoy that left for the Kanombe Airport.
Adding insult to injury for the official, they turned down his entreaties when he begged them to take him back home. He had hoped that home would provide shelter against the murderers or that at least he would die there a decent death.
At Mr Ngulinzira’s request, I had a word with Lieutenant Lemaire. He was the commander of the Belgian corps of soldiers. I made a point to him about the role Ngulinzira played in the pre-genocide peace process. But Lemaire could not be bothered. “Whether he is a member of Dismas Nsengiyaremye or FaustinTwagiramungu’s government, we will not risk the lives of our men for him,”Lamaire replied. And this reply echoed in my skull with such a load of callousness that I am not prepared to forget it, if only because Lemaire was the man with the task of securing the school.
I reported the curt discourtesy of Lemaire to Ngulinzira. And keeping his composure, he said: “We will stay here. They (the UN soldiers) have decided to hand us over to the militia.”
20 years and counting. But that utterance of dignified resignation still resonates in me as if it were yesterday.
From these times that tried man’s soul, another person I have very fond and deep memories of is Mr Rugangura. He was married to a UNDP employee, Mrs Oda Rugangura. Deft at dodging the killers, he made it up to the entrance of the school and still, they were at his heels.
Belgian soldiers manning the gate refused to open it. Rugangura’s wife went away, scanning for me. She found me attending to refugees and with such urgency; she put her plea to me. She wanted me to get over to the guards and argue with them in lending credence to Rugangura’s claim that he was a prey rather than one of the murderous hunters. I obliged and witnessed one of the rarest sweet moments in this general craze when a man escaped death in all unlikeliness. To the hunted Rugangura, Don Bosco proved a timely haven or a heavenly refuge.
Rugangura’s family and mine left the school together in the same convoy. We held hands in a brotherly bond out of a need to comfort each other. Later on, we flew out of Kanombe airport aboard the same plane. Kenya was the destination.
In Nairobi where we landed, the United Nations provided us with accommodation. We were all guests at the 680 Hotel, sharing the same floor. Actually, our rooms stood one next to the other. Out of an ultimate despair, a true friendship was borne among us. We became inseparable, with the presence of one reassuring the other. We were survivors. And as far as I am concerned, my life is better for the knowledge that the Ruganguras are alive and well today.
A dignity tainted, soiled, defiled by despair
13 April 1994. The C-130 aircraft of the Belgian army took off from Kanombe airport to Nairobi. As you know, I was aboard. I knew I was physically fine. But the evil I was flying away from had robbed me of something fundamental. I could not stop crying. My mind raced with thoughts about all those women, all those men and all those children the UN had failed. A nation was abandoned to the unbridled manifestation of the worst that Humanity could exhibit. I thought of them being hounded by the watchful militiamen who waited and drooled for blood at the entrance of the school.
In my mind, I played back the moment when Lieutenant Lemaire asked me to translate into Kinyarwanda the message he had for the refugees –The announcement to the wide-eyed crowd that UNAMIR had no choice but to leave. To mitigate the let-down, Lemaire recommended self-defense to the desperate multitude. “Defend yourselves,”he advised, knowing damn well that the roaming militiamen would rejoice at a match with any improbable foolhardy.
Astounded, the crowd looked to him with an unflinching dignity. But it was a dignity tainted, soiled, defiled by despair. The silent mass was a poignant sight to behold, so poignant that a moved Lemaire pulled off a military salute –touching his breast and making a quarter of a turn as he usually did –and went to dilute his emotions out of sight behind a big military truck, which was being saddled for the departure.
All day, columns of cars continued to arrive in the school. Belgian and French soldiers had been scrupulous in throwing the life raft at their country-fellows. They even fetched the last of the missionaries who was deep in the hinterland in the dense forest of Nyungwe. A stream of expatriates flowed, carrying entire luggage bundles. The calm preceding the storm: the climax would come with the evacuation.
And these were the circumstances: Most expatriates drove their own cars. Those who did not own a car were offered seats. But to be offered a seat, the criterion was that you had to be a lucky expatriate. Failure to meet this criterion meant that some dogs would be on their way out of the trouble while you remained. I remember that in the first contingent to leave Don Bosco on 11 April, an obstinate expatriate was in a fit at the prospect of being separated from his German terrier.
A former government minister marked for death —Ngulinzira I mentioned above —had to endure this bleeding expression of love between animal and man, as he was left behind for the end to brutally close up on him. The much unfortunate minister was not even begging for a hike. He wanted leave to join the convoy at the wheels of his own car.
And there was that inconsistency in how the Belgian soldiers made decisions. For instance, they offered to evacuate Paul Secyugu, a prominent politician at the time. Mr. Secyugu refused. However, they would not listen to Ngulinzira who begged to leave with them. So, how did they decide that Secyungu deserved to live and Ngulinzira not?
The ultimate note about the two men is that both met their end in the hands of the death squadrons.
Praying before the tabernacle
The Sunday before the start of the genocide, the universal Catholic Church had celebrated Easter. In the small chapel of Don Bosco, the paschal candle was still almost intact.
The crowd of refugees dared not take possession of the altar out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament that sat there in a golden tabernacle covered by a fabric of Asian silk.
That evening of 10 April, power was cut. We were plunged into darkness. I ran to help peacekeepers distribute the little storms and candles lights they had.
When I entered the chapel, I was seized with amazement that some order had withstood the general mayhem. A miracle. I instinctively knelt in prayer before the tabernacle. Then I advanced to the paschal candle, disassembled it and took it outside. Using a knife, I cut it into pieces, which I then dealt out to refugees –these women burdened with their young children and who had no home but this, the chapel.
When we were young, we were sold the mythical belief that God spends the daytime elsewhere, and at night, comes to rest in Rwanda. Growing up I learned to take this myth for what it was worth. But on that particular night, I challenged my disbelief in the myth to believe in it again. Why? The relative relief at finding tidiness here as well as the candles seemed enough evidence that the Almighty was present indeed.
Before leaving Don Bosco, at the request of refugees, including intellectuals gathered around minister Ngulinzira, I issued an SOS to the commander of the Kigali sector. For the purpose, I used my Motorola radio. The message spread through the military and civilian network of UNAMIR, and it was more likely than not listened to by several officials of the mission.
Colleagues picked up the message. When they asked me to, I amplified the signal. I even turned on a loud-speaker to maximize transmission. In reaction, Colonel Luc Marchal asked me to reassure refugees. He said that he had contacted the chief of staff of the gendarmerie, General Augustin Ndindiliyimana, and that he had offered guarantees that police would be sent to take over security at the school upon the departure of the Belgians.
Colonel Marchal didn’t want to leave, but he was forced to withdraw by his hierarchy in Brussels. It was on the spur of this tense moment that, in his hallmark calm, Ngulinzira said, “We will stay here. They have decided to hand us over to death.”
Some refugees who anticipated the attack had begun to sneak out of the camp. They thought it wiser to seek that elusive safety in safer places which existed nowhere in Rwanda.
It was a common knowledge that the camp would be run down as soon as the last Belgian left. We agreed on the need to prepare to die together, especially in the face of rumors that a regiment of the Presidential Guard would be deployed imminently to back up the militia.
He declined the offer to leave, so did she
Secyugu Paul. What a dignified man! Choosing to die rather than live with the memory that he would have left hundreds behind.
Secyugu’s refusal to leave with the convoy obeyed some logic. This prominent member of the Rwandan opposition was appointed member of the transitional parliament by the Social Democratic Party.
He declined the offer of life because he felt that his place was in the middle of those that he would have had, in time, represented in the parliament. Did he want to die? No. He just accepted death for it not to only be the lot of the others. By his decision, he also bound her wife to the same fate. She declined the offer to leave. For her, anything could be compromised with, but a separation from her husband. Their trial was a magnification of one particular drama played out, away from a wide public sight, on the vast dramatic stage which was the Rwanda of April 1994.
The couple having decided to stay, however, found that they had no right in deciding for their two children, Alain and Jean Claude Secyugu. Jean Claude, the eldest, was in his final year at the faculty of medicine at the University of Kinshasa. He had come home on holiday, only to be trapped amid the murderous turmoil. They, as anybody else, deserved none of this madness. Their parents, willing to die, wanted them alive. They ordered them to leave with the convoy.
Jean Claude’s father made the point that he had the opportunity to complete his studies. In order to get them out of the country, and so to the contentment of their parents, we made it up that Jean Claude worked for the UNDP. The lie did the trick.
As for his brother, we tied his fate to that of a mother in her sixties. The good old woman had a daughter married to a European citizen. That lucky fact entitled her to a flight bound for Belgium.
By these contortions, we were successful in sparing the lives of the youngsters. Of course, they may never find solace for the brutal murder of their parents who bravely sealed their own fate; their parents who went down when the murderers ransacked the school after the UN peacekeepers took flight.
I would like to mention among the group of intrepid that stayed in Kicukiro a brave man, the former Mayor of Gikondo, Mr Gasamagera. He had taken refuge at Don Bosco on 9 April, just after the massacre at the parish of Gikondo in which 500 people were slaughtered.
Militiamen and soldiers had shown him that his authority was worthless, as he could not prevent them from raping and killing. And how could he have saved others, while he too was a target?
Mr Gasamagera was a native of Southern Butare, in the district of Kigembe. He was a member of an opposition party, the PSD. The man was married to a Tutsi.
When he arrived at Don Bosco, he told us how the military had threatened him, accusing him of hiding the RPF rebel fighters and their accomplices. The accusations entailed a possible punishment that could mean…, well, death. With that frightening awareness, He stole his way out of the district. However, he found himself back there the following day. He had returned with a van to load bags of rice and beans. He had realized that the thousands of people crammed at the school were starving. To help save some, if food could be the answer, he put up this act of bravery. And we watched him leave, with two of his police officers armed with Kalashnikovs. All the way, we feared that they would never return.
Any story of Don Bosco would be incomplete which does not include the mention that the hideout had welcomed everyone. It welcomed people from neighboring suburbs—from Gikondo, Remera, Kanombe and even Kacyiru. Don Bosco was a temporary melting pot for harried people of all social backgrounds, of all ethnicities who had the common unfortunate trait of playing cut-and-mouse with the blood-thirsty militiamen.
And the Red Berets responded vigorously
The scene is seared into my mind; seared so deep that I struggle to forget it. It happened when a Belgian solider stood aside and looked: A woman and her two children racing over for help were ignored to be overpowered and cut into pieces. They met their fate just at the entrance of the school. The derelict soldier had two heavy machine guns. He pointed it toward the furious militiamen. He did not fire, as he later explained, because he had no order to do so.
This was the kind of hands-off attitude which laid the ONU open to the charges that they were passive accomplices with the murderers. How more defective than that could a UN mandate ever be? Was the UN pursuing another undisclosed agenda in Rwanda? And if so, was that possible agenda so different from the one of keeping peace and saving lives that they felt justified to assume the spectator’s stand they so well assumed?
At any rate, what was known officially is that the Blue Helmets did a good job defending their own skin.
On 10 April, when the paratrooper commandos of the Silver Back operation landed in Kigali, they headed downtown. En route to Sonatube/Rwandex, a militia group holding a check point opened fire at the Belgian convoy carrying a unit of the red berets.
That was the incident which caused the most memorable Belgian casualties of the Rwandan tragedy.
The Red Berets responded vigorously. They indiscriminately shot at all that moved. Many civilians who hoped to be saved lost their hope to an instant death. Amid the chaos of Rwandans slugging off fellow Rwandans, benevolent foreigners who came to the rescue had just indulged in the sense-disorienting gore they were supposed to prevent. Theirs was the biggest massacre ever committed in a single episode by any foreign troops on Rwandan soil.
As we now know, most of the victims were Tutsis. Those who were not Tutsis were moderate Hutus. But they were all civilians who came out of hiding when they learned the good news that the Belgian soldiers had arrived.
The Belgian serviceman who reported the details of the incident to me was left with trauma. He recounted how a number of women and children were among the victims. But in his edited version of the facts, he blamed it all on the Hutu militias, on the grounds that they started the hostilities.
Following this incident, the Belgian forces would let their French counterparts of the Amaryllis Operation take the lead in any campaign. The thinking was that the French were in a familiar territory.
As far as I know, there has never been a probe into the responsibilities in this massacre committed by the foreign troops.
My point in underlining this incident was that the foreign forces in the Rwanda of April 1994 were gunmen on edge who would shoot and kill at the sniff of a danger, but they were not worthy of the mission they were charged with upholding. All those, including myself, who took refuge at Don Bosco, were oblivious to that fact. Peacekeepers knew our predicament, but they were unwilling to deploy men to confront the militiamen.
During the 4 days we stayed here, with the killers breathing hot on us and waiting for the ripe moment to further the cause of their dirty job, we received no visit from a UN official. They don’t know how much of a relief to us a simple visit could have been.
To be fair to Lieutenant Lemaire, I feel the duty to say that he did his best to protect us, within the scope of what he was allowed to do. His hands were tied by his military hierarchy who virtually ran operations from the Headquarter in Evere, near Brussels. This tiered arrangement of the military chain of command was what prevented Colonel Luc Marchal from intervening. Luc Marchal wanted to keep his men posted at Kicukiro. He truly believed in that option till the end. And at the end, he truly believed that Rwandan gendarmes would be deployed to protect us.
The world watched the clouds of the murderous storm gather
After the genocide, leaders of the “Free World” rushed to Rwanda. Some came in shame, holding their heads down, in a bid to admit their failure. To the admission of shame and guilt, they added an apology to the Rwandan people in the name of their countries.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt publicly and openly acknowledged responsibility at Amahoro national Stadium on 7 April 2004, during a memorial ceremony on the 10th anniversary of the genocide.
He recognized a failure of “the elementary duty of interference” and he recognized failure of “duty to brotherhood.”
Guy Verhofstadt must be commended for his boldness. But he came short by not referring to the derelict Belgian soldiers abandoning refugees to be battered to death at Kicukiro. What was the apology for if what was apologized for —the guilty dereliction —was left out of focus? Well, some relatives of victims are still wondering. Can true justice truly abstract the passive complicity of the foreign troops who sight-binged on the violence before cavalcading home? I will not contend that there is a universal answer to the question. But my answer is: “No. No justice shall be guilty by allowing such an abstraction.”
We are Humanity. And Humanity, as it were, made it binding on the International Community to get involved and stop the march of the mass-murderers. Did they get involved? No, they didn’t. And they should now take full responsibility.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton acknowledged that his country failed over Rwanda. Indeed, America failed. They failed in granting assistance to a nation in danger. With American soldiers at the time stationed in Bujumbura, Burundi, an American intervention was just a matter of deciding it. It was understandable that the Black-Hawk-Down incident in Somalia deterred the U.S. from taking action. But no argument could support Washington’s activism in keeping at bay any other willing nation who wanted to intervene.
As for the UN, its former Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged that it lacked the necessary backing from member countries, especially when it was urgent to join efforts to build the UN task force in Rwanda.
So much for the inaction during the massacre
In the before math of the genocide, the world saw the cloud of the murderous storm gather, well before the first thrust of a deathly machete. The genocide resulted from a lengthy process which unfolded in plain sight. The intelligence services of Western capitals knew what was going on. Being in denial is hypocritical. Which certain governments, till now, are not ashamed to be.
For one example, France trained and mentored the Rwandan army for more than three decades. France has never acknowledged any responsibility for the tragedy, which accounts much for the stormy relations between Paris and Kigali.
But while the French can contend what they want, it is a fact that French soldiers came to Kicukiro in April 1994. They evacuated their nationals and when they were done doing that, they left. They had the power to make a difference, though. They were armed to the teeth. The militiamen respected them and never fired at them. If they had wanted, they could have saved everyone.
Let their sore memories be alleviated
Gone are the days of rhetoric. Now is the time for action. Today, there is a case for the victims of genocide to be compensated. A tragedy that we all saw in the making, as it happened, but were unable to prevent or stop clamors for responsibilities to be shouldered. The victims of Kicukiro aspire to see that happen. It is part of the justice they are demanding.
If we do all agree that nothing can undo the trauma suffered, we shall logically not disagree that the unarmed innocents, whose lives collapsed in parts or in whole at this school and elsewhere, could use some adequate support.
Let them be granted monies to fund the creation of new opportunities for the sake of making up for the lost opportunities. Let their sore memories of the tragedy be alleviated by the soothing promises of education and economic as well as social empowerment.
Let now be the time for a long-overdue “Marshall Plan” for Rwanda. Let there be no more lip-service paid to a Rwanda still raw-skinned from the battering and slaughtering of 1994.
And let the UN take the lead in putting together the “Marshall Plan”. Let that Marshall Plan be the price the U.S. as well as Belgium, France and Great Britain would pay for their dereliction of duty towards the Rwandan people. Nothing else will ever be enough.
Now, on a brief personal note. I, as everyone caught up in the madness of ninety-four, was scared to death, afraid to die. I survived by having some good stock of luck. I could have been left behind to be massacred at Don Bosco. But, as a member of UNAMIR, I was considered an expatriate.
That dubious status was my ticket out of the country. But it was not a status that fixed everything. Imagine that I was told to leave to safety with no care for my wife whom they had no room for, as she was “Rwandan”. I felt as though I was being ordered: “Survive, but let all else die painfully.”
I should say that curiously, they suggested I could take along my daughter, born from our union. Bewildering. Unbelievable. I only could prepare for ironically suffering from my impending survival. Finally my wife was allowed to join the convoy, led by Italian soldiers.
Why did I want to stir my nerves, writing these lines?
Absolutely, committing this to writing is a horrid reenactment. But, I chose to endure the pain in tribute to those whom I shared hopes with at ETO- Kicukiro and who unfortunately did not make it.
The week we spent together, in fear and despair, we erected an edifice of humanity, fraternity, kinship. My present testimony is a labour of maintenance for that edifice.
To all whose blood was spilled, whose blood was made to drench the red soil of Kicukiro, I will always carry you in my heart and always further any cause which seeks justice for the earthly hell that you should never have seen and experienced.
We have shared a fate in which we will always have a common ground. I will bear your memories, endeavour for them to be dignified, and push where I can push for the service of justice to be rendered unto you. If I must, I shall remain committed to this duty until my ultimate breath. Never to be forgotten, you must be.
*Venuste Nshimiyimana has been a BBC journalist for close to 20 years