April 2014 marks 20 years since the Rwanda genocide in which an estimated 800,000 mostly Tutsis were killed.
Last Saturday night I was transiting through Kigali. As the KLM flight taxed to the stop, I could not help but wonder about the events of 20 years back. It was April 6, 1994.
Kanombe airport was the centre of activity. Little seems to have changed since; same terminal building, same nice view of Kigali – only that this time the city seemed more lit than it was those 20 years ago.
Just a few metres away is where the plane carrying the then president of Rwanda Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it came in for landing. All on board were killed, including the Burundian president CyprienNtaryamira. The plane had crashed in the perimeter wall of the presidential residence, as though nature had conspired to bring Habyarimana ‘home’ literary.
A young man then, I was very inquisitive and wanted to know what was going on in Rwanda. Armed with a pen and a notebook, I was told by my then editor Charles Onyango-Obbo to head to Rwanda and cover the war that had just got a twist to it. The twist being that the plane carrying the president had just been shot down and mass killings were now underway.
The then tactical headquarters of the Rwanda Patriotic Army were at Mulindi, a hilly village shrouded in thick forest cover. With a group of other journalists, including BBC and CNN crews, we were kept waiting for nearly five hours as the RPA cleared us to even wonder close to their base.
When we eventually reached their headquarters, an interview with the RPA’s overall commander, Paul Kagame – now president of Rwanda –was promptly set up. Kagame told us that genocide was underway across his country. I remember asking him what he was going to do about it.
“We are moving to Kigali,” was his terse response.
Driving from Katuna to Kigali, it was not hard to fathom what had gone wrong. For a country that was so densely populated, there seemed to be no sign of life all along the route, apart from the occasional lazy dog waiting for masters long gone.
The few people lingering on the hilltops would immediately run away upon sight of a vehicle. Manyhad machetes slung over their shoulders. At Rwamagana, we stopped by a group of women. They were wailing. They were holding a six-month old girl whose mouth was all eaten up. She could not stop crying.
Apparently her mother had been killed, but the little girl had not idea so she was suckling at her breast for three days!
What she was suckling was obviously pus, not mother’s breast milk. The flies had begun to feed on her mouth and it was by some miracle that someone discovered her. As we got to Kigali, there was worse to come. The next morning we went to the home of the just deceased president, Habyarimana. What splendor!
His home had its own church where he attended holy mass twice a day. Outside in the far corner of the compound were the remains of his jet, now hanging on the destroyed wall. Peering into what used to be his bedroom, I could see that the pure white bed sheets were still intact. Photos of presidents who had visited him hang in every corner of the house.
The next morning we headed to Nyarubuye, perhaps the theatreof the worst killings.Nyarubuye was a Catholic church that had a primary school in its vicinity.
Inside a small house belonging to the church was a scene I will never forget. There was a dead woman seemingly staring at us. A stick had been pushed through her private parts and it was protruding near the collarbone.
I did not want to know how this could havebeen done. As we made to leave, I took another look. She was dead but staring at us!
Hell in church
Inside the church was like hell itself. There were probably 300 bodies here. The stench was simply unbearable. I went jumping over bodies, headed to the altar. Somewhere I heard a groan. I stopped and heard the groan again. I called out to the other people I was with.
At first I feared it was demons in here, only to discover in the far corner of the pulpit that a hand was moving. One young girl was indeed alive. But pulling her out of the pile of bodies was more difficult than we had thought. Her left leg had been severed by the ankle; her neck was almost falling off. It took almost forever to get her out. She was smelling terribly.
I headed for the classroom across from the church compound as my colleagues tried to clean up the girl and give her some water. I tried pushing the classroom door but it was firmly shut. With my shoulder, I crushed the door and fell right inside the classroom. That is when piled-up bodies started falling over me.
I tried running away, but more bodies were falling on me. I called for help and as I was being dragged out, I had not realised that a skull was stuck to my right foot. I tried pushing it as far away as I could but failed until a soldier brushed it off with the butt of his gun!
When I returned to Kampala to file the stories, I had turned darker than usual. My editor asked me to take leave but I could not leave; I wanted to remain near people all the time. As the world remembers the Rwanda genocide this month, it becomes difficult for me to forget my experience of what man is capable of against fellow man.
*By Dismas Nkunda– The writer is now a refugee rights activist.