By: Pan Butamire
I’d seen it all, God knows I had. What I’d not seen in the heat of the horror, I’d seen in pictures. The Genocide against the Tutsi was a barbarity out of this world.
The repeated hacks at humans as if at dead logs; the punctured skulls that were then smashed against walls; the still visibly scarred, unseeing eyes; the raping; the disembowelment; the splintered bones; the rotting flesh; the overpowering stench, etc: the savagery that gripped this land in 1994, was there anything about it that hadn’t assaulted my senses?
See, those were spritely days when I was light of limb and so, among my duties, I was charged with taking visitors to Rwanda around the country.
From a practically unknown quantity, Rwanda had exploded on the world scene as the bloodiest monstrosity recorded by recent history. So, everybody wanted to see: what newspapers had screamed in headlines, radios blared in loudspeakers and television sets splashed on screens, was it real?
That’s how they came in droves and, together, we crisscrossed the country, as many of them fell in my charge.
We had been to Nyarubuye, near Tanzania, where, when you thought you stepped on a stone covered in algae, the ‘stone’ turned out to be a skull when the rotting flesh and its hair gave way.
In the church, in buildings around and in the bushes, bodies stacked on top of one another freely slid on the ground, as they rotted away.
The presence of victims’ dried blood in dugout-canoe-shaped containers (imivure) was explained off as having been “an offer of milk” to victims before their death, to mock them for having owned cattle.
As for Bisesero, to the south west, the whole hill seemed to be one huge reek that dared you to climb up and visit it. And, indeed, few were prepared to take up the challenge.
In Murambi, also to the south-west, you had to push against the tide of a stench that rose from the church and the classrooms around, to have a ‘blindingly pongy peep’ inside. A few paces away from classrooms was a mass-grave on top of which French “Opération Turquoise” soldiers had played basketball.
Their heartlessness reminded you of the UN abandoning victims in ETO Kicukiro, in Kigali.
In Ntarama Church, near Kigali, a barrage of grenade explosions had drawn patterns of death in the walls.
Bodies lay spread-eagled on pews, in aisles and in bushes outside.
To the left of the church’s altar, the blood-spattered statue of the Virgin Mary stood in supplication prayer, as if asking for forgiveness for inability to intervene.
Her bullet-punctured gaze was fixed on a pick-axe lodged in the skull of a victim, to this date still clearly marked: “Don de l’armée française”.
As if not to be outdone, Nyamata Church, further south, held an abhorrence of a spectacle of its own that, I am sure, still shames the Virgin Mary today.
Right in front of the altar lay the grotesque body of a woman who had been gang-raped, after which logs and other ‘unprintables’ were inserted into her. After the gory detail, Interahamwe severed her head and that of the baby she carried.
But, even then, the two faces managed to retain an angelic innocence that recalled the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
In a word, every inch of the Rwandan soil was a house of horrors.
And yet, even after hightailing it into Zaïre (DR Congo), some of the authors of that gruesomeness never let up on their effort to consummate their macabre project.
It must have been in 1996 when there was an attack in Gisenyi. They even caused panic near Kigali, burning a commuter-taxi minibus in Shyorongi and infiltrating the Rwanda Patriotic Army in the Gatsata suburb.
Well, they all met an end that did not encourage a repeat but, still, we all had reason to expect the worst – unfounded fear, as it turned out.
I relived all this in the short time it takes to react to a question: “Is this happening?”
It was towards end-1996 and the question was from one of my charges of the day, as we were about to descend into Gisenyi town, near Zaïre. To our right was a column of Genocide-suspect prisoners in pink but the columns had become such fixtures of the Rwandan landscape that we hardly ever gave a thought to them.
This time, however, the lone policewoman was on the back of the head prisoner! She had fainted as they were working in the field, he explained, and so he was carrying her on his back, taking her “home”.
And that explained the lone-police-man-guarded, peaceful, single-file columns everywhere.
Erstwhile hackers of their brethren had now disassociated themselves from evil and accepted prison as their home. Repentance, not insurgency, was their home. Gacaca court system, unity and reconciliation, working together for self-advancement, shared vision for the future, Ndi Umunyarwanda, etc: that’s their home today.
Home is the communal fight against genocide ideology.
France (my bête noire!), The Catholic Church and the United Nations, who’d have stopped this horridness with a lift of your finger, and powers harbouring unbendable perpetrators, when will you join Rwandans’ home, “on the right side of history and justice?”