My Nightmares of Kibeho and Beyond


By: Tom Ndahiro

As a survivor and witness of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda I have many nightmares. Some of the bad dreams and memories, are not from the time of genocide itself, but from several months later, after I had made a trip to the south west of Rwanda—to Kibeho where some of the most horrific acts of genocide were committed.

In early February 1995, I paid a visit to the camp of displaced persons in what was known as “Zone Turquoise”. This was in the south-western part of Rwanda, where in late June 1994, the government of France created a safe haven, to protect members of the beleaguered genocidal government, army and militia.

The particular place I visited is called Kibeho. An area, famous for having witnessed alleged apparitions of Virgin Mary, in the early 1980’s.  During the genocide there was another phantom of simulated “apparitions” with claims, on the waves of the national radio and Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) that the late Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana had been received in heaven by the Virgin Mary. This propaganda was meant to encourage killers on the Rwandan hills and streets that genocide had authorisation from heavenly powers. Kibeho, again, for those who do not know the place, is where thousands of Tutsis were burnt alive in the Catholic Church.

It is the image I caught sight of, at Kibeho, which still torments me.  The time was around ten o’clock in the morning. There was a man in the crowded camp; seated close to a woman whom I thought was his wife. A soot-coated saucepan was on three stones, boiling with what would be the family’s lunch, on that day. Under it, the fire flames were raising up mixed with white smoke. What was burning under the saucepan was not wood but human bones. It was an episode that struck me like a scene in contemporary hell.

The scene was another occurrence, extremely difficult to comprehend, and so it remains, a subject worthy of a reflection on human dignity. Less than a year after witnessing the genocide, the spectacle was a shock to me. Gazing—at a human being—using human bones—as firewood! Knowing these bones were from victims of the genocide was the most enigmatic side of this gloomy crime. The g-e-n-o-c-i-d-e.

Horror-stricken, I could not avoid staring at the man’s eyes and the blazing human bones. From him, I was searching for a human reaction, if he had any.  At least, I expected, he would try to conceal those bones from strangers like me. It was not the case. Without knowing that I was also a Rwandan, the man said: “barapfuye ariko ntibagomba gupfa ubusa.” Literally meaning, “Indeed, they died but they should not be wasted.” He said it in a loud and clear voice, as he pushed a scapular into the fire, closer to the already smouldering ribs.

His hateful but powerful words were not assuring any longer. It was not possible for me to keep on standing closer to this person, whom I could not identify today if I met him. With another gentleman, Polycalpe Gatete —who had seen what I saw, we immediately left at a complete loss.  It was beyond imagination, and understanding. It remains a mark in my catalogue of nightmares. The words I heard were repellent, and the message was unequivocal. I was close to the devil’s workshop.

It was somehow strange to me that he had retained the ability to make a better choice of words to express his malevolent mind, which produced a very bad effect on me. He made me believe that he was normal, because he knew exactly what he was doing. Consciously, he was making use of human bones as firewood!

Ba-rapfuye is a word that means, “They died” or “they are dead.”  Ba-rapfuye is a plural form of ya-rapfuye.  In Kinyarwanda language, the prefix –ba- is only applied to human beings. When you are referring to animals like cows, goats, or a buffalo, the plural form is “za-rapfuye”.

Even his choice of words was not so innocent. The expression “they died” or “they are dead” was not appropriate. It was a denial of the circumstances to which the people, whose bones were his fuel, had lost their lives. It would have been proper to say: “they were killed” or more appropriately “we killed them”. But here he was hiding the agent of the killing. The bones he was using, as fuel wood, did not belong to people who had died a natural death. There were bones belonging to the victims of genocide.

Under normal circumstances, he could not have access to the bones, since bodies would have been buried several feet under the earth’s surface or cremated. Altogether, the usage “they” was another indication that he knew the source of the bones. The bones were not from a single individual, but many.

I always wonder whether this was an ordinary man. Among many displaced persons I saw he is the only one I saw doing that. He wore a rosary around his neck, and the cross hanging on his chest—to make people believe he was a Christian. This scene made it more unbearable beyond plain words.  The cross is the sign of the Christian faith, which to believers, is an instrument of redemption. It is also the representation of grace, and the way to glory. The reality was absolutely different. Poor Christ associated with mass slaughterers!

Humans in an ideal situation, owe the dead a decent, honourable and just burial. Most cultures in the world speak of this. What this man in Kibeho did, is what happens when a human being or institution breaks down.  This can only occur, I think, where there is no productive safety net whatsoever—to ensure even a minimal level of descent respect and dignity to the living and the dead.

Much as it was exceedingly difficult to comprehend, it was also immensely discouraging.  This man was a Rwandan like me. He spoke in a language I understood as my mother tongue.  Yet I could not talk to him, to express my disapproval of his macabre acts, if possible provide prompt advice, and maybe help into changing his mind.

It was a disgusting image—one of desensitisation and of brutalisation. This was not the case, of where there was no firewood. Thus, bones remaining the only flammable material to cook his food. Had it been the case it would have been hunger and pragmatism, or what moralists would call “lesser evil”. Alas! There was wood everywhere, in a walking distance.

Why would this Kibeho man use the bones for firewood? As a way of insulting the memory of the people who were killed? Glory in his being alive and being able to make use of the bones of the dead human beings (like him) as firewood? What was going on in this particular man’s mind and situation? How was his conscience? Did he have a sense of pleasure and pain? Anyway, cooking using genocide victims’ bones was a very crude and dehumanising thing to do. It was a demonstration of the highest level of disrespect, to the dead— in his thoughts, words and actions.

On the other hand, this could be less horrifying than images of dying people, during the genocide. It can be absolutely unbearable, seeing Interahamwe militia who were raping, torturing and killing other human beings slowly and brutally. The bones feel no pain; the bones may have been found underground or in the mass grave. More difficult to comprehend is how some people could look through the eyes of other human beings and continue to inflict pain and horrible death.

Certainly, other intriguing interrogations come up. Did this man even remember that the bones he was burning to prepare his lunch once belonged to human beings, to men and women who had a body and brain like his? What made him make the choice of cooking his family’s food using the bones of genocide victims? Was this man maximising pleasure, to maybe, just make full use of the bones?  Or, he was trying to totally eliminate the living signs of the victims by changing the bones into ash, a form that is blown by wind or swept away by running water!

I keep on asking myself, had he participated in the massacres of Tutsis or not? If he did, was it not enough to let the bones alone to await burial? Were his wife, children, neighbours and friends who often saw him doing what I caught sight of, convinced that he did the right thing or not? Could there have been, at one time people who encouraged or discouraged him? For those who discouraged him, were they as shocked as I was that it happened? If they were shocked, what did they do to make sure he did not continue? If the man is still alive, do his children have a father to emulate? Do his neighbours who witnessed what I saw, still consider this man a rational being whose advice they can seek?

Here we are talking about a human being who is supposed to know and value the human life. But, it seems to me, this man was not much better than the dead, since he had lost the understanding of the other “spiritual” dimension of a human being. He no longer respected the sacredness of a human being, humanity and even, as a Christian—and a belief of life after death.

Sometimes, I tend to think he may have lost contact with humankind, since he no longer respected the nature of fellow human beings. It was a total loss of decency, a sort of moral and spiritual bankruptcy—and above all utter depravity. Could it be that he had completely lost his mind even though he did not act as a ‘mad’ man? For sure, I have no answer. I think psychologists would be in a better position to shed light on this.

One has to think about that particular scene in the overall context of what happened before seeing the man using human bones to cook. This was less than a year after the genocide—when a million people had been killed and when millions were being displaced, inside and outside the country. One therefore might start with the assumption that this man and his ilk are not in a normal psychological state of mind.

I think no other nation during the 20th century suffered in terms of percentage whereby many amongst its population were directly affected, either as victims, as killers, as bystanders or as refugees. In 1995 the entire country of Rwanda had gone through a degree of trauma. Many Rwandans, in general, were suffering from trauma of the highest degree.

I believe there could have been other people doing the same in that camp. But, I suppose, there were not many of them because if there were, with thousands of people in that camp, no bones would be left around that Church of Kibeho.  I was obliged to interrogate the rationality and the irrational aspect of such behaviour, which is of extreme violence, with little success. Who can, in any case?

There are other questions that have preoccupied me whenever I think of this man. Although the macabre sight was in 1995, this man may still be alive, and a member of today’s Rwandan society.  A society with people including his wife and children who knew him before, during, and after the genocide – including the time when he was collecting and using human bones as firewood.

Trying to understand this man, I made two assumptions. One is if this man is a perpetrator, and two, if he was just an ordinary man who had been mobilized to run away from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an organisation which decisively fought and defeated the genocidal machinery, to which the Kibeho man remained loyal.

Having carried out several killings earlier he had become incredibly desensitised. And at the same time he firmly believes and regards the people he killed were no different from insects, as cockroaches – or inhuman objects. Assuming this is the case, if he can easily kill the Tutsis whom he regarded as inhuman, then it was not hard for him to use their bones as firewood, because he does not really feel these are the bones of human beings—even though they might be the bones of someone who is a member of his family.

The phenomenon operating here is dehumanisation, where he does not see these body remains as the bones of a human being who deserves any kind of respect or dignity. This happened, because he is likely to have produced bones like that by killing people.

Consequently, using bones as firewood is consistent with the degree of cruelty, brutalisation and dehumanisation that he would have felt and incorporated into his mind and psyche as a perpetrator. He was not contented to see the remains of his victims. The bones represented living individuals. For that matter, he felt like, or was in the process of exterminating them, and destroying the evidence.

As a killer, there was so much death around him that it had become his life. Bones seemed, for him, like firewood, and no more than that. On the other hand the presence of the bones above the ground—was enough evidence of what happened. The g-e-n-o-c-i-d-e.  The evidence of the heinous crime had to be eliminated.

The second assumption is more problematic. Even if he was not a direct killer he may have absorbed and accepted the Hutu extremist ideology that the Tutsis are enemies, insects—and are not human. As a consequence, he would remember; if certain human beings are not fully human when they are alive, then who cares, or who should mind about their bones? Internally the Kibeho man asks himself, if their bones are available to use in cooking food, why not? What a profane act!

In our culture, and in many others, human dignity extends beyond life.  Human dignity is in contradiction to any utilitarian use of the dead. All what a person was, and is, can be affiliated with the body even if it is dead. That is why Rwandans talk about “abazimu” or spirits. For that reason, under normal circumstances, dead human bodies deserve venerable treatment. And this means: body parts should not be used for any other purpose, like burning them as fuel in preparing meals.

Ever since I left the place, in early 1995, I have been trying to understand what happened at that haunting scene in Kibeho. May be, a result of psychic numbing—when an individual, can’t feel, can’t sympathize, and can’t demonstrate emotions. Inside this person’s mind was kind of least common denominator of civility, and empathy with others is almost below zero.

Amongst genocidaires, an act of extermination is like rational pragmatism. Once you have decided to reduce people to less than human and then to destroy them, why not use their bodies in effective ways?

In trying to understand further what I experienced in Kibeho, I spoke to a friend of mine Professor Eric Markusen (R.I.P), co-author of ‘The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat’ who told me that this was not the first time a perpetrator or bystander had this degrading, dehumanising, pragmatic attitude to not just the people killed, but to remains of killed people. This was Rwanda in 1995, but it had happened elsewhere in Europe during the World War II. In Poland, in the 1940s, the Nazis did almost the same to Jews they killed. They used to cut hair of Jewish women in concentration camps, and ship it in huge bales back to Germany where they used it in lining clothes and mattress stuffing.

What did the Nazis do with the bones of the Jewish victims they took out of the crematorium? Markusen asked, and quickly said: “They (Nazis) forced other Jewish inmates to pulverize the bones into powder and they took that powder which is rich in potassium and then used it as fertiliser on fields where they had other inmates working as slave-labourers. So there is sort of a desire or pragmatic mentality that these European perpetrators had.”

Markusen gives another example of a wife of a commandant of the Nazi concentration camp who suggests having one of the prisoners killed and skinned. In the mind of this Nazi, was done for a very simple reason. The victim’s skin with tattoos would eventually be used to make book covers or lampshades.

It is very disturbing, yet very interesting and important to take note of.  The attitude could characterize people in Europe in 1940’s and also expressed in the hills of Rwanda in 1990’s. And what does this tell us about human nature? After the Holocaust, the world made a commitment of a “Never Again”, for Rwanda in 1994 was “Once Again”.

In either case the psychological principle of the dehumanisation of the victims and the desensitisation of the perpetrators helps one to understand how that could happen. The words applied by the man who used human bones as fuel wood, were profoundly cruel. It was a continuation of brutality in the process of extermination. He still saw the usefulness of the bones he considered to be the symbol of living Tutsis—the declared enemies to be annihilated.

A crime of genocide is a process. The late president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana and the media had for long, condemned the Tutsis.  Strong metaphors like referring to Tutsis as cockroaches and snakes had destroyed their humanity and dignity, as the targeted group.  On 31 December 1990, president Habyarimana, addressed the nation in which he said the Inyenzi (cockroaches), are “characterised by their murderous nature and all malevolence one can imagine” (ba nyamurangwa n’ubwicanyi n’ibibi byose bibaho). By inyenzi he meant Tutsis. This is a president who was uttering words which were a sum-total of hatred, animosity and dehumanisation.

The president’s incitement to hate Tutsis was to be replicated in the national radio and reinforced in several publications. An article in one of those publications Kangura – Issue No. 6 of December 1990, came up with a Decalogue of hate called the 10 Hutu Commandments.

And these were not the first Hutu Commandments. The first were by Joseph Habyarimana Gitera, published in September 1959. In those odious decrees, Gitera suggested banishing Tutsis because “cohabiting” with them was like “…an incurable wound, a leech in the body and a stomach cancer or pneumonia.”

Kangura’s 8th Hutu commandment is: “The Bahutu must stop having pity on the Batutsi.” The 10th commandment concludes telling every Hutu that he/she “must spread this ideology widely. Any Muhutu who persecutes his brother Muhutu for having read, spread and taught this ideology is a traitor.”

The above commandments, especially the 8th, were meant to generate caustic collective behaviour or actions and extreme forms of psychic numbing—whereby Hutus would not feel the pain of the genocide victims.  In the eyes of the Kibeho man, bones were still a symbol of a breathing Tutsi to be destroyed between the three stones which held his saucepan. He felt was not a traitor, and a false sense of patriotism as had been shaped by genocidal propaganda.

The ten Hutu commandments, of Gitera and Kangura, were all about manipulated religious convictions. It was the re-interpretation of the basis of a certain belief, so to speak, of the people—in order to overcome their reluctance by re-cycling the basic Biblical commandments. They were theories created by learned ideologues to reinforce the convictions of politicians and to lure ordinary Christian citizens, into the project of exterminating a people.

Important phase in the process extermination is dehumanisation. One good example of systematic verbal dehumanisation is in Kangura, issue No. 40, in February 1993. The author talked about the Tutsi as snakes ‘whose venom is extremely poisonous’, malicious, wicked …etc.

Words are powerful. When someone uses a word “snake” in reference to a people, it is such an authoritative metaphor to raise terror and alarm. Snakes are frightening reptiles. When you call some people serpents, including the Rwanda-Christian culture people know what to do with snakes, which simply represent evil. So much that, given chance you have to kill them.

The human mind is capable of creating and harbouring very strong and also subtle tricks in defence mechanisms. Like dissociation and denial. This happens when portions of mind are separated from the whole thus losing connection between ones identity, thoughts and even memory. It makes me think that perhaps in the mind of this man who made use of human bones to cook his family’s meal, simply did not recognize that those bones were once parts of a human being like him.

Even if this man in Kibeho was too lazy to walk some distance and get firewood—maybe, in his mind he was not able to forget that these bones had humanity as their source.  As they were burning he made no such connection. He was simply thinking or looking at them as burning objects.

The only animal, which is intelligent and knows it will someday die, is Man. Emile Dukheim, a famous French sociologist—rightly suggests that people created religions for fear of mortality. Religions provide people with concepts that assure them that after the death of their bodies, the spirits will continue. It is the source of our suppression to think about our mortality.

Rwandans in particular, with the influence of the Christian Churches, some years before the genocide had developed a profound fear of death. This is evident in the common usage of the contemporary Ki-nyarwanda language. Many Rwandans, rarely mention a word gu-pfa (to die) or gu-hamba (to bury).  Instead, they have respectively adopted kwitaba Imana, which literally means accepting God’s call—or sort of religious vocation—and gushyingura, which literally stands for keeping in a safer place or archiving. These are very serious linguistic distortions, justified because of fear of death—which is certainly inescapable.

These ‘linguistic distortions’ are not only in Kinyarwanda. Even in English ‘passing away’ and ‘passing on’ are euphemisms for death, with connotations of some hope of life after death. Even pre-Christian Rwandans believed in ‘abazimu’ equivalent to saints— implying some kind of life after death and relation between the dead and the living.

The only time Rwandans and English speakers and writers don’t use euphemism for fear of death is when they recite the death of Jesus Christ, in Apostles’ Creed. They can’t avoid saying:  “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”

There is another element too. Some people have suggested, and they may be right, that killers derive a psychological thrill or even a sense of power when they kill. Killing other people becomes some sort of triumph over death in a psychological sense, and conquering death by killing someone else—the killer acquires the sensation of power.

Can it be conceivable that this Kibeho man, who used human bones as firewood, also expressed fear of death?  Maybe, with a cross on his chest, was in the process of conquering death to scare the imaginary cause of death like the fear of Dracula!

Much as questions multiply—the whys and how(s)—it is important to remember that Rwanda has been predominantly Christian, at least based on available quantitative statistics. It is a country whose past has been influenced by the church, in the good and the evil.  To understand what happened in Rwanda that has to be borne in mind. The perpetrators felt they were good Christians who were doing a service to the nation.

I have no doubt this man, and other Rwandans were products of a society with a firmly perverted mentality. The hatred, which was taught publicly by politicians and unethical journalists through the media, was the driving motive that led to genocide and the eventual wish to make the final utility of human remains by people like the man I saw in Kibeho.

No ordinary person can do what this man did, to the bones of a person you love or respect unless there is a super-motivation. The only people doing the same are genocide deniers—they don’t burn bones, but set genocide memories ablaze.

Those bones still burn in my mind, and as long as they do, my bad memories of the genocide will be there to tell to the world. It is my duty and the duty of others like me to tell it in the hopes that one-day, when the world says ‘Never again’—will really mean what it says and means.

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