The mind blanks at the glare.
In Africa, museums usually come thin on the ground. Underfunded and poorly maintained, they often present a version of history barely refreshed since colonial times. Rwanda is an exception. Today it must boast more museums per square mile than any other African nation-state. In Kigali and Kibuye, Gikongoro and Butare, Nyanza, Mulindi, and Nyamata, distinctive brown signposts point you to venues where the displays are pristine, the labeling precise, and the staff well trained and informative.
This is no accident. After the genocide, Western embassies flew RPF officials to Israel to visit the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, where they saw how a well-designed museum served to keep the world’s collective memory keen, broadcasting a “Never Again” message as nothing else could. The lesson did not go to waste. A trip to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where 250,000 victims are interred, has become an obligatory part of any VIP visit.
Museums set officially approved narratives in concrete. As the cement solidifies, counternarratives, complexities, and nuances get lost, usually deliberately. Rwanda’s heritage sites were always destined to become a vital tool in the armory of a regime bent on determining exactly what is remembered about one of the great traumas of the twentieth century.
For visitors arriving by plane, the most accessible museum site lies just a few miles from Kigali’s airport. Back in the mid-1970s, President Juvénal Habyarimana built his villa under the flight path routinely traced by aircraft coming in to land. A military man through and through, he felt most relaxed near his army, and Kanombe barracks lay just up the road.
Officially, the villa serves as the Rwanda Art Museum. Its formal gardens are popular with couples getting married, who hold their receptions under white tents on the lawns. The choice seems slightly surreal, but brutal past and banal present constantly overlap in Rwanda. Unofficially, the villa stands as a testament to presidential paranoia, a reminder of how power tends to change hands in this region: suddenly, and with extreme violence.
If the head that wore the crown lay uneasy, it was with good reason. As a young army chief of staff, Habyarimana had ousted his boss, his soldiers supposedly barricading President Kayibanda and his wife in their own home until they starved to death—the ultimate lockdown. Having shown such implacability himself, Habyarimana spent twenty-one years preparing for the moment when his own turn would come. His men called him “Kinani”—“Invincible”: he felt anything but.
Climb the main stairs to the first-floor bedrooms and you find yourself walking on hidden censors, wired up to alarms that were set each night to catch intruders. Outside the first couple’s main bedroom sits, incongruously, a large safe, its door propped open. It was kept stacked with bricks of ready cash, the guides tell you. The money needed to be close at hand if Habyarimana and Agathe, his intimidating First Lady, were to buy off their would-be assassins.
From there you can wander into the children’s television room, a place, in theory, of laughter and fun. But the wood-paneled walls here also hold grim secrets. One panel opens to reveal a secret gun rack, lined with rifles. Another opens onto a hidden flight of stairs, which lead up into a spacious concealed attic, complete with exercise room, chapel—the Habyarimanas hosted the first papal visit to Rwanda in 1990—and a room where, hedging their bets, the family are said to have indulged in a little sorcery with a favorite witch doctor.
Habyarimana clearly saw this as his last redoubt, the place where the family’s menfolk and retainers, armed to the teeth, would hold off the enemy until rescue—in the form of French paratroopers, perhaps?—arrived in the nick of time.
As it turns out, it was all for nothing. He was right to fear for his life, but Habyarimana had only prepared for a ground assault. No home improvement scheme, however cunning, stood a chance against the devastating directness of a surface-to-air missile, launched as he sat next to his Burundian counterpart in a French-crewed Dassault Falcon returning to Kigali from Dar es Salaam on the evening of April 6, 1994.
Hearing the engine of the descending jet, Habyarimana’s family knew the president was about to land. Then a missile snaked through the sky, just missing the aircraft. As the French pilot tried desperately to take evasive action, a second missile hit home. The Falcon jet exploded in a ball of flame, showering metal debris and body parts onto the presidential villa’s grounds.
The members of a British television crew who drove into the compound after the presidential retinue had fled for Zaire, bearing Habyarimana’s corpse, found human brains splattered on the bonnet of a Mercedes Benz parked outside the villa. The president’s? One of the flight crew? What’s certain is that Habyarimana, along with the eight people aboard, died in full view of his family and retainers, his worst premonition fulfilled. The Falcon’s twisted wreckage still lies rusting in a field next to the villa, separated only by a low wall.
The jet’s downing and the assassination of not one but two African presidents—Burundi’s Cyprien Ntaryamira also died that evening—served as the immediate trigger for the genocide. The Arusha peace talks promoted by the international community—in which neither side had ever truly believed—were over. Rwanda’s future would not be decided via diplomacy, now, but by slaughter.
Within hours of Habyarimana’s death, Rwanda’s presidential guard had erected roadblocks around Kigali and youth militias were fanning out across the capital, on a mission to avenge their slain president and root out the enemy within: not only Tutsis, but Hutu
politicians, journalists, or senior officials seen as hostile to the regime. “This is a coup but everything is under control,” Colonel Theoneste Bagosora told UN special envoy Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, signaling a split in the armed forces between a moderate faction and his extremists, bent on extermination.
Up in their headquarters in Mulindi, the RPF scrambled. As a full-throttle military operation got underway, the 600-strong RPF battalion inside Kigali was ordered to move what civilian politicians it could locate to safety.
Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana was among the first high-profile Hutus to die, killed alongside her husband by Bagosora’s presidential guard. Ten Belgian UN peacekeepers who had been guarding her were disarmed and tortured to death, their cries relayed to their commanders on their army radios. It was a canny move, prompting the withdrawal of the UN’s Belgian contingent, its largest. French, Belgian, and American nationals were airlifted to safety, while their terrified Rwandan colleagues and friends were abandoned to their fates.
At militia and army checkpoints, Tutsis—their fates sealed by government ID cards pinpointing their ethnicity—were either shot or dispatched like animals at a butchery, Achilles’ tendons severed to immobilize them, then hacked to death. Within a week of the plane’s downing, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that tens of thousands of Rwandans had been murdered.
As in the past, killing was presented to ordinary Rwandans as a patriotic duty. Out in the provinces, local bourgmestres and préfets called public meetings to pull together lists of victims, while Radio Mille Collines urged its listeners on to greater efforts. Their “work,” as the radio announcers termed it, was made easier by the fact that overpopulated, intensely cultivated Rwanda had so little tree cover. On the terraced, denuded hillsides, there was nowhere to hide.
Tutsis huddled in terrified groups in churches, schools, hospitals, and sports stadiums, waiting for grenades to be thrown through windows and roofs pulled down upon them by bulldozers. Once these hiding places had been stormed, their bodies were thrown down latrines, or simply left to rot.
Like other reporters, I learned to spot the telltale signs of a massacre site: handprints stenciled in blood on the walls, fields with mounds of freshly turned earth, Hutu village women on their hands and knees, working away at hard-to-remove stains with bleach and soapy water. The smell of human carrion, I learned then, is like the sound of a bomb exploding: it requires no introduction, you immediately know it for what it is. And it takes a lot of scrubbing to remove its stink from the cobbled floor of a church aisle.
erhaps one cannot—what is more, one must not—understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify,” wrote the Italian biochemist Primo Levi after surviving Auschwitz.
But it is natural, inevitable, to try, as Levi did his entire life.
No one will ever be able to adequately explain how so many respectable, ordinary members of a community—not the random psychopaths every society throws up—ended up in Rwanda turning on people they had shared drinks with in bars, sat next to in church, jostled up against at the market, and cut them down. Quite apart from the death toll itself, the intimacy of that slaughter, its up-close-and-personal nature, baffles and stupefies.
If we are honest, many of us might admit to being capable of pressing a button consigning a disliked acquaintance to anonymous, distant oblivion. Hence the debate about just how much ordinary Germans really knew about the Holocaust, during which Jewish neighbors simply boarded trains, never to be seen again, and how much guilt those witnesses carry. Rwanda’s massacres, in contrast, were pre-agreed, public affairs, conducted using the most democratic of tools. There was no mystery, no ambiguity about what happened. Killing someone with a machete, sickle, or hoe is a messy, exhausting business; the process leaves no room for subsequent sugarcoating.
Xenophobic propaganda, broadcast by Rwandan radio stations, certainly played a role, its impact boosted by a culture of unquestioning obedience toward an all-seeing, all-powerful state that had long peered into every corner of its citizens’ lives—characteristics the Mwami’s court had bequeathed successive Hutu administrations.
In Africa’s most overpopulated country, plain greed—for livestock, for land, for women, for property, for access to water—was also an undeniable factor. In DRC, hundreds of thousands of hectares of equatorial forest serve as an outlet for aching land hunger. In a dirt-poor, landlocked Rwanda, where every plot was already accounted for, self-betterment always seemed like a zero-sum game: for me to prosper, you must fail.
But the key factor was surely fear. “Kill or be killed” is a motivation most of us can grasp. In late 1994, I sat with colleagues next to a gaggle of stocky, bespectacled Hutu nuns being evacuated from southwestern Rwanda aboard a UN military transport plane. We had all heard how Rwanda’s priests and nuns had enthusiastically collaborated with the génocidaires. “Everyone is talking about the genocide now,” one nun piped up defiantly, sensing reproach in our glances. “But the RPF had dug big cement vats, where they were going to throw all of us.”
Rwanda’s Hutus had watched in horror in the 1960s and 1970s as relatives and friends in neighboring Burundi had been slaughtered by that country’s Tutsi army. Only six months earlier, in October 1993, Burundi’s Hutu president, an enlightened politician preaching ethnic reconciliation, had been bayoneted to death during a coup staged by Tutsi soldiers, who also murdered parliament’s speaker and deputy speaker, the minister for lands, and the director of intelligence. Now another Tutsi force was on the move, and Rwanda’s own president—the third Hutu head of state in the region killed by Tutsi assassins, they’d been told—was dead.
Genocides do not take place in a vacuum: there is always a context and a buildup. For decades, in a ghastly mirror-imaging, ethnic pogroms in Burundi and Rwanda had echoed one another, depositing layers of emotional numbing upon each community. Serving to convince both Hutus and Tutsis the other side was morally beyond the pale, they had effectively established mass killing in the collective mind as the way in which Tutsi-Hutu tensions were resolved.
Anyone who was in Rwanda during that era finds a few choice images clinging to their minds long after the events, sending out tendrils of disquiet. From out of the undifferentiated mass of horror peek grotesque individual anecdotes and the odd story of heroism and self-sacrifice. The Tutsi wife who begged her Hutu husband to kill her before the militias did—and he complied. Was he a hero or a monster? The Catholic priest who ordered the church where 2,000 Tutsi parishioners sheltered to be bulldozed by the militiamen. How could anyone reconcile that with the Christian faith? The trusted Hutu retainer spotted by his Tutsi employer manning an interahamwe checkpoint. What was he thinking?
My moment came several months after the genocide, when I was walking up a hilltop on the outskirts of Kibuye, a spot of picture-postcard beauty overlooking the waters of Lake Kivu. Kibuye, I knew, had seen some of the genocide’s worst massacres, so I instinctively headed for where experience dictated many must have died: the church on the summit.
It was Sunday, an organ had been playing, the singing had faded, the devout streamed out of the church doors: an idyllic pastoral scene. The parishioners who quietly passed me on the path, which was lined with high banks of exposed earth—a bulldozer had recently been at work, I saw—seemed like model citizens.
They looked neither left nor right, which allowed them to avoid commenting on the sight that suddenly brought me up short. From one of the mounds of earth poked, ludicrously, comically, a brown L-shaped object. A naked adult foot. The piled earth, I realized, was there for a reason. It hid the bodies of Tutsi men, women, and children slaughtered inside the church, whose corpses, after three long months, had probably been starting to smell.
Who can explain how a God-fearing community calmly worships feet away from where the bodies of 11,000 recently slaughtered neighbors and friends—I later discovered—lie buried—buried, what’s more, with less care than you would allot an item of roadkill—without experiencing some kind of collective spasm? I couldn’t. If instead of a foot—anonymous somehow—a pleading hand, or a recognizable head, had poked out of the soil, would they have felt obliged to do something?
I gazed after the disappearing parishioners. A white soldier was walking down the path, beret on head, high-powered rifle cradled in his arms. He was a Foreign Legionnaire, part of Operation Turquoise, the force President Mitterrand belatedly ordered to southwestern Rwanda. The Foreign Legion is open to all nationalities, and this one happened to be a Brit. He noticed the human foot a split second after I had. “Well, he’s got one foot in the grave,” he quipped, then carried on past me down the path.
Many of the photographs taken of the victims show bodies in the process of deliquescence, melting, waxlike, into the ground, people defined by absence rather than presence: clothes they once bulked out, flip-flops and shoes they once walked in.
That’s because most of the press—myself included—came late to the story, and the bodies had slowly liquefied in the African heat. South Africa’s April elections—the first since Nelson Ma...