The Aftermath of Hell on Earth

Pamela Coulston and custodian of genocide site Rwanda.

At first glance, Rwanda reveals few changes from a visit earlier this decade. A tiny East African country slowly modernizing: a new building here, a new traffic light there. At first one doesn't see that four short years ago hell gained, for a time at least, a destructive foothold on earth. Quite simply, at first glance, one asks: "War, what war?"

Flying into the capital of Kigali, virtually the whole country is visible below the clouds. An undulating fabric of a thousand verdant hills, softened by mist and cook smoke, a view more reminiscent of classical Japanese watercolours than East Africa. The airport has remained as it was a decade ago. Along the rooftop terrace, welcome parties wave as they recognize passengers. The drive from the airport reveals the same sights: friends meeting on the street, right arms arcing like swallows to meet in handshake, the left hand confirming the union with a gentle grasp of the forearm. Bicycles piled high with green beer bananas or balanced with jerrycans of water. Cows wandering at will, oblivious to prodding. Women with baskets of food balanced on their heads: cassava, beans, corn, rice. Cars - many of them new - and mnivan taxis weaving through it all.

While some buildings in the capital were destroyed and some remain pockmarked by strafing, the minimal amount of infrastructure damage conspires to suspend belief that war recently raged in this country. Nowhere is there the extensive rubble caused by a protracted standoff of large weapons that we associate with warfare at the end of this millennium. Nor is there an endless parade of burnt-out shells of cars and tanks at the side of the road. For this was a war, a genocide, that for the most part was carried out with simple farm tools: machete, hoe, hammer, knife. An agricultural society, an agricultural arsenal. Sowing the seeds of hatred.

A second look reveals the gruesome crop that was reaped in 1994. On April 6 the president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, along with the president of Burundi and all others on board a French Falcon 50, were killed when the jet was shot down on approach to Kigali airport, landing in the president's own backyard. Within 45 minutes, roadblocks erected by Hutu militia - the Interahamwe - signaled the start of a systematic genocide. An estimated three-quarters of a million people died, the majority of victims Tutsi but moderate Hutu as well.

Daily vignettes remind one of the near past. A beggar boy on the street, his arm severed above the elbow. An old man, one leg coming to an abrupt end just below his hip, moving in an odd and exhausting tango with a crude wooden staff. Dipping and circling the staff in order to move the other leg forward; a pole vaulter who will never leave the ground. A woman in line at the bank, a great scar across her neck. A boy at the airport returning unaccompanied from abroad, his face disfigured from scars and burns. A government employee, your lunch companion, who the day before buried his soldier brother, killed in the on-going border skirmishes with Interahamwe crossing over from the Congo.

Conversations, seemingly unrelated, eventually refer to the war. A chance meeting between a Rwandan and a Canadian. "Muraho," the Canadian says in greeting. "Ah, you speak Kinyarwanda. "Non," says the Canadian retreating to French, "but at one time I worked for UNICEF here in Kigali." Coincidentally so had the Rwandan and they look for mutual acquaintances, "Who still works for the agency?" a euphemism for "who survived." They run through a short list. "Pauline." Yes, yes, how is Pauline?" Forgetting that those questions should not be asked. "She's dead. Did you know Alexis?" "Yes, yes, of course." "He's dead too." But the Rwandan brightens, "he was sick and died!" Lucky Alexis.

And when old friends catch up, the discussion turns to marriages and babies - "Yes" and "No," says the Canadian and, again, before she can check herself, "And you?" "I lost my wife and child in the war. After that I made my way on foot to Kenya. I have a new child now from my gallivanting days after I returned but I don't live with the mother." You coach yourself not to ask after people.

Similar conversations are subtle indications of how the horror seemed to touch everyone. But these are a prelude only. Nothing prepares a visitor for the genocide sites that have been left as testimony to this dark, bloody stain on Rwanda's history books.

A two-hour drive from Kigali on 20 km/hr roads lies the community - secteur - of Ntarama. Along the way, at a roadside checkpoint just across a land-mined bridge, soldiers demand identity papers from nationals and passports from foreigners. Rwandans have long since had to carry identity papers. Now, under the new government, these papers no longer identify the bearer's Hutu, Tutsi or Twa origins. These distinctions had employment, habitation and other implications during Hayarimana's regime but had deadly consequences after his assassination: the papers were used to root out Tutsis at roadblocks and kill them on the spot. But non-Tutsi papers did not guarantee safe passage. In the northwest and in Kigali, southern Hutu thought to be collaborating with the opposition or those who were just too tall, had too aquiline a nose were also killed.

Before entering the grounds of the parish church of Ntarama one notices only the bucolic peace and tranquility. Birds sing and fit among the banana groves. Bougainvillea and other flowers add a bit of colour. Chickens peck in the dust. A dirt road leads to the front gate. On the gate is a sign in Kinyarwanda, English and French: "Ntarama Church. Genocide Site +/- 5,000 Persons."

Mark, the guard/tour guide/witness, recounts events and answers questions of the few visitors who arrive. He is dressed in the cast-off western attire that clothes many of the region's poor: chequered dress pants, a patterned nylon shirt, an overcoat, and a baseball cap with the words "shalom Israel" across the peak. He is precise with his history. He tells how in the week following the president's assassination, about 5,000 people arrived at the grounds of the church and the nearby secteur office. In a country that was both extremely religious and government administrated many must have believed the church and/or state would give them refuge. But refuge was not to be found. On the morning of April 15, 1994, Interahamwe and recruits attacked the church, first tossing grenades and then completing the attack with machetes, a mace-like tool studded with nails called a masu and other hand weapons. Mark was able to save himself - but not his family - by hiding, as did others - in a hole, in the false ceiling of homes, in the papyrus of the marsh, in the excrement of pit latrines.

Under a tiny lean-to erected off the tiny church lie the remains of some of those victims. Bones and skulls neatly arranged on two chest-high tables. On the left, a jumble of bones and shreds of disintegrating clothing. A communal collection of clavicles, femurs, vertebrae piled a metre deep. On the right, neatly arranged rows of skulls stacked on the table like garden produce at a market. Many show precise cause of death: a knife blade left to rust in the skull, a spearhead jammed in to the back of a lower jaw, crevasses where machetes, hammers and masu met head-on with bone. A bullet hole. Among the skulls, a few shriveled bouquets of flowers and, a fading touch of propriety, one skull still neatly covered with a kerchief.

The brick church is about 12-by-21 metres with an entrance in three of the corners. In the fourth corner a hole had been exposed by the attackers to allow a grenade to be thrown in. Low-lying planks lined up to form the pews are buried beneath clothing, shoes, bones, Bibles, baby toys rotting and thick with mould, forming a condensed mat of decay. The dark sheet-metal roof pockmarked with shrapnel creates a starry night scene during daylight hours. On the altar a Bible, held open by a paperweight skull. And another skull on the ground partially covered by a child's primer, a word search exercise called "Fun and Games."

The mind sees all this, reads endless accounts, like those compiled by the human rights group African Rights, and hears Mark's testimony, but still finds it difficult to believe genocide took place. It is the refusal of the brain that makes revisionism possible: the horrors of history are unbelievable. But the horrors did take place, not only at Ntarama but elsewhere in the country. As African Rights stated in Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, "Ntarama was not an exceptional massacre. All the components of well-organized mass killing were there: congregation of people in one place, siege, co-ordinated military assault, looting, and then the hunt for the survivors. This pattern was repeated throughout Rwanda." Such as at Nyamata only a few kilometers away.

At Nyamata is the main church of the parish that includes Ntarama. The young, shy guard who unlocks the door says approximately 20,000 were killed on the parish grounds and surrounding area. Like Ntarama, the church roof is perforated with bullet holes. Inside the church most traces of the massacre have been scrubbed away.

Yet it too remains a testimony to another horrific chapter of the genocide. In one corner of the church is the body of a woman in a semi-supine position, legs splayed, right wrist tied to right ankle, leaning back against her left elbow. Skin and rags merging under a ghostly coat of lime. Tucked under her stiff shawl, up against her chest, appears to be a baby, protected in death as she had tried to protect it in life. A mummified Madonna and child. In the basement of the church, shelving displays another collection of bones, their whiteness cast with an eerie blue from the fluorescent lights.

Behind the church are two large pits similar in size to a backyard swimming pool, complete with the blue tarp ready to be peeled back to reveal cool waters. But when the plastic is turned back it unleashes the stench of death and the remains of more victims on shelves erected three metres underground. A storehouse, a stockpile, a catalogue of skulls and bones, neatly stacked, preserving the gruesome memories of a massacre. A massacre that the church turned its back on. One survivor recounts, "On the seventh day, the white priest drove away in broad daylight. Then disaster came on the eighth day."

At first glance, the country is back on its feet. International flights arrive daily, businesses are open and active, the government and aid agencies are moving into longer-term planning. Rwanda recently hosted 275 people at an international conference on co-operation in the Nile basin. A second look at Rwanda, however, reveals a country still in a state of shock. To a large extent those who keep the country running on a government level are those who returned from abroad after the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of the country later in 1994. Jails remain overcrowded with those accused but still untried for crimes relating to the genocide, despite the execution of 22 people last month by the Rwandan government. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda being held in Arusha, Tanzania makes slow headway. There are reports that vigilante groups are executing identified perpetrators who have not been jailed or have been acquitted.

There are those, other than the vigilantes, who feel justice must be sped up to heal these wounds. But can justice heal such deep wounds? "First we need justice… it is necessary that they are judged," says Mark, the guardian at the Ntarama church. "But (in the meantime) we have to live together."

During a planning meeting for the Nile conference, the talk turned to co-operation among Nile countries. Illustrating the potential for these countries to work together, a foreign consultant referred to both Germany's and Japan's belligerent roles during the second World War and their post-war efforts of co-operation. Perhaps the parallel to Rwanda escaped him when he concluded: "The hatchet can be buried." But how long, good God, will it take to bury the machete?

By Pamela Coulston
Published May 17, 1998
The Ottawa Citizen (Citizen Weekly)

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