It was the start of the rainy season, the days of wet-blanket heat finally broken by the first showers. The clouds blew in one evening – low, brooding, churning with distant thunder – and soon the storms followed. Broad curtains of rain draped across the hills of Kigali, shaking the blossoms from the trees and paving the streets with bougainvillea and frangipani and hibiscus.
This was two years ago, and on my first visit to Rwanda, I was struck, as most visitors are, by the capital’s loveliness. Anyone familiar with Africa’s great clamorous cities – the Nairobis and Lagoses, apparently designed to maximize chaos – quickly finds Kigali, with its orderly roundabouts and quaint green hills, to be an agreeable place. The rain only seemed to heighten its beauty. It sharpened the air, giving off a smell of earth and new life.
On a rainy afternoon I ducked into a small restaurant for lunch. After a few minutes a man gestured to an empty chair at my table and, introducing himself as John, asked to join me. He was a stocky thirty-something with a thick head and paunchy stomach. He ordered a coffee and leaned back in his chair, casually striking up a conversation. It seemed, at first glance, like the rote exchange you grow accustomed to as a traveler in Africa: questions about siblings, and the health of one’s parents, and one’s allegiance to a particular soccer club in the English Premier League. We talked about America – “I have good friends in Texas, and the Bronx,” he insisted – and then John began to twirl a spoon in his coffee and tell me about his life.
It was, by the region’s strange standards, a typical East African tale. Born in Burundi, after his family left Rwanda during the ethnic pogroms of the 1960s, he had spent much of his young life doggedly shuttling around the region. It was a time, after all, when many ethnic Hutus and Tutsis were fleeing ethnic violence, finding new homes in Tanzania and Uganda, in Kenya and Zaire. John told me that after studying in Uganda he came back to Rwanda in 1994, and then the year sat between us, gathering silence. Finally I asked, with strained innocence, what made him come back.
“It is very complicated,” he said, laughing nervously. He looked quickly over his shoulder – a look I would grow used to in Rwanda – and said, “You people, it is very hard to understand how it was for thirty years, before ’94.” He said it without malice, almost warmly – the way a father might sigh over the questions of a naïve son, knowing there are years of hard-earned knowledge between them.
He folded his hands on the table and started with the Belgian colonists, then the rising tide of anti-Tutsi sentiment, the violence – ’59, ’62 – and then the panicked flight. Suddenly he skipped ahead: it was 1994, and a tentative truce after three years of civil war was broken when President Habyarimana’s plane mysteriously crashed one April night. Hutu Power officials blamed the RPF; the RPF, in turn, suspected a Hutu plot to eliminate the president – his pursuit of peace was widely opposed by militant Hutus – and blame them for his death. Within hours Tutsis and Hutu moderates were targeted. For 100 days, the slaughter was relentless and widespread. John rapped his knuckles softly on the table.
“We came from Uganda,” he said, again jumping ahead, not giving any clues as to who “we” were or when “we” came. It was only as he described his movement south into the country that it became clear “we” were the RPF. I interrupted him.
“So you were a soldier with the RPF?”
“I was sort of like a teacher,” he said. “No, that’s not the word. I was telling people about the RPF, what we were doing.”
“You were a propagandist,” I offered.
“Yes,” he said. “That is the word.”
He jumped forward again, to the months after the genocide. Exiles who left Rwanda in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s – some, the sons and daughters of exiles, who had lived their whole lives abroad – come pouring into the country from across the region. Rwanda is devastated. Houses, businesses are vacant.
“If you came here in 1994,” John said, gesturing to the restaurant, “and the door is open and no one is here…” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Now it becomes your restaurant. And this happened all across the country. People came and took the first house they found.”
He described the chaos and confusion of those first post-genocide months, the manic scramble to reclaim a nation, and then his voice trailed off and he settled into silence. We sat and watched the sky beginning to clear, patches of blue shining through the clouds. It was impossible, in the short time since we met, to ask most of the questions I had. And then John, as if following the trail of my thoughts, leaned across the table. His eyes were bitter, but his voice sounded sorrowful, resigned.
“These people you see here,” he said, gesturing to the traffic on the sidewalk, “most of them have killed. It was everyone, so many people involved.” He shrugged his shoulders and placed his hands on the table, palms up. “What can you do now?”
Two years later, I still think of that encounter – a great stroke of luck, in retrospect; you don’t usually meet such candor at a crowded Kigali cafe. In many ways, John’s question – “What can you do now?” – has framed everything I’ve thought and written about Rwanda since. And it cuts to the heart of the question all of us – journalists, diplomats, do-gooders, and, ultimately, Rwandans themselves – continue to ask. Sixteen years later, we’re still collectively responding to the genocide. When I think of the spectacular growth around Kigali, or those miles of trenches laid with fiber-optic cable across the country, or the latest signs of a growing crackdown against the opposition, they all seem to be different ways to answer the question – for better or for worse – of how to deal with the legacy of 1994.
I’m writing these words – my last from Rwanda – on the sort of morning I’ve grown used to in Kigali. The air is cool, the birds are chattering in the trees; somewhere across the valley, the sounds of plows and earth-movers, pushing this country along toward Vision 2020. For all the troubling news from Kigali in recent weeks, it will always be these mornings I remember. (Funny and sad, too, to think that my fondest memories of Rwanda involve me, a sunny morning, a cup of coffee, and a laptop.) So much has changed in the past two years – Rwanda, and how I interpret and relate to it, is a very different place. And yet these mornings are a constant. It’s always springtime in Kigali.
Ten hours from now I’ll be arriving in Joburg – off we go, Rwanda, on our strange, separate journeys. Take care of yourselves, and the house you’ve built. And think of the words I had once heard in Burundi: “The future depends on how we treat each other.”