Tag Archives: genocide

The life is good, but it is a lot of change.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 5 – March 25

It’s half-past eleven when I finally get out of bed. It feels like my body is slowly returning to me. I have five missed calls on my phone – John, periodically checking on me since just before 6am. His concern is of the overbearing variety. I take a hot shower and spend the next two hours working through a giant Thermos of coffee. Though I’m paying close to twenty U.S. bucks for my room – a small fortune, on my budget – the narcotic pleasures of coffee by the lake remind me why this is one of my favorite places in Rwanda. Across from me, the green wooded hills of a peninsula jut into the lake; beside it, Amahoro (“Peace”) Island; beyond that, Napoleon Island – so named because it is said to resemble Bonaparte’s hat. From here, it looks like any other island on the lake – its slopes covered with trees, a denuded hilltop. Beyond it are still more islands, tiny and picturesque, so that you want to pack a picnic basket and spend the day exploring every one.

A view of the lake, from the Bethanie

This, of course, can be arranged. There are boats shuttling tourists between the islands; at the lunch hour they idle beside the jetty at the Béthanie, hoping to attract some clients. One boy, Haybarimana, a spindle in oversized clothes, offers to take me to Napoleon and Amahoro Islands for Rwf 20,000 – a steep price for an hour-long tour, considering I just spent ten hours traveling half the length of the lake for a fraction of that price. I tell him I’m waiting for friends to arrive from Kigali – Andrea & Co., escaping the capital for the weekend – and that we’ll talk when I’ve found a few more passengers. Or when he’s cooked up a more favorable rate.

Walking into town, with the cries and splashes of children rising from the lake, I compare images of Kibuye with memories from my last visit, nearly two years ago. Here a small vacant lot where women sell Fantas and ndazi beneath beach umbrellas – this I remember. There, on the hillside, the skeleton of a new building – no doubt a gaudy business hotel, soon to be welcoming the budding technocrats of Kigali. It looks like they just started building it a few months ago. Closer to town, the biggest change: a sprawling new “Regional Centre for Blood Transfusion,” sponsored by the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Next to it a maternal health care clinic, which is showing its years. Dozens of women in colorful wraps and dresses sit in the shade, cradling infants to their chests.

My first great shock comes at the stadium – one of the few places I vividly recall in Kibuye. It was here, in 2008, that I came to watch screenings for Hillywood, the traveling leg of the Rwandan Film Festival. That day there were hundreds of people crowding the grandstand – sitting, standing in the aisles, dangling from the railings. Mai and Ben, two friends from Uganda, had come down to Kibuye for the weekend. There had been heavy rains, and we picked our way through the mud to find places closer to the screen. It was slow going; at places the mud came up to your ankles. We watched a man with a lame leg navigate the field on a single crutch, poling himself like a gondolier.

The main feature that night was We Are All Rwandans, a 20-minute short film by the English director Debs Eugene-Gardner. It was based on events from a village near Kibuye in 1996, at a time when Interahamwe who had found refuge in what was then Zaire were staging periodic raids across the border – attacks to sow chaos in rural regions, and to test the stability of the newly formed government. In one such attack – the basis of the film – gunmen raided a boarding school and, seizing a classroom, demanded the students separate into Hutus and Tutsis. The students refused; one girl, defiant, insisted, “We are all Rwandans,” before she was killed. It was a story that was little reported at the time – Philip Gourevitch mentions it on the final pages of his famous book – but was seized upon as a seed of hope for a new, united Rwanda.

I had watched the film at screenings across Rwanda, and the effect was always dramatic. It is, by Rwandan standards, a graphic film, and there was much shock and grief as the students were gunned down in their classroom. (Six died, many more were injured.) In the end, though, amid the head-shaking and tongue-clucking, the film was powerfully received. It carried a message, I thought, that many Rwandans wanted to believe in.

It was a message, though, that seemed to win few fans that night in Kibuye. There was a sense of restlessness, and growing unease; before the film finished, the mood was outright hostile, with hisses and jeers directed at the screen, and many throwing up their hands with disgust as they left the stadium. Something to remember about Kibuye: it was this town and region that saw some of the worst killing in 1994. Tutsis were almost entirely wiped out from this prefecture; by some estimates, nearly 60,000 were killed – more than 90 percent of the Tutsi population.

So how to interpret the hostility of the crowd? Was it a reaction against the film’s message of a unified Rwanda? Or against the violence depicted – sure to upset the sensibilities of a rural audience? Or was it that particular story – drawn from a village just a few miles down the road – that hit too close to home? Was this predominantly Hutu crowd tired of being reminded of its crimes? Were they hoping the ghosts of the genocide might finally be put to rest?

Two years later, here is what’s left of that stadium: the overgrown grass of a soccer field, the crumbling remains of the grandstand. Packs of children scamper across the pitch, kicking a ball, or whatever bundle of rags and strings passes for a ball. Goats are chewing at midfield – chewing and chewing, in the manner of their kind. And yet the sight of that crowded grandstand, the hissing old men, the fat drops of rain that fell like silver dollars in our headlights – the memories are as vivid as if they’d happened just last week.

Kibuye stadium: then

Kibuye stadium: now

Across from the stadium, as a fresh rain begins to fall, I duck into a small restaurant for lunch. It is typical of rural Rwanda, with plastic tables and chairs arranged here and there, and a small TV flickering in a corner of the room. A menu is taped to the wall; the name of the restaurant, it says, is Sport Restaurant Long Life. Two short, stout young women bustle about the place – almost comically busy: there are just two other diners. There is a confused exchange between us in a mixture of Kinyarwanda, English and French. “Come, I show you,” says one of the girls, leading me into the kitchen. There is a large bowl of cassava, another of beans, two empty basins with grains of rice sticking to the side. She says something else, in Kinyarwanda. “In French, they say ‘chou,’” she says.

Chou,” I say. “Cabbage.”

“Cabbage,” she says, enjoying the feel of the word on her lips. She breaks into laughter. I order rice, beans, and cabbage, and we have another good laugh as she begins to fill my plate.

It is a good meal, served with a bowl of sambaza – tiny, silvery lake fish – in a watery tomato broth. It costs about a dollar. Brazilian telenovellas are playing on the TV, beamed in by satellite from Mozambique. The waitresses are rapt. Outside the rain falls heavily, then lightly. I stand in the doorway and look at what’s left of the stadium across the street. There is still some sport going on, but so much for the “long life.”

I ask the two men sitting by the door, finishing off their Sprites, what became of the stadium. One of the men, speaking in slow, cautious English, says they are tearing it down to extend the maternal health clinic next door. He mentions the American NGO – Peace something – which is funding the project. A new stadium is being built, he says, further down the road.

The man is young, in his late-30s, I guess, and neatly dressed. He says his name is Jean Baptiste Ntimehuka, and he is a bailiff at the high court in Kibuye. He takes from his pocket a small lanyard with his name and photo, about which he is very proud. How many Rwandans, I wonder, dream each night for such a job, such a lanyard! Jean Baptiste points to his surname and translates: “God is good.” He was born in a village not far from here and studied at the Université Libre de Kigali. He has now been living in Kibuye for nine years. He has two small children, a boy, five, and a girl, three. His wife was raised in the Congo; her family returned to Rwanda after the genocide. “And then she met you and she fell in love,” I say. Jean Baptiste laughs uproariously, the words “not exactly” implicit in his body language. I ask him about the life in Kibuye now, and he says, “Kibuye is the development. The life is good, but it is a lot of change.”

For this small town, the changes have probably been dramatic. Beside the gas station, where I remember there being rows of wooden dukas, there are now two construction sites: future homes, according to the signage, of new commercial plazas. There is a new shopping complex nearby, with a long arcade where the jobless youth of Kibuye can wait out the rain. It is full of small shops, a FINA Bank, a restaurant with two long tables over which are hunched lean men eating large plates of potatoes and rice.

Plans to build a new shopping complex in Kibuye

Outside the boys are milling, pushing, arguing, laughing, passing the time. Tanzanian R&B plays from a barber shop. I pop into a smart little supermarket for a Fanta to revive my flagging strength. The rear wall is covered with liquor bottles – Ugandan waragi, Malibu rum. There are a few staples of the Rwandan diet – Zesta brand fruit jam, Blue Band butter – as well as imported luxuries like Pringles and Cadbury’s hot chocolate. There are also five-gallon cans of vegetable oil sporting the USAID logo – relief supplies that at some point made their way from the international aid food chain into the parallel market of Rwandan commerce.

Parked in front is a truck from the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda. The message on the driver’s side door exhorts Rwandans, “It’s Time to Deliver!”

On the way back to the Béthanie I’m caught in a steady shower. The rain is like a part of the landscape here. On the side of the road is the St. Jean Catholic church, site, like so many Rwandan churches, of countless genocide atrocities. Outside is a small memorial site – a shapeless slab of concrete, hasty, artless, as if designed with all the thought and care of a traffic pylon. (Better, though, than the Marxist tributes to the “povos” and “la luta” in Mozambique – fine examples of memorial kitsch.) The church door is locked; I can just make out the forms of wooden benches through the dusty, stained-glass windows. The views of the lake from here are stunning. As always in Rwanda, you have a hard time channeling the horrors of 1994 when so much of the world around you looks like Eden.

St. Jean Catholic Church

On my way to the road I am met by two men, one in an ill-fitting coat and large sunhat; the other clutching a sheaf of papers and wearing a rosary around his neck. They are choirists at the church, here to practice songs for Sunday mass. (Jean Baptiste, too, had said he sings in the choir. I suspect there are no shortage of hymns to get you through the week in Kibuye.) The talk, as one might expect in a churchyard, quickly turns to religion. Am I a Catholic? No, Greek Orthodox. Ah, says Jean Marie – the man with the rosary – that is almost the same thing. Here is where my French fails me. I try to explain the differences between the two religions: the Great Schism (“Il y a cinq, six sant ans” – my history as bad as my French), at which point Catholics began following the Pope (“Avec la pape,” showing a fork in the road with my hands, and Catholics going to the left), and “les orthodox” following something I call “l’archbishop” (hand shooting to the right, “comme ça”). I mention Rome and Constantinople, which draws satisfactory nods. “Constantinople,” says Jean Marie knowingly. They are practically in the same time zone, after all. Jean Marie, seeking one last reassurance, asks if the Orthodox believe in Christ and Mary. We do. Rapture. We are practically brothers now. Jean Marie pumps my hand and we part on the best of terms, footsoldiers in the Lord’s vast and varied army.

On the way down the hill a young boy joins me. He has a small tire and he is beating it down the hill with a stick. What simple, Victorian pleasures you find in rural Rwanda! The boy’s sandals scuff the pavement; he is holding up his pants with one hand. He beats his little tire into a ditch, pulls it out, and starts again. There is a look of furious concentration on his face. Nothing could matter as much this afternoon as the successful completion of his mission, which is to chase his tire down the hill and all the way home.

The rain has finally ended. The sun is out. The lake is bronze and the boats are drifting slowly, silently across it.

I’ve realized, since leaving my laptop and its distractions back in Kigali, that the day is long, with many hours to kill. It is no coincidence that I’ve filled two notebooks in just five days. I’m writing more than I’ve written in months, and it’s with no small regret that I think back to past trips – my Kenyan odyssey to Lake Turkana, for example – wondering how I passed those long hours, if not with my pen and pad. I could’ve written a small book about that endless truck ride from Maralal to the lake’s shores. And then the political circus in Loyangalani: the president and prime minister, there to launch an emergency relief effort with the WFP in the drought-ravaged north. They arrived on separate airplanes – too proud, too besotted with rank and protocol to carpool. The great tribes of the north, the Turkana, the Rendille, the El Molo, sang and jangled their braceleted legs on the runway. Probably the president, fat, gray, softened by years at the public trough, didn’t know what to make of those barebacked warriors singing their archaic songs. The prime minister danced a clever little jig. The heat was unbearable.

Turkana tribesmen rush to greet the President's plane

The assembled tribes on the runway at Loyangalani

All that feels now like a story from someone else’s life. In Kibuye I listen to the rain outside my window. I sing to myself – softly, at first, then less so. Appreciating for the first time how the sound of one’s voice, the bold notes sung in solitude, might fill the emptiness that wraps around the hours of rural life. If I were a Rwandan farmer tilling some vast country tract, I might sing thusly. (Though probably not the Smiths.) The sound of the rain picks up, and then the sound of my voice does, too, until the two songs blend in perfectly imperfect harmony. It is the first time I remember singing myself to sleep – another oddball habit, perhaps, to take home from my African life.

Springtime in Kigali.

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.”

The curious case of Victoire Ingabire.

Last week I weighed in on the controversy surrounding Rwandan opposition candidate Victoire Ingabire, who has been the target of a relentless campaign of intimidation and perfidious perfidy, no doubt engineered by the ruling junta in Kigali.

Our friends at Kigaliwire this week update us on the latest twist in an increasingly twisted saga: rumors that Ms. Ingabire sought refuge at the UK High Commission, “following” – according to a statement posted on her Facebook page – “confirmed information of an imminent arrest, detention in a solitary confinement, physical and mental harassment and psychological torture.”

Ingabire, looking un-arrested, un-confined, and un-persecuted

“I’m told Ingabire had a meeting at the UK High Commission and then went home,” says our Kigaliwire source, not speculating on how much genocide ideology she tried to spread along the way.

Today The New Times offers its own account of the asylum debacle in what was hyped as a “well researched investigative report” (to alert readers that this would not be just another press release from the Ministry of Disinformation).

Nothing demonstrates Ingabire’s double-faced character than [sic] her attempt this week to grab headlines while continuing her smear campaign against the government, when she stage-managed a supposed request for protection in the UK High Commission.

When the embassy threw her out, on the ground that they did not for one minute believe her story, she immediately hit her computer keyboard, shifting the blame on what she referred to as “my political organisation”, which put out an incorrect statement announcing that she had sought protection.

She told the BBC and the VOA radio stations that she had not attempted to seek asylum but had gone to discuss with the diplomats “the current political situation”….

When the British slammed the door in her face, the message was loud and clear, if only Ms Ingabire could discern it: You can’t have your cake and eat it.

Seems the finger-waggers at The New Times missed the irony here. If any country in Africa today presents a clear portrait of cake-having and -eating, it is Kagame’s Rwanda, which for 15 years has used the genocide to neuter dissent both in- and external; has invaded and occupied large, mineral-rich chunks of Congo under the flimsiest of pretexts, with the tacit support/complicity of the international community; and has ridden the moral high rode all the way to the bank. President Paul “Duncan Hines” Kagame knows from cake, my friends. Let’s see what diplomatic petits fours French President Nicolas Sarkozy will bring on his visit to Kigali later this week.


On a related note, anything stand out in this AP report on the Sarkozy visit?

France and Rwanda have sparred for years over an alleged French role in the genocide – the killing of 500,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, massacred in frenzied killing led by radical Hutus.

Has anyone – ever – offered such a lowball estimate for the genocide? Who the hell does the AP’s fact- (and body-) checking?