Twenty Years Ago Today: Nyarubuye

nyarubuyeTwenty years ago today, the genocidaires of Rwanda were learning their trade with a sickening efficiency. They'd realised that going house to house was a slow way to kill people. But if you could get all your victims in one place and trap them there, then you could deal with hundreds or thousands all at once. That's exactly what was happening, all over the country: Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled their homes and went to a place they hoped would be safe, only to be betrayed, penned in, and then massacred by the Interahamwe, working their way through screaming crowds with clubs, machetes, hoes, or whatever else came to hand. At Nyarubuye, it happened in a church.

This was far from unusual. In fact, it was common. There were houses of worship all over Rwanda to which people fled, and where the priests often betrayed them to the killers. Nyarubuye is just one where we know a reasonable amount about what happened, thanks to a handful of survivors who fell under the bodies of their family members while they were being hacked to bits by their friends and neighbours.

Their money was taken from them first. Then grenades were thrown as the killers shouted that snakes must have their heads chopped off. Children and infants had their heads smashed in with stones and hammers. Pregnant women were hacked open so their unborn children could be finished off. It began at 3 in the afternoon, and went on until the next day.

The survivors were battered and wounded, and did not dare leave the church for weeks on end, even as the bodies of their loved ones rotted around them. They drank rainwater and helped the weaker ones to survive with what little food they had. Wild dogs came to feed on the corpses, and were made to leave by thrown stones. Eventually, they were rescued, and some even survived the infections in their wounds. Other survivors were less fortunate. Some women were taken away to be used as sex slaves and raped hundreds of times, enduring unwanted pregnancies and AIDS infections - if they weren't killed later during the genocide.

Nyarubuye church still stands. The corpses have been removed to a mass grave. The buildings are used as a memorial and museum for those who perished: 1,500 victims who died in terror and agony.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Kigali in the Firing Line

rpf_buergerkrieg_ruanda_1994Twenty years ago today, RPF troops were consolidating their gains around the Rwandan capital of Kigali, even as killings of civilians outside their territory went on. The capital was not so very far from the territory in which the RPF was contained before the genocide began, and 600 of their soldiers had been trapped there in their barracks - but now they were breaking out and linking up with their comrades as key positions around the edge of the city were taken. The government, meanwhile, were busy fleeing to Gitarama, understanding that it was hopeless to try and defend the capital. Even as the government fled, the killings of Tutsi civilians continued, and would only end when the RPF established themselves there. It would not be long before Kigali fell - but taking the whole nation would not be so easy. It would be July before the RPF was in control of the country and the genocide could be said to be over. Rwanda may be one of the smallest nations in Africa, but it still took time to conquer.

Even so, it begs the question: how did the instigators of the genocide think they could get away with it? Did they think the RPF could be easily beaten back? Did they want to exterminate the bulk of the Tutsis so that they would always be a tiny minority, even if the RPF took the country? Did they simply ignore the threat from the RPF? They certainly spent some time planning to neutralise the UN forces in the country, and provoke nations like Belgium into withdrawing their forces - why didn't they take the same kind of trouble with the RPF?

As much as their actions were brutal beyond imagining, the Hutu leadership were not fools. They ran rings around the UN without too much trouble. The genocide itself was not a random, unplanned free-for-all of violence. There was a tactical and political approach to it that ensured that every member of the Hutu community would be implicated and unwilling to oppose it. Areas were sealed off with roadblocks first, and Hutus were sent in to search for Tutsis to kill. Rwanda had a tradition of obedience to authority, and most acquiesced. If they didn't, then they too would be killed. It was diabolical but effective: until the RPF stormed through an area, local opposition to the genocide was all but impossible. And it was also swift: despite using only guns, grenades, machetes and clubs, the rate of killing was higher even than during the Nazi holocaust. This was not an act of brutal stupidity. This was the application of intelligence to brutality. So why did this intelligence fail when assessing the force that would end the genocide?

Maybe the Hutu leaders really didn't think that the RPF would be able to stop them. Maybe their arrogance went so far as to assume that the RPF would be brushed aside if they made any attempt at rescue. I can't find any sources that really explain how on earth they thought they could get away with the genocide. They don't seem stupid enough to commit such a crime when there was an army already within their territory that could do nothing else but oppose them. But maybe, just maybe, they were blinded by their hatred - and maybe we can hope that all those who hate will be just as blind to the cause of their downfall.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Five

Don Bosco Technical School. Note the flags on the flowerpots - this was once a Belgian barracks. The shooting started after they left. Twenty years ago today, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that 20,000 people had already been killed, though it was hard to say how bad things were outside the capital. Thousands of killings went unreported. That's why so many of the horror stories of the genocide come from Kigali: there were outsiders there to witness them. Elsewhere, the witnesses either died or had good reason to keep their mouths shut.

Before the nightmare began, the UN commander Romeo Dallaire had predicted one part of the Hutu strategy to accomplish genocide. Belgian soldiers would be killed, forcing Belgium to withdraw its peacekeepers, leaving the Tutsi population with vastly less protection than it had. His predictions were ignored - and were now coming true. The killings had happened at the beginning of the genocide when 10 soldiers protecting Agathe Uwilingiyimana were killed, and Belgian forces were in the process of being withdrawn.

For the Tutsis sheltering at the Don Bosco Technical School, it could not have come at a worse time. The school had been used by Belgian soldiers as a barracks, and was still occupied - by them and 2,000 people sheltering there who thought that the soldiers from their former colonial master would protect them. Yet the Belgians weren't allowed to do so. They could shoot dogs harrying corpses in the streets outside the school, but not the growing numbers of Interahamwe militiamen converging on the site.

The killers were well aware of how many people were huddling inside. All that stopped them was the risk that the soldiers might be provoked if they moved to take the barracks. As they waited, they drank beer and chanted Hutu slogans, leaving the Tutsis inside terrified and begging the soldiers to stay.

The soldiers were ordered to the airport during the afternoon. The Interahamwe moved in. And the killing began. Hours later, the majority of those who had looked to Belgium and the UN for safety were dead.

There was some hope, though. The forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front were making swift gains towards Kigali, and shutting down the genocide as they went. But this did nothing to slow the killings in the capital. The slaughter went on.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Four

Rwanda-Genocide-1994-1Twenty years ago today, foreigners escaping the hell of Kigali were beginning to tell their stories to the press. They spoke of gangs of men with knives, machetes and clubs roaming the streets, and bodies lying rotting in the sun. Being a foreigner was no protection from the killers, who would typically shake their victims down for money and, once satisfied, tell them that they were safe - until the next gang came along looking for someone to kill. For many relief organisations, it was rapidly becoming impossible to continue their work. The 13 staff of Medecins Sans Frontieres were pulled out, leaving Kigali hospital to its fate - a fate they could not have prevented even if they had stayed. Earlier that day, a hundred Tutsis who had survived attacks were slaughtered by militiamen, even as they being treated for their wounds in the tents put up around the hospital to cope with the influx of casualties. The International Committee of the Red Cross remained, but other groups would be compelled to leave as the days went on.

Seven miles west of Kigali, Tutsi staff at a Catholic orphanage were targeted and murdered. One of them was carrying a Hutu ID card but was killed anyway, simply because she looked like a Tutsi. Bodies were thrown into a toilet pit, regardless of whether or not they were still alive. And the people who did this were not strangers - they were Hutu youngsters known to the staff they were killing.

For once, this story has a happier ending. The surviving staff and nuns were able to get a number of women and children to safety with the aid of Belgian and French forces. If it had been an orphanage run by a local organisation, it's hard to see how this would have been possible. Doubtless there were many such places where every single person was killed, with no record of the murders and the bodies dumped in mass graves that gave no clue as to their identity.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Three

Rwandan ChildTwenty years ago today, the world finally sat up and took notice of the killings spreading throughout Rwanda. Planes departed France, Belgium and the US with troops on board, heading for Kigali with one overriding mission: getting their own people out. Civilians from these nations were shepherded to their planes and whisked away to safety, but hardly any Rwandans were permitted to escape by this means - not even those who had worked at foreign companies and embassies. Convoys heading out by road towards Burundi were specifically prohibited from carrying any Rwandans, lest the whole column be stopped and trapped in the country. In Gikondo, the Pallottine Missionary Catholic Church was being used as a shelter by hundreds of Tutsis - but to no avail. Gendarmes were informed that inyenzi (cockroaches) were sheltering there, and entered to check ID cards despite the pleas of the priest that they were all regular worshippers. The Gendarmes did nothing else - they did not need to. Soon, a hundred members of the Interahamwe militia arrived with clubs and machetes, and the killing began. Children were not spared. Pews were ripped up so they could have no hiding place. They were hacked to pieces wherever they were found.

The church was Polish, and two Polish officers from UNAMIR witnessed the massacre. They radioed their command for help, but were told that none could be sent - similar reports were coming in from all over the city, far too many for the UN to be able to help. And in any case, they had orders to shoot only in self defence. They tried the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front as well, but either couldn't get through or found that the Kigali contingent were trapped in their barracks.

In the afternoon, an ambulance from the Red Cross arrived to assist the officers and church staff who had been desperately trying to treat the wounded. They were able to take two survivors away to hospital - the only ones who escaped the massacre. Though whether they escaped the hospital is another question...

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Two

Paul Kagame's RPF stood against the genocide - but they were only present in a small part of the country Twenty years ago today, roadblocks were already in place throughout Rwanda, put there the day before by the army and the Interahamwe militia groups. The army and the militia were Hutu. The people they were looking for were Tutsi, and they were looking for them with guns and machetes, going house to house to find anyone who hadn't yet fled or been caught.

But this wasn't the case throughout the whole of the nation. There was a swathe of the country in the north still held by Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front - the rebel Tutsi army that had been holding to a ceasefire before the death of the Hutu president sparked off the killings. There were no massacres in RPF territory, nor were the bulk of the RPF in any immediate danger - save for the 600 men trapped in the capital, Kigali. They'd been stationed there as part of the ongoing peace process. But now they were surrounded, their situation growing more desperate by the hour.

Romeo Dallaire's UN force stood against the genocide - but they were undermanned and underequipped.

For the only Tutsi army able to fight back, there was no choice: they had to respond. Kagame launched an offensive to rescue his troops and end the killings. But there was little hope that they could end the slaughter quickly. They hadn't been able to take the country when they were fighting before. Millions of Tutsis were still defenceless, no matter what the RPF did.

There wasn't much hope of rescue by the UN, either. The general in charge of the UN mission in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, sent a report to the UN detailing how the genocide was happening, and how it was being orchestrated by the civil government against its own people. But Dallaire was able to do little to stop the killing. He had only 2,500 troops at his command, equipped and trained to help a nation struggle towards peace - not to stop that nation from turning on itself.

The genocide was not unopposed - but it made little difference. The slaughter went on.



Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day One

Agathe Uwilingiyimana, rightful President of Rwanda - until she was murdered on the first day of genocide. Twenty years ago today, killers were loose on the streets of Kigali and across Rwanda. But they were not the kind of murderers that police hunt down. Nor were they foreign invaders intent on conquest and loot. They were neighbours, colleagues and even friends of the people they turned upon.

There was no police force to call for help, because the police were collaborating. There was no army to defend the victims, for the army were wielding the knives along with the militias. This was the day the Rwandan genocide began in earnest.

Hutus were the killers, seeking the minority Tutsis who had once been their overseers in colonial times. But first they targeted any Hutu moderates who sympathised with the Tutsis. One of them was the Prime Minister, who should have become President. Agathe Uwilingiyimana was murdered by the Presidential Guard along with her husband, and the Belgian peacekeepers who tried to defend her were dragged away to torture and death.

There had been even more killings overnight: ministers and judges and party leaders were killed in their homes along with their spouses. By midday, the moderate Hutu leadership was dead or in hiding, and any hope of preventing the genocide died with them.

Rwandan ID card from 1994, clearly identifying the holder as a Tutsi - as good as a death sentence.

The killing of Tutsis accelerated during the 7th of April, spreading throughout the country. A crowd gathered in Gisenyi province, the heartland of Hutu extremism. Crowds were ordered to begin their work and spare no one, not even babies. On this first day, it was easy to tell who was Tutsi and who was Hutu: you held them down and rifled through their pockets or bags for their identity cards, which recorded their ethnicity. Those caught with Tutsi ID cards did not survive.

There was nothing to stop the Hutu population from turning on their Tutsi neighbours. The UNAMIR peacekeepers sent to monitor the ceasefire were completely out of their depth. The army and police were part of the conspiracy. The ministers that might have calmed the tensions were dead in the streets.

And so the killing began.

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Nightmare Begins

Juvenal Habyarimana, third president of Rwanda. Twenty years ago today, an airplane fell to earth in Rwanda. But this was not just any airplane. This one carried the presidents of two nations. Both of them were killed, though it was the death of Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda which sent his nation into hell. Nor was it an accident: witnesses reported seeing missiles flying towards the plane. Something terrible was about to happen.

Rwanda was divided between two main ethnic groups, the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. This had been the case ever since independence from their Belgian colonial masters, though there's some doubt as to whether the two groups had existed beforehand. The Belgians may have simply segregated the population according to those they were willing to trust as overseers (Tutsis) and those they were not (Hutus). Or they may have co-opted existing ethnic divisions to enforce their own ideas of racial purity. It's hard to tell, when the only records were made by a bunch of racist colonists whose main interest was screwing as much money out of the country as possible.

Habyarimana led a coalition of Hutu groups and was increasingly seen as too moderate, while a fragile ceasefire was holding between his government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by the Tutsi leader, Paul Kagame. The Rwandan president was returning from a conference to discuss ways to quell the ethnic tensions across the region, doing his best to resolve the conflicts that had dogged his country and those around it.

All hopes for peace died with Habyarimana. The missiles that killed him were alleged to have been fired by Kagame's forces (though later analysis showed that this was unlikely). Within only a few hours, Hutus were responding to the terrible news with a terrible vengeance. Explosions were heard in the capital, Kigali. Radio stations were issuing cries of hatred against the Tutsis. Machetes were being sharpened.

The genocide had begun.