‘Not My worst Day’: Reflections on Rwanda at 20
By Alex Ntung
It was the middle of the night when we arrived in Kigali and the first thing that struck me about this war-devastated city was the continual yapping and barking of dogs. There were more strays than usual because so many had lost their owners; unfed, they wandered around fighting with each other and sniffing hungrily whenever they smelt dead bodies. Later, many of these animals had to be shot, particularly as they had developed a taste for human flesh but, for now, they were almost useful because it was the noise of dogs that often led to the discovery of corpses. Bodies that had been left in obvious places had mostly been taken away for burial and places such as churches, where many still lay, were guarded. But the dogs sniffed out the hidden horrors, including those bodies in graves that victims had been forced to dig themselves before being murdered.
War had destroyed the infrastructure of the city and there simply weren’t the resources to deal with this huge catastrophe. There was still some danger too because there were pockets of fighting continuing throughout this war-torn country. Despite everything, though, there was something reassuring about Kigali because the military officers of the new regime were circulating and offering to help everyone. I had grown up with soldiers a fairly constant presence but until now they had been men I feared, aggressive men who spoke in harsh voices and made unreasonable demands. Now they were men I looked up to with great respect, the victorious soldiers of the RPF. They were perceived as saviours by the vast majority of the population and songs were sung in their praise. I knew they had been trained to be fair because I remembered my own training when I first became “Jimmy”. It was constantly drilled into us all that Hutu were not the enemy: enemies were only the bad people amongst the Hutu, people who had been brainwashed to hate Tutsi. So these soldiers were young, idealistic men, still working for the good of their people without pay.
The driver called out to us, ‘Anyone who hasn’t got anywhere to sleep stay on the bus!’ That was a relief because I was wondering where I could go and didn’t want to be at the mercy of the savage- sounding dogs. Eventually the driver took the remaining passengers to an RPF barracks where a military officer, who treated us with great respect, provided us with food and somewhere to sleep. Next day the driver offered to act as a taxi and take us to wherever we wanted to go in the city. The only person I could think of that I knew in Kigali was Kayitare, whose house I had looked after in Uvira.
Kayitare and his family were just as I remembered them: very pleased to see me, warm and welcoming, down to earth and never giving themselves airs. What was different was that there were so many people, especially children. The children were orphans of the genocide because only months before two of Kayitare’s sisters, a brother and the brother’s wife had been killed. Some of them had lost all their family, including brothers and sisters. In the following weeks in Rwanda I was to find this was not an unusual situation because practically every family had been touched by the genocide in some way. Many families had been wiped out completely and it seemed every family had lost at least someone. As well as the children in Kayitare’s house, there were also young wounded soldiers who had served in the RPF and fought for the liberation of Rwanda. These were either officially demobilised or deserters and some of them had serious wounds. There were also two young women who had been raped during the violence and three younger girls.
Mama Kayitare was a remarkable woman. She had brought her children up so well that the whole family were extremely good to all of us. She treated all of her “guests” as if we were her own children and she helped her children to understand which of us were particularly vulnerable and in need of special consideration. Living with them, I started to feel normal and human again. The contrast between the cruelty of war and the generosity of families like this is difficult to comprehend.
This time in their home was a remarkable experience for other reasons too. I listened to many diverse stories from people who had suffered horrific problems and it began to seem to me that my own suffering was quite minor. My experiences of violence in the Congo paled into insignificance by comparison. I had begun to accept violence as something normal and to me it was now only the severity of that violence that was remarkable. As I listened to the stories of the other people in Kayitare’s care and became aware of the chaos in that large city, I felt almost privileged that I had suffered so relatively little. One thing I learnt about for the first time was how rape was used as weapon of war. Having witnessed an individual rape as a small boy, I already knew what a horrific experience it was for the victim and I had always known the huge stigma it involved, affecting not only the victim herself but also the whole family. Now I learnt that rape had been used during the genocide as kubohoza, an ironical expression suggestion that the rape victim had been spared death so that she could suffer a worse fate, suffering pain and then bearing a child she did not want and that no-one else would want either. Of course, the girls did not talk directly to me or the other boys about their suffering but I saw them crying at times and in serious conversation with Mama Kayitare. As is our custom, they had become sisters to me and the other boys so we felt anger for what they had suffered. Luckily, neither of them had become pregnant as a result of their ordeal. We had plenty of happy times together too; I remember how the other young people used to like to listen to my Kinyamulenge dialect and tease me about it.
Despite everything that had happened, there was a feeling of calm in the house and a great sense of solidarity as we all helped each other. Because the water supply in the city was cut off, one of our shared tasks was to fetch water from the United Nations (UN) camp in Kicukiro area of Kigali. We all hated the UN troops, MINUAR (meaning UN Mission to Rwanda). In fact all the ordinary people of Rwanda hated them because they had been there during the genocide and had done nothing to stop it. They had the means to prevent the slaughter of innocents but did not. I was so angry that I would sometimes approach a UN soldier to ask him why he hadn’t tried to save people but I never got a reply. They enjoyed a good life, driving around everywhere in their luxury vehicles, eating in Kigali’s best restaurants and looking around the town for pretty girls who were willing to sell themselves. These girls were nicknamed MINUAR, a very negative stereotype, meaning that their bodies were cheap and affordable by the UN soldiers. It was difficult to believe that these were troops sent by the international community. Overall, people felt the world had done nothing to defend Rwandans. It was a bitter disappointment to me as I recalled my grandiose boyish dreams of becoming Secretary General of the UN so that I could bring hope to humanity, coming to the aid of the oppressed. Being young and naïve, I continued to turn over in my mind what I could do if I had a position of influence in this organisation. I had no understanding at all of how the UN operated through the influence of the international community and was disillusioned with their great promises of “never again” which seemed empty against repeated occurrences of genocide.
Kigali was in ruins. Almost all the buildings were damaged and some were completely destroyed; burnt out vehicles were still in the streets. It was estimated that for every ten square meters there would have been at least one atrocity; this meant that, as I walked around buildings, office blocks, bars and restaurants, I was aware that they had probably been places of horror just a few months previously. As someone who had arrived from outside, it was difficult to connect and fully believe but at the same time, I knew it was very real for the people who had lived there throughout. Their attitude was sometimes puzzling. Though some seemed traumatised, the majority seemed surprisingly normal as they searched for bodies and generally sorted out the belongings and inheritance of their dead relatives; I thought perhaps they were just numbed by the sheer scale of the horror.
In places there were still corpses around, particularly inside the churches because this is where people had fled to during the massacres. They had believed they would be safe there: their attackers would respect the holy places and God would protect them. Sadly, this had not been the case, and the insides of churches were horrific morgues packed with the bodies of men, women and children. Imana Y’Urwanda had been for Rwandans the Supreme Being even before the missionaries had brought Christianity with its one God. Some had now lost their faith though the majority relied even more on their faith to help them cope with the tragedy.
I couldn’t avoid the awful scenes of carnage because, like many other people, I was involved in trying to identify corpses. In my case, I was helping Kayitare find members of his family. One very uncomfortable element of searching for the dead was that we needed to ask around to find out where they were likely to have been killed. As we asked people, we were aware that they might have been involved in some way with the killings or, at least, have done nothing to try to stop the slaughter or offer refuge. When we had some idea where we planned to look, we would go around the bodies, searching for familiar clothing because the bodies were partly decomposed. Then we searched pockets for the identity cards. My stomach churned as I did this and the memory will stay with me forever. We did have some success. We found the body of his brother, the father of the two orphans the Kayitares had taken in. It meant a lot to people to find a body because it is important in our culture to give a proper burial. Much better by far, there were some survivors too – his mother and the orphaned children of one of his sisters.
My overall impression was that there was a strange contrast of tragedy and triumph in the country. Amongst the people who had lived there through the atrocities, there was still shock and confusion, but alongside that was a sense of Intsinzi, victory. Rwandan Tutsi had been spread throughout the world, mostly in neighbouring countries, for the previous thirty-five years, unable to return. Now they were back in the country, part of the new power and, despite the extreme tragedy that had been witnessed, celebrating victory. Their numbers were growing every day as people who had fled the Hutu regime returned. The streets rang with joyful singing, the most popular song being : ‘Intsinzi abana b’Urwanda, Intsinzi mubicye byose, Intsinzi nje ndayireba’ which means ‘It’s victory, dear children of Rwanda. It’s victory everywhere, I can see victory everywhere!’
Alex Ntung is the author of ‘Not My Worst Day: a personal journey through violence in the Great Lakes region of Africa’.