Horror and Hope in Rwanda
by Greer Illingworth (JD '10),
Last weekend, I visited Rwanda – a country that until recently was largely unknown and overlooked by most of the world. It's a small, landlocked place in the middle of Africa with no major industries or natural resources. The Germans colonized it during the mad rush for Africa in the late 19th century and the Belgians took control from them following World War I. The policies these European powers instituted during their rule sowed the seeds for much of Rwanda's present problems.
In order to maintain control, the Germans and Belgians formed a power-sharing relationship with the Tutsi's (the elite cattle holding class within the Rwandan tribal kingdom) to ensure the tribal commoners otherwise known as the Hutu's remained obedient. Over the next fifty years, this power-sharing agreement turned an otherwise innocent social class distinction into a bitter ethnic rivalry – one side fiercely fighting to keep a stranglehold on power, one side fighting for power.
When the Belgians left Rwanda in 1962, the Hutu majority overwhelmed the Tutsi minority and seized control of the country. The entire social framework followed the previous century was turned on its head and for the rest of the decade in excess of 70,000 people were killed as Hutu's settled old scores and Tutsi's, through terrorism and guerilla fighting, attempted to reclaim power. This small African nation became synonymous with military coups, despotism, and death.
Then in 1994, as if things could not get worse, all hell really broke loose. While flying back from peace talks with Tutsi leaders, the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down (the evidence seems to indicate that Hutu extremists carried it out as a way to generate the hysteria needed to initiate their plan to eradicate all the Tutsi's from Rwanda). Within hours of the assassination, prewritten death lists were being carried out against Tutsi's and moderate Hutu's throughout Rwanda. Roadblocks were thrown up and by the blade of machete the hysterical slaughtering of what ended up being 800,000 people occurred over six weeks.
The scourge of bloodshed only ended when an army organized by Rwandan Tutsi exiles living in Uganda advanced on and directly defeated the Hutu's. After the Tutsi's took control of the government, there was hope of forgiveness and reconciliation when Paul Kagame, the military general who led the Tutsi invasion, installed a Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu. But, as soon as Bizimungu became critical of Kagame, he was removed and Kagame took over the presidency himself. Bizimungu founded an opposition party, but it was banned by Kagame. Bizimungu was then arrested in 2002 for treason and ended up serving five years in prison. Ninety-five percent of the government is now Tutsi with Kagame dominating all affairs. Today, there is an uneasy acceptance within the society that another bloodletting along Tutsi and Hutu lines is just one match strike away.
Myal Greene, a good friend of mine from my time in Washington, D.C. now lives in Kigali as a facilitator for church teams that come to Africa to reach out and assist. I took the bus from Kampala to pay a visit and catch up with him. The drive was about 11 hours. It was your stereotypical African travel experience – chickens running around the passenger compartment, bumpy roads, and the occasional bathroom stop in some rural town where mosquitoes seemed to be the greatest local industry. During the drive, I sat beside a very friendly Tutsi who was one of the thousands who had been exiled to Ugandain the years following the Hutu takeover in 1962. I didn't ask what his experience was during the genocide, but whatever it was I had a hard time envisioning a cordial man like him being involved in such a horrific fight and seeing such horrible things. But, that is one of the great tragedies of the genocide: the hysteria of the time did unspeakable things to people – otherwise friendly, normal people turned into maniacs. Neighbors turned on neighbors, friends on friends, and it was all along the lines of Hutu and Tutsi.
In Kigali, Myal took me to a museum that has been created to memorialize the genocide. Terraced into a hillside, you see several large cement rectangles sweeping down from the museum. At first glance, I thought they seemed out of place and ugly. Then a sudden morbid sense came over me when I realized what they actually were – mass graves. Within each cement placement there are a few thousand remains and within each individual coffin four bodies. In total, the site of the museum is the final resting place of over 250,000 unidentified victims of the genocide.
During the mayhem, efforts by neighboring African nations and aid organizations to convince the UN, Europe and the US to commit troops to bring a stop to it fell on deaf ears. As Americans, we didn't want to get involved again in Africa following the Somalia fiasco and the Belgians who created the ethnic strife to begin with removed all forces just after the genocide started. The UN refused to listen to intelligence reports of the impending crisis and instead withdrew most of its troops as well. In the end, only a Canadian General and about two-hundred unarmed volunteers from the developing nations of Ghana and Senegal were on the ground. These humble troops were all that ended up standing between the extremist Hutu death squads and Tutsi women and children fleeing for their lives.
From their ranks, though, came amazing acts of bravery and sacrifice despite the utterly hopeless situation. The story of a Senegalese Captain named Diagne Mbaye is particularly moving. From the first hours of the genocide, he simply ignored the U.N.'s standing orders not to intervene and single-handedly began saving lives. Mbaye hid the Prime Minister of Rwanda's children in a closet as a death squad executed her outside. Multiple times a day, he took a jeep deep into the chaos in search of survivors. Alone and armed only with a big smile and an uncanny ability to charm his way past roadblocks, he rescued hundreds of people. On one occasion, he discovered a group of twenty-five Tutsis hiding in a house in Nyamirambo, a Kigali neighborhood that was particularly dangerous. Mbaye drove the rescued Tutsis to the U.N. headquarters in groups of five – on each trip passing through twenty-three militia checkpoints. Somehow, he talked down the death squads each time before getting them all to safety. His missions went on for weeks until a mortar shell was fired at and exploded near his jeep. Shrapnel tore into the back his skull and he was killed instantly. Because nearly all the troops had left Rwanda there were no body bags available. This hero to hundreds and a beacon of goodness in a place gone mad was haphazardly wrapped in plastic sheeting and left in Kigali before his remains were finally returned home to his wife and two kids in Senegal.
I reflect on Mbaye's story and cannot help but marvel. He is a testament to the truth that even in the most horrific of situations, the most hopeless of places you will find good people, doing good things. Mbaye could have fallen into a state despair, resigned himself to the fact that people were going to die and he couldn't stop it. Instead he climbed into that jeep day after day resolute in doing what he could to save lives. As C.S. Lewis once wrote "despair is a greater sin than any of the sins that provoke it." Mbaye shook off any sense of despair and called himself to action. In doing so, he gave us a real life example of goodness. When there is cause for despair that really means there is cause for action. After all, the only thing needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.
As a sixth grader back in 1994, I faintly remember hearing of the atrocities in Rwanda, but today a new perspective has been introduced in my life, one I will keep with me. I am so thankful.