The broken pledge of 'never again'
Barry Egan recalls the scenes of utter horror he witnessed in Rwanda after the genocide there 20 years ago
Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30
Last Monday was the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It was an almost methodical attempt to wipe out the country's Tutsi minority over a hundred days of hell. Hutu death squads using machetes slaughtered into bloody oblivion almost a million innocents.
After the Second World War, the international community made a solemn promise that there would never be another genocide like the Nazi mass killings of Jews.
That promise was broken in Africa 20 years ago.
Entitled To hell and back: How nations torn apart by atrocity or civil war can stitch themselves together again, a piece in the current Economist magazine put the past horror in context: "Working by hand rather than with the industrial methods that the Nazis used to kill Jews, and at more than three times the speed of the Holocaust, militias known as Interahamwe from the ethnic Hutu majority, and others, slaughtered at least 800,000 Tutsis (and Hutu moderates) to remove them from shared land."
The mass murder in Rwanda, some say, ended the illusion that the evil of genocide had been eradicated in the world after the Second World War. The West did nothing to intervene and the bloodbath remains on the conscience of the world. In hindsight, much of the bloodshed could have been avoided.
Knowing that the Hutus were on their way to Mugonero, seven Adventist pastors wrote a letter to their superior Elizaphan Ntakirutimana , president of the Adventist Church in Kibuyu, pleading for outside help.
"We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families," they wrote.
The reply they received from the head of the church in Kibuyu was chilling and prophetic: "Your problem has already found a solution. You must die."
A survivor of the massacre in Mugonero had another version of the pastor's letter: "You must be eliminated. God no longer wants you."
When the Hutu death squads descended through the church doors, the Tutsis thought God would somehow protect them. Almost everyone in their path caught a glimpse of hell instead that April day 20 years ago.
Some 2000 Tutsi men, women and children were massacred by Hutu thugs in a church at Mugonero which they believed would be a sanctuary. Crying children, hiding in confessional boxes, were murdered for sport.
I was in Rwanda in 1994 for the Sunday Independent a month after the genocide happened. I saw the price of the West doing nothing.
On my first day in Goma in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) – where the Tutsi refugees had fled – I played football with some kids in a UN camp. It wasn't like any ordinary football game. There would be up to 40 excited kids on each team at a time.
I'll never forget seeing a teenage boy with no feet, just stumps, sitting watching the kids his age playing football in the dirt. You couldn't help but marvel at the relentless spirit
of these young children who had lost everything. The barbarism they had encountered first hand would haunt them for the rest of their lives. Yet all that some of them wanted to know was how Manchester United were doing that season in the league.
But they had their football stories to tell – the day the Tutsi football team's bus was stopped by Hutu soldiers at gunpoint. The Tutsi players watched as their team captain was beheaded in front of them. They were then forced at gunpoint to kick his head around in the dirt. Once this little game was over, the Hutus applied their machetes to the footballers' feet.
There was also the horrific story of the 20 Belgian soldiers working for the UN who were captured by Hutu militia. One by one, they were tortured, mutilated and murdered. They were found with their genitals stuffed into their mouths. After a while, these stories ceased to shock you. I heard a dozen or so stories like this on my first day in Goma.
Decades ago, it was said that Tutsi children were known for their beautiful height. There was a racist myth, put about by the well-fed Hutu propaganda machine to incite further hatred, that when the Tutsis were in power, they would only allow children of certain height attend schools. This was supposedly the reason the Hutus cut off the feet of so many Tutsi children.
On my second day there, I watched as a Tutsi woman, who had been caught in a bomb explosion, had her leg amputated in a makeshift operating theatre on the banks of Lake Kivu.
In all of this darkening nightmare, two young Irish lads, Tom Boyce and Paul Keys from Goal (with whom I was there in Rwanda for 10 days), were piling the corpses, one by one, on to the back of a truck. Tom and Paul were probably two of the most inspirational people I've ever met in my life. All day, every day, in their GAA jerseys, they would pick up dead bodies and put them on the back of a truck.
"There was a cholera epidemic in the camps and 40,000 people had died," John O'Shea told me when I met him in Dublin in 2008. "Tom and Paul had to pick the dead bodies up quick so the cholera wouldn't spread. They had to pick the dead bodies up like rugby balls and fling them on the back of lorries."
Dead bodies, dying humans and motherless babies so malnourished that their eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets. Some of the babies would be dead the next morning when you went back to see them. The babies who survived cried ceaselessly for their murdered parents.
The babies were so tiny and light that when you picked them up in your arms you could hardly feel them. The older ones, still little and helpless, sat listless in groups. Their eyes would light up when the Goal workers came in, smiled and cuddled them.
I couldn't believe my eyes at times. Arriving on the first day, most of us probably felt some fragment of the emotion which the 99th Infantry
Division felt entering the Dachau camp in May 1945.
In the Zaire camps run by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the brutes who had murdered at will were fed at the feeding stations as were the relatives of those whom they had butchered. It was insane to watch them standing there, faces lacking any remorse.
Beside them were the spiritless creatures whose lives they had ruined, ghostly human beings, weak and ill, their clothes dirty and tattered, their faces etched with a pure hopelessness. Their eyes seemed empty when you caught their glance.
You could smell death in the air, and see the corpses everywhere. The ditches and latrines were over-burdened with the fetid, decomposing corpses of those deemed to be enemies of the Hutus. Each person's story was more horrific than the last.
"The Interahamwe made a habit of killing young Tutsi children in front of their parents, by first cutting off one arm, then the other," a UN official in Rwanda said of the Hutu militia.
"They would then gash the neck with a machete to bleed the child slowly to death but, while they were still alive, they would cut off the private parts and throw them at the faces of the terrified parents who would then be murdered with slightly greater dispatch."
The stories of what went on a month earlier couldn't but turn your stomach. It made you lose your faith in human beings, or humanity, or God, or anything that was supposed to be good about life or the world.
Asked whether what he had seen in Rwanda had shaken his faith in God, a French priest replied: "Absolutely not. But what happened in this country has destroyed my faith in mankind forever."
How these people were ever going to be able to forgive their neighbours for what they did to them seemed impossible. But it appears to be happening slowly in Rwanda (a country described by the Global Corruption Barometer recently as now "the least corrupt country in sub-Saharan Africa" – with its capital Kigali one of the safest cities in Africa.)
Last Sunday, I read an extraordinary piece about reconciliation in Rwanda in The New York Times magazine. With portraits of the living victims beside their perpetrators, the stories told were inspiring because they were about the power of forgiveness and truth.
Godefroid Mudaheranwa, said of Evasta Mukanyandwi: "I burned her house. I attacked her in order to kill her and her children, but God protected them, and they escaped. When I was released from jail, if I saw her, I would run and hide. I decided to ask her for forgiveness. To have good relationships with the person to whom you did evil deeds – we thank God."
Evasta said: "I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him."
"When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind," said Karorero, another survivor of the genocide. "But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest."