Before I came on this volunteering trip to Rwanda (and it’s hard to believe I am on week four already) I had read some basic travel guide information about Rwanda’s turbulent history and the earlier days of colonialism which probably sowed the seeds for much of the subsequent tragedy.
I had also read a book called Shake Hands with the Devil – subtitled ‘the failure of humanity in Rwanda’ by Colonel Dallaire who was the head of the Unamir force in Rwanda in 1994 when everything fell apart. It was a good book, but really more about day to day events and how he felt his hands were tied by ineptitude and vacillation at the UN and by international bodies. It was written from the heart and a good introduction to the topic and the country.
Fast forward to two weeks ago and in Kigali Public Library where my team is based I stumbled across a rare book in English – the library being a mix of the local Kinyarwanda language, the heritage language of French and more recently English (now the official language of Rwanda in a bid to become part of the East Africa trading bloc. The book had the lengthy title of ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’ and the author was someone called Philip Gourevich. I decided that rather than try to download it onto my Kindle I’d join the library temporarily and borrow the actual book. That was interesting in itself (joining) but the book turned out to be an essential read.
Somehow this young man had ended up in Kigali, Rwanda around 1996 and – improbably – had seemed to gain almost unlimited access to the then vice president Paul Kagame. So he seemed to have been able to bounce ideas off the man who had effectively liberated the country in the wake of the 1994 genocide, and this led to some very interesting dialogue, chronicled verbatim in the book.
But in fact what was even more fascinating was the interviews he had managed to get with articulate and – obviously traumatised – victims of the genocide. Because of our project in Rwanda we have been lucky enough to travel for official reasons to visit co-ops in many of the rural parts of the country. So by mid-August we had been in Butare – 30 minutes from the Burundi border in the South, to Kayonza and Akagera on the Tanzanian border and also over due west from Kigali to Kibuye on Lake Kivu. And in the process we had seen lots of genocide memorials and a lot of the names of the towns and villages we had passed through began to appear in the testimonies of these survivors in 1996. We had also visited the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali, and that contextualised a lot of what we saw in our travels. But the book intrigued me.
Fast forward again to four days ago. I’m standing holding a rented bike in the dirt road main street of a small one horse village called Kinunu that overlooks Lake Kivu. Its way up high, with banana trees and coffee bushes visible in every direction. It’s located about 50k south of Gisenyi, where the border crossing to the DRC (Congo) is situated on a natural route skirting the North of this vast lake. Gisenyi is the extreme Northwest of Rwanda and unlike a lot of the country, it seems to get a reasonably high rainfall. Queues for water are rare. I have cycled down here on the Congo-Nile trail, (which is a subject in itself) and the plan is to stay the night at the coffee drying station on Lake Kivu shoreline which is 2km straight down a terrible dirt track. I have managed to drag myself to this spot across a selection of the hills that Rwanda is famous for. More walking than cycling at times. My guide Bosco thinks I’m a wimp (he’s right) but we have no language in common so he can’t tell me this. His looks are telling however. But I digress.
Suddenly I realise that Kinunu, this very insignificant nothing of a collection of mud huts in Northwest Rwanda, is where Odette, one of the prime interviewees in the book I’m reading, was born. She became a doctor against odds that redefine the word ‘incredible’. She and her husband adopted ten kids after the Genocide. Her mother’s brothers – her uncles – were all carted off to their death from this very crossroads I was standing at. That was – I think – in 1963 in one of the earliest pogroms against the Tutsi. Later on, she and her father hid in the bushes on the side of this mountain for months, again before the final events of 1994. The area was probably no better or worse than others in 1994, but its remoteness and the utter lack of anonymity was different from ‘the big city’. The dirt roads became the killing grounds. I then remembered something else.
About an hour back down the road we had stopped (I had slumped) in another small village to buy warm Fanta (no electricity) and gulp down some sugar. Everyone was very polite, albeit staring at the ‘Muzungu’ (me) was the order of the day. As I had tried to convince myself to continue I had realised that EVERYONE in that village – kids included – was carrying a machete, a small sickle or a large knife. It made sense – you work from dawn to dusk and those are the tools of the trade. You peel manioc roots. You chop down big hanks of plantains. You cut grass where you can find it and haul it back to your scrawny cow. And evidently, once in a while, you use that sharp blade for a more sinister purpose. To be honest I didn’t feel at all threatened, I had a guide and I was too knackered to worry about it. But in the light of the book, it was a real jolt.
I survived (just about) the legend that is the Congo-Nile trail. I saw the border crossing into the DRC. I managed to find out from Bosco that he was #8 out of 14 kids, was 23 and had a Congolese mother, so the whole family fled to the DRC when he was 2 in 1994. He never really had proper schooling and worked as a cycle taxi – giving people lifts on the back of his bike around Gisenyi. No wonder he was so fit.
Back in Kigali on Sunday night and licking my wounds I finished the last forty pages of that remarkable book. The author might – just might – be too influenced by his interviews with the president elect, but still a huge amount of what he said made sense. Like – why, after the genocide, when Rwanda was on its knees, did virtually all of the humanitarian aid go to the refugee camps outside Rwanda where the killers (genocidaires) had fled and were effectively holding a million people as hostages? And in the process hijacking much of the aid, swapping it for arms and heading back into Rwanda to ‘finish the job’? And why did no-one protest when those same people started killing Tutsis in North Kivu (who had been there for hundreds of years) and sending them swarming back into what was left of Rwanda. I know I don’t know all the facts around what I’m outlining, and I won’t pretend to. I do know that generally whoever wins the war gets to write the history. But I will just suggest that you read a remarkable book, even if your interest in Rwanda is minimal. You won’t regret it.