You cannot kill their memory — Rwanda 20 years on

I am not good at remembering dates. My husband teases me that I have trouble recalling our own wedding anniversary. Yet since 1994, April 7th is the date I can never forget. Twenty years ago this weekend, the world is remembering and hopefully reminding itself how little it did back then to stem a meticulously planned and executed genocide in which as many as a million Rwandans were killed. Much has happened to me in the past 20 years. I have lived on three continents, changed jobs multiple times, covered wars, married, had a son, inherited three step children, lost friends in war zones yet Rwanda is still there, stubbornly unwilling to be forgotten and always a haunting presence in my life.

A smell, a soft breeze, a shadow dancing on a wall is often all I need. I remember the utter stillness of Nyarubuye and the way the dust smoked up around my shoes. The bodies in the school and church complex lay like sprawled puppets and the stench made me gag. Pink flowers lined the road and the tall eucalyptus trees swayed in a soft wind. I counted the dead and wrote in my notebook the color of their clothing. Some looked as if they had been running, others curled up to block blows still others seemed to me as if they were sleeping. They had been hacked and shot and bludgeoned.

It was the end of May 1994, I was working then as the New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief, based out of Nairobi, Kenya, and a small group of us were the first reporters to document this massacre in Nyarubuye, an isolated Rwandan community on the Tanzanian border. We had been taken there by the Rwandan Patriotic Army, the only means of moving around the Rwandan countryside while the civil war raged. It was almost two months since the mass killings had started, hundreds of thousand Rwandans methodically killed, yet the international community was still unwilling to use the word “genocide.” For us who covered Rwanda and witnessed killings, walked through massacres and battled our editors for more space to tell the story, the anger and frustration against the lack of international concern filled many with bitterness. Many of us, including myself battled depression (no journalist I knew who wanted to keep their job would admit to an editor that they were struggling), changed jobs, left Africa but we have never forgotten.

The genocide began within hours that the plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down coming in for a landing in the capital Kigali. Once the Rwandan rebel army captured the Kigali airport, it was possible for journalists to visit the crash site. The president's country estate bordered the airport and part of the wreckage ended up near his swimming pool. The Rwandan Patriotic Front soliders hated having their pictures taken. The only way to do it was to pose with them. © Donatella Lorch

The genocide began within hours that the plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down coming in for a landing in the capital Kigali. Once the Rwandan rebel army captured the Kigali airport, it was possible for journalists to visit the crash site. The president’s country estate bordered the airport and part of the wreckage ended up near his swimming pool. The Rwandan Patriotic Front soliders hated having their pictures taken. The only way to do it was to pose with them. © Donatella Lorch

There are of course the countless dead, the nameless ones, the crumpled corpses that lined the steep road into Kigali when I first drove into Rwanda’s capital that first week of April. There were the doors kept ajar by bare protruding legs, a signal to me that the dreaded Interahamwe had gone house to house in that neighborhood. It was the three women spotted from a rooftop docilely kneeling and not even lifting their heads to look as a man with a machete systematically hacked their heads one by one. There were the dawn mortar attacks shattering windows at the Milles Collines Hotel where we stayed packed together in rooms with hundreds of displaced Rwandans.

It is not that the press was blameless. The Africa-based press corps had missed the signals. We had vast stretches of territory to cover. I had been mostly reporting from Somalia since 1992 as American and UN troops struggled unsuccessfully to bring a semblance of peace to the war-torn country. My knowledge of Rwanda was learned gradually on the ground, counting corpses washed ashore on Lake Victoria, meeting the hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees in Tanzania and Goma, Zaire and investigating the massacre sites inside the country.

Let’s not forget the survivors. My heroes: Zozo (Wellars Bizimuremyi), the head desk clerk at the Milles Collines, who always smiled while managing to stop the military and the Interahamwe who would sporadically enter the hotel and try to drag out Rwandans. While hiding in their home, Zozo’s wife and children were killed. Evariste was my driver for a year after the genocide and he lead me through his personal story of loss. His entire family was killed at the church at Ntarama, now the site of the “live” Genocide museum outside Kigali. In Kigali, he hid in a Hutu neighbor’s rafters living off of grass and raw potatoes until he managed to escape to the United Nations controlled stadium.

There is General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peacekeeping operation, whom I met at the Mille Collines the first week as he came with a lone armored personnel carrier (the other one had a flat tire) to help evacuate the journalists. (I later re-entered Rwanda with the rebel troops). We were a captive audience, and he refused to provide an armed escort until he gave a press conference describing what was happening in the city and how UN headquarters had tied his hands. Only one international organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, stayed on in Kigali and was critical at providing and facilitating medical care and food transport. The ICRC head was Phillipe Gaillard and I am convinced he did not sleep for the first 100 days, chain smoking his way from negotiation to negotiation and ignoring death threats. Funny how sometimes it is the tiny details you remember. In a city without running water, food and pounded by artillery, Phillipe wore a jacket and tie every day for months as part of his effort, he’d say smiling, to pretend there was sanity somewhere. And far away in Buffalo, N.Y. Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch, a Rwanda expert, let me wake her many times in the middle of the night to learn Rwandan history and politics.

In 2009, I returned to Rwanda. There were moments when I still smelled it, or thought I caught a glimpse of a corpse. But it was beautiful too. That year, Alison died in the air crash of a Continental commuter flight coming into Buffalo. Gen. Dallaire had gone public in 2000 about his fight with PTSD. After giving hundreds of interviews during the Genocide, Phillipe Gaillard left the public eye for eight years before resurfacing with the message that we must never forget. Both Zozo and Evariste married Genocide survivors and have large families.

Memory is smell, suffering, silence, courage, pain, love and beauty. It should not be just something we grasp on April 7th this year. Memory is everywhere. Everyday.

6 thoughts on “You cannot kill their memory — Rwanda 20 years on

  1. Shakila

    I barely could read interrupted by a choke of anger, grief, and unfathomable inhuman violence, and the soothing thought of human capacity for resiliance, endurance and humanity, no matter how broken…ax we doesk, bombs explode, innocent get blown up and one cannot help but wonder what is the point of it all…

    Reply
  2. Shakila

    I barely could read your touching and vivid account of a piece of human history/tragedy. It us almost never taken into account what wars and violence does to the story-tellers/witnesses…you carry the many burdens for ever…it defines most if not all of your life to come…I was interrupted by a choke of anger, grief, and disgust for the unfathomable inhuman acts of violence, and the soothing thought of human capacity in resiliance, endurance and humanity, no matter how broken…as we speak, bombs explode, innocent get blown up and one cannot help but wonder if violence can ever be I out numbered by
    Better side of humanity…I am tormented by knowing the painful answer…

    Reply
  3. Marshall Soules

    This is a vivid and moving description of the horrors that occurred in Rwanda twenty years ago, and necessary – I agree – to remember.

    I appreciate when the horrors of conflict are placed in context, and it would help me understand this terrible suffering to know why it happened. Your writing pushes me to learn more. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Robin Goldberg

    Dear Donatella, I am in respect and awe for what you have done, continue to do. i know I cannot fully apprehend the price you paid during and after your work in Rwanda during this time. You have my admiration for your courage in sitting down and laying aside any reprieve from this memory of man’s inhumanity to re-live it and to honor the spirit of those other participants who along with you gave their utmost when it was needed. You have done this so that we collectively will know the truth of what took place, so that the memory not be let fade or diminished, and so that we will make it our mission to revisit our role, our responses – what did we do and what we could have done better. With much gratitude – Robin Goldberg, SIPA ’87 (I-law study group ;) )

    Reply

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