Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Rwandan Genocide 1994, remembering (part I)

I wrote the following peace for the BBC "On This Day" section, to tell my story with Rwanda, and what I saw, and heard, and lived at the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. You can read it on the BBC site here. But I also retranscribe it below, with a few corrections, and clarifications.
1994: 'The stench of blood'

Ali Mamina's mother [they made a mistake on the BBC site] was the head of a UN agency in Rwanda in 1994.
Twelve-year-old Ali was in Kigali when the Rwandan President's plane was shot down on 6 April and witnessed the beginning of a massacre that left 800,000 dead.

I was at home with my mom and friends watching the African Cup of Nations when someone called to tell us that the president's plane had just been seen falling and on fire in Kanombe, between his house and the Gregoire Kayibanda [Kigali International] Airport.

About 15 minutes after they announced on RFI [Radio France Internationale] and the BBC that the President's plane had been shot, the machine guns started to rock the city, and we heard grenades.

" They killed almost everybody around our house "
That was almost daily life in Kigali for the past four years we had been living there. But when the noise did not stop, we realized that this was going to last.

We later learnt it was during that night our Tutsi driver, Emmanuel, had been killed, in his UN outfit. The RTLM [Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines] did not confirm the death of President Habyarimana until 0530 on 7 April, when they asked for "their president to be avenged".

Ten minutes later we heard heavy gunfire and the machete squads started to roam the streets and we could see them from the house, as Kigali is built on hills.
Stench of blood
They killed almost everybody around our house. They would not touch us however, as we had soldiers to protect us and the UN flag flying high in the yard. Our next-door-neighbour was also untouched, as he was the Cypriot Ambassador and he had the Cyprus flag flying.

They weren't killing only Tutsis. They were also killing southerner Hutus. Some of them came to take refuge in our house. There were bullets flying everywhere and the stench of blood started looming in the city by Saturday 9 April, when we were in the process of being evacuated.
" I saw several of my classmates dead in the parking lot "
In four days we lost much more than 80 people we knew.
We followed the negotiations and then the death of the Prime Minister [Agathe Uwinlingiyimana] on a walkie-talkie. Several people were calling for help and there was often nothing we could do.

We passed in front of my school in the UN evacuation cars and I saw several of my classmates dead in the parking lot. Some were running towards the school to get refuge, as it was the French International School, protected by the French military.
They were killed - by Rwandan militia - just before reaching the school.

Seeing our hill (Kimihurura, where we lived) from the UN safe house (which was in Kiyovu, the hill where downtown was), it looked like a barrel of powder that had exploded.

The most chilling thing was the cries in the sky of men, women and babies.
I could go on about the experience I had, but it was maybe a 100th of what most people actually went through in Rwanda.

I was traumatised for several months, and went through therapy, but I got out alive with all my family. Many did not have either the luck or the opportunity, and they must be remembered.


Brian said...

Malau, thanks for your observation. I've fixed the link.

The Rwanda series was a good exercise for me. The anniversary helped me focus a number of disparate thoughts and observations that I'd gathered over the years into a series of cogent essays.

It had to been a terrifying experience. A man who trained me for the Peace Corps had been a volunteer in Rwanda when the genocide started. He said a helicopter from the US embassy literally landed outside his house and told him, "You have 15 minutes to get your stuff together" and then he was evacuated. It had only happened the year before so it was obviously fresh in his memory (though I can't imagine it's something he'll ever forget). And he was obviously much luckier than the Rwandans.

Talking to him really first got me interested in what happened. At the time, I was astonished that it exploded that fast. The more I read and learned about it, the more I realized how misinformed we had all been at the time (I was in university in 1994). The news media played it off as "ancient ethnic hatreds" and the usual simplistic nonsense that pandered enough to people's pre-conceptions so they didn't bother to question it. (They did the same thing in Bosnia)

Despite all I know, the accounts I've read, such as the one you offer, still chill me.

Carine said...


Thank you for sharing your story. I've been interested in your views as an African expat in Rwanda. Testimonies are very important, unless we get a personal & human account of things it's very hard to even begin to inform ourselves and understand. I was explaining to someone that people in the world become interested only when they can relate to the survivors/victims' suffering. It's very unfortunate but that's how it is. :(

I was quite young when the genocide started and it was described to be in very simplistic terms as well. I remember people suggesting that the solution was simple: creating one state for the Hutus and another for the Tutsis. So you can imagine it becomes inevitable to think of the genocide as a minor conflict. I also remember the conflict being quite covered by the French television. Until recently I never knew that this tragedy was avoidable, that the world was passively watching. Nobody should go through this. I can't believe this happened.

At this point, I am not sure that lessons are being learnt ... but I'm grateful for these testimonies. At least now we can't say that we don't know.

ManicBlu said...

It's impossible to put myself in the place of any people living and dying in this way. Reading the news is not enough. I soon run out of things to say other than how horrible it is and how we need to do something. Today we continue to watch and debate genocide to the shame of us all.

This is the first post I have read but will bookmark your site and look at more soon.

Anonymous said...

I think all those innocent people dying and they should not be forgotten we should remember them and remind ourselves that this masacre is still going on in the Congo.

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