The altar of Ntarama Church, where more than 5,000 people were massacred. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A hundred days in hell

By  Matthew Fisher
  • April 5, 2019

The most harrowing interview I ever did was with a man who told me in excellent French that his name was Innocent.

It was at the height of the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994. I encountered Innocent sitting on a tree stump on the side of a road outside the capital of Kigali, wiping blood from his machete.

I walked over to Innocent and asked him how he identified Tutus to murder while letting his fellow Hutus go free. Innocent seemed pleased to have been asked that question. He replied in a very matter of fact manner that it was actually rather easy.

The difference was all in the noses, Innocent said. Hutus like him, had flatter, fleshier noses.

Tutsis had longer, much thinner noses. And that was how Innocent, judge and executioner, decided who among his compatriots should live and who should die in the stunningly beautiful green hills of Rwanda. His only explanation was that the Belgian colonizers had favoured the Tutsis and the Hutus were now getting their revenge.

Innocent was hardly alone.

Many thousands of Hutus were slaughtering Tutsis at that very moment. Estimates of how many Rwandans died over 100 days that spring vary between 500,000 and one million. Not all of the victims were Tutsis. There was another savage reckoning when the Tutsis got the upper hand militarily.

It was not the first or last time I have encountered pure evil. I have seen it in the Balkans, the Caucusus, the Middle East and South Asia. But in 35 years moving from conflict zone to conflict zone I have never witnessed killing on the scale that I did in Rwanda, nor the savagery of the murders, which were carried out with great haste and in such a deeply intimate way with machetes and other instruments such as paint can openers. I wish I could explain any of this. I cannot explain it to myself.

There is no rational way to explain any of this. It was wanton wickedness of the most extreme kind and shards of memory of that awful period still pierce my thoughts from time to time.

A frenzy of xenophobia and dread gripped the entire country at that exact moment.

Swimming pools were full of bodies. So were school yards, driveways and parks.

The hospitals I visited were in a calamitous state. At one of them a distraught Dutch nurse was the sole caregiver for dozens of children. Many of them had had their arms lopped off. A few were missing parts of their legs.

The other foreign and local medical staff had fled in panic.

The nurse had no antibiotics to dispense and was armed with nothing more than a few bandages to ward off the gangrene that was eating its way through every ward.

My first glimpse of the Rwandan genocide was from the rear door of a Canadian Forces C-130 Hercules which made a hot landing under fire at Kigali Airport in May 1994, after a terrifying low-altitude, zigzag approach to the runway.

Only four days earlier I had witnessed the joyous inauguration in Pretoria of Nelson Mandela, who had become a beacon of hope and inspiration for most Africans.

When the ramp at the back of the Hercules aircraft went down in Kigali all that was visible on the tarmac was a pair of khaki trousers. There were evidently legs inside each trouser leg, but there were no feet and no upper torso because packs of dogs had eaten them.

I was met on the runway by a French Canadian working for the CIA. An old Africa hand, he had been tasked with getting me the relatively short distance from the airport to the UN compound that was the headquarters for Canada’s then Maj.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire and his band of badly outnumbered and badly outgunned peacekeepers.

It was a harrowing trip and not only because of machine gun fire and artillery shells exploding nearby. The highway and the ditches were so choked with bloated bodies that my escort had no choice but to drive over them as if we were on a corduroy road.

Dallaire was besieged in every sense of the word. The artillery fire was so intense around the UN compound at night that we huddled on the basement floor, a jumble of men under stacks of body armour, as packs of dogs noisily tore bodies apart just outside the walls.

Dallaire was phenomenally brave. Driving himself, with his only bodyguard seated beside him, he would bluster and cajole his way through checkpoints mostly manned by child soldiers where killings were still taking place, going to try to convince Interhamwe commanders, including its infamous leader, Robert Kajuga, to stop the killing.

I listened to the general as he pleaded on the telephone with the late Kofi Annan at UN headquarters for immediate and significant military assistance. Annan, who was the UN’s senior diplomat for peacekeeping at the time, and would later become the UN Secretary-General, repeatedly told Dallaire he was exaggerating when the general told him that he and his blue berets were witnesses to a genocide and that they did not have anything like the means to stop it. Annan counselled Dallaire to get a grip. A debate was to be convened during the next week to discuss ways to stop the killing.

Dallaire replied that many thousands more Rwandans would be dead by then. The general’s ghastly prediction proved to be accurate.

When I returned to Rwanda a few months later the war was mostly over. I could not find a soul — Hutu or Tutsi — who would admit to having had any part in the genocide.

The horror that took place in that overwhelmingly Christian and Roman Catholic country 25 years ago touched everyone in that fractured country. Though I only saw a tiny fraction of the pernicious, unprovoked slaughter, it still touches and confounds me.

(Fisher is the Bill Graham School of Contemporary History Resident Visiting Scholar in defence and foreign policy at Massey College in the University of Toronto. )

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