June 13, 1994
I drove in from the north and entered the part of Rwanda held by the Tutsi-led rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF. The RPF insisted I travel with two soldiers for my own protection, they said, though that hardly seemed necessary. The countryside was empty. We passed miles of deserted villages, fields of sorghum, corn, beans and bananas with no one to harvest them - eerie, since Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Sometimes, the car would fill with the smell of rotting flesh, and we would notice corpses lying in a field or by the side of an abandoned house. Those who had been killed here were almost all from the Tutsi ethnic group, like the rebel soldiers with me. Other Rwandans, those of the majority Hutu group, had fled, afraid the RPF would kill them in revenge for the slaughter of Tutsis.
But occasionally, I found places crowded with people, people too fearful to go back to their villages and homes. In a town called Gahini, 30 miles east of the capital Kigali, the crowd around me contained old women, some younger women, small children, but very few men, and as I asked why they were here, they started to lift their clothes.
A woman is showing us her legs and arms. They have raised, long wounds on them. They look like maybe - they're burns? I ask if they are burns. And in her nose, there's kind of a crease now that's healed over in a scar. She says that was a spear that went in through her nose.
And here's a little girl in a pretty flowered dress lifting up her skirt to show burn marks on her knees and legs, and a bandage. And here's a little boy who has lifted his shirt to show a wound from a spear right in the middle of his back between his shoulders.
I ask why, in order to get rid of the Tutsi race?
A Rwandan woman answers, "Yes."
The planned killing of a race - genocide. Foreign nations have been hesitant to label the Rwanda massacres genocide because that would force them to act, but the evidence that genocide has been occurring here is hard to ignore. Those in Gahini told me to go to Karubamba, a few miles away, to see for myself what had happened to their mostly Tutsi families and friends who, like them, had sought refuge in a church there, but who never made it out again.
As I drove up to a set of orange brick church buildings, I had to clamp a bandana tightly over my nose and mouth. The stench was unbearable. Outside the church, there are maybe two or three dozens bodies, and in the heat here in Rwanda, many of the bodies are already almost fully decomposed. You can see some skulls, some backbones. There are what seem to be women in brightly colored clothing, as well as children, lying about. This is amidst what is a very beautiful area of eucalyptus trees and pine trees.
There are bodies scattered all over the church. The blood on the floor is so thick it's dried to kind of a muddy brown dust that may be in some places a quarter of an inch thick. Most of the bodies are blackened and decomposing. Some lie on mattresses, some on the floor, some are covered with blankets. By the altar, there are probably about 30 bodies clustered around. One is the body of an infant with parents, it seems, on either side. There's a suitcase that is open and kind of torn apart in front of the altar. On the floor of the church, you can see baskets, plastic water cans, pales, combs, brushes, sandals, sneakers, tins of food, a bottle of talcum powder.
The windows, stained-glass windows on either side, are broken. There are wooden pews that have been thrown against them. Above the whole seen, above the altar, is a small wooden statue of Christ with one hand raised.
In one of the church offices in the back, the bodies are piled, one on top of the other, crowded into a room, some still sitting in chairs. Windows broken, the plaster inside is cratered. It looks like, perhaps, bullets came in through the windows.
A few hundred yards away, I find Emmanuel Mutsinzi. He came to help dig graves to bury the bodies, one or two thousand, he says, maybe more. When I ask if he knows what happened here, he nods. He tells me he is Tutsi, and he had been hiding in the church, too. He is a tall, thin man, and tells his story slowly, with an empty face, as if the feelings behind what he is saying had long since drained out. There is no reason for him to exaggerate, since my two rebel escorts are back in the car and out of site.
Mr. Mutsinzi says the massacres began in his area on April 6, the same night the Rwandan president was killed in an apparent attack on his plane. He knows that because the next day, Thursday, frightened Tutsis poured into his town on the run, telling how government soldiers and armed citizens' militias had attacked them and anyone suspected of opposing the government. Mutsinzi and several thousand others ran to the church buildings in Karubamba. All weekend, they stayed bolted inside as roving mobs killed anyone who ventured out.
The local mayor came to the church and they asked him for protection. Monday evening the mayor returned, but not to help. He came with some soldiers and a mob of more than 100 militiamen, known here as interahamwe. They were local people, neighbors, trained and armed by the government over many months. They splashed gasoline into the church buildings and threw in hand grenades. That's when so many people got burned. The attacks continued Tuesday and Wednesday, killing hundreds. Mutsinzi says he climbed into the rafters to get away from the fire and the grenades. Each night when the interahamwe grew tired and left, he helped drag out the dead so the others, he says, could breathe.
Then, says Mutsinzi, on Thursday, the interahamwe broke down the doors of the church buildings with axes. They shot and speared, hacked and clubbed those inside for hours. Mutsinzi climbed under a pile of dead bodies to hide. Two girls I met later said they had been taken away and raped. On Friday, he says, the RPF rebels, who had been advancing steadily from the north for several days, were getting close, and those in the church heard their guns in the distance. But the militiamen came back to kill any survivors, hacking them to death with machetes.
Finally, the interahamwe ran off as the RPF reached the church on Saturday morning. But Mutsinzi had already lost his parents, grandfather, nieces and nephews. He knows the killers, he says. They included teachers at the local school, the town constable, storekeepers and other neighbors. When I ask if Mutsinzi thinks he can ever go back to living with his Hutu neighbors again, he answers quickly. 'Yes, of course,' he says. 'My wife is a Hutu.'
Her name is Batancien, and I find her working at the hospital back in Gahini. We talk outside next to a field where cows graze, where life seems almost normal except for the hundreds of people in bandages.
"The people who are fleeing from here told us that the interahamwe were around and killing all people of Tutsi ethnic, and those others who have any kind of relations, interparentages or Tutsi kids, children, that they are killing all of them, so we started running away."
At first, Batancien went with her Tutsi husband and three children to the church in Karubamba, but her husband sent them to the hospital in Gahini for protection. The interahamwe attacked the hospital, so she ran to her father's house in a nearby village, spending the nights there and the days hiding with the children in the bush. Meanwhile, she heard about the slaughter occurring all around her from the Hutu neighbors she had grown up with.
"I used to get most of the information from the women because the women were mostly engaged in the routine, and not very much in killing. So, they would come even at home and they were telling me what they heard their husbands saying or what they know their husbands did."
I asked, "The women that you knew, friends of yours, were looting the houses of the Tutsis?"
"People really who are neighbors to my father's home - to my father - and they are coming to tell me- was not really sympathizing with me, but was rather boasting over having killed all my in-laws, just telling me maybe to annoy me, to hurt me."
A man she knew came to the house to say he would be back that night with a mob to kill Batancien and the children. But that afternoon, the RPF troops arrived. She found her husband a few days later in Gahini, where the RPF was bringing victims from all over the area for protection.
I asked, "Why do you think your neighbors wanted to kill you and your husband and your family?"
"I don't understand because it is something that came up so quickly that you'd find people were doing it very enthusiastically and they don't understand any reason that could driven these people in so short time to develop that kind of hatred."
Ethnic conflict is not new in Rwanda. For centuries, Tutsis had mainly been the privileged and ruling class while Hutus were usually the working class. Then, in the early 1960s, as Rwanda became independent, Hutus violently overthrew the system that favored the Tutsi minority. Thousands of Tutsis were killed and many fled to other countries. But Rwandans like Batancien insist ethnic violence has been the exception, not the rule. Apart from a few isolated outbreaks of violence since the fighting in the 1960s, she says Hutus and Tutsis have lived and worked together without problems.
"So many Tutsis, Tutsi men, have married Hutu women, and so many Hutu men have married Tutsi women, and there really was no problem. There was that mixing happening, and life was OK."
But then came this spring's killing spree. What happened to Batancien and those at Karubamba Church happened all over Rwanda. Churches, towns, villages and fields throughout the countryside are littered with bodies. Most of the dead are Tutsis, but there are signs that what happened in Rwanda was not simply an outburst of ethnic hatred and rage against Tutsis after the Hutu president was killed.
A few miles outside of Kigali, I run into a group of people who were just evacuated from the capital by the U.N., and among the mostly Tutsi group are a few prominent Hutus like Amory Suwethe, who had been in hiding since the president's death. Suwethe says he was desperate to reach rebel-held territory.
"Behind myself, I am leaving killers, so I'm more comfortable here."
Suwethe had been an adviser to the president and chief of protocol for the Hutu-led Rwandan government, and now he calls his former government colleagues 'killers.' He claims the massacres were part of a carefully constructed government plan to wipe out political opponents, both Hutu and Tutsi. It was no secret, he says, that the government had armed and trained the civilian militias that carried out the massacres.
"So many people were armed. Official- there were official letters - we saw them - describing how people in different areas should be given arms, and the letters were coming from the chief of staff of the army. The president died at 8:00 or 8:30 in the evening. At 9:00, the killings have started all over Rwanda."
Within a day or two, the Rwandan army had hunted down and killed Hutu government officials like the prime minister who were willing to compromise with the Tutsi-led RPF. Army officers accused the rebels of shooting down the president's plane, but Suwethe and others think the president's plane was attacked by the army because the president wasn't willing to go ahead with the massacre plan. Suwethe says he wasn't in the president's inner circle, the group which devised the plan, but occasionally, he would hear about it.
"Some of the masterminds of that plan used to, you know, to talk about their plan once they had a more- a bit of whisky or a bit of cognac."
"They would brag about it?" I asked.
"Yeah, they were proud about it. Habyarimana set up a network of killers, and they did their job."
There is mounting evidence that supports Suwethe's story. Human rights organizations have documented that the government was arming and training civilian militias for more than a year. U.N. forces intercepted arms shipments intended for the militias in January and February. Survivors of the massacres confirm that soldiers, many town mayors and local police helped the citizens' militias kill Tutsis. Radio stations linked to the government and the president's party called on people during the massacres to 'finish off the job' by killing Tutsis. It even seems government troops and their militias may have forced Hutu civilians to take part in the killings - at least, that is what people like Juliana Mucanguaya say. She is a Hutu woman with six children from a village not far from Gahini. As she speaks, she sits in a small compound - her jail - with 21 others in an empty town littered with corpses. She has been imprisoned by the RPF for taking part in the massacres, though she insists she did not want to kill.
She says she was home when militias from a neighboring area arrived with weapons and their local leader, their burghermeister. At first, she says, the militia took her husband and other Hutu men to help with the killing of Tutsis.
"Later, as the groups came and started even taking the women, also giving them machetes to go and kill, we went along."
"Why? Why did you go?"
"They were threatening us. They were even beating us. They even killed my kid I was carrying on my back. They were hitting the kid with gun butts, butts of a gun. After killing my child, they forced us to go and reached near a place where they had gathered a group of people, shooting at them, and then they give us clubs to finish off those who are dying or not yet dead. I was trembling myself from the action. But we were forced to do it."
What do you think will happen now? Do you think you can go back to your village and live knowing that you have killed some of your neighbors?"
"I will be judged by my conduct before, and not the fact that they were forced to do it. Maybe they would accept me back."
Other prisoners tell similar stories, that they had to either kill Tutsis or else they would be killed. It is hard to know if that is the truth, and whether that occurred all over the country. Back in Gahini, Batancien Mutsinzi told me she saw something very different as she hid out in fields and in her father's house while the massacres were going on.
"The only thing I know is that I could see people armed with machetes, with spears and clubs and other weapons, without any soldier behind them, without any burghermeister giving orders. I didn't see anybody who was forced to do it. My father did not participate in killing people or taking other people's cows or looting. And nothing happened to him."
Yet, even Batancien seems to blame the country's leaders more than her neighbors for what happened. Everyone knew government soldiers had trained the civilian militias, and government propaganda had long taught Hutus to fear Tutsis, telling them the rebel RPF army and its Tutsi supporters wanted to take over the country, steal their land and kill their families.
I asked all those I met in Rwanda what they thought would happen now, whether they could go back to their villages after all the killing and live once again, Hutus and Tutsis together. And everyone, without hesitation, said yes. It was the same answer I heard in an earlier visit to Tanzania at a refugee camp filled mainly with Hutus who had fled the country afraid of the rebel army. It was the answer a Tutsi nurse in Gahini explained best, a nurse who escaped the massacre but lost most of her relatives and two of her children.
The nurse in Gahini told me, "We are going to live together again. We are going to reconcile. We are going to like each other again because we don't know politics. We lived together, we liked each other before, and now we are going to live together and like each other again. We are going to forgive them, because they didn't know it wasn't necessary to kill. Those people were taught badly, but they are not wicked."
It is a message of forgiveness that seems astounding, since it is so rare in other parts of the world where people also kill because of race or religion. It is a message that shows Rwandans, whether Hutu or Tutsi, know they share the same culture, the same history, the same language. And that may be the only hope left for this tiny country, with its hundreds of thousands dead and millions afraid to return home.
Michael Skoler is currently the Managing Director for News at Minnesota Public Radio.