Before you talk about 'Lessons from Rwanda', read this

I saw what happened. I will never forget the smell of death. And I don't trust anyone who says 'never again'

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

In Rwanda I was an ant walking over the rough hide of an elephant — this time 20 years ago I had no idea of the scale of what I could see on the ground. Trekking with a column of rebels from the Ugandan frontier south towards Kigali, we came upon the early massacres of Tutsis, hysterical survivors, flames leaping above huts, mortars roaring down misty valleys. But we had seen a lot of this across Africa in the 1990s. We visited a Catholic pastor in his rectory and I suppose at that point I and my Tutsi guides still respected the priesthood and could not imagine their complicity in murder. As we drank tea with him, we failed to ask why he had the body of a woman with her brains bashed out sprawled on the steps of his church.

And then it just went on and on. We quickly learned that churches whereTutsis fled for sanctuary became the abattoirs of mass killing. At Nyamata, I pushed open the church door and the black floor buckled as millions of flies lifted off a confusion of limbs and skulls and bags of guts rising up to the altar where a rotting head was perched.

In churches across Rwanda, the same scene was repeated. In Kibeho, where Pope John Paul II had held mass in the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared in visions, I saw countless bloody scratches up the plaster walls, marked where hundreds had scrabbled to escape the flames, bullets and grenades. In the diocese of Kabgayi, a mother with a baby wrapped on her back hacked with a machete at another woman carrying her own baby. Near the Kabgayi seminary, I met a man who had survived for weeks by hiding down an antbear hole from which he emerged at night to suck dew from the grass.

In Kigali’s Sainte Famille, I met the Hutu priest Wenceslas, wielding a pistol with his dog collar and camouflaged flak jacket. The Sainte Famille was but a holding cell for Wenceslas’s flock, who were fed in groups to the militias outside. I remember the death squads at the Sainte Famille entrance with machetes and clubs studded with nails. One ran about with a model of Concorde stolen from Air France, making ‘broom broom’ noises. Later, Wenceslas was given a parish in the south of France. Rome has never apologised for the central role Catholic priests played in the bloodbath.

The claims are that between 500,000 to around a million were butchered in 100 days. Deaths probably exceed Iraq, Afghanistan and several other wars put together — but why should we care about figures? We saw pyramids of corpses piled at roadblocks; the rivers were clogged with hog-tied bodies; I entered pit latrines gingerly after discovering a cadaver stuffed down one. For weeks we slept in a seminary where a number of Tutsi priests had been murdered. The walls were spattered with bone and hair and after some time I raised the mattress on the floor and found the outline of a man traced in the dried pool of blood he had died in.

Today the vivid pictures of memory have blurred and morphed into old news photos. But what I do recall is the smell of Rwanda, the stench of which is in my nostrils as I write this. I could not eat red meat for months. I tasted putrefaction on my teeth, my clothes and the sweat of my own body. The odour of a family freshly buried in their garden. The metallic smell of blood. The bloated, seething, rotting reek that infected the air, the water and your own tongue.

I did once believe that the world could have done more to avert the loss of life in Rwanda during 1994. After walking into Kigali in April I saw Belgian troops, disgusted by the murder of their comrades by Hutus, stamp on their blue UN berets while the Bangladeshis, led by their top UN official Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, fought to climb aboard the evacuation transport. A small number of UN peacekeepers stayed behind but they could do very little to alter the overall picture. In Arusha I attended last-ditch peace talks, but apart from the Hutu army chief Augustin Bizimungu and the Tutsi rebel negotiator, I recall about four junior diplomats bothered to turn up — and they left before the buffet lunch. The talks collapsed. Another 700,000 people died.

As soon as Kigali fell to the rebels, the foreign experts began arriving, elbowing aside the journalists and other eyewitnesses. The human rights groups, diplomats, academics and NGOs wrote their reports that fed the illusion that we would never allow this to happen again in Central Africa or elsewhere. Meanwhile the wars moved into Congo, where countless more died — and are still dying. But after 1994 a conflict resolution industry was born, funded with lashings of donor money, which held that intelligent young university graduates, many of them Westerners, could persuade rival parties to stop wars. Journalists were advised to present Africa in a positive light and to engage in ‘advocacy’ to promote peace and reconciliation. Describing African politics as remotely tribal has become verboten — reflecting our ignorance and prejudice. Top marks are given to those who blame Africa’s problems on colonial history.

Since the 1990s Britain and the West have salved their guilt by tipping huge amounts of aid into Rwanda. The world marvelled at President Kagame’s ability to create an enterprise economy in the heart of Africa, complete with fibre-optic cabling. Visitors to Kigali wondered at its tidiness, as if the Africans were so busy picking up toffee wrappers they didn’t have a moment to chop each other up with machetes again. But then the world got bored of that story and recently it’s become more fashionable to lambast Kagame’s regime for liquidating dissidents and plotting to annexe the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.


None of this is of any consequence. To me, the international delegations gathering in Kigali this weekend to pose gravely in front of the piles of skulls commemorating the genocide unleashed on 6 April 1994, when the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana’s aircraft was shot down over Rwanda’s capital, are simply wringing their hands over an abyss they do nothing to fill.

After covering continual violence in the years since 1994 across Africa and elsewhere, I personally find the countless promises of ‘never again’ amount to very little. Primo Levi said of Auschwitz, ‘It happened, therefore it can happen again.’ I do not blame the church any more than I do African countries, the United Nations or Britain’s government at the time for failing to prevent genocide. It would be mistaken to believe intervention could have been stopped Tutsis being massacred. In every hamlet on every hillside I met Hutu peasants who were handed no master plan for genocide: they murdered neighbours because they could and they coveted cows or banana groves that did not belong to them. Based on most foreign interventions, we know it might well have caused alternative or even worse kinds of violence. In the aftermath, the Rwandans did not do a bad job of sorting it out themselves.

My personal sense now is that there are no real political solutions to human wickedness. Ironically, as time has progressed, thinking long and hard about those churches, I have come to believe the only consolation is spiritual.

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  • davidshort10

    Very moving. I saw 152 Tutsis murdered in Burundi and that was enough to change my view of the world. When will we ever learn not to be tribal or nationalistic? Not too soon in the UK as we approach a referendum that only one part of it is allowed to take part.

  • Chris Bond

    A added level of horror about events like Rwanda is that it has been used as an excuse for R2P which has become nothing less then a cover for naked aggression.

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      I have noticed the International Relations graduates who harp about R2P very rarely display the courage of their convictions shown by, say, the International Brigades in Spain, or the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. Regardless of what you think of them, those groups at least were willing to put their own lives on the line for their cause, rather than other people’s.

  • rhys

    I don’t understand this article on a number of levels : importantly – what exactly was the author’s status and function pottering around Rwanda and observing the grotesque barbarities hither and yon?

    WHY for example did he take tea with the priest whilst omitting to mention the cadaver on the threshold? [ ‘More tea vicar?’ indeed. ]

    How did he manage to escape the attention of the machete murderers himself?

    How come the author was at the peace conference in Arusha ? What was his function there ? I thought his job was running a farm in Kenya.

    And how does he justify the conclusion in his final paragraph?

    Surely that conclusion is untenable in the light of the outcome of the Second World War – when the political action of the Allies most certainly provided a solution to human wickedness?

    Or for that matter the largely benevolent outcome of British intervention in the hellishness of Sierra Leone’s mass murder – and – maiming -of -children spree?

    Indeed some political actions undertaken with the best of intentions can end up making matters worse and causing greater suffering to innocents ( Iraq / possibly Libya / possibly Syria / possibly Ukraine ) – but that is an argument for taking great care in devising appropriate political / military action – thinking through the likely and possible consequences in worst case as well as best case scenarios : it is not an argument for averting ones eyes and doing nothing, whatever the situation. We must be modest about what can be achieved – but attempting to achieve something on some occasions is surely better than adopting a firm purpose of never attempting to achieve anything, ever.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      It is ridiculous to think that the Second World War was fought for moral reasons. It was a naked struggle for power and the Holocaust was a consequence not a cause. In the West this aspect is more difficult to see, but the true nature of the war is very clear on the Eastern Front. This does not imply the moral equality of one side with the other.

  • Julian Ellison

    Rhys — Aidan was an accredited journalist for Reuters at that time and was covering events in Rwanda as part of his job. He had no farm then, which came much later. He has seen more bloodshed, more systemic institutional failure, more corruption, more idiocy and more cruelty than anyone in today’s Western Europe can imagine. We should listen to him.

    • rhys

      I did not notice any reference in his article to the fact he was there as a journalist, but in any event being a journalist does not give one a day off from normal human morality – WHY did he take tea with the priest without even asking about the murder victim at the priest’s door?
      What on earth did the conversation over tea consist of if it did not allude at any point to the body ?

      And his conclusion remains a wicked counsel of despair : there were some things which , even with the knowledge of the time, western powers could have done –
      General Dallaire ( who was also in situ in Rwanda at the time ) requested more troops – they could have been sent; even something as simple as bombing the Milles Collines radio station ( which was urging ever greater efforts at ‘the work’ of genocide ) would have saved some lives.

      Saving some would have been better than saving none. And may well be in future analogous situations. That’s all I’m saying.

      • davidshort10

        No, you are wrong. Who would have given permission to bomb the radio station? That person would have been culpable. In law. The UN does not act quickly because it is ruled by law not by emotion.

      • Amina65

        The job of a journalist is to observe and report. Whole tomes are dedicated to analyzing whether or not photographers and correspondents should intervene in the events they cover. Journalists do not take sides, they’re human yes, but, to do their job effectively and legitimately, they watch; they’re on the outside looking in. Once they cross that line, they are no longer journalists.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    The tragic failure of governments /governance as we know it happens when citizens get set against citizens because of the terrible twins – gossip and hearsay, I think. Gossip and hearsay reign supreme in places that lack proper supervision/ communication facilities. Without proper over-sight borne of a true community spirit – confusion and chaos, driven by utter fear is bound to happen ” because it can”.

    But our old-fashioned systems of government too often can’t enable anyone ( with or without a contract) to do anything quickly enough, in such emergencies. All too often justice can only take effect after some terrible national tragedy and all too often lone leaders end up scapegoated – as if the punishment of one person can put things right.

    But we are not living in Biblical times now. Surely modern communications systems should become like decent public utility services, in this day and age. This would be to avoid the perils of gossip and hearsay/ mass hysteria/mob rule.

  • David Lindsay

    If anything, there were really two genocides in Rwanda.

    But “genocide” is a slipperier concept than you might think. In 1993, the former Bolivian President, García Meza Tejada, was convicted of “genocide” for the deaths of fully eight people. Those may or may not have been the only people whom he killed. But they were the only victims of his “genocide”.

    And so to Rwanda.

    Or, rather, to a kangaroo court in Tanzania, set up by a UN Security Council resolution with no authority to do so, and specifically empowered – again, on no proper authority whatever – to try only members of the former, devoutly Catholic regime, and not of that which overthrew it, namely a direct extension, by means of a Ugandan invasion of Rwanda in 1990, of the only-too-successful Maoist insurrection in Uganda.

    Thank God that no one is now to be sent from this country, historic refuge of the
    oppressed, to appear before that kangaroo court.

    Théoneste Bagosora was finally convicted (well, of course he was – this sort of thing never, ever acquits anyone) eighteen months after the prosecution’s final submission, and fully twelve years after his arrest, even though his trial had started almost immediately.

    That was entirely typical, as is the use of European and American activists as “expert witnesses” even though they witnessed absolutely nothing and were in fact thousands of miles away at the time alleged.

    As is the heavy reliance on anonymous prosecution witnesses (even though it is in fact six defence witnesses before this “Tribunal” who have been murdered soon after giving evidence), universally known to be paid liars.

    As is the routine holding of session in camera. As is the admission of hearsay evidence.

    As are the rulings that no corroboration is necessary to convict a man of rape even he has pleaded not guilty, and that it matters not one jot if a prosecution witness’s written statement differs markedly from his testimony in court.

    As is the astonishing principle that a prosecution witness’s inconsistencies are proof of trauma, and therefore of the guilt of the accused.

    And as are the farcical translation problems.

    The remit of this “Tribunal” is frankly racist, providing only for the trial of Hutus, the overwhelmingly predominant ethnic group, for crimes against Tutsis, the historically royal and aristocratic minority.

    Crimes by Hutus against Tutsis undoubtedly happened. But so did crimes by Tutsis against Hutus.

    Neither Maoist guerrillas nor embittered, dispossessed aristocrats are characteristically restrained in these matters.

    No one knows how many people were killed, often with machetes. The usual figure
    cited is eight hundred thousand. Perhaps that is correct. Perhaps it is not.

    But what is undoubtedly the case is that not all the perpetrators were Hutus, although many were.

    What is undoubtedly the case is that not all the victims were Tutsis, although many were.

    What is undoubtedly the case is that no Tutsi has ever been tried, because none can be: that whole people has been declared innocent in advance, and another whole people declared guilty in advance.

    What is undoubtedly the case is that an invasion of a sovereign state by a larger neighbour at exactly the same time as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has been backed up to the hilt by the West in general and the United States, so that the Americans are now where first the Germans and then the Belgians once were: running Rwanda through a tiny clique drawn exclusively from the Tutsi minority.

    A clique, moreover, with a penchant for invading the Democratic Republic of the Congo and for sponsoring guerilla insurrections there, even if those insurrections do have some basis in the undeniable mistreatment of the Congolese Tutsi minority.

    And what is undoubtedly the case is that that clique is Maoist, whereas the majority-derived government that it overthrew was headed by a daily communicant, Jean Kambanda, whom it subsequently tortured into confession while illegally detaining him, and whom it denied the lawyer of his choice.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    You failed to mention the role place by Catholic priests and nuns who encouraged the massacre of Tutsis on their radio stations and in newspapers. And the way the Vatican has swept this crime against humanity under the carpet. We`re talking of over one million killed.

    • jesseventura2

      What about catholic war criminal Tony the phony Blair?

    • djm

      Actually, he mentioned both of those things.

  • Hugh Jass

    Some claim that particular forms of collectivism, such as “democratic socialism” will eliminate the problem of who decides for whom.

  • Newsfox

    The things you can do is restrict the arms trade and offer sanctuary. Beyond that it is very difficult. Odd though, that this writer fails to discuss the Belgian role in creating the very myths which actually led to these ‘tribal’ hatreds. Yet again the Spectator plays its favourite trick of pretending there’s this great PC conspiracy to hide the truth when truth is the Belgians certainly played their part in the chaos of the region. Though I don’t doubt crimes of opportunity were of course committed within that.

    • darwins beard

      Most of the killing was done by machetes and clubs, not really an “arms trade” as you call it, we did offer sanctuary, and mainly to the wrong people, ie the ones who used said machetes and clubs. As for the Belgian classification of peoples in the 1800s did of course play a part, but the “hutus” and “tutsi” hate was about class and privilege and as far as I am aware no reports of Belgians running around hacking anyone up in 94, like many you make the assumption that Africans know no better then to behave like this when responsibility should rest only on those who carried out the massacres.

  • jesseventura2

    And fifty years from now they will be starving and breeding like dogs,

  • Graeme S

    This hundred day period ranks as one of the many low points in the annals of human history ….. due to its complete lack of sophistication is far more sinister than the final solution ! it was clubs, it was machetes and it was bloody. I cannot imagine what the scenes would of looked like.

  • Cyril Sneer

    Africa doing what it has always done well – sheer brutality and not a care for human life man, woman or child.

  • Picquet

    Arusha’s circle of Toyota Landcruiser passengers were for years and years the Most Important people there. The pomposity, arrogance and hypocrisy surrounded them like thick fog.

  • Your Correspondent

    The really brutal colonial oppressors were of course the Germans. Rwanda is relatively calm today but Kigame is like Tito, keeping a lid on ethnic hatreds by force. And like Tito when he goes bloodshed will return with a vengeance. That may not happen for some time, in the meantime trouble will probably begin, as before, in neighbouring Burundi where the Hutu/Tutsi conflict is coming to the boil once again.

  • Defend Liberty Philly Dude

    Clearly, there’s no major difference between liberals, democrats, socialists, marxists, and communists.