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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Into the Valley of Death

South of Kigali and west of Kibungo is a flatter, marshy region with rivers and lakes known as the Bugesera. Until recent times the area was isolated. Now there is a fast, bitumen road to the Burundi border which takes an hour by car and the population of its main town of Nyamata is increasing rapidly. It still has the most extensive area of native acacia bushland in the country outside Akagera National Park. In days gone by there were lions and elephants in the region with the remaining 26 pachyderms finally being moved to Akagera in 1975.
Ntarama Memorial
Before the genocide in 1994 Bugesera was a very ethnically mixed area. At the time of the death of the last great Tutsi king in 1959 the area had been very underpopulated due to its scrubby terrain, poor soil, irregular rainfall, wild animals and tsetse flies but the killings and turmoil that followed the king's death led to large number of Tutsi from areas like Gitarama, west of Kigali, fleeing to seek better lives elsewhere. Displaced Hutus from northern areas also came. By April 1994 there were around 60,000 Tutsi, the majority cattle farmers, living and working together with their Hutu neighbours most of whom cultivated the viable fields.
Clothes of victims
Then "between eleven in the morning on Monday April 11 and two in the afternoon on Saturday May 14 (after which the Rwandan Patriotic Front army arrived to send the killers scurrying across the border into Congo), about 50,000 Tutsis were massacred by machete, murdered every day of the week, from 9.30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, by Hutu neighbours and militiamen, on the hills of the commune of Nyamata." This is the powerful beginning of Into the Quick of Life (2000) the first in a series of three books written by the French author Jean Hatzfeld and based on testimonies of survivors of the Bugesera slaughter. If there is one set of books that should be read on the Rwandan genocide then this is it. The second book A Time for Machetes hears the testimonies of the killers themselves from inside the Bugesera penitentiary where they were being held at the time of the book's publication in 2003.
The banality of evil
The third book is titled The Strategy of Antelopes (2007) and covers the period in the mid 2000s when the killers were pardoned and allowed to return to their homes. The attitudes of the returning killers and the feelings of the survivors about their return make for a gripping narrative. Imagine giving WWII gas chamber operatives their freedom and allowing them to settle next door to holocaust survivors whose relatives they had murdered! Yet, prison space limitations for the sheer number of killers detained, untended fields creating food shortages and a burning desire to move on and reconcile the nation has led to vast numbers of journeyman killers being pardoned provided they have admitted to their crimes and displayed some, often mild, form of contrition for their actions. (This does not apply to the big wig genocidaire leaders who are tried at the international court in Arusha, Tanzania.) The long-suffering and still traumatised survivors have to accept this decision for the greater good often obliged to be polite and shake the hands that may have borne down on their loved ones.
Some of the Ntarama victims
It was in this context that we visited the two main memorials in the Bugesera district - Nyamata and Ntarama, the latter slightly more to the north. Both were churches where large numbers of Tutsis had sought refuge after the killing started in Kigali on 7 April. To no avail. Two days later blue-helmeted UN soldiers turned up and whisked away the five white priests and nuns who constituted the abazungu community in the district. Local Hutus rejoiced as the killing could now begin in Bugesera away from the prying eyes of westerners. On 11 April, Nyamata church was stormed by the Interahamwe militia and army, killing all 10,000 people who had gathered in the grounds. The two underground crypts there contain over 40,000 bodies of those who died in the church massacre and elsewhere with the victims' personal belongings and clothes piled on every pew. At Ntarama around 5,000 died and many of their clothes have been left hanging from the church rafters. The guide was at pains to show us the blood stained wall where babies were smashed to death.

Many died in the Bugesera marshes where they were hunted down among the papyrus reeds. Their bodies were often never recovered, either rotting in the swamps or floating all the way along the Akagera River as far as Lake Victoria. However, most of the survivors also came from the marsh areas as it was much easier to stay out of sight than elsewhere. Of the 6,000 who fled to the eucalypt forests only 20 survived.
Some of the victims' property


It is said that the killing rate of around 10,000 a day, average, for the less than three month duration of the Rwandan genocide is the highest ever for any war or genocide and, unlike most 20th century atrocities which were mechanised, this one was done almost entirely by hand.


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