Memories from Rwanda

April 13, 2004|By Chris Hennemeyer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Within a week of April 6, 1994, the first Rwandan Tutsis straggled across the border to seek safety in Burundi, one of the world's most dangerous countries.

It was a gray, drizzly day, and the mud in the field where the refugees had made camp was ankle-deep. Camp was really just a mass of people, many milling aimlessly, others vainly trying to start fires in the wetness. There were a couple of thousand of them and, except for the wailing of hungry babies, the men, women and small children were oddly quiet, perhaps exhausted, perhaps stunned into silence by what they had witnessed and suffered. Many had deep machete wounds on their arms, heads and legs.

I drove a short distance to the border, not much more than a bend in the road, a few sullen soldiers and an old narrow iron bridge across the Kanyaru River.

The Burundian border guards were, of course, Tutsis. When pressed, they acknowledged they could hear screams on the other side and see homes being burned.

I put my arms on the railing of the bridge and peered into the cold shallow waters of the little river. It took a few minutes before I noticed that some of the rocks below were in fact bodies that had been washed downstream. One was stuck on a small sandbar, his feet bare, wearing shabby brown pants and a torn T-shirt, the garb of a peasant farmer. I pictured him a few days earlier hoeing cassava or harvesting bananas on his acre of land. A poor man, just as poor as his Hutu neighbors, but with a crucial difference -- his ID card had the word "Tutsi" typed on it. Now he lay face down in the water, gently bobbing in the current, his arms tied tightly behind his back.

About April 28, three weeks after the start of the genocide, I drove into Rwanda with a convoy of relief supplies. By then, about 300,000 people were already dead. But another half a million still were to be hunted, ferreted out and killed.

In May, I was on another humanitarian mission, this time driving down a lonely country road toward Kabgayi. It was 10 at night, long after the government-decreed curfew, and we saw no other cars or pedestrians until we rounded a bend and nearly collided with 50 or so men and women, and even a few older children, jogging down the middle of the road. They were rural people, barefooted, some of the women in colorful dress, the men stocky and strong-looking.

They carried machetes and clubs as they ran. Some were blowing whistles, filling the silent black night with a piercing note. They chanted and laughed as they ran down the tarmac, like lunatic marathoners. They were hunting.

We drove slowly through the crowd and they paid us absolutely no attention, so caught up in their mission they were. A mile on, our headlights picked up two objects in the road. Stopping and getting out, I found a tall thin man and a small boy, perhaps four years old, lying together, almost embracing. They were dead, had obviously been killed in the previous few minutes, for a pool of dark blood still was spreading out from their bodies, mingling together, darkening the road top.

Late in May, a week or two before Tutsi rebels chased the genocide government from power and took control of the capital, Kigali, I was parked in front of the home of a Rwandan colleague. We were trying to evacuate his Tutsi wife and two young children from the house where they had silently sheltered from the mad storm outside. She was slim, amazingly composed, considering the circumstances. As her husband pleaded with her to join us in the car and drive to Burundi, she resisted. She had been safe in her home for seven weeks, thanks to the complicity and generosity of neighbors. She had no desire to take unnecessary risks at this point when it was clear to all that soon the Tutsi rebels would be in charge.

I felt relief tempered with shame, grateful that she would not be joining us. I was certain, and remain so today, that she would not have made it a mile from her home before being taken by the Rwandan militia, the Interahamwe.

Three blocks from the quiet middle-class living room where we sat was a checkpoint controlled by a muscle-bound fanatic nicknamed Rambo, bandoleers of ammunition draped across his chest, surrounded by a gang of smaller though equally deranged creatures. What would have been my reaction had he stopped our car and demanded we give her to him.

She decided to stay, and we hugged her and left, waving and smiling tight, fragile smiles. A week later they came for her and her children. Their bodies never were found.

The strongest sense I took away from Rwanda was that many people once lived there -- working in the lush fields, walking to school along red laterite roads, laughing, raising families and getting letters in the mail. And now they are gone, as if they never existed.

Chris Hennemeyer, director of humanitarian assistance at International Relief and Development Inc., was Rwanda's representative for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services at the time of the genocide.

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