Aidan Hartley

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'

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