Rwanda: Then and Now


Robert C. Smithwick, W6CS
(Edited for web page – Jul 26, 2001)

David Lamb of the Los Angeles Times describes it this way:

"The explosion heard in the skies over Kigali at 9:40 on the night of April 6 caused no great alarm. The capital had been tense for weeks and the sounds of grenades and rifle fire hardly made anyone flinch anymore.

By morning, the disembowlment of a luckless country had begun. Guided by government troops, gangs of young thugs with clubs, machetes and spears rampaged through Kigali, hunting down members of the Tutsi tribe that until the 1950s had ruled the rival Hutus for centuries as feudal overlords.

At first, they chose their targets selectively, matching addresses with names on lists they carried with them, exhilarated by their thoroughness, they began killing anyone they felt like killing.

While the government–sponsored radio station, RTLM, exhorted "Kill the Tutsis or they will kill you!" the organized gangs of marauders went block by block doing just that. On one street corner, a Tutsi child lay wounded and a solder shouted something to a woman nearby.

The woman, 36 year old Muliana Mukanyarwaya, raised a club that bristled with protruding nails and sank it into the boy's skull.

It was not until noon on the first day of killing that the now–panicked populace of Rwanda learned the nighttime thunderclap heard over Kigali was the explosion of President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane, struck by a rocket as it approached the airport. According to African diplomats, his death in the resulting crash put into effect a master plan that in genocidal scope and intensity would rival the horrors of Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Most African armies, such as Rwanda's, are trained not to safeguard borders from external threats but to protect a ruling hierarchy. They are, as happened here, tools of leaders unwilling to share power as the price for peace, because to share the spoils of authority, in a society once dominated by chiefs and kings, is to suffer ultimate indignity of no longer being "boss". So every conflict, such as that between the Hutus and Tutsis, becomes a "winner–take–all" confrontation. The result is that violence becomes an authorized function of the state, often "privatized" in the hands of party militias.

Rob Watson, a British doctor, was performing surgery in the OR of the one–story stucco hospital in Gahini on the evening the mob came up the road with its machetes. His Rwandan staff of nurses stood bravely at the door and tried to face down the wild–eyed assailants with words of reason. They were pushed aside.

The young killers went from bed to bed, looking for anyone with Tutsi features. "In the name of God...," a nurse said. One of the youths ignored her and plunged his machete into the stomach of a female patient.

One group tried to barge into the operating room, but Watson put his shoulder against the door and managed to lock it.

Later, the surgery successfully completed, he entered the courtyard, where the killers were still milling about, and had a chilling realization: He knew these men. They were the jobless youths he passed almost every day, the idle ones in Gahini who always looked so bored and so in need of something to do.

It has now been five months since the world became aware of the sickening horrors wreaked by the Hutu army and its machete–wielding militia. Of the 8 million people who lived in Rwanda before civil war broke out in April, 500,000 are dead, 2.4 million are refugees in neighboring countries and 2.5 million are displaced inside Rwanda, AID Director Brian Atwood recently said in a White House briefing.

According to another report, estimates of Tutsis who died has risen steadily from 100,000 to 250,000 to half a million and now to a million. As the rivers of Rwanda – and then neighboring countries – clogged with bloated bodies, the crisis took another twist. Members of the militias were discovered in refugee camps, and aid agencies found themselves feeding those who were the slaughterers.

In Rwanda, the machete has been the weapon of choice. The West, so used to high–tech weaponry and sophisticated war, has so far shown itself terrified of the long, curved blade.

Horrible as it is, the Rwandan refugee crisis is just one of many. Worldwide, the UN counts 23 million refugees – those who have fled across national borders to escape war, famine or political oppression – and 24 million or so "internally displaced" people, still within their borders homeless and hungry. Africa has nearly half the world's refugees, followed by Europe with 6 million and Asia with 5.8 million.

Other examples:

Most refugees fleeing the horror of Rwanda, fled north into neighboring Zaire. In Goma, just across the border, the cemetery is so packed with the living, the dead have no place to rest.

One of the most universal human cravings is to have a safe place to call "home." You can see it in the refugees' faces. You can hear it in the passion of the stories that people have to tell, according to correspondent, Mary Schnack.

Accordingly, the efforts of the UN and the international community now is to try to persuade the refugees to return to their own country inasmuch as the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) has promised no reprisals. But Hutu refugees are still afraid to go home because renegade radio stations are telling them they will be in danger. The US is sending frequency–tracking and jamming equipment to French troops to help them suppress the clandestine broadcasts.

The enormity of the disaster has brought to surface horrendous moral dilemmas that are overwhelming relief workers. Unquestionably, many refugees died, for example, when relief officials consciously decided not to distribute food or water to tens of thousands of sick and hungry refugees in the city of Goma and the nearby Munigi camp, the center of the cholera epidemic. The goal was to force the refugees to move miles down the road to other sites. Similarly, relief workers recognize that the international aid effort sustains others besides the innocent. After all, among the refugees are many of the governments soldiers and members of paramilitary militias who carried out what human rights groups have called a genocidal campaign of massacre against ethnic Tutsis that left as many as 500,000 dead.

As to Mugonero Hospital itself, I have been found very little confirmed information. The first of August, I got a report that stated that all of the non–native staff of the hospitals, consisting of the medical staff (believed to be three doctors and their families), some nurses and support staff, had fled to neighboring Zaire, Burundi or Uganda to wait it out. The report also said that some two hundred other community people are thought to have been massacred. The hospital itself has been looted and vandalized. The Seventh–day Adventist Church, under whose auspices the hospital remains, is the largest Protestant denomination in Rwanda and has a strong presence the country, especially in the area of Mugonero. ADRA, the Relief arm of the Adventist Church, has continued and intensified relief efforts in the country without interruption during the height of the crisis, however. Five of the agency's seven medical clinics in Rwanda were closed but are again operational (as of July 7), but all clinics are running low on medicines and supplies. ADRA is arranging shipments of additional medicines and supplies with the United Nations and other relief agencies.

One ADRA worker, John Wilkins of Spokane, Washington, was the only American to remain in Kigali since the beginning of the civil war, according to the State Department. John spoke recently of the "utter hatred and chaos in a country where there is no law and no order." Rwandans, he said, believe that "Rwanda is the place where God comes to sleep at night." But, he acknowledged, "We haven't seen evidence of it lately."