Tag Archives: UNAMIR

Rwanda 25 years ago

Lest we forget: 25 years ago a genocidal massacre in Rwanda started. Nearly a million killed in 100 days. Here is what it was like, a couple months after it ended, at one killing site. A church and school in Zaza in south-east Rwanda.

arriving zaza 25-sep-1994 photo d stewartI know that we’re going to see a well…

We get to the wells, They’re side by side. You can stand right on the lip of the well, if you’re brave enough.

‘Please remember, don’t cross over the slab. And don’t fall in! Please!’

We have some soldiers with us. Airborne guys from one Grizzly that was travelling with us. So when I’m coming up to the well, there’s already ten or fifteen people already milling around. Some are retching. I realize that this is the well. This is the well lip. These are the bodies.

They’re not right on the surface, they’re maybe ten feet below and there’s water in there and there’s probably five bodies that we can see. I don’t know what’s underneath, I don’t want to know.

bodies-in-well-25-sep-1994 photo d stewartI see a woman sprawled out, face up. She has – I don’t notice it at first – but she’s got a silver bracelet on. It’s hard to see. It was kind in the shadows. Her hand was at the side of the well. I couldn’t really make it out but it was a close-fitting silver bracelet.

‘Why do you remark on the bracelet?’

Because it wasn’t a naked dehumanized corpse. She had something that obviously she found pretty or that had meaning for her. Something that she used to dress herself up with. She was a human who had, you know, probably had liked pretty dresses, and pretty cloth and jewellery. And it was still on her. Nothing else was. It showed that she’d been alive.

The well was at a school in Zaza…

We’re stepping over four or five inches of broken glass, of wood, of nails. The bodies had all been destroyed one way or another. The place had been burned, I guess to try to get rid of the evidence.

burned-school-25-sep-1994 photo d stewart‘The room over there was somewhat of a torture chamber.’

‘It must have been rooms for students. Look at this book. This is children’s writing. In Kinyarwanda, English, French. They were learning to cook. This one – how the flowers grow, with drawings of flowers. These are children’s books that they used to study with.’

‘How many were killed?’

‘Some estimate over a thousand people. In here there must have been lots of murders because you can still smell the smell but you can’t see any bodies.’

We go into these rooms…

They’re dark and there’s black stuff stuck to the floors and the walls. If you had a wall with chewing gum stuck on it and then burned, that’s what it would look like.

‘All of this on the walls, from the experts that have been with us, this stuff here is human tissue, bone matter, skin. And then it was burned.’

‘There’s bullet holes right up the wall.’

‘I wonder what this tool is. Well, it’s a farming tool but I bet you they used it to hack people with. So these people here obviously suffered. Jesus, it was not an easy death. That, there, must be bone matter too.’

‘There’s a pile over there – there’s a chapel with a pile of bones, human bones, children’s bones. And it was burned. So they made kind of a camp fire to stay warm at night.’

bones-campfire-zaza-church-25-sep-1994 photo d stewartAs you walk in, on the wall that’s on your left, there’s a big dark brown stain, low on the wall. And then coming up from it, going up in an arc, a splattered arc, curving to the left above this blob, there’s dark splatters of blood. And also curving to the right there’s another arc of splatters.

‘Look at this arc, how high it is. And it’s in kind of a v-shape, eh? So the person who was standing here. It’s like somebody was with a paintbrush, whipping it.’

Somebody was macheted here…

Where their body was is the large stain. You can see where they would have been chopped in one side of the neck and that would have produced that arc. And they would have been chopped on the other side and that would have produced that arc.

I can imagine this, I can look at what’s the indicators of this death. A kid or an adult crouched there. With their head down, trying to protect themselves. And I can see a hand with a machete. Hacking, hacking, hacking. But I can’t attach that arm to anything.

‘Can you put a face on the person that did this?’

No, I can’t. No, I can’t put a face on the people that did that. I don’t think that I could put a face of a monster on. It would be the face of anybody, I think.

zaza outside school 25-sep-1994 photo d stewartI took no pictures of the room described here. It was too dark, too hideous. There was nothing left except trace evidence. That was almost worse.

Tap or click the pictures to enlarge them. The “voices” in the text are mine, the documentary producer, and Canadian Forces officers in the room in Zaza. It is from Rwanda Maps, for CBC Radio Newfoundland. I took the photographs for myself, to remember.

Also see my post Rwanda. You can listen to Lt.-Gen. (Retd) Roméo Dallaire on today’s CBC Sunday Edition.

Rwanda

Skull among palms in fieldSeventeen years ago, one hundred days of genocide ended in Rwanda.  It was part of a long-standing conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, two groups who uneasily co-exist in the small Central African countries of Rwanda and Burundi.  This time, from early April to July, it was the Hutu doing their damnedest to wipe out their Tutsi neighbours, family and friends.

Canadian Armed Forces General Roméo Dallaire headed a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda and Burundi at the time.  He saw early on that there were genocidal objectives to what had seemed like intertribal fighting with colonial history overtones. More peacekeepers were deployed, too late to stop the massacre and without a clear mandate on use of force in a still-volatile situation.  An estimated 800,000 people, one-tenth of Rwanda’s population, were killed in that hundred days.  The majority of the dead were Tutsis, the numerical minority in the country.

Invitation to journalists

Skeleton on beach at Gisenyi, Lake Kivu, RwandaAfter the bloodshed stopped, the Canadian Armed Forces invited journalists to come to Rwanda to see what they were doing.  I was lucky enough to go in September.  A word of advice to writers, travelers, students of the world:  if you ever have an opportunity to go to a war zone or any area of violence and conflict, take it!

I went with no knowledge of Rwanda, of military or UN action.  My predisposition was anti-armed forces, and against sticking our noses in other people’s business because we usually make it worse.

Bodies outside and inside Ntarama churchMy 10 days in Rwanda were earth-shattering for me.  I had been in conflict zones before, in Central America in the 1980s, but I’d seen nothing like Rwanda after the killing stopped.  I cannot imagine what it was like while it was still going on.

The closest I came was listening to a CBC radio news item that summer.  In almost silence, the reporter walked through the refugee camp at Goma, Zaire (now DRC).  She whispered into her microphone what she was seeing.  I sat down to listen, chilled in the day’s heat, following her steps over and around corpses and living people moaning for help or food.

Smell of death in Rwanda

In Rwanda, I saw skeletons and smelled the odor of death that lingered in massacre sites now cleaned of bodies. I saw gutted villages, houses burned and people gone.  Survivors starting to clean up and rebuild.  Can’t describe it – I did soon after getting back in a Patients, doctor and soldier in hospital, KibunguCBC Radio documentary Rwanda Maps.  I still smelled it then.

I saw military men and women from around the world – operating field hospitals, rebuilding telephone lines and radio transmitters, guarding and patrolling against insurgents.  On days off, they’d visit orphanages and play with the kids.  They ran radio stations for their own entertainment and that of the surrounding area.

They sometimes talked about what they saw and their own fears.  Soldiers in a military and political no man’s land.  They were not engaged in war, but they were not doing a straightforward peacekeeping mission where the lines, literally and figuratively, are clearly drawn.  They could use their weapons for their own protection or that of others if there was a real threat.  But many of the threats were invisible.  Land was still mined.  Signal Corps linesmen had to work in bush to rebuild communications lines.  The same bush that our Canadian Forces minders told us to avoid for fear of explosive devices.  “Keep on the beaten path, where you can see!”  they told us.  Wasn’t possible for the Signal Corps, however.

Peacekeeper Post-Traumatic Stress

Canadian Forces Grizzlies, stopped for bones in pathWhen my documentary aired, a friend said, “they bought you easily – a free trip to Rwanda and you’re a big Armed Forces fan!”  Yeah, I suppose that’s all it took.  That, and seeing the faces of soldiers.  Seeing them at work, then at play with the little kids.  Hearing them talk about what they’d expected and what they were seeing.  Watching them at a massacre site, telling us to use Vicks Vaporub and our gauze mask to block the stench of death.  Watching them look at skulls split open by a machete.  Them looking at the scattered bones of a child, gauging the age based on the size of their own children.

I later heard a soldier I’d met being interviewed about the need for treatment of post-Village children, base of Virungu Mountainstraumatic stress upon their return.  I could see why.  A night or so after my return, I was in a mall parking lot.  An employee put some wood in a dumpster.  Then he broke it to fit it in.  Crack!  I dropped to the ground like I’d been shot. I was only in Rwanda a few days, after the killing had been somewhat cleaned up.  While there, I never heard a gunshot.