“After the Genocide,” December 18, 1995.
I arrived in Rwanda for the first time in early May of 1995, a year after the genocide. The country was gutted. Between those who were dead and those who had fled, Rwandans spoke of their country as empty. Its infrastructure was trashed. The Hutu Power political, military, and militia forces that had carried out the genocide had reëstablished themselves as a rump state along Rwanda’s borders in camps catered by the United Nations and international aid agencies. In Kigali, the capital, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, the rebel army that had been waging a civil war in Rwanda since 1990, and that had brought the genocide to a halt, had established a rough control. But it was immediately clear that the violence that was unleashed in 1994 was far from spent. The United Nations peacekeeping force that had done nothing to stop the genocide had been given a beefed-up mandate after the slaughter—to help stabilize the country—but the only thing the R.P.F. wanted the U.N. to do was leave. The prisons and jails were packed to bursting with accused génocidaires. There were revenge killings. And two weeks before I arrived, on a hill called Kibeho, the Army had killed several thousand men, women, and children during an operation to close down a camp for internally displaced people—a move that clearly foreshadowed what could happen on a much larger scale, and what did happen, in 1996, when Rwanda went into neighboring Congo (then called Zaire) to disband the U.N. camps there.
I stayed in Rwanda for three months in the summer of 1995 before coming home to write. Nobody expected Rwanda to survive in the shape it was in then. The expectation of another—and a worse, or at least a broader—bloodletting was pretty much universal among international observers, and most Rwandans, too, had a grim view of the future. I had gone to Rwanda because I couldn’t understand what had happened, and because I wondered how life would continue in the aftermath. And when I went, I was chiefly preoccupied with questions about us—about America, the West, the so-called international community that had promised up and down for fifty years never again to tolerate genocide, but had abandoned Rwanda the moment the genocide began. I wondered what Rwanda’s story told us about our notions of a universal common humanity.
But, after a very short time in Rwanda, my focus shifted, as it often does when reporting, and I became overwhelmingly interested in Rwandans. As I travelled around, collecting their deeply thought-provoking, challenging, and moving stories, I often scribbled more words in my notebook in the course of a day than there are in this, the (not short) first reported piece I ever wrote for the magazine.
“Neighborhood Bully,” September 9, 1996.
In the early months of 1996, when I returned to Rwanda, I kept hearing about a steadily increasing spate of attacks by the regrouped genocidal Hutu Power forces, who were based in the U.N. border camps in Congo (Zaire)—attacks by guerilla infiltrators into Rwanda, and also attacks on Congolese villagers living in the hills of eastern Congo beyond the camps. By spring, I was getting word of a seemingly systematic campaign by Hutu Power to drive local Tutsi populations out of eastern Congo, and to stake out control of a vast, agriculturally fecund zone of North Kivu province. The attacks against Tutsis by Rwandan génocidaires intersected with and reignited local conflicts over land and citizenship rights that had pitted ancestrally Rwandan Congolese peoples against other Congolese groups since the mid-sixties. But the violence now had all the markings of the killings in Rwanda in 1994, and when I got reports of a church massacre in the hills of Masisi, in the volcanic massif beyond the city of Goma, I went to have a look. The Makoto monastery massacre that is at the core of this piece had gone unnoticed in the international press. The “Neighborhood Bully” of the title was President Mobutu Sese Seko, and the systematic collusion of the Congolese state in the mass expulsion of surviving Tutsis from eastern Congo had also largely been ignored. These were defining events in the run-up to the war in Congo that was beginning just as this piece appeared, in the early fall of 1996. That war gave way to a series of devastating wars that continue to this day—and the question of citizenship for Tutsis remains as bitterly contested as ever.
Toward the end of this story, I tell of a young man whose head had been cut halfway off, then sewn back on by his rescuers. Two years ago, in the fall of 2012, I was visiting a refugee camp in Rwanda where many of the Tutsis who were ethnically cleansed from Congo in 1996 still live, and I heard that a number of the Makoto survivors were there. I asked after the boy with the cut neck, and a few minutes later we were introduced. He had been living in the camp ever since, and was raising his own children there. It was not a good life, he said, but it was life.
“Forsaken,” September 25, 2000.
When the Rwandan Army went into eastern Congo in 1996, it spearheaded a Congolese rebellion that soon drew support from a far-flung pan-African alliance—from Uganda and Zimbabwe, Burundi and Angola, Namibia and Ethiopia—keen to drive out the West’s Cold War client dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The leader of that rebellion, an old Maoist guerrilla who had fought alongside Che Guevara in Congo in the sixties, was Laurent-Desire Kabila, who was installed as Congo’s new President after Mobutu’s ouster, in May of 1997. His popularity with the Congolese and with his key foreign patrons, Rwanda and Uganda, was short-lived. During Kabila’s march to power, Mobutu’s strongest military defense came not from Congolese loyalists but from the renegade Rwandan Hutu Power forces that had regrouped in the U.N. border camps. Along the way, the Rwandan and Congolese forces fighting for Kabila had massacred tens of thousands of them and their civilian families and followers. But a year later, Kabila forged an alliance with his former Hutu Power enemies against the Rwandans who had carried him to power—and suddenly there were anti-Tutsi pogroms in the streets of the capital, Kinshasa. Then Rwanda attacked again, and this time the Ugandan army came with them, but instead of removing and replacing Kabila, as they had done with Mobutu, the invasion split Congo in two in a grinding stalemate.
Along with the violence of the occupation, the Ugandan and Rwandan forces, and their Congolese proxies in the east, were accused of pillaging natural resources. As friction between these old allies mounted, they turned against one another. Between several bouts of fighting between Ugandan and Rwandan troops in the cut-off Congolese city of Kisangani in the spring of 2000, I travelled to Kinshasa, then to Kigali, where some military officers put me on a plane (from the fleet of the notorious Victor Bout) to fly to the front. As it happened, it was at that point in the second Congo war, as the fighting that began in 1998 and continued into 2003 was known, that General Paul Kagame, who had led the R.P.F. when it was a rebel force and commanded the Army ever since, became President in a shakeup in Kigali. Kagame’s Presidency, which continues to this day, had been long anticipated. But the atmosphere in Kigali was far from celebratory. It was as heavy and demoralized a time as any I’d seen in post-genocide Rwanda.
“The Life After,” May 4, 2009.
I didn’t visit Rwanda again until New Year’s Day, 2009—nearly a decade after my last trip, and a few months ahead of the commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide. The country had progressed immensely and was becoming known as much for its recovery as for its near annihilation. Rwanda had come back to life in a way that nobody could have imagined when I first visited.
But what does reconciliation mean after such extreme communal violence and so much absolute betrayal of neighbors by neighbors? I went back to visit a killer I had first met in 1996 as well as the survivors of his victims. He had been convicted and released by the community genocide court because he confessed, but he was hardly the picture of repentance, and the survivors were far from wholeheartedly forgiving. Like everyone in Rwanda told me then, they said they lived in peace side by side because they had to.
Everywhere one turned in the newly resurgent Rwanda, the complexities of officially imposed unity seemed to test the limits of possibility. For instance, the former commander of the Hutu Power forces in Congo was now a general of the national Army. The genocide had come in the middle of a decade of civil war, but that war was now little spoken of: in the name of ending the violence, the outrages committed on either side of the fight before and after the genocide were officially regarded as bygones. And in eastern Congo, after another round of destructive proxy war, Rwanda had just secured a deal with Kabila—Joseph Kabila, that is, the son of the old rebel chief who had been assassinated in 2001. The deal lasted for three years, bringing a greater semblance of peace to the region than it had known for fifteen years, until it was undone in 2012. Rwanda was very far from “normal,” whatever that would be, and the post-genocide order felt at once heavy and fragile, but the mood in the country was less haunted than I had ever expected to find it.
Photograph by Dominic Nahr/Magnum.