Virginie Finds Peace (Print Section)
Rwanda’s Genocide: After It All
by Marie Shabaya
In April 1994, Rwanda, a small landlocked nation in eastern Africa, was reeling from a civil war that seemed finally over. Then, a mysterious plane crash set off political chaos and an explosion of violence that targeted ethnic Tutsis and some moderates from the country’s majority Hutu tribe. The Hutu-led genocide of Tutsis was completely carried out by militias armed, in many cases, with no more than machetes. When it ended three months later, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were dead.
In the two decades since, Rwanda has been transformed under the leadership of former rebel leader Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, who is praised for bringing stability to Rwanda but condemned as an authoritarian with a poor record on respecting human rights.
Those who lived through it – Rwandans as well as foreigners – say that stories of surviving the genocide do not end with simply being alive. For Virginie Ingabire, a Tutsi survivor; Carl Wilkens, an American aid worker who lived in Rwanda throughout the genocide; and Michael Skoler, an American radio journalist who covered the tragedy as it unfolded, the last 20 years have been, in many ways, a pursuit of closure. All three agreed to revisit the genocide in extensive interviews and to reflect on the impact it still has on them, 20 years later.
Virginie Ingabire was still wearing her mother’s shoes when her turn came. They dangled from her ten-year-old feet as the two strangers carried her towards the thick bush behind the house. Everyone who had been taken before her had not returned and Ingabire knew the men with machetes had come for something. She remembers thinking that she had done nothing wrong, and that the men must have wanted money, so she cried “I know where Mommy stashes her money, I can just go and get for you,” But the killers ignored the offer. They forced her on the ground and informed her that she was going to be killed. The last thing she saw before they spared her was a spiked plank of wood being lifted above her.
Two decades after that harrowing episode, the little Tutsi girl has come a long way. Ingabire is almost thirty and she cuts an effortlessly elegant figure. She’s an administrative assistant at the Rwandan Mission to the United Nations. The eldest of her two children, a daughter, is turning seven in May.
But for many years, after those frightening moments with the men in the bush, she couldn’t talk about it. “I managed to bury my feelings when I was a teenager,” said Ingabire, “but as I grow older, it gets more difficult.”
At one point, Ingabire planned to write a book about those days, but she could never bring herself to do it. Finally, a year ago, she found the courage and the forum to share her story. She spoke at a small gathering at UN headquarters in New York City, the only survivor on a panel commemorating the genocide. It wasn’t fully satisfying, though; Ingabire rushed through her story, and she felt the audience didn’t really get to a chance to understand how she lost her family – and how traumatic it still is, years later, to survive without them.
Still, for her, it was a cathartic experience, and so she agreed to tell her story again, for only the second time, on the eve of the 20th anniversary. “I don’t think I am ever going to move on,” she said, “but now I feel like I should face it.”
Virginie Ingabire grew up in the capital, Kigali, with her parents and five siblings. As the bitter civil war was ending in 1994, peace negotiations droned on in Tanzania, but Ingabire’s mother began to believe that the city was no longer safe for the children. “It was a difficult year. We were cutting off school on and off because at the time there was agitation in the city,” said Ingabire. Then there were the frightening visits from gangs of men, the Hutu militia known as Interahamwe, or those who work together. In early 1994, they were surveying homes that they would later return to, with murderous intent.
It was after one such unsettling visit that Ingabire’s pregnant mother pulled the children from school and moved with them to rural Gitarama, 23 miles south of Kigali. They stayed with their aunt who had seven older boys of her own. Ingabire’s father, optimistic that things in Kigali would change, remained in the capital.
The village was a harsh change for Ingabire and her siblings. There was no electricity, and they passed their days playing with their cousins and helping with the chores. “I felt safe,” Ingabire remembered. “The whole family was there. Everybody was there with me and they are all bigger than me.”
On April 6th, just as the family was about to go to bed, the radio delivered news to her aunt’s kerosene-lamp lit living room: the president had died in a plane crash.
“Mom screamed and was like “We’re gonna die, we are all going to die!”, said Ingabire. Her mother, now nine months pregnant, knew that the crash was a sign of worse things to come. For a while, though, Gitarama was calm. People kept going to the market, and Ingabire’s eldest cousin, Kagame, still ran in his shop in the center of town. In late April, her mother gave birth to a son, Emmanuel, who became the family’s seventh member.
But the quiet was interrupted by a nighttime visit from unknown men. Ingabire’s mother offered them money to leave but they were unmoved. “I heard one of the guys say, ‘You think we are after your money? You inyenzi!” “ They called the family cockroaches, or inyenzi, made some threats, then left.
After that, the family hid in the bush at night; the time when Interahamwe were most likely to come. “In the morning at 6, we would come back home and take a shower. People would go to work and go to the market. But then at 6 o’clock everyone goes inside,” said Ingabire. “Today we would hide in the trees, tomorrow we would hide in an abandoned house,” It was the rainy season, so often they would spend nights in soaking clothes.
Then one day Ingabire’s cousin, Kagame, didn’t come home from work. In the afternoon, the family “heard that Kagame was killed and they are circulating his body in Gitarama city.” Suddenly, hiding out at night seemed pointless to her mother. So the family stayed at home that night – only to be invaded by another gang of strange men.
Seven of them surrounded Ingabire’s family as the youngest children slept. Ingabire, her seven older cousins, her two older sisters, her mother and her aunt stood in single file in the front yard. The men chose their first victims: her older cousins, Rutajengwa and Rujira. “We are starting with these two,” they said, and led the boys away.
“I guess they were professional killers,” said Ingabire. “We didn’t even hear a sound.” The women were taken next, and one by one the entire family was led to the forest behind the house. Ingabire was the last. When the men picked her up, “my feet weren’t even touching the ground.” She asked the men, “Where are you taking me?”
Then came the moment when the men refused her offers of money. They continued to the bush, finally forcing her on the ground and lifting the spiked plank above her.
In the end, the men could not bring themselves to kill a 10-year-old girl, said Ingabire, who was the youngest family member on the lawn that night. They pointed her toward a hill and told her to flee to Mushubati, a place she did not know. She ran, but not far, and when she stopped, she could hear the voices of her family ‘crying, dying, I guess it was.”
“It’s the worst sound you can ever imagine,” said Ingabire.
Ingabire ran back to her aunt’s house where the baby, now just a month old, was crying. She thought it was her mother. “I went in calling, “Maman, Maman, Are you there? Maman, Maman’. She didn’t answer.” That was the night when Ingabire became mother to her three younger siblings: baby Emmanuel, her 8-year-old brother and a sister who was about to turn three.
The next morning, the four children fled the house, taking nothing with them, and joined a procession of refugees walking to a church in the nearby of village, Kabgai. For more than four months, they wandered, in search of safety. On the way to Gisenyi, two Hutu women took Ingabire’s brother, promising to care for him. The baby was left with an elderly woman in Gitarama. Finally, in September, a full two months after the genocide had ended, Ingabire’s father found her and her sister in Goma, Zaire, where they had taken refuge. He took them home to Kigali – though their family home had been looted and burned to the ground, “There was nothing,” said Ingabire, not even a photograph of the mother and sisters she had lost in the genocide remained.
The months of the genocide were harrowing, and yet it is the aftermath—those days, when she returned to Kigali, that most haunt her today, said Ingabire. “My story and my experience during genocide, it was all about surviving, trying to get to the next point. What touched me a lot was life after, when we got back home [and] how it changed us.”
In 2012, Ingabire emigrated to the U.S. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. She and the other family members who survived have never spoken with each other about what happened during the genocide. Even her father, who lives in Kigali, didn’t know her story until she spoke at the UN last year.
The Lone American
Carl Wilkens stood with no shoes on, in the middle of his street, watching as red dust swelled and floated past. He was telling his family goodbye. Moments earlier, when he held his wife,Teresa, in his arms, he whispered, ‘Two weeks’. This thing, whatever it was, couldn’t last for more than two weeks. A three year war had just ended a few months before. He was sure that this was not a war—it was some ill-timed dramatic moment— and his family could safely return to Kigali in a matter of weeks.
But Wilkens was aware that a grim massacre was underway in Kigali. The loud blast that they heard on Wednesday night, April 6th, just after dinner when the kids were watching an old Cosby video, was the President’s plane disintegrating over the city. On Thursday, the Belgian peacekeepers were mutilated and castrated by a mob of government soldiers. Now the streets were overrun with young men with beer on their breath and the blood of their last victims on their clothes. When Wilkens stood waving at the Armadillo , the family’s camper van, on its way to Burundi as itfollowed a UN convoy, it was Sunday. Down the road, young men congregated around a hastily constructed checkpoint made of a few stones and pieces of wood, ready to strike down any Tutsi who passed by. They dispersed as the convoy of fleeing foreigners, most of them white, passed by.
Carl Wilkens had two reasons to stay in Kigali: Anitha and Janvier. Anitha lived and worked in the Wilkens family home and Janvier was the night watchman. Both had identification cards clearly labeling them as Tutsis.
“My wife and I were faced with the idea of abandoning these two people in our home to pretty much certain death,” Wilkens remembered. Together, they agreed that Teresa would take the children to safety in Burundi, and Wilkens would stay behind with Anitha and Janvier.
Wilkens and his wife had moved to Rwanda in the spring of 1990, a few months before the civil war began in October. Both of them had come to help build schools and lead the Adventist Development and Relief Agency or ADRA, an American NGO. They had come with their three young children Mindy, Lisa and Shaun. Wilkens’s parents, who were visiting from the US, were with them when the evacuations began. They left with Teresa and the children.
Wilkens’ family was part of a group of 250 American evacuees that were leaving Kigali. Most of them, like Teresa and Carl, were NGO workers who had come in to the country to help humanitarian efforts after the war. With their departure, Carl became the only American left in the city.
Soon after Wilkens’s family left, a 24-hour curfew was imposed across Kigali. Wilkens didn’t leave the house for three weeks. From his front yard, he could look out across the valley at the main part of the city. From the distance, it looked pretty much the same, though much quieter than usual, because there was hardly any traffic on the streets.
Wilkens could see young men moving in droves through the streets, looking for someone to kill. He could also see other groups of people walking through Kigali’s streets, despite the curfew, moving in long lines with bags on their heads that they had taken from warehouses.
“It didn’t take long to find out that they had broken into a warehouse and they were taking food out from the warehouse,” said Wilkens. The food, which was aid from the international community, had been stockpiled for Rwandans and Burundians who had sought refuge in the country following the war. This stolen food was now feeding the embattled city.
When Wilkens heard that the caretaker government that controlled Kigali lifted the curfew for business owners and NGO heads to go survey the damage done on their property, he jumped at the opportunity to leave his house. After having trouble moving through the city, he found an ally in a local colonel, Tharcisse Renzaho, who helped him travel through the roadblocks with much more ease.
It was Colonel Renzaho who introduced Wilkens to Damas Gisimba, a Hutu who ran an orphanage in Nyamirambo, a particularly unsafe township in Kigali. The colonel told him that the children needed help. The orphanage was swelling with not just children but other Tutsi refugees from the area by the time Wilkens arrived. In a space that was meant for 80 children, nearly 400 refugees were struggling to survive. The place was turning into a cemetery. “This little corner of the parking lot was beginning to fill with small short graves,” said Wilkens. But the graves weren’t filled with children hacked or bludgeoned to death; they were filled with little bodies that succumbed to diarrhea and dysentery. Wilken went straight to work, helping however he could.
One day, when he was delivering a routine consignment of water to the orphanage, he found that local militiamen had surrounded the place. There were around 50 men, and all of them had machine guns. Their intent was obvious.
Wilkens drove frantically to the local government headquarters, where a young secretary told him the Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda, happened to be at the offices, and that he could help. Kambanda, the bearded head of the caretaker government, is now serving a life sentence for his role in the genocide. But on that day, when Wilkens came calling, he helped secure the orphanage. The next day, Wilkens secured transport and a military escort to move the refugees from the orphanage to the Saint Michael Cathedral in a safer part of the city.
Over the course of the genocide, Wilkens is credited with saving hundreds of lives. When the rebel forces of the RPF secured the city and ended the genocide, he was asked to stay on and deliver food and water to Kigali’s internally displaced inhabitants. He and his family left Rwanda for good in 1996.
“I live with the genocide constantly,” Wilkens said. “It’s still not really 20 years ago for me.” For six years now, he has been speaking full time – sometimes two or three times a week– about his experiences during the genocide. In 2011, he published a book, I’m Not Leaving, about his experiences as the last American in Kigali. A documentary, of the same name, will come out later this year.
The genocide left Wilkens a passionate pacifist. “I am so much clearer in my opposition to war than I have ever been before, because I have seen the suffering and tragedy it brings about.” Yet, out of tragedy, he also learned “the potential for good in people is always there,” even in some convicted genocidaires.
One of the people who taught him that was Colonel Renzaho. The UN War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania convicted Renzaho for crimes against humanity in 2009. A few days after they met in 1994, Renzaho showed a different side, when he took Wilkens to the orphanage. On that day, said Wilkens, “He appeared to be a very concerned, kind, thoughtful man who was trying to take care of the needs of people.”
Wilkens now lives with his wife in Spokane, Washington.
Even with a bandana wound tightly across his face, the smell overwhelmed Michael Skoler. The bodies lay where they must have fallen; each targeted for their identity, and then killed quickly. There were three dozen bodies in the Karubamba churchyard in Rukara, a town over 30 miles away from Kigali. The corpses were left to quietly decompose amid a network of buildings and lush greenery.
Skoler breathed harder into the microphone, speaking louder with each description of the grotesque scene. “One is the body of an infant with the parents, it seems, on either side,” he said as he tape-recorded his words. Skoler continued describing other horrors: blood on the floor, so thick it began to resemble cakes of mud. An open suitcase, hastily torn apart, perhaps by looters, at the foot of the altar. In the pews, a pair of sneakers separated from their owner.
Like every other foreign journalist covering Rwanda in the wake of the genocide, Skoler found himself at the heart of a vicious, and coordinated, decimation of a people that was not being helped. Documenting the horror at Karubamba, Michael wondered why the international community was slow to act because what he saw, as he would later record, was ‘hard to ignore’.
In April 1994, Michael Skoler was living in Nairobi, Kenya, where he worked as a correspondent for America’s National Public Radio (NPR). “I heard about the start of the genocide via the BBC reporter who was there,” reporting from Kigali, said Skoler. On April 6th the BBC report, punctuated with the staccato voice of a British journalist telephoning from Kigali, had announced that the Hutu President Habyarimana was killed in a mysterious plane crash. The killings would begin the morning after, with very few reports coming out to international media because almost no correspondents were in Rwanda at the time.
It was a story Skoler had to cover, and less than a week later, he began the journey that eventually took him to the Karubamba church. He flew into the Ugandan capital, Kampala, then continued south into Rwanda by jeep with two soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, a rebel army formed by the children of Tutsi exiles who had fled an earlier genocide in 1959. The village where the church stood was now under their control and from there they diligently pushed towards Kigali.
En route to Karubamba, Skoler and the soldiers passed through desolation. Villages that were once swollen with people stood silent among Rwanda’s rolling hills. Farmers had fled leaving fields of bananas, sorghum and maize unharvested. The RPF’s advance had sent Hutus fleeing, out of fear of retribution. Any Tutsis who were still alive had long since left their homes in search of other places to survive.
It was these survivors, forced into the eastern town of Gahini, who led Skoler to the church. Two decades later, he still struggles to understand what he saw. Inside the church, “most everything was still in place,” he recalled. “I was trying to comprehend how frightening it was for people in there.”
The story of the Catholic Parish of Karubamba , filled with only the dead and their possessions, aired on NPR on June 13th, 1994. The genocide was 68 days old, and still raging sporadically across the country. That story and others Skoler told about the genocide and its aftermath were honored in early 1995 with a silver baton from the duPont Columbia awards, often described as American broadcasting’s Pulitzer prizes.
For months after his award-winning reporting trips, said Skoler, he ignored his own feelings. Finally, safely home in Nairobi, “Everything caught up with me,” he said. Among the questions that haunted him: could he have done anything to help victims – people he met–before they were later killed? Could he have done something for the countless children he had met who had lost their parents?
But, today, Skoler says he has learned to accept that what he did was all he could do as a journalist: tell a powerful and important story. “So much of what kept me going was the idea that my job was to report what had happened and to get out a story that would otherwise not get out.”