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The facts of killing: how do we write about the Rwandan Genocide?

Twenty years on, we still struggle to comprehend the trauma.

Spéciose Mukakibibi, photographed in 1995, aged 37. Interahamwe militiamen
attacked her with machetes and killed three of her five children.
Photograph: Jenny Matthews/Panos

When the Hills Ask for Your Blood: a Personal
Story of Rwanda and Genocide

David Belton
Doubleday, 333pp, £16.99

Everything reminds me of the past. I go to Kibuye, I drive past men and I think, did you kill my mum and my brothers? Did you? And you? I go to a wedding and I have to make the speech as the head of the family and I know it should be my dad speaking. The killers killed one million people. This is not a joke. This is not an idea.


In the 20 years since the genocide, Rwanda has become a much-studied topic, in writing that has proliferated across genres. There have been official reports by the United Nations and by human rights charities; significant studies such as Gérard Prunier’s The Rwanda Crisis (1995); literary accounts such as Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998); novels such as A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2000) by Gil Courtemanche; and a host of witness testimonies, by victims and killers and others, either made to journalists such as Linda Melvern, whose A People Betrayed: the Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (2000) is another important book, or formally under the auspices of the International Criminal Court and other judicial bodies.

These testimonies, in particular, enter into the burgeoning field of trauma studies, an area of academic inquiry that contends with the legal, ethical and psychological effects of wars, political and sexual violence, torture and genocide. Trauma studies is a discipline that is complicated by the shifting structures of empathy and history, by having to confront the complexity of a situation in which “its subject, the massacre, is living”: a phrase from Muriel Spark’s account of the Eichmann trial.

The dynamics of mass trauma are always subject to revision according to new information received, and that is the category in which the fine book under review falls. In When the Hills Ask for Your Blood: a Personal Story of Rwanda and Genocide, David Belton, a Newsnight journalist who covered the Rwandan Genocide (and also co-wrote and produced the acclaimed film Shooting Dogs), has written a complex, compassionate and scathing account of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath.

He is not looking for solutions, and he examines the present Rwandan government’s apparent elision of ethnic differences, and other processes undertaken in the name of justice and reconciliation, with some scepticism. Employees of Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative in Rwanda, a group of young white men and women dressed in suits, whom Belton finds in the compound of the current president, Paul Kagame, sipping Cokes and howling with laughter, some time in 2012 or 2013, are not the heroes of this book.

It is primarily structured as a series of testimonies by survivors relating their experiences, from the night of 6 April 1994, when the Falcon 50 private jet of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down over Kigali, crashing in the grounds of the presidential residence, to mid-July that year, by which time the former Hutu government and most associated militia had fled over the border to Zaire. It also describes: Belton’s own encounter with the genocide as a journalist in 1994; a trip into Zaire in the same year (it would revert to its old name, Congo, three years later) to see the effects of a million Hutu refugees, many of them killers, entering the country; a return to Rwanda in 2004; and a second return in 2012-2013, during which he picks up the story with some of his main interlocutors.

Belton covers a lot of ground, and with Rwanda that is a challenge, as everything comes with history that is still partly occulted. In 1990, Kagame’s predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda, beginning the war that would culminate in the genocide. By chance, that year, I happened to be living on the Ugandan border, and from the veranda of my parents’ house I watched lorries flooding up and down the red laterite road to Rwanda, either taking troops to the border or returning with refugees. During the same period, France, Egypt and South Africa were supplying arms to the Hutu government in Rwanda itself. France, committed to keeping Rwanda within a bloc of francophone African nations, co-operated directly with those parts of the Rwandan army most responsible for the genocide. The United States was also supplying the Rwandan government with a limited quantity of equipment and assistance, in the mistaken belief that “there is no evidence of any systematic human rights abuses by the military or any other element of the government of Rwanda” (1992 report to Congress).

The genocide against Tutsis was committed mostly by Hutu civilians, by Hutu militias of varying levels of organisation, and also by Rwandan government troops. It took place primarily according to an orchestrated programme, but it was also ad hoc: a bloody turmoil. Moderate Hutus and many people of mixed ethnicity were also killed. Most of the murder was done with machetes (in 1993 Rwanda imported three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of machetes from China), but automatic weapons and hand grenades were also used. The machetes from 1993 were intended to be killing tools, but for years machetes and hoes had been how Rwandans tilled their twenty-yard strips of maize and beans, curling up terraced hills. Land, being in short supply, had been a factor in previous conflicts, as the book’s proverbial title suggests.

The Hutu death programme was provoked by the immediate threat of defeat by the Tutsis in 1993-94, but it built on the legacy of a popular revolution in 1959 by Hutus against their Tutsi feudal overlords. Between 20,000 and 100,000 Tutsis were killed in that revolution, and thousands fled to Uganda, Congo and Tanganyika. Within Rwanda, periodic massacres of Tutsis followed throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These caused further flows of refugees.

In Uganda, the exiled Tutsis became instrumental in the overthrow of Idi Amin and the subsequent conflicts that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. The many Tutsis in Museveni’s army acquired military skills that would help them in their fight with the Hutus. For Kagame, this was supplemented by US army training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in his role as a senior intelligence officer in Museveni’s forces.

Discipline, commitment and a sense of manifest destiny contributed to an RPF, Tutsi victory. By mid-to-late 1993, Hutu leaders probably knew it was coming, despite the greater numbers of Hutus and a misplaced conviction in their own superiority over the inyenzi (“cockroaches”). When his plane was shot down, most likely by the RPF but possibly by extremist Hutus, Habyarimana was returning from negotiating a ceasefire.

Child of the backlash: Rwandan Hutus in the
Goma refugee camp, eastern Zaire (now Congo), 1994.
Photograph: Mikkel Ostergaard/Panos

For Tutsis and Hutus alike, ethnicity was always a fluid concept (intermarriage was fairly common), but not so fluid as some will tell you. The process of colonial reinforcement and exploitation of ethnic divisions began with the Germans (Ruanda-Urundi was part of German East Africa from 1885 until the middle of the First World War) and continued under the Belgians after the war, with the introduction in 1933 of identity cards classifying the carrier as Hutu (85 per cent of the population), Tutsi (14 per cent) or Twa (1 per cent).

Some sixty years later, on 7 April 1994, the genocide began. In the two decades since, the period of the slaughter, often said to be a hundred days, has shrunk to something closer to fifty, at least according to Belton, while the death toll was (probably) closer to a million than previous estimates of 800,000. Rightly, Belton does not want to become suffocated in the “exhausting airless argument” of numbers.

The principal figures in Belton’s narrative are Jean-Pierre, who spent over two months living underground in a hole under the winding roads of Kigali; his wife, Odette, who with her two young daughters walked 60 miles from Kigali to Kibuye, the home of Jean-Pierre’s parents on the shores of Lake Kivu, having torn up her Tutsi ID card; and Aimable Gatete, a Tutsi builder who escaped from Rwanda hidden on planks under the flatbed of a truck.

A fourth story is constructed around the quasi-fictional narrative of a man who survived the genocide but not its aftermath, the Catholic priest Vjeko Curic. A Bosnian Croat, he was, in the eyes of many Rwandans, a saintly figure who, staying throughout the genocide and defying extremist militias, helped many Tutsis escape. Gatete was among those he escorted on dangerous trips through roadblocks to Burundi, returning with convoys of food aid.

Much of the writing in all these accounts has a literary power that lifts it above normal journalistic or non-fictional practice: Jean-Pierre’s confinement in his mud-walled hole has shades of Beckett, and both Odette and Curic seem like Brechtian heroes. Or perhaps the right way of saying this is: these real people remind us that the specific historical experience of human beings in wartime or as refugees lay behind the oeuvre of those two playwrights, whose work is so often taken as describing or deconstructing the human condition as a universal, however sceptically or ironically.

The distinction between specifics and universals is one of the rifts between the non-fictional and fictional modes of trauma study. In non-fictional treatments, any observation of mass trauma must always return to the historical specifics of the particular crisis, eventually scaling down to the authentic individual testimonies that constitute the mass. A shadow of this requirement still hangs over fictional treatments but it seems to lessen over time, as the success of recent novels and films about the Holocaust demonstrates – though feelings still run high about such books as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful.

Comparison of the Rwandan crisis to genocides in other parts of the world, or other periods of history, is similarly circumscribed despite the appearance of patterns, resemblances and commonalities. The same goes for current African conflicts, as in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, which have the potential for mass killing. The best we can hope for is that the international community, including African countries, becomes better at recognising (and acting on) genocide than it was in the Rwandan case.

The challenge to improve involves looking not just at the causes of genocide but at its aftermath. One aim of Belton’s book is to understand why Curic was assassinated on a Kigali street in January 1998. In part it was because, fluent in Kinyarwanda, Curic knew too much, in a country full of secrets. In part it was because he changed, becoming a more political person after 1994: there are the elements of a tragedy here.

The reason may also have to do with the complex role of the Catholic Church in implementing but also trying to prevent the genocide. An earlier section of the book introduces us to the bishop of Kabgayi, Thaddée Nsengiyumva, in effect Curic’s boss, who emerges (at least from this account) as a good Hutu, one who tried to balance politics with mercy. In 1991, Nsengiyumva issued a pastoral letter saying killing was now commonplace and that the Church was complicit in the Hutu regime’s anti-Tutsi system. Partly he was talking about his own boss, with whom he confusingly shared a surname: Vincent Nsengiyumva was archbishop of Kigali and a Habyarimana crony.

Hated by Tutsis and directly implicated in genocide, Vincent Nsengiyumva was someone whom I happened to meet on a trip to Rwanda in 1990, following the dust cloud of those lorries and trying, in a rather jejune way, to be a foreign correspondent. Back then I knew almost nothing about him, or what was happening in Rwanda, but I remember a deep sense of unease when, in the semi-darkness of his rooms, he held out his episcopal ring for me to kiss instead of shaking hands in greeting. It felt like an expression of malign power, this impasse that ended with me shaking a clenched fist. In 1994, both Nsengiyumvas were killed by the RPF, together with a third bishop and ten priests.

What can we hope to know about these situations without falling into error? It is a measure of their complexity that the French historian Gérard Prunier, probably the person with the greatest academic knowledge of Rwanda, gives three separate possible accounts of the killing of those clerics, each with different reasons and sources.

In 2004, when Belton is in Kigali with Jean-Pierre trying to find the site of Curic’s murder, a man approaches them and starts asking insistent questions. Eventually Jean-Pierre loses his temper, telling the man to go away and jabbing his finger at him:

“Don’t talk to me. Get away. Who are you to ask me these questions? I can go anywhere I like. Go. You.”

Jean-Pierre’s voice got bigger, challenging not just the man but all the silent stares of those who had stopped to gawp.

“Who are you? Where were you? I was here.”

All writing by those who weren’t there, even that as good as Belton’s or Prunier’s, remains subject to this judgement. The right to forgive is also subject to it, and the best Jean-Pierre can do, meeting the son of his own father’s killer in Kibuye, is to let out a long, weary sigh and say: “It’s OK to love your father. I loved my father, too.”

Giles Foden is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the author of “The Last King of Scotland” (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood