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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.

Jean-Pierre

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)

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain