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15 September 2003

Could you share a pint with a man who killed your family?

Every day for a hundred days, about 9,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by their own countrymen. A decad

By John Carlin

In the first week of April, on the ninth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the residents of the small town of Nyamata gathered in the local Roman Catholic church to hear a confessed killer account and apologise for his crimes. Rwandan leaders have organised many such encounters to promote national unity and reconciliation. In a country where three times as many people as died at the World Trade Center were butchered every day for a hundred days, it seems an impossible dream. The man telling his story in the church had formed part of a Hutu gang that had rounded up and slaughtered more than 3,000 Tutsis.

Nyamata is familiar with horror. So appalling were the massacres in this dry, dusty little town in the geographical heart of Africa that it has been chosen as a national genocide memorial site. Those in the church listening to the killer were mainly people known in Rwanda as “survivors”, Tutsis whose families had been wiped out, in most cases before their very eyes. “But there was one point in his speech so beyond anything anyone had imagined that the people responded with gasps and shouts and screams,” said William Karemera, deputy mayor of Nyamata. “When the man confessed that he and his fellow mass murderers had plunged into the dead bodies piling up on the church floor, cut them open and eaten their hearts.”

Karemera’s job description is “Deputy Mayor for Social Affairs”, a politely inappropriate euphemism. “Social affairs” means two things. Coaxing back to normal life a large number of genocidal killers recently released from prison; and acting as a lubricant between them and the people whose mothers, fathers, husbands and children they hacked to pieces not nearly long enough ago for memories to have waned or pain to have abated. Karemera, a Tutsi in exile in Uganda when the genocide happened, took me to see the man who told the people of Nyamata that he had eaten his victims’ hearts. A prisoner on parole at the time he visited the church, he was among the 40,000 (out of 120,000) freed in an amnesty the following month.

Leopold was his name. He was staying at his mother’s home, a mud hut set amid pines and banana trees just outside town. He was tall and lithe, 32 years old, with long muscles and big, powerful hands. He wore lime green trousers, a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt, chunky black boots and wraparound shades.

We sat in a clearing, away from the mud hut, on chairs silently arranged in a circle by his old mother. There was William and me, and a translator and a driver. Three Tutsis and a foreign journalist. But if Leopold felt in any way intimidated or ill at ease, he did not show it. “Life has been just fine since I got out on 12 May,” he said, speaking in a clear, confident voice, hands gesticulating, long legs spread dominantly apart. “I have no problems with the people. I go to the shops in the centre and people buy me drinks, even Tutsis sometimes.”

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Remarkable, but in Rwanda, people exhibit an improbable capacity to coexist, where the practical requirement to get on with life seems somehow to have buried, or pushed aside, the hatred that so many must feel. Equally remarkable has been the victory at the polls of Paul Kagame. Kagame, leader of the former Tutsi rebels, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who stopped the killing when they seized power in July 1994, was elected president on 25 August with 95 per cent of the vote, although more than 85 per cent of the electorate are Hutus.

The story of the Rwandan genocide has been amply told from the point of view of the victims. Now the first batch of killers has been released, all, as a condition of freedom, having admitted their crimes. Leopold, with the frankness of a man with no legal need to hide anything, spoke of the worst atrocity since Hitler from the point of view of a perpetrator.

What had persuaded him to do what he did? “There was a lot of organisation behind this. The previous government started mobilising us in 1992, holding meetings, training groups of young men like me to kill when the time came. They called us the Interahamwe. But the most important thing was that they planted fear and hatred in our hearts.” Hatred? “Yes, ever since I was a small boy, they had told us on the radio, even at school, that the Tutsis wanted to drive us out of our land, that they wanted all the country’s wealth for themselves. They taught us that the Tutsis weren’t real Rwandans, that they had come originally from Ethiopia and we Hutus were the real Rwandans, the superior people.”

Leopold, who could neither read nor write, may not have heard the propaganda of the Hutu regime prior to the genocide compared with the Nazi propaganda about the Jews. But the analogy with Nazi Germany acquired new resonance when he explained how the masterminds of the genocide – a number of whom are now appearing before war crimes tribunals in Tanzania – had driven fear into Hutu hearts. “They told us,” said Leopold, “that we were under attack. That the RPF cockroaches were coming to kill us all, that we must fight and push them back, or die. And that we must finish them all off, every last Tutsi, because they were devils and if we did not wipe them out, the threat would always remain.”

Such paranoia was exploited to barbaric effect. The nightmare began in Nyamata on 10 April 1994. Leopold had the date clear in his mind. The mayor, an army colonel and the governor of Kigali Province called a meeting of the Nyamata branch of the Interahamwe (which means “those who attack together”), of whom Leopold was a prominent and impressively lethal member. “They told us the time had finally come. The enemy was attacking. They reminded us that all Tutsis were our enemies, all now were cockroaches, including our neighbours – which was the message we had been hearing more and more in previous months on the government radio. There were about 400 of us at the meeting, all young and strong. From the meeting, we went to our homes, collected our pangas [machetes], regrouped and then we set out and started cutting people.”

What happened in the church? “That began on 14 April. Soldiers had come to join us. People from all over the countryside had come running into town and locked themselves inside the church. The commander of the military academy was in charge. He arrived with three buses full of soldiers. They fired bullets and threw grenades into the church, forcing some people to jump outside. Those ones our guys would catch and kill with the pangas. At night, when the bullets ran out, the soldiers went back to their barracks. We would then go away to sleep, because we were very tired. Then we would come back the next day to continue our work. We used pangas and pestles, which we would sharpen and put nails into so as to do the work more efficiently.”

Leopold’s “work” represented for the people inside that church a terror so complete that no words can describe it. The siege of the church lasted four days and four nights. What went through those people’s heads, what the mothers felt, knowing they and their children were doomed to die horrible deaths, were questions Leopold did not ask at the time. Nor did his serenity throughout the two-hour interview suggest he had absorbed the monstrosity of what he did. Otherwise, he would surely have fallen apart, unable to carry on talking. Otherwise, when I asked him whether he had eaten the hearts of those he had killed, he would surely not have responded – firmly, as if not surprised by the question, after only the tiniest tremor of hesitation – that, in fact, no, he himself had not eaten them, though some of the members of his gang had.

What concerned him more was that I should be left in no doubt as to the efficacy of the job he did. “I have heard it said that some people got out alive from the church. Impossible!” he said. “No one could have survived. We finished completely. We were all covered in blood. The church was covered in blood. Blood everywhere. Everyone was dead. As far as all the bodies lying outside the church were concerned, the army brought a Caterpillar truck to cover them up. Those we could not cover, we buried them in holes we dug behind the church. The army guarded the church for many more days so that anyone who might have survived inside could not get out. No, there were no survivors. We finished. The work was finished. We saw ourselves as victors. On the radio, they celebrated. They said we were defeating the cockroaches.”

How come he believed what he was told? Did he go mad? “They misled us. You were made to feel you were doing it for the good of the nation. Out of patriotic duty. You had to do it and had to be seen to do it, to work every day from six in the morning to eight at night.”

Leopold stopped his work on 24 April, having participated in the killing – he estimated – of more than 7,000 people. “The RPF were coming. We had to run. I was told there was a place called Zaire. We walked and walked. We saw dead bodies and more dead bodies. Rotting. What happened in Nyamata happened everywhere in Rwanda. It took us three weeks to get to the border. And, once in Zaire, we carried on walking, thousands of us.”

Many stayed in Zaire, waging a Rwandan “contra” war, not shrinking from defining their aim as returning to finish the job. Leopold stayed three months until, driven by hunger, he returned home. “Even though I was sure the RPF would kill me, I went back. When I saw them for the first time, now soldiers patrolling the border, I was amazed. Staggered that they had no tails. No horns. That they had ears. Despite everything we had been told, they were humans just like us. And, instead of killing me, they just let me go past and I walked back, all the way to my home.”

There, he was put in prison. Was he surprised they did not kill him? “Yes, I was. At first, I denied everything because I thought they would kill me for sure if I told the truth.” He remained in prison, denying everything, for four years. “Then, in 1998, something happened inside my head. I felt bad because I was alive, because they had not killed me. I realised I had done very bad things and I felt compelled to confess, and apologise for what I had done.” Now, five years later, he is free.

He looks stronger than most people in Nyamata – one reason, perhaps, why he does not fear revenge attacks. “But if someone tried to kill me, I would not fight back. I would rather be killed than kill again,” he said.

“I am still surprised, when I think about it, that they did not kill me; that they should have now set me free. What a difference between this government and the one before! It is the difference between a river and an ocean! One divided, the other one unites.” Did this mean that he was now a supporter of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, that he had cast his vote for the horned, earless Tutsi devils whom he attempted to exterminate in 1994? “Of course. How could I not? They have given me my life, when maybe I did not deserve to live.”

If that was how he felt about himself, what went through his head when he walked the streets of Nyamata and saw the widows whose husbands and children he had killed? “I feel pain that I am part of their pain. One widow came up to me the other day. She knew that I had taken part in the killing of her husband. She knew I had been among those who had hunted him down. I asked her for forgiveness and she said yes, she forgave me. And then she gave me a cup of tea.”

An outsider might wonder who is the more deranged, Leopold or the widow. But what is happening now is as extraordinary and inexplicable, in a mercifully different way, as the events of 1994. Nyamata, like scores of small communities in Rwanda that suffered such horrors in 1994, is another planet. Leopold’s eight years in prison for mass murder is a shockingly lenient sentence. But none of the three Tutsi men sitting with us (one of whom had lost his father and mother in the genocide) was complaining. Instead, we all drove off to have a beer in town. During the drive, Leopold ventured the opinion that had the RPF not moved in, had the Interahamwe had one more month, they would have completed the job: every Tutsi would have been killed. William told me later that Leopold had indeed confessed to having eaten his victims in the church, but he was denying it now because it was a story he judged best for everybody to forget.

And when we sat down at the bar, William did seem to have forgotten it, as had the other two. All three Tutsi men drank beer with Leopold. Despite everything they had heard as we sat outside his mother’s hut, they showed no sign of wanting to kill him. They chatted and laughed and joked, a picture of normality. It was a kind of undeclared peace ceremony, of a type being held every day, with the government’s active encouragement, all over Rwanda. They all had to forget, or at least pretend that they had. Otherwise, how could life possibly go on?

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