NEW YORKER, JUNE 20, 1994
FLIGHT FROM DEATH The violence in Rwanda was threatening to explode in Burundi, where the author’s Tutsi relatives live, and he knew he had to get them out.
-BY ALEX SHOUMAFOFF
THE minibus sped past hundreds of deplacés walking along the road with mattresses, cooking pots, and bundles of possessions on their heads. “Africa and its interminable wars,” Jean Rwagasana, in the front seat beside me, muttered in French, the colonial lingua franca. These were people of Kamenge, which is a suburb of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, a tiny, populous Central African country that has been convulsed with ethnic slaughter for thirty years. It was mid-April, and they were fleeing the Army, which was battling the rebels in Kamenge and, in its usual heavy-handed way, killing everyone in its path, including women and children of the Hutu ethnic group, to which both the rebels and the déblacés belonged. The Army and the country were dominated by Burundi’s other ethnic group, the Tutsis, though Tutsis were said to compose only about fifteen per cent of the population. In Rwanda, Burundi’s twin, just to the north, the Hutu majority was in control of the government; there, too, the Tutsis were said to compose fifteen per cent of the population—until a few weeks ago, when Hutu extremists slaughtered perhaps as many as half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in what was shaping up as a savage genocidal massacre. For now, Burundi was calmer, but, as Jean put it, “the tension is rising.” He went on to tell me, “Just yesterday, on a Street in downtown Bujumbura, a woman started screaming. Maybe she was being robbed, or maybe it was a ruse by bandits to create panic. Everybody started running, but nobody knew what he was running from, or where he was running to. I stopped a man and asked him why he was running, and he said, ‘Because everybody else is.’”
Rwanda and Burundi are yoked by a common culture, language, and history. They are mirror images of a single nightmare, and they feed each other’s violence; most people felt that it was only a matter of time— weeks, months, a year at most—before the aftershock of Rwanda would hit Burundi. (In fact, the killings in Rwanda were partly a reaction to an underreported massacre last fall in Burundi, in which tens of thousands of people—perhaps even hundreds of thousands—were killed.) My wife, whom I married in Africa and who came to the United States seven years ago, is a Tutsi, and Jean’s mother, Pascaline, is a beloved relative of hers. I had come to get the Rwagasanas (as I have called them) out before the slaughter returned to Burundi.
There is a taboo in Burundi against ethnic hostility at the workplace or while sharing public transport, and the sixteen other passengers crammed into the minibus rode along in wary silence. Discreetly, I checked out the ethnic mixture. There were three obvious Tutsis. Tall, slender, with high foreheads, prominent cheekbones, and narrow features, they were a different physical type from the five passengers who were short and stocky and had the flat noses and thick lips typical of Hums. These differences, which are discernible in only about half the population of Rwanda and Burundi, were long ascribed to a now discredited racial classification: the Tutsis were Hamitic,” the Hutus “Bantu.” But they are the only differences between Hutus and Tutsis, apart from the fact that Hums are traditionally cultivators and Tutsis cattle-keepers. The people of these countries speak the same languages (Kinvarwanda and Kirundi, which overlap by about eighty per cent) and share the same customs and land base, so the Hums and the Tutsis are not tribes, as frequently mislabelled by Western writers, but somewhat physically differenti— ated social groups—loose, fluid castes, really. A Hum originally meant a ser— vant, a Tutsi someone rich and powerful. The Hutu-Tutsi group consciousness was exacerbated by the European colonizers.
The rest of the passengers were indererminate. Nosewise, heightwise, or any otherwise, it was impossible even for Jean to tell what they were. The population of Burundi is very mixed. But they themselves knew what they were; in this part of the world, one is either a Hum or a Tutsi. The affluliation passes from father to son. This system had resulted in killings by Hums of fellow-Hums with Tutsi mothers whom they happened to resemble, and, the other day, in the killing of a Zairean caddie at the Bujumbura golf course who had made the mistake of going to Kamenge and was taken by the Tutsi soldiers for a Hum.
The road to the province where Jean lived ran almost dead straight for fifty miles. As we left the last of Bujumbura’s suburbs and the gleaming sheet of Lake Tanganyika, we began to pass thorn scrub studded with the cactuslike candelabra of euphorbia trees. Every fifteen minutes, we would come to a roadblock, and a tall, heavily armed soldier, in blue-and-black-spotted fatigues, would come up to the bus and say, “Karangamuntu’ (“Identify yourselves!”), and we would hand him our papers. About halfwav along the journey, a car was on fire in the middle of the road. Sooty flames were shooting thirty feet into the air. A man—a Hum—with a machete waved us onto a muddy track leading into desolate bush. I knew that Hums along this stretch of road had been putting up makeshift barriers, dragging Tutsis out of their vehicles, and hacking them to death with their pangas, or machetes, and that much of the time in recent months it had been unsafe for Jean and his family to travel to Bujumbura. “I don’t like this,” I whispered to Jean. We sat bolt upright in the clammy heat, as the track led to a village, but soon we were safely on the main road again, flying like a bat out of hell. “This little country is terrible,” said Jean, a genial, street-smart student at the University of Bujumbura. “One day it’s cairn, the next you see bodies all over the place. ça vient quandca veut—it has a will of its own.”
BURUNDI had been in a state of general panic since last October 21st, when Melchior Ndadaye, its first elected President—and, by no coincidence, a Hum—was assassinated by a group of Tutsi junior officers. This had triggered the worst bloodbath since 1972. Hutus in the countryside, egged on by inflammatory broadcasts from Rwanda, had started killing their Tutsi neighbors; then the Army had come in and had killed even more Hutus. Half of the country had been in flames. Observers flying in helicopters over Burundi’s hills reported hundreds of bodies scattered around smoldering huts. On one hill, Hums were slaughtering Tutsis; on the next, it was the other way around. How many were killed? “One cannot know the number,” a provincial governor told me. The government estimated the figure to be between eight and ten thousand, but other estimates ranged from twenty-five thousand to as high as two hundred thousand. The victims were both Tutsi and Hum; most of the eight hundred thousand or so refugees who poured into neighboring Rwanda, Zaire, and Tanzania were Hutu. The Rwagasanas were especially vulnerable, because they were Rwandan Tutsis who had fled during the last big pogrom there, in 1973. The Burundian Hutus usually make a point of going after the Banyarwanda, as these exiles are called, because the Banyarwanda have generally done well for themselves, and because many of their sons are fighting in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda fourvears ago and now controls two-thirds of the country.
My wife had reached Pascaline by telephone from upstate New York, where we live a few days after President Ndadaves funeral, on December 6th, which had incited a new spasm of butchery. Pascaline told us that since October the family had been sleeping in the bush, under a grass roof spanning two anthills,
because armed Hutus were on the prowl and it was unsafe to stay in the house at night.
On New Year’s Day, we talked again. The simation hadn’t changed. Pascaline was a strong woman, whose family had already suffered every conceivable horror over the years, but this time she burst into tears. “This may be the last time we will be talking to each other,” she said. “If you can just get the children out and I die, it wouldn’t be so bad.” A few nights later, I was awakened by my wife’s sobbing. “I eat and sleep, eat and sleep, and feel so helpless,” she said. So we decided—my wife, three of her relatives who had already made it to the First World, and I—that I would go alone to Africa and try to get the Rwagasanas visas to America.
By late January, the killing had spread to the capital. Eight of Bujumbura’s eighteen quartiers populaires underwent violent, spontaneous ethnic cleansing. In four, all the Hums were driven out or killed, and their homes were torched with gasoline or blown up with grenades. Now, Jean told me, if a Hutu ventured into one of them, even a taxi-driver with a Tutsi passenger, the cry went up “Bord! Bord!” (quartier slang for “quarry,” or “game”), young Tutsis came running, and the Hum was stoned, beaten, or kicked to death on the spot. The same happened to a Tutsi who entered one of the four recently cleansed Hutulands. “If you get on the wrong bus, c’est fini pour toi,” Jean said. On March 19th, he recalled, he was remrning from a wedding in a bus full of Banyarwanda, and it was stopped by a makeshift barricade and surrounded by a gang of young Hums armed with pangas, knives, and hatchets. This was in the still mixed quartier of Bwiza; the assailants were probably Hutus who had been driven out of the adjacent, now completely Tutsi quartier of Nyakabiga. “They told the driver to let out all the Tutsis,” Jean recalled. “He refused. Then they broke one of the bus windows and started pulling a girl’s hair. Their leader ordered gasoline to be brought, so the bus could be set on fire with us inside. I thought my time had come. But just then a military patrol came by, and they all fled.”
Then, on April 6th, there was a spectacular double assassination in Rwanda, and that country, which had remained calm throughout Burundi’s bloodbath, exploded Rwanda’s longtime President Juvenal Habvarimana, and Burundi’s new Presi . Cvprien N taryamira who had just taken twice were returning together in Habvarimana’s plane to Kigali Rwanda capital—following a conferencc. in Dares Salaam, Tanzania, on the Certrai Aflican crisis—when the plane was apparently hit by rocket fire. It came down in garden of the Rwandan Presidential palace, and both Presidents were killed. At first, everyone thoughi that the plane bad been shot down by thc insurgent Rwandan Patriotic Front, bui the killers may have been extremists in Habvarimana’s own party. Last August, at Arusha Tanzania, Habvarimana had reluctanlty agreed to form a transitional wernment and to integrate his Army with the R.P.F. Since then, he had been using every delaying tactic in the book to avoid implementing the accords, but in recent weeks it had become clear to eeveryone that he had run out of excuses.
In any case, within hours of the assassination an unprecedented purge began, not only of Tutsis but of Hutu opposition leaders, sixty-eight of whom were killed in the first three days, and of prominent businessmen and intellectuals—the cream of Rwanda. The transitional Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingivimana, a Hutu who supported the Arusha accords, was hideously murdered. Her Belgian United Nations guards were genitally mutilated and tortured to death. The Minister of Labor was reported to have been cut into three pieces, and those pieces to have been used as a roadblock. Most of the killing was done by members of Habyarimana’s seven-hundred-man Hutu Presidential Guard and drink-and-marijuana-crazed young members of his party known as interabamwe—”those who think together and attack together.” In Gisenyi, a city on Lake Kivu, bordering Zaire, where thousands of Tutsis and Hutu moderates and members of the elite were butchered, a Rwandan journalist told me, some Hutu interahamwe burst into a church and asked the priest if he was Hutu or Tutsi. The priest was a Hum, but this was impossible to tell from his nose or his height, and he said, “I am a member of the human race.” The interahamwe thereupon chopped him into pieces.
Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, the president of the National Assembly and a Hutu, became the new, interim President of Burundi. Ntibantunganya was doing his best to keep the country calm, but he was in a very dangerous position, caught between Hutu and Tutsi extremists, and everyone was waiting for the backlash from Rwanda. Burundi’s next bloodbath, many feared, would be worse than the one in October, and perhaps even worse than Rwanda’s.
SOMETHING was required to explain why the entire Rwagasana family—Pascaline, Antoine, and their children who were still living in Burundi—needed to come to America immediately. The fact that they were in mortal danger was not an acceptable argument. From America, they would make their way to a third country, where other family members were already living, and there they would ask for political asylum. It wasn’t possible to go to that country directly, because it was flooded with asylum applicants from disintegrating Third World countries and had stopped giving visas to them. So we scheduled a wedding. Janvier, the Rwagasanas’ fourth child, who had immigrated to the New World five years earlier, was marrying an American girl. I drafted a letter to the vice-consul in Bujumbura explaining that we would be financially responsible for the Rwagasanas during their visit to the United States. (If only one or two people had been going toJanvier’s wedding, it probably wouldn’t have been necessary for me to go to Bujumbura in person, but the whole family was a tall order.)
As it happens, twenty-one years earlier the Rwagasanas had used a marriage to escape from Rwanda. Antoine had then been a secondary-school forestry teacher and Pascaline had been working in a bank An Nvanza where the last king had held court. Their four eldest children had been born by then, and they had built a four-bedroom house. They were bien, as well-off as possible for Tutsis in postcolonial Rwanda. The bottom line was that they were alive, having survived massacres in ‘59, ‘60, ‘63, and ‘67: Antoine’s father had been killed and mother and a younger brother had been imprisoned in the last flareup.
The friction between the Hums and the Tutsis goes back centuries. Rwanda and Burundi were independent kingdoms until 1899, when they became colonies of Germany; after the First World Var, Belgium took them over. The Tutsis had been the ruling class, and the colonial administrators, in both colo riles. In 1959. as Rwanda looked toward independence, the Hums began killing Tutsi chiefs and subchiefs, burning Tutsis’ huts, and chopping off their feet—literally cutting them down to size. in April, 1973, the Rwagasanas, having barely escaped a pogrom two months earlier, learned that another pangawielding mob was headed their way. There wasn’t even time to pack. They hired a Hutu with a truck to drive them to “a wedding in Kigali.” Antoine and his two brothers rode in front, and Pascaline, her widowed mother-in-law, Irene (who by then was out of prison), and the four children in back. After some distance Antoine’s brother Damasone held a knife to the driver, and said. “I don’t want to kill you. We are just trying to save our family. We aren’t going to Kigali Drive us to Burundi.”
When they reached the border, they found the guard asleep. Albert, the third brother, who could pass for a Hutu, slapped him awake and asked impatiently, Has Minister Sezirahiga passed?” Sezirahiga was the minister in charge of carrying out the “social revolution”—as the purge of Tutsis was euphemistically called—in southern Rwanda. The guard didn’t know what to say. “I’ll bet he passed here,” Albert went on. “And you were asleep! And how could you let these Tutsis escape? Open the gate immediatelv. So tine guard let them through.
If zinc Rwagasanas had thought that Burundi would be an improvement, they were sadly mistaken. “When we came here, we found what we had left, only in reverse,” Pascaline recalls. “The soldiers made Hum functionaries carry our bags ten kilometres, to a military camp, because, the commandant said, ‘your brothers drove these people here.’ “ The year before, Burundi had had a “social revolution” of its own—a Hutu insurrection followed by devastating reprisals on the civilian population, and in the end a total of about a hundred and fifty thousand Burundians lost their lives. The Hutu elite—all those with a secondary-school education or who were prominent in any way—had practically been wiped out, so there were openings for the refugee Rwandan intellectuals and former Rwandan government officials who were pouring into Bujumbura. By June, Antoine had found work, as the manager of a Belgian-owned coffee plantation. He knew he could be replaced by a qualified Burundian at any time, but he lasted in this job until 1991, when there were massacres in Burundi for the third year in a row. In that particular area, long a hotbed of Hutu rebel activity, the Army was merciless: Hutus were bayonetted on the way to Mass. The horrified Belgian coffee-growers sold the plantation to some Burundians, who replaced Antoine and promptly ran the plantation into the ground.
JEAN and I got off the bus at our destination and walked through the market, where several dozen women were selling fish, banana beer, clothes, and produce they had grown in the lush fields outside the town and brought to the market in baskets on their heads, with their babies strapped to their backs. A procession oflyre-homed Ankole cattle ambled by. We found Pascaline, a short, solid woman of fifty-two with a frank, expressive face, sitting at a sewing machine in a dress shop, just off the market, which she owned in partnership with two friends. Pascaline had come to our wedding, in 1990—a three-day blast in a Banyarwanda refugee village in Uganda, which was where my wife grew up.
The Rwagasanas lived on the other side of the market, in the quartier commercial—a mixed neighborhood of Zaireans, Banyarwanda, and mostly Hum Burundians—in a beautiful house behind a hedge. They had built the house in 1983. It had a gracefully roofed front porch, but most of the time everyone sat on the cozy back porch, off the kitchen. The walls were brown stucco, the roof corrugated iron sheeting. The house had running water, electricity, a television, and a telephone; it was one of the nicest in town. Jean wasn’t sure that Pascaline had accepted the idea of losing everything for a second time. There might have to be a chaude discussion. I told Pascaline that I had staved up the previous night reading about the gruesome history of postcolonial Burundi— an account of one brutally crushed Hutu insurrection after another—and had been forced to conclude that things weren’t going to get better anytime soon. I knew that each member of the family had had his or her moment. Jean’s had been on the bus in Bwiza two weeks earlier. One of his sisters had been raped at school by two Hutu boys some years ago, then beaten to a pulp and left for dead. Last October 22nd, the day after President Ndadave’s assassination, a mob carrying pangas had stormed the parochial school that Gilbert, the fifteenyear-old. attended. One of the priests had given a rifle to a student whose father was in the Army and who knew how to shoott. and the student had driven off the attackers, killing one. Up the road. in the commune of Kibimba, a Hum headmaster had locked sixty-four of his Tutsi students in a room, doused it gasoline and set it on fire, burning them alive. “I don’t think there is really any choice,” T said to Pascaline. “You cant stay here.”
I know that we must go, for the sake of the children,” she said. “But it isn’t going to be easy, starting again at zero at our age. I’ve always worked for myself, and I can’t stand being sans activité.”
Antoine, in his fifties, was already considered an elder, and was addressed by the respectftul title muzehe. What was he going to do, away from his coffee bushes and his cows? Thinking of a teen-age relative of theirs who had hanged himself in the late eighties in the country where they would be seeking asylum, I said, “No, it isn’t going to be easy. You’ll be blacks in a white society, second-class citizens.”
“That won’t be anything new,” Pascaline said. “As Banyarwanda, we have known nothing but discrimination since we came here. All in all, I think I would rather be discriminated against by whites. At least you know where you stand.”
“And the winters are brutal,” I continued. “The weakness of the light can lead to depression.”
“Is it true that half of this country’s land surface is covered with ice?” Jean asked.
I felt like the Angel of Exile, who had come to take the Rwagasanas away from everything they knew. But it wasn’t as if they hadn’t already lost their country twenty years ago. At least, they would have each other, and a chance, at last, to lead a decent, normal life.
SINCE its bloody “pacification” three years earlier, the Rwagasanas’ province had been calm. Only thirty-five people had been killed in the province following the October outbreak; most of the carnage had taken place in eastern Burundi. Still, the situation for the Rwagasanas remained very threatening. People had stopped coming to Pascaline’s petit cabaret—two thatched huts in the front yard, which had been the town’s most popular bar. She couldn’t even shop in the market anymore—the women, who were Hutus, would take her money and then not give her the food—so the Zairean house girl made the purchases. Antoine didn’t dare to check on his thirty cows, which grazed on ten lush acres outside the town. For three of the past seven months, the couple had slept in the bush, as they had in 1989 and again in 1991, and for another two-month stretch they had stayed locked in the house, not leaving it even once. In the middle of the night, people would throw stones onto the roof and shout, “We’re going to get this house!” In January, some Hutu neighbors reported to the provincial authorities that Pascaline and Antoine had put up Paul Kagame, the commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. That was a malicious lie, whose purpose was to discredit the Rwagasanas.
‘We are marked,” Jean said.
“Yes,” his father said, adding, “We are alone.”
The sad thing was that Antoine and Pascaline were apolitical country people, who had no use for the Hutu-Tutsi mind-set Antoine never even mentioned that six of his brothers and sisters and their spouses and children—twenty-eight relatives in all—had just been killed in Rwana; I learned this later from his son. In fact, his closest friend was a Hutu named Romain. Romain had been Antoine’s student in Rwanda as a refugee from Burundi, after fleeing the 1972 purge of Hutus. Now he was a powerful man, one of the local deputies of the Hutu-dominated party that had come into power last August. The party had been pressuring him to break off his friendship with his old teacher, Romain told me that evening as we sat drinking beer in the deserted cabaret. “But I refuse Such a friendship as the one that existed between Antoine and Romain was not frequent,” they both admitted. it was as rare as a white man and a black man becoming bosom buddies in the Old South.
Romain’s s wife, Odette, was one of Pascaline’s partners in the dress shop. Odette’s mother was a Tutsi, and Odette herself looked sufficiently Tutsi to have been in danger during the October killing spree. so she had fled with her children to Rwanda (which was other relatively safe but where, if they had staved, they would certainly have been killed), and Pascaline had sent them food and money. No one can unfriendship,” Pascaline said, chuckling. How could I be helping Hurus in my former country, from which I had been driven out by Hutus?” This friendship gave the Rwagasanas a measure of protection that the other Banvarwanda in the commune didn’t have. The others, who had lived farther out in the countryside, had all lost their homes to arson and were now camped near the Army barracks down the road.
The family’s cows could be sold for only a third of what they were worth— not even fifty dollars a head—and only through an intermediary. They barely paid for their keep with the milk they gave but in the Tutsi culture cows were symbols of wealth. Antoine would not leave until they had been properly disposed ot A Hum cattle-keeper had told Antione, We aren’t going to give you mvthinz for your cows, because we’re going get them anyway.”
Pascaline asked if she could take her best plates the white porcelain ones with gold trim, which she kept in the dining-room cupboard. The answer could only be no, and someone said, “It has to look as if you were just coming for a visit.” Antoine went around with me as I took pictures of each room and then of the outside of the house from different angles. It was important to have a record of it for futurc generations.
THE Rwagasanas’ refugee status, like that of the hundreds of thousands of Banyarwanda who have been living in Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zaire, many of them since 1959, was permanent and immutable. The Banyarwanda were not allowed to have passports— only travel documents, or titres de voyage. It was very difficult to get an American visa with a titre de voyage, so Jean had been trying to get Burundian passports for the family. But the process wasn’t as far along as I’d hoped. He had only just “penetrated the milieu,” as he put it. The afternoon I arrived in Bujumbura, he and I had gone to see a Banyarwanda woman he knew in the Asian quarter, and she put him in touch with a Burundian woman who had a friend in the Department of National Documentation and Migrations who could fix us up with the necessary passports for seven hundred dollars. That evening, Jean went to see the go-between, and gave her three hundred and fifty dollars as a down payment, the balance to be paid upon delivery of the passports, which the woman assured Jean would be ready in two days.
Meanwhile, I reported to the American Embassy, which had been pared down to essential personnel; families and dependents had been flown home a week earlier. I met the consular officer who would decide whether to issue visas to the Rwagasanas. She had been up for three days straight helping with the evacuation of two hundred and eighty-four Americans from Kigali, and she looked beat. I told her that my wife’s relations wanted to come to America for a wedding and would be applying for visas, and she said, “Well, they’d better have proof of ties. They need to convince me they’re coming back to Burundi. I won’t take their word for it.”
“My impression is that they’re not going to cut us any slack,” I told Jean that evening. “So your documents will have to be impeccable. You’re going to have to get the deeds to the house and the land, and anything else that will show you have a reason to return.” Most of the Burundians who flocked to the American Embassy on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings to apply for visas, I discovered by chatting with them in the waiting room, had fishy stories supported by spurious documents, and I later learned that most of them were turned down. Some of the applicants, whose passports were hot off the presses and were possibly forged, were told by the consular officer to come back after they had travelled to a few other countries. But this was not an option for the Rwagasanas. They had to get out now, and not look back. Refugees from Rwanda—including interahamwe—were pouring into their province, and the situation was heating up.
With so many people trying to leave Burundi, the traffic in passports was brisk Our own order, which was netting someone in the Department of National Documentation and Migrations a cut of the seven hundred dollars, seemed to be proceeding smoothly. On Thursday evening two days after making the down payment, a jubillant Jean stopped by my hotel to show me his and his parents’ passports They were in order. The remaining passports, for the other children. would be ready the next day, the woman had assured him.
THE morning, I went to see Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a Tutsi who from 1976 to 1987 had been the second President of the Republic; he had been overthrown in a coup. During Bagaza;s tenure, there had been no massacres to speak of. (The most threatening enemies of the regime had simply disappeared or met with accidents.) It had been taboo to even mention the words Hum or Tutsi Bagaza had takcn power in a bloodless coup at the age of thirty and had started out full of revolutionarv vigor, inviting what was left (after tine 1972 purge) of the Hutu intelligentsa to return from exile, and phasing out the feudal sharecropping system. But., in the dassic African trajectory, he had become increasingly eas:n~iv repressive, driving out Greek and Pakistani tradespeople. expelling missionaries, jailing priests, limiting the activities of the Catholic Church, and, finally, alienating even the Army. “Is Bagaza considered a grand Président?” I asked the driver of the taxi who took me to the villa.
“No,” he said. “A former President.”
“The biggest mistake is to draw parallels with Rwanda,” Bagaza cautioned, and he gave me his spin on the HutuTutsi conflict. “Our internal politics are very different. Our kingdom was much more egalitarian. We had many more Hutu chiefs and, later, during the colonial period, ministers and generals.
The relationship between the two ethnic groups was not one of domination so much as one of trade between professional categories—pastoralists and agricultur— ists. But the colonial system always developed an intermediate class between the Europeans and the masses, and in both Rwanda and Burundi the Belgians made the Tutsis their intermediaries. The Tutsis were brought closer to modern life than the others. But on the eve of independence the elites of both countries adopted the anti-European rhetoric of African nationalism, and the Belgians turned on them. In Rwanda, radical Belgian priests helped the Hutus found PARMEHUTU, the Party for the Emancipation of the Hums, which overthrew the Tutsis. The Tutsis of Burundi saw what could happen to them, and they gradually took complete control of the government and the Army. In 1965, some Hum officers who felt oppressed by the reactionary King Mwambutsa and by the Tutsi high command attempted a coup, which led to the first massacre of Tutsis and then the repression of Hum political leaders who had been inciting the masses. Everything started there.”
But if the polarization of the ethnic groups had been created largely by the party politics at independence, by “leaders who exploited passions to rise and gain power,” today’s ethnic conflict, he agreed, had become something personal in each family. (A woman who spent two years in Burundi with the Peace Corps told me, “There is a hatred deep in the bones of these people that you and I will never understand. The rivers have run red too many times.”)
“How do you end the cycles of vengeance?” I asked Bagaza. In Jean’s words, how do you “deracinate the mentality that someone who doesn’t mind the Tutsis is an enemy of the Hums,” and vice versa? How do you get people to see that they best honor their dead not by avenging them but by dedicating themselves to healing the social psychosis that started the killing?
“There must be a big conference between the Hums and the Tutsis to study the problem of coexistence,” Bagaza said. ‘We must look for the solution within ourselves, and study the old ways when we coexisted harmoniously. No one can help us.”
An African diplomat I spoke to in Bujumbura was in near-agreement, saying, “Burundi doesn’t need a thousand casques bleus”—United Nations peacekeeping troops, which the Hum-dominated, nominally governing party had been asking for to protect it from the Army. “What it needs is a thousand psychiatrists.”
Others maintained that the basic problem in Central Africa is not ethnic, but lapolitique du ventre—the politics of scarcity. Because these countries are so poor, the state is the only game in town; the only way to make something of oneself is to use a government post for personal gain. This was why the Burundian Tutsis were so reluctant to share their power and privileges with the Hutu majority, and it was the root cause of the apocalypse in Rwanda.
That evening, Jean stopped by my hotel again: the children’s passports still weren’t ready. Nothing could be done over the weekend, and on Monday morning we still didn’t have them. That was the last day I could go with the Rwagasanas to the Embassy, because I was flying to Uganda that afternoon.
WHEN I reached Kampala, the full horror of what had happened in Rwanda was just unfolding. The original figure for the number ofTutsis who had been hacked to death with pangas, blown up with grenades, and mowed down with Kalashnikovs—a hundred thousand—was “too optimistic,” a B anyarwanda intellectual living in Kampala told me. “That is only the number of those killed in Kigali.”
According to Human Rights Watch! Africa, there were one million one hundred thousand Tutsis in Rwanda before April 7th. Others estimate the number at seven hundred thousand, but no one really knows how many there were then, or how many there are now. Many Tutsis concealed their ethnicity, and the proportion of fifteen per cent that one keeps hearing for the Tutsis in both countries (which does not take into consideration the many mixed marriages) is an estimate dating from colonial times.
The highest concentration was in the western province of Kibuye,” my informant went on. “I wonder if there is a single Tutsi left in Rwanda except in the part held by the R.P.F. Only those who managed to flee the country survived, and I doubt if they number more than fifty thousand. All the exits had been sealed. Rwanda is a small country and is easily administered if you are planning to commit genocide. The west is blocked by Lake Kivu, and those who tried to escape into Zaire and Tanzania found the borders closed. Payments seem to have been made to the governors of the adjacent provinces not to let any Tutsis in.” The borders were later opened for hundreds of thousands of Hutus, fleeing in terror of R.P.F. reprisals which turned out to be unfounded), in what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees described as “the largest and fastest” mass exodus ever seen. Tens of thousands of Tutsis in Kigali fled south, hoping to escape to Burundi, but they never reached the border. It now looks as if tens of thousands may still be alive in Rwanda, trapped in seminaries and stadiums, like the thirtyeight thousand refugees— most of them Tutsi— on June 2nd by the R.P.F. from the Catholic compound at Kabgayi.
The papers in Africa and abroad were full of grisly details. A man was heard crying weakly for water, water” and was pulled out of a pit where he had spent four days among hundreds of corpses. A baby was found still alive at her dead mother’s breast. Bleached, bloated, mutiErred bodies floated by on the Kazera River, which describes the Rwanda Tanzania border, at the rate of one every five minutes. Thousands of corpses washed into Lake Victoria, two thousand or so at the fishing village of Kasensero, in Uganda. According to a Ugandan official, the people who buried the first few bodies have become “mentally deranged.” At a hospital in Butare, Rwanda’s second-largest city, a hundred and seventy staff members and patients were killed by interahamwe in front of foreign doctors. Throughout the country, the panga was the murder weapon of choice, but screwdrivers, saws, hammers, and hatchets were also used. A full panga job took about twenty minutes. First the hands were chopped off, then deep gashes were scored in the back, and finally the head was whacked. If you preferred a quick death, by a bullet, you had to pay for it. The going rate was five thousand Rwandan francs, or about thirty-five dollars. The “tribal” identity card, introduced by the Belgians and supposed to have been phased out in 1991, was useful for telling who was who, There is video footage of interahamwe stopping citizens on a road, checking their identity cards, and executing those who were Tutsis on the spot. Grenades and other weapons had been distributed to the Hutus in each commune, and each person knew which Tutsis he had to kill. Immediately after Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, the radical Hutu Radio des Mule Collines (which in October had urged the Hutus of Burundi to avenge President Ndadaye’s assassination) began to call on the Hutus of Rwanda to take revenge on the Tutsi assassins of their beloved leader (who had probably been killed by Hutu extremists like themselves) and on all Tutsi sympathizers. “When you are killing the wives, don’t spare those who are pregnant,” the station urged. “The mistake we made in 1959 was not to kill the children. Now they have come back to fight us.” Among the most common massacre sites were the churches, in which the Tutsis tried to take sanctuary.
On May 24th, at a meeting in Geneva of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, our State Department belatedly issued a statement saying, “We feel strongly that acts of genocide have been committed.”
MY wife begged me over the phone not to go to Rwanda. She said her mother, in Kampala, had talked to a soothsayer, and the soothsayer had told her that if I went to Rwanda I would be killed. But I did go, with two of my wife’s nieces, Claudar and Igisetsa, each of whom had a brother in the R.P.F. Having been born in Ugandan refugee camps, neither had ever been to Rwanda. We took a bus to the city of Kabale, in the southwestern corner of Uganda, and hired a taxi to take us over the Rwanda border to the R.P.F.’s headquarters, in Mulindi. “Our land. Our promised land,” seventeen-year-old Claudar said in awe as we drove through a hauntingly beautiful hut eerily empty landscape of luminous green hills and lush valley doors. The entire population had tied: terraced hillsides were reverting to the wild: the tea plantations in the val1ev had been let go. and their unkempt hushes were twice their usual height. “Our country. twenty-three-year-old Igistsa sighed. “So quiet.” Glossy ibises and dusky, primitive-looking hammerkops. with swept-back crests and stout hills, probed in mudfiats. We passed through the commune of Mukaranje, where my father-in-law had been an umutware, or subchief, under the Belgians. He had been imprisoned in 1959, but his sans had busted him out with the help of his Hum servants, and they had all tied Uganda.
We pulled into Mulindi and greeted the R.P.F. soldiers, who wore green camoufiage uniforms, black Welling-tons, and berets, and looked less like brutat soldiers than like sensitive intellectuals. which some of them were. The R.P.F. was basically ten thousand Tutsi exiles whom nobody had given the time of day to for thirty years and who, in 1990, decided to claim the right to return to their homeland—to have a country—in much the same spirit as that of the Jews who created Israel. Half of them, it seemed, were my wife’s relatives, among them my best man and the Rwagasanas’ oldest son, of whom we had had no news. The R.P.F. was in the best position, as far as I could see, to set things right in Central Africa. They were disciplined, and their ideology was sound: what they wanted was a Rwanda in which all citizens—Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa (Pygmies, who account for something like one per cent of the population)— had the same rights. They were not a Tutsi supremacist movement; more than a third of them were Hutus. The sad thing, I observed to a young lieutenant, was that more Tutsis had probably just been killed in Rwanda than were ever going to be repatriated. The R.P.F.’s military and political success had precipitated the genocide—just as, in the sixties, the government had slaughtered Tutsi civilians after offensives by an earlier rebel group, the Inyenzi, or Cockroaches. ‘We can’t stop fighting because people are being killed,” the lieutenant said grimly. “It makes you want to finish the job.”
Many people, including a growing segment of the international community, felt that the R.P.F. should be allowed to finish taking over Rwanda without outside interference. There was a lot of bitterness in the R.P.F., because the United Nations peacekeeping troops who were already in Rwanda td enforce the ceasefire signed at Arusha hadn’t done anything to stop the massacres, and now United Nations Secretary-General Boutros BoutrosGhali wanted to send fifty-five hundred more troops. “Who needs them now?” the lieutenant asked. “Who is it they are going to protect? The assassins and the cadavers?”
We spent two days at Mulindi, stranded by torrential rain. I asked Wilson Rutayisire, the R.P.F.’s commissioner of information, how the R.P.F. planned to run the conntry since all the ninderate Hutus it could have worked with had been killed, and so many machete-wielding crazies were still at large. Were there any plans to politicize the extremist Tutsis in Burundi?
“That’s not our responsibility,” he said. “Our efforts now are devoted to the problems of genocide, lawlessness, ending the war, and grappling with relief and casualties. About the future we can only say that we will put in a broad-based arrangement that will maintain the spirit of the Arusha accords, whose modalities will be worked out.”
“What are you going to do with the interahamwe?”
“They will be brought to justice— tried and sent to prison.” There have been some summary executions, but, he emphasized, “our men are under strict orders not to engage in any revenge killing, especially of Hum civilians.”
“I GUESS the soothsayer was wrong,” I teased my mother-in-law when we got back to Kampala. She laughed.
I called Jean. ‘We still don’t have the other passports,” he said. So I flew back to Bujumbura for an all-court press. What was supposed to have taken two days had stretched out to nearly a month. During this visit, I stayed with cousins in the ethnically cleansed, Huruless quartier of Nyakabiga. These cousins had no compassion for the Hutus. Cousin Josephine’s sister, who was married to Cousin Leonard’s brother, and three of her children had just been killed in Kigali, and the brother and the one remaining child were among the tens of thousands of Tutsis still trapped in Rwanda. With several dozen Tutsis, the had been stuck for the previous six weeks without plumbing or electricity in the Hotel des Milles Collines, drinking and cooking with the water in the swimming pool, and protected by sx casques bleus.
The day after my return, Jean learned that the passports were ready but hadn’t been signed, because the commissioner whose signature was needed had been arrested: he was a Hutu, and weapons had been found in his home. Two days later, our go-between brought Gilbert’s passport. It had been signed by the new commissioner, but the stamp with the commissioner’s name and title was missing, so it had to go back.
On Wednesday, the family came down to Bujumbura for the third time that week, hoping that all the passports would be ready, but they weren’t. So we decided to go to the Embassy and apply for visas for just Antoine, Pascaline, and Jean—the crucial visas. If they got theirs, it would be difficult for the Embassy to turn down the children. The consular officer interviewed the three of them together; I was not invited. After about fifteen minutes, they returned to the waiting room, looking sombre. But when we got out on the street Jean patted his attaché case, gave a little thumbs-up sign, and broke into a big smile. “She was really friendly,” Jean said. “She asked my father why he was going and he said, ‘C’est pour le mariage.’ Mv father is not a man who anyone could believe would tell a lie. ‘Why wouldn’t you stay?’ she went on. ‘Moi? At my age?’ he said. ‘To do what?’ She looked at his bank statement and asked Are you going to liquidate your account?’ and he said no.” Apparently, it was the indisputable fact that the Rwagasanas were leaving their property and savings in Burundi that persuaded the official of their intentions to return. The next day, Jean picked up the passports, stamped with three-month tourist visas.
On the following Tuesday night— the final hour, because the consular officer was leaving for two weeks on Thursday, the wedding date (which we were locked into) was in eleven days, and the plane tickets still had to be express-mailed from New York—the children’s passports were delivered, and the next morning Antoine and I trooped back down to the Embassy with the children. The consular officer kept them in with her for a very long time. I started to get worried.
“She asked us so many questions and I felt beaucoup de peur,’ Gilbert said when he finally got out. “At first, we played dumb. She asked me how long I was going to stay, and I said, ‘Two weeks. We’re going back right after the wedding. There’s nothing else we want to see or do in America.’ “Where’s your return plane reservation?’ she asked. I said, ‘My father has it.’ She called him in and he said he didn’t have it. But he got out of this brilliantly by saying ‘I showed it to you last time.’ Then we all started telling her stories, and we really got into it. In the end, she smiled and gave us the visas. But I thought for a while she was going to say non.”
ON May 21st, Janvier’s wedding day—and the day a front-page Times article reported that as many as ten thousand corpses had been washed into Lake Victoria—my wife and I and the Rwagasanas were standing on our deck in upstate New York, surveying miles of forest. I handed each of them a glass of champagne and pointed out a shadbush that was in showy bloom and was alive with spring warbiers. “You have come at the perfect time,” I said. “For the next four months, this will seem like the most beautiful place on earth.”
Pascaline wondered why the United States couldn’t give some of this empty land to the people who were stateless, and Antoine asked, “Are there any wild beasts in this forest?”
“Only deer, coyotes—which are like jackals—red foxes, and the rare bear,” I said. “There are no lions, no spitting cobras, no interahamwe with machetes. There is no danger here. Welcome.”