Jules thought he was in paradise. Then more than 800,000 people were killed in 100 days – most of them laboriously hacked to pieces by their neighbors’ machetes. What happened in Rwanda and why is Jules still there?
“Working outside in nature all day, sitting in the shade on a hill in medium-high grass under a banana tree, looking down into the valley and watching the swallows. Copper sunlight, rust-red earth and an intensely unreal green that makes it feel like you are dreaming. The laughter of children playing in the distance, the deep voice of the shepherd rounding up his cows – and nothing else. The epitome of peace and quiet. The feeling that I’m a step closer to heaven – I’ve arrived in paradise.”
Jules, who has a different name in real life, was born in the 1940s in a small European town. The son of an industrialist, he makes no secret of the fact that he has zero interest in pursuing a nice middle-class career. The forest is his world. He breaks off his law studies after two months and sells the books. He needs the money for fishing bait so he can fish during the day and to buy alcohol at night so he can party the night away. He repeatedly fails the forestry school’s admissions exam. But the young man who is into nature fascinates the school director who decides to give him a chance. Jules takes him up on it, becomes a forestry expert, sticks with his studies, travels a lot and ends up with a good job in an office with a view of a gray concrete wall. After the first day of work, he packs up his things, looks for something else and accepts a job in development cooperation: in the heart of Africa. More specifically, on a hill in a remote Rwandan province, where there are no roads, where there is no running water, no electricity. His predecessor lasted only two months.
Colonialists, coffee and conflicts
It is the mid-’80s. Rwanda is a small agricultural state barely half the size of Switzerland. With coffee as its main export, it is populated by three ethnic groups: the Hutu, who account for about 85 percent of its approximately 6 million inhabitants, the Tutsi minority with 14 percent and the Twa with just under one percent. All groups speak the same language, which is called “Kinyarwanda.” They all share the same culture. The two main groups are fundamentally differentiated by social and economic position. The Tutsi minority focuses on livestock breeding. Cattle are a sign of wealth and status. Hutu life centers on agriculture. It is an open, tolerant system until the colonial powers of Germany (1884-1916) and Belgium (until 1962) enter the picture; these powers see the tall, slender Tutsi as a superior race and privilege and help them. A Tutsi monarchy is installed; the Hutu are excluded from education and from employment in the civil service. The colonizers introduce the notion of Hutu and Tutsi as two distinct ethnic groups and, by noting this in their ID cards, they cement a racist, unbridgeable hierarchy.
Jules lives the same simple life as the locals, except that he owns a motorcycle and a gas-powered refrigerator – and that his skin is just as white as that of the colonialists. But unlike them, he decides to stay forever.
Exploited and excluded from power and privilege, the Hutu begin to nurse an enormous hatred. In 1959, uprisings lead to hundreds of deaths. The Belgians quash the rebellion. In 1961, Rwanda votes for the first time in its history and abolishes the monarchy. The Hutu take power. Rwanda gains its independence in 1962. The coming years are filled with massacres and violence between the two ethnic groups. The Hutu remain in power and thousands of Tutsi flee to neighboring countries. Only a single Hutu party is allowed to run for elections in Rwanda – and every Rwandan is automatically enrolled in it from birth – thereby creating a system of absolute control.
But Jules is prepared. He knows the history of Rwanda, knows about the tensions and massacres. He doesn’t sense any of it. He works with both Hutus and Tutsis. Together they share a bottle of beer after work and eat goat-meat skewers. On weekends, he goes to the local market and buys rice, plantains and sweet potatoes for the whole week, and meat directly from the butcher. He learns the Kinyarwanda language, makes friends, is invited to weddings where people dance and sing with abandon. He watches his friends have children and name them Dieudonne (God-given), Innocent or Esperance (hope). Jules lives the same simple life as the locals, except that he owns a motorcycle and a gas-powered refrigerator – and that his skin is just as white as that of the colonialists. But unlike them, he decides to stay forever, falls in love, marries, moves to another village and founds a family. The mayor becomes a proud godfather.
Meanwhile, Rwanda is slipping into an economic crisis. The export price for coffee collapses. The Rwandan Franc experiences an almost 70 percent decrease in value. The regime turns land into national property and plants tea plantations, but without making much of an economic impact. The population continues to grow in spurts and land becomes scarce for the more than seven million inhabitants. The combination of land shortage, population explosion and economic crisis ultimately leads to total impoverishment. Dissatisfied, the population demands democracy and the right to vote. Neighboring Uganda also starts making demands. Since 1987, the “Front Patriotique Rwandais” (FPR), has been based in Uganda where it was formed by exiled Tutsis. The Tutsis’ goal is to return to Rwanda. The government blocks all attempts. On October 1, 1990, the FPR starts a guerrilla war. Feeling threatened both internally and externally, the Rwandan regime blames the Tutsis for the misery and launches a campaign filled with political hate.
Rumors, stories and carnage
“The state radio reported on the FPR’s attacks, but for us the events seemed to belong to a different world,” recalls Jules. “The villagers acknowledged the news though they didn’t seem to be affected by it and returned to work.”
Rwanda is a land of stories and rumors, a place where one tells stories and adds on to them. Before any new information reaches the provinces, it has already traveled a long way. Locals treat it like something foreign and view it calmly, from a distance and with curiosity. When, on the night of October 4, 1990, Tutsi rebels and the regime’s army seem to come to blows in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, Jules and his family are sleeping peacefully, deeply and firmly. No one even dreams that the Tutsi rebels didn’t actually attack Kigali, that the entire incident was fabricated by the Hutu regime to create an excuse to arrest, imprison or eliminate thousands of Tutsis. A few days after “the night of Kigali,” Jules’ boss makes it a point to visit Jules and his family. “He came by motorcycle from Kigali,” Jules recalls. “An arduous journey involving several hours of travel on dusty potholed roads, driven by the fear that we all hadn’t survived.” Because he, the white man married to a Tutsi would be real fodder for the Hutu extremists. Jules’s boss can’t believe the almost ghostly calm of the villagers and the fact that they aren’t at all worked up; he distributes the sardines and chocolate bars he has brought with him. Astonished, but by no means reassured, he sets off on his return trip home.
Of course, even before 1990 and the unrest, there were some remarks that made me think twice. When a Tutsi girl in the village married a Hutu boy, people said: ‘Now the helpless partridge has finally found a bush in which to hide.
The violent riots and massacres continue over the next three years. Leaving the country is not an option for Jules. “Why?” he asks. “This was our home. We felt safe, had small children and a large family network for which we felt responsible. Of course, even before 1990 and the unrest, there were some remarks that made me think twice. When a Tutsi girl in the village married a Hutu boy, people said: ‘Now the helpless partridge has finally found a bush in which to hide.’ Or when we cut banana trees, some staff would do it with incredible fervor and efficiency just like ‘we did with the Tutsi banana trees.’ I passed off these comments as dumb, isolated sayings.”
The conflict between the Hutu regime and the FPR continues. In August 1993, the parties agree on a peace treaty. Supported locally by UN forces, an interim government is supposed to introduce a multi-party system and integrate the political opposition. Faced with international pressure, Rwanda’s Hutu regime reluctantly complies, since failed negotiations would have meant the loss of financial support from the West. The radical Hutus do not accept the peace treaty or the understaffed UN troops that do not have a mandate for military intervention. The Hutus start preparing for genocide. They recruit and train radical combat troops, procure weapons, and issue death lists with the names of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The militias circulate misinformation and slander, using it to help eliminate the Tutsis. Not denouncing them is punishable by law.
The station refers to the Tutsis as cockroaches and vermin. Not as people – but as a plague that needs to be eliminated – without hesitation or a bad conscience.
The radio station “Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines” serves as a propaganda tool. Besides state radio, it is the only information channel for the Rwandan people, 40 percent of whom can neither read nor write. The station refers to the Tutsis as cockroaches and vermin. Not as people – but as a plague that needs to be eliminated – without hesitation or a bad conscience. “Milles Collines” is run in the local language, “Kinyarwanda.” A Belgian journalist translates the inflammatory rhetoric into French.
Every morning at eight o’clock, Jules’ employees and the community staff in the project office gather around a small, gray transistor radio and attentively listen to “Milles Collines.” Disguised as entertainment, the station offers rumors, stories and jokes that target the Tutsis while condemning UN troops and opposition politicians. “More and more people listened to the programs every day,” recalls Jules. “It was like giving a sick person an infusion – and increasing the dose a little bit every day. It wasn’t a drug that was being issued, but pure hate. People were convinced over time that their Tutsi neighbors were spies of the enemy rebels and thus a constant threat that needed to be eliminated.”
Some of the staff gathered around the old radio are Tutsis. They also listen attentively to the slander every morning and laugh off the nasty jokes just as loudly as their Hutu colleagues, driven by fear of being noticed and denounced. Laughing along with everyone else: That’s the survival strategy. One of Jules’ employees now carries an ax on his belt at all times. If he drinks too much beer after work, he threatens to kill some Tutsis.
Militias, massacres and passengers
On the evening of April 6, 1994, the aircraft carrying Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana is shot down while landing in Kigali. Jules is sitting at dinner with his family when “Milles Collines” announces that the plane has been shot down. In a state of panic, Jules keeps an ear glued to the radio until late at night. But there’s no more news. The station plays nonstop classical funeral music. At 6 a.m., the state radio confirms the president’s crash and death. “I was paralyzed with fear,” he says. “But that was the wrong reaction. I told my wife, Else, that we had to do something. Sitting around doing nothing just makes you feel all the more scared. We started washing dishes and tidying up, just to stay busy.” But an oppressive feeling remains. Jules hurries to the community hall, where he meets employees, acquaintances and the mayor’s confidants. People talk quietly in small groups. They shun Jules, avoiding his gaze. He silently takes some papers from his office and goes home.
From Kigali, “Milles Collines” coordinates the Tutsi hunt, disseminates information about their whereabouts and escape strategies. The bodies pile up in Kigali – and then in more and more villages. In the province where Jules lives, the last spark of hope fades that the violence will be temporary and limited to specific areas, as it was in previous years. The massacres spread like wildfire – at lightning speed – they are quickly out of control. Jules discusses the situation with his family and a foreign friend. He then grabs his wife and kids, some clothes and a few negatives of photographs, and stuffs them all into his old little Peugeot. That’s all that fits. “When we left home, our neighbor, a slender old Tutsi, stood alone in front of his house. As a senior official, he was an influential and respected man. I was amazed to see him in the village and stopped. I asked him why he hadn’t flown yet. ‘Maybe it would be better,’ he commented calmly and without emotion.”
In a motorcade with improvised white flags, a final convoy of white people is heading towards the border. Pale with fear, these foreigners are actually saving their dogs and leaving their domestic staff behind.
When Jules drives his Peugeot past the area’s biggest hotel and restaurant, he sees people moving all the tables and chairs from the terrace inside, the way you do before a big storm. In a motorcade with improvised white flags, a final convoy of white people is heading towards the border. Pale with fear, these foreigners are actually saving their dogs and leaving their domestic staff behind.
“We still hadn’t heard from Else’s parents,” says Jules. “Her brother Eduard, however, lived with us. We packed him into the car even though he did not have a passport. I parked at the border control out of sight of the customs officers. In the queue, I asked the other fleeing foreigners what they would do in my place: leave the man behind and leave him to the Hutu militia or take him along with us and endanger the entire family? I decided to ignore their advice, showed the passports, had them stamped and drove slowly over the border past the customs officer – without stopping, without looking back, with Else sitting next to me in the passenger seat and Eduard in back between the children. A few days after we left the country, the Hutu militias finally started massacring the people in our village, too.”
Jules and his family are flown back to their homeland. After long negotiations, they are allowed to take Eduard with them. He gets an entry visa and a Rwandan passport. “A passport? That’s pointless. Soon none of you will remain,” said the Rwandan official grinning as he handed him his identity card at the embassy. But the official and his militia friends are wrong. After 100 days and some 800,000 deaths, the Tutsi rebel army takes power in July 1994, ending the genocide and triggering a Hutu exodus. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), two million people fled the country at the end of 1994 and 1.5 million people were displaced within the country.
The grass is knee-high in the kids’ former rooms and in the main room. Dirt and puddles of water cover the floor.
“We did not know if Else’s parents and siblings survived,” says Jules. “This type of uncertainty gnaws at you, gobbles you up bit by bit.” In October, Else and Jules travel to Rwanda. It smells of corpses everywhere. The militias disposed of many of the dead by putting them in their own outdoor toilets or manure pits – and they are still there. Jules’ former home has been looted. The roof is gone and so are the doors and everything that looked like it might be somewhat valuable: the chairs, the table, the cooking pots. The grass is knee-high in the kids’ former rooms and in the main room. Dirt and puddles of water cover the floor. In the abandoned house of a Hutu neighbor who fled, Jules finds a list with names and instructions, explaining how to distribute the Tutsis’ belongings among the Hutu after the Tutsis’ total annihilation. A neatly crafted plan, devised in exactly the way the farmers in Jules’ agricultural project had learned to do. The village feels dead. It is devoid of people, of familiar faces. Some were killed; others are on the run. The few who survived are struggling with their memories and so is Else’s family.
Horror, justice and grace?
In the small village that Else’s family lives in, the residents refused to kill each other. The local Hutu militia initially withdrew, leaving things unfinished. Two weeks later they reappeared in the village and gave people a choice. They will massacre any Hutus on the spot who refuse to kill. Escaping as a group would reduce their chance of survival, so the family separates. Else’s mother runs away, hiding in the forest and later in a church. After finding a hiding place in the village, the father flees to the woods. Today, it’s still a mystery to him why he survived; it doesn’t make rational sense. Else’s younger brother, the father of two little boys, searches in vain for his youngest son. He refuses to leave the village without him. The Hutu militia kill him and the older boy with machetes. The younger son survives the genocide. Family friends who are Hutu hide him. Three more siblings seek shelter in the marshes and forests. They crawl under corpses and pray that nobody finds them. They eat roots and insects and only survive because they act dead during the day or because the militias accidentally knock them out instead of killing them.
“You see the survivors, hear their stories, and still cannot understand how that happened,” says Jules. “The godfather of one of the children turned out to be a mastermind in the killings and had to answer in court. Other Hutu friends fled abroad or ended up in jail. Our neighbor, the respected functionary, was killed along with his entire family. The Belgian radio journalist, who translated the inflammatory rhetoric into French, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. One of my French colleagues, who owned a large car garage in the capital, refused to leave the country. The company meant everything to him. His wife and children flew back to France. He bet on a bulletproof vest and his local staff. Months after the genocide, I had to identify him on site when a grave with victims was excavated. Survivors reported that he was stopped at a roadblock, taken away and shot. Before he was executed, he removed his vest himself.”
Offenders and victims are again neighbors – as if dozens of dead don’t lie between them, just a few banana trees and a small piece of land.
Weeks after the genocide, Else’s family moves back into their homes on the remote hill and begins the same life as before. After a while, the perpetrators return as well. A new justice system, established after the genocide and based on local village courts, allows them to be released early or even pardoned. Offenders and victims are again neighbors – as if dozens of dead don’t lie between them, just a few banana trees and a small piece of land. They share an after-work beer, throw parties together, mourn together when someone dies, and still call their children Dieudonne and Innocent. They’re back among the living.
Shortly after their visit, Jules and his family also returned to Rwanda – for good. They found new jobs and friends, bought land, built a house. Jules didn’t lose his faith in paradise. The green hills, the copper light and the rust-red earth are still the same.
Powerful insight into a truly terrible time. As memories become misted with the years, we must never forget the horror of these stories, least it happen again…. Thank you for shining a spotlight on such a dark, tortuous time, Christa.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, dear Alexandra
Hello Christa, how are you doing?
This Charles Mugabe from Rwanda, I guess we met 10 years ago. Thanks for writing my story. Stay safe in this hard time of this pandemic Covid 19. Charles
Hello Charles, great to hear from you. I am still thinking a lot about you and your story, about Rwanda and its people. Hope you and your family are doing well. Stay safe and healthy. All the best – Christa