BUKAVU, ZAIRE, OCTOBER 1996
Beatrice Umutesi, the Rwandan refugee and social worker, was in Bukavu when the fighting started in October 1996. She had come to wait for money that a Belgian nonprofit organization was sending to help her and her colleagues evacuate their families before the fighting began. The town was on edge; all morning, the thunder of mortar fire had been audible in the distance. She waited desperately at the Indian-run wholesale store where the money transfer was supposed to arrive. The shop had been closed for the past three days out of fear of looting; today seemed to be no different. Around 10:30, the automatic machine-gun rat-a-tat joined the mortars, although this was not necessarily cause for panic. For the past few days, the town had been exchanging fire with the Rwandan positions across the border. The streets were full of people trying to find food at the market. A group of men with cardboard biscuit boxes on their heads was walking briskly from the Red Cross warehouse that had just been ransacked.
Suddenly, Beatrice saw a group of soldiers running down the hill, tearing off their uniforms as they ran. Somebody screamed, “They are at the ISP!” The ISP was a technical school barely half a mile from where she was standing. Pandemonium erupted, as people streamed out of their houses with baskets on their heads and babies strapped to their backs. Beatrice had enough time to grab her adoptive children, Bakunda and Assumpta, and run after the fleeing soldiers. She had to leave her other relatives, as well as her few belongings, behind. All she had was seventy dollars and her Rwandan ID card. Mortar shells passed over their heads, whistling and then exploding off to the side of the road. Everywhere there were wounded people, moaning, some alone, others with anxious family members or friends watching over them. She pinned her hopes on a refugee camp fifteen miles away, where she had friends and family members. She thought she might be able to find protection there as the international community tried to find a solution for the refugees.
Her hopes were misplaced. As Beatrice was running into the hills, diplomats around the world tried to wish the Rwandan Hutu refugees out of existence. After the initial invasion had brought hundreds of thousands of refugees back to Rwanda, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, Robert Gribbin, concurred with his hosts’ view that those “still with the ex-FAR and Interahamwe ... were family or sympathizers who had no intention of returning to Rwanda,” and the remaining “refugees appear to be in the tens to twenties of thousands rather than in vast numbers.”1 In reality, between 300,000 and 600,000 Hutu refugees had fled into the jungles and were at risk of starvation and disease. None of the refugees around Bukavu had the choice of returning to Rwanda—it would have entailed heading into the advancing troops.2
On November 20, U.S. military officers presented pictures of aerial reconnaissance to aid groups in Kigali. They had been flying over the country in PS Orion aircraft, taking pictures of refugee flows and settlements. In the photos were clearly visible around half a million people distributed in three major and numerous smaller agglomerations. It was not clear how many of these people were displaced Zairians and how many were refugees. Just three days later, the U.S. military claimed that they had located only one significant cluster of people, which “by the nature of their movement and other clues can be assumed to be the ex-FAR and militias.”3 All the other groups had magically vanished. The aid group Oxfam cried foul, accusing the U.S. military of “losing” refugees on purpose. “We feel bound to conclude that as many as 400,000 refugees and unknown numbers of Zairian displaced persons have, in effect, been air-brushed from history.”4
After Beatrice fled from Bukavu, she ran with Bakunda for a day until she could not run anymore. Fearing the advancing rebels, she stayed away from the main roads and followed a line of cowed, silent refugees through the banana groves that covered the hillsides. They spent the first night in a school that was being protected by members of Mobutu’s youth organization, who had banded together to protect their community. They checked Beatrice’s ID but were skeptical about one of the children who had joined her on the way, a child with Tutsi features. Beatrice finally convinced them that he was her son; they grudgingly allowed her to spend the night in the house of a local family. That family, she later wrote, “was part of that chain of Zairians, who, throughout my long journey, shared with me their roof and the little food they had.”5
The only road of escape was toward Kisangani, Zaire’s third largest town at the bend in the Congo River, more than three hundred miles to the northwest. Hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees were on the move now through the forests of the eastern Congo, accompanied by tens of thousands of scared Congolese. First, they had to climb the hills of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, in more peaceful times famous for its lowland gorillas and highland elephants. On the narrow footpaths, Beatrice ran into a traffic jam of people. It was the beginning of the rainy season, and every evening heavy rains would gush down over them, turning the soil into a muddy, slippery torrent. Tens of thousands of people filled the forest; at times, Beatrice had to stand on the path and wait for the single-file line to start moving again. The humid, cool air under the canopy echoed with the sound of thousands of tired feet slapping through the mud.
Not only was this one of the longest mass treks in modern history, but it was also one of the most outlandish. The refugees walked through some of the densest rain forest on the planet, under layered canopies two hundred feet high. Beatrice walked for days without seeing direct sunlight. Elsewhere, they had to ford deep rivers or cut new paths through the forest. Wasps laid larvae under their skin, long leeches plastered their bodies after they passed through streams, and several of Beatrice’s companions were killed by snakes. Once in the middle of the night, Beatrice was awakened by screams when her group was attacked by millions of driver ants. They tried, with some success, to use fire to chase the ants away, but eventually they had to move.
The basic need to survive overcame the many taboos inherent in Rwandan society. Forced to eat raw roots and leaves, Beatrice developed sores in her mouth and a bad case of diarrhea. First, she tried to hide herself behind bushes to ease her discomfort, but eventually, when she no longer had the strength, she would just squat down next to the path and look the other way as others plodded by. Lacking soap, she began to stink, and fleas and lice infested her clothes. Rwandan women, who are known for their modesty, were forced to bathe topless next to men in rivers.
Death surrounded them. Chronic diseases, such as diarrhea, malaria, and typhoid, were the biggest killers. Others died of diabetes or asthma, having run out of medicine to treat their chronic illnesses. The smell of rotting bodies filled the air. “In this race against the clock, if anyone fell, it was rare to see someone reach out a hand to help her or him. If, by chance, they were not trampled, they were left lying by the side of the road.”6 Beatrice saw flurries of white and blue butterflies alight on fresh corpses, feeding off their salt and moisture. Further on, she saw a woman who had just given birth forced to bite through her own umbilical cord and continue walking. In one town, locals by the side of the road held up a malnourished baby they had found lying by the side of the road after her mother died and her father was unable to feed her. People passed by in silence, unwilling to take on another burden.
After two hundred and fifty miles and five weeks of walking, Beatrice reached Tingi-Tingi, “the camp of death,” as she calls it. Mobutu’s soldiers had blocked their advance westward, saying the refugees’ arrival would help the rebels infiltrate. Too weak to fight the soldiers, the refugees settled down and prayed for help to arrive.
The name for the town meant “swamp,” and it lived up to its name; mosquitoes and dirty groundwater plagued the refugees. Beatrice had lost over thirty pounds by the time she arrived there; her skin was leathery and stiff, her muscles were sore, and she was so hungry that the sight of food made her salivate. To the refugees’ dismay, no humanitarian organization was there to help them; there were few latrines and no clean water. A dysentery epidemic broke out shortly after their arrival, followed by cholera. Soon, aid workers did arrive, but they were overwhelmed by the needs of 80,000 people. Every day, bodies, partially covered by white sheets, would be carried away on stretchers. The refugees looked as if they had aged twenty years—their eyes sunk deep into their skulls, skin hanging loosely from their bodies, and their feet swollen from malnutrition and hundreds of miles of walking. Children, in particular, were affected by the lack of vitamins and protein: Their hair thinned and turned beige or blond. Beatrice described women suffering from dysentery as “old fleshless grandmothers even though they weren’t even thirty.... They had lost all their womanly attributes.... We only knew they were women because they looked after the children.” Beatrice joked with her newly acquired family that they should take a good look at her feet and toenails so they could recognize her when she was carted away in a shroud, her feet protruding.
During the two months Beatrice spent there, aid workers registered 1,800 deaths, about half of them children.7
A decade later the town where the camp was located is still not easy to reach. I had to fly into Kisangani, a hundred and fifty miles away, and rent a motorcycle. In some places the road was completely overgrown by the surrounding forest. Here and there deep, muddy pits had replaced the asphalt for several hundred feet. About twenty miles before Tingi-Tingi, the wrecks of armored cars belonging to Mobutu’s fleeing army sat abandoned on their naked axels, rusting on the side of the road, their heavy-caliber machine guns pointing into the rainforest.
An old yellow highway sign reading “Tingi-Tingi” was still standing by the side of the road, a reminder of when truckers could travel from Kisangani to Bukavu in two days. Now it takes two weeks if the truck doesn’t break down. A rickety vehicle I saw there had taken a whole month to reach Tingi-Tingi from Bukavu, two hundred fifty miles distant. In the town itself, the tarmac was in good shape, and villagers showed me the stretch of road around which the refugees had built their camp, boasting that airplanes had used it as a landing strip to supply the refugees with food and medicine.
The whole village remembered the two months the refugees had spent there in 1996. It had become a reference point—“he got married two years after the refugees left,” or “I bought my house before the refugees came.” When asked how many refugees were there, some villagers said, “a million”; others, “it was a city of Rwandans.” Now Tingi-Tingi has reverted to being a village of several dozen huts scattered through undergrowth on either side of the road. Locals live by farming cassava and beans, supplementing their diet by hunting monkeys and small antelope in the nearby forest.
The local traditional chief was not there, so the villagers took me to the Pentecostal minister, a fifty-one-year-old named Kapala Lubangula. He was wearing plastic flip-flops, pleated dress pants, and a plain cotton shirt. When I told him I wanted to talk to him about the refugees, he nodded grimly and called a group of four other elderly men from his church. It was dangerous speaking to a foreigner alone in your house; people could accuse you of anything afterwards. We sat on rickety wooden chairs in a small mud house with a low ceiling. Despite the stewing heat, he insisted on sitting inside; he didn’t want people to see us talking.
“Why do people always talk about the refugees?” He blurted out almost immediately, to my surprise. “The local population also suffered! Imagine 100,000 people arrive in this small town. They ate everything we had. Their soldiers raped our women and shot dead our traditional chief. Nobody talks about us!” The other men nodded.
The elders described successive waves of soldiers and refugees intruding on their small village. First, a wave of fleeing soldiers had come to town—Mobutu’s soldiers mixed with ex-FAR. They had terrorized the local population, taxing people going to the market, breaking into their houses, and stealing their livestock. Then the refugees arrived, “like a band of walking corpses.” They were starving. Instead of talking, they just stared and cupped their hands. They pulled up cassava roots and peanuts from the fields and picked raw mangos from the trees. As dire as their situation was, if the villagers shared the little they had with this horde of foreigners, they knew they would all die of starvation. The men from the church helped organize vigilante groups to guard the village and the fields. They patrolled with machetes and sticks. If they found someone stealing, they would beat him to death. There were no prisons and no courts. Justice was swift and decisive.
The minister remembered vividly new colleagues who arrived with the refugees. Two Catholic priests as well as Adventist and Pentecostal ministers set up churches made out of UN tarps. Wooden planks set on rocks served as benches. They gave sermons almost every day during which they talked about the genocide. “They said the Tutsi wanted to dominate everything, to take the land away from the Hutu. So when Habyarimana was killed, they sought revenge for his death and killed. They admitted they had killed! What kind of priests were these?”
When the white people’s aid groups came, he said, they only thought about the Rwandans. If a Congolese fell sick, he would be treated last. Reverend Kapala’s voice rose. “First the white people bring the refugees here; then they refuse to help us!” When I reminded them that it had been the civil war in Rwanda that had brought the refugees, not the United Nations, Kapala sucked his teeth. “The international community has all the power. You can’t tell me that the United States, the biggest superpower in the world, could not stop all this if they had wanted to. They didn’t stop it because they didn’t want to.”
Another elder chimed in:“Do you think that Rwanda, this peanut of a country, could defeat the Congo alone? No way.”
For a while, it seemed that Tingi-Tingi had become the capital of the world. Three weeks after the arrival of the first Rwandans, aid groups began arriving with helicopters, large and small planes, and, eventually, convoys of trucks with food. Doctors and logisticians from the United States, India, France, South Africa, and Kenya set up shop in the local hospital and health centers. Emma Bonino, the EU aid commissioner, arrived, as did Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Agathe Habyarimana, the wife of the former Rwandan president, also visited from her exile at Mobutu’s palace in Gbadolite to deliver bags of cornmeal, rice, and beans. The planes landed in the middle of the camp, sending people scurrying for cover. In one case, a woman, dizzy and disoriented from hunger and thirst, didn’t move out of the way quickly enough and was decapitated by a plane’s propellers.
Laurent Kabila’s improvised army, the AFDL, arrived in Tingi-Tingi on February 28, 1997. Many sick or weak refugees did not manage to flee. Dozens were crushed to death or drowned following a stampede on a nearby bridge. Some 2,000 survived the attacks and were airlifted back to Rwanda by aid organizations.
Others were killed. A worker for the local Red Cross, who, ten years later, was still too afraid to tell me his name, said he had returned several days afterward to find bodies bludgeoned to death in the camp’s tented health centers. Others had fallen, intravenous needles still in their arms, in the forests nearby. A local truck driver, who had been commandeered by the AFDL to help clean up the town after the attack, told me there were dead bodies everywhere, refugees who had been too weak to flee and had then been bayoneted by the soldiers. “They didn’t use bullets on the refugees—they used knives,” he told me. His eyes glazed over as he remembered the image of an infant sucking on his dead mother’s breast, trying in vain to get some sustenance from her cold body. Reverend Kapala, who had fled into the forest for one night and then returned, told me, “They killed any male refugee over the age of twelve. They slit their throats. Not the women or children. Just the men.”
However, when I separately asked the truck driver, the minister, and the Red Cross worker how each had felt about the AFDL, they all quickly responded, “It was a liberation! We were overjoyed.”
I was amazed. I pressed Reverend Kapala: “What about their killing of refugees? How can you call them liberators?”
He shrugged. “That was a Rwandan affair. It didn’t concern us.” He told me the story of a brave local man, who, during a public meeting shortly after the AFDL’s arrival, asked the local commander why they killed so much. “He answered, ‘Show me the Congolese we killed. There are none.’ And it was true. They didn’t kill any Congolese.”
This is one of the paradoxes of the first war. The population was so tired of Mobutu that they were ready to welcome their liberator on whatever terms. The Hutu refugees hadn’t been welcome in the first place; any massacre was their own business. For the local population, this paradox was resolved by separating the rebels into two groups: the aggressive Tutsi killers and the Congolese freedom fighters.
After their flight from Tingi-Tingi, the refugees marched toward Kisangani, only to find their path blocked again by the Zairian army at Ubundu, a small town sixty miles south of Kisangani. After several days, the local commander allowed Beatrice’s group to pass, in return for five hundred dollars. Leaders went around to the thousands of refugees, collecting tattered and soiled banknotes from different currencies until they had the sum. Most of the refugees, however, stayed behind, too tired or afraid to continue.
In the meantime, the AFDL had already conquered Kisangani, the country’s third largest city. Some 85,000 refugees were stuck in the camps along the train line between Ubundu and Kisangani. They knew that if the international community did not come to their rescue, they would be forced to follow Beatrice and the others, crossing the mighty Lualaba River and plunging once again into the inhospitable jungle, where there were no villages or food for dozens of miles.
Humanitarian organizations followed the refugee stream, hopscotching from one camp to the next, packing their bags every time the AFDL approached. They set up shop in various camps around Ubundu in early April, providing elementary health care and nutrition to the despondent refugees. The conditions they found were terrible: In some camps, mortality rates were five times higher than the technical definition of an “out-of-control emergency.”8 Nevertheless, by this time the AFDL soldiers had arrived in the camps and began regulating humanitarian access. Foreign health workers were only allowed into the camps for a few hours during the day.
Finally, on April 20, the AFDL soldiers made their move. Without warning, Rwandan soldiers shut down all humanitarian access to the camps south of Kisangani. When diplomats and aid workers asked, they were told the security situation had suddenly deteriorated. Then, several planeloads of well-equipped Rwandan soldiers arrived at Kisangani’s airport and immediately headed toward the camps. The next day, the Rwandan soldiers attacked them. Congolese workers in the camps reported well-armed soldiers in uniforms participating in the attack, lobbing mortars and grenades into the dense thicket of tents and people during the nighttime attack.9 One nurse working for Doctors Without Borders recalled: “One day, they dropped bombs on the camp; everybody fled, leaving everything behind and scattering in the equatorial forest—there were many dead. The AFDL put the cadavers into mass graves and burnt them.”10 When journalists and humanitarian organizations were allowed back to the camps three days later, they found them ransacked. The thousands of refugees who were there had all disappeared. Doctors Without Borders had been providing medical treatment to 6,250 patients who were too weak even to walk short distances. When they didn’t find any trace of them after one week, they assumed they had died, either violently or from disease and malnutrition.
How many of the Rwandan Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda during the genocide died in the Congo? From the beginning, the refugee crisis was bogged down in number games. One major problem was the lack of a starting figure: Rwandan officials challenged the United Nations’ figure of 1.1 million refugees in the camps before the invasion, arguing that aid estimates err on the high side so that no one is deprived of food or medicine. The ex-FAR and former government officials in the camps had refused to allow a census, themselves inflating their population in order to receive more aid. Doctors Without Borders’ estimate was 950,000, although Rwandan officials sometimes place it even lower. In the early days of the AFDL invasion, between 400,000 and 650,000 refugees returned to Rwanda, and a further 320,000 refugees were either settled in UN camps or repatriated over the course of 1997, a total of 720,000 to 970,000 refugees. As the starting figure is not clear, this number is not very helpful: Anywhere between zero and 380,000 refugees could still have been missing.11 Also, just because refugees were missing, they weren’t necessarily dead. Some had repatriated spontaneously, without UNHCR help; many others were hiding in the mountains of the eastern Congo, and others had settled with friends and relatives in villages and cities across the region.
It is more fruitful to base estimates on eyewitness accounts. When in July 1997, after eight months of walking, a group of refugees arrived on the other side of the Congo River in neighboring Republic of Congo, Doctors Without Borders conducted a survey of 266 randomly selected people, asking them how many members of their families had survived the trek. The result was disturbing: Only 17.5 percent of people in their families had made it, while 20 percent had been killed and a further 60 percent had disappeared, meaning they had been separated from them at some point in the journey. Over half of those killed were women; it wasn’t just ex-FAR being hunted down. If that survey was representative of the rest of the refugees—the sample size is too small to be wholly reliable—then at least 60,000 refugees had been killed, while the whereabouts of another 180,000 were unknown.
Reports by journalists and human rights groups confirm this magnitude of the killings. Although the AFDL repeatedly denied access to international human rights investigators, making it difficult to confirm many reports issued by churches and civil society groups, there is no doubt that massacres took place. The UN human rights envoy, the Chilean judge Roberto Garreton, received reports from local groups that between 8,000 and 12,000 people were massacred by the AFDL in the eastern Congo, including Congolese Hutu who were accused of complicity with the ex-FAR. In the Chimanga refugee camp forty miles west of Bukavu, eyewitness reports collected by Amnesty International tell of forty AFDL soldiers separating about five hundred men from women and children and murdering them. Close by, a Voice of America reporter found a mass grave containing the remains of a hundred people who, according to villagers, were refugees massacred by the rebels. Rwandan Bibles and identity cards were scattered amid human remains and UN food bags.12 In the Hutu villages I visited north of Goma a decade later, villagers consistently spoke of RPF commanders calling meetings and then tying up and executing dozens of men. They showed me cisterns and latrines with skeletal remains still showing.
Finally, more than a decade after the massacres, a UN team went back to investigate some of the worst massacres of the Congo wars, including those against the Hutu refugees. They interviewed over a hundred witnesses of the refugee massacres, including people who had survived and some who had helped bury the victims. They concluded that Rwandan troops and their AFDL allies killed tens of thousands of refugees, mostly in cold blood. These were not people caught in the crossfire: The report details how the invading troops singled out and killed the refugees, often with hatchets, stones, or knives. “The majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and the sick, who posed no threat to the attacking forces.”13 Controversially, the report concludes that the Rwandan troops may have been guilty of acts of genocide against the Hutu, given the systematic nature of the killing.14
One of the few places where refugees were killed in plain sight of hundreds of Congolese eyewitnesses was in Mbandaka, where the Congo River separates the Democratic Republic of the Congo from the smaller, former French colony, the Republic of the Congo. The Rwandan army and its Congolese allies had by this time pursued the refugees for over 1,000 miles over mountains, through jungles and savannahs. At Mbandaka, the refugees were blocked by the expanse of the Congo River, which is over a mile wide at that point.
A curious sight greeted the Rwandan troops and the AFDL: Throngs of locals waved palm fronds and sang joyously, while thousands of refugees made a run for the river, trying to board a barge. Others threw themselves into the river, trying to swim across the swiftly moving water, preferring to face crocodiles and hippos than RPF soldiers. The welcoming committee watched in horror as their “liberators” drove the refugees off the boat, made them kneel on the embankment with their hands behind their heads, and executed over a hundred of them. Many were bludgeoned to death with rifle butts or clubs. A local priest saw AFDL soldiers kill an infant by beating its head against a concrete wall. In Mbandaka and another nearby town, Red Cross workers buried some nine hundred bodies. “The alliance fighters told us they only killed former soldiers guilty of murdering many Tutsi people in Rwanda,” a Red Cross worker told another journalist. “Yet with my own hands I buried small children whose heads were crushed by rifle butts. Buried those poor little ones and women, too.”15 Bodies of others who had probably drowned were seen snagged in the floating clumps of water hyacinth in the Congo River. In total, between 200 and 2,000 were killed on the banks of the river.
The inescapable truth is that tens of thousands of refugees were killed, while more probably died from disease and starvation as they were forced into the inhospitable jungles to the west. No thorough investigation has ever been carried out. Most of the victims don’t have graves, monuments, or even a simple mention in a document or a report to commemorate them.
Why did the Rwandan soldiers kill so many refugees? There were certainly some individual cases of revenge, as there had been in Rwanda when the RPF arrived. After all, many RPF soldiers had lost family members and wanted payback.
The Rwandan army, however, was known for its strict discipline and tight command and control. It is very unlikely that soldiers would have been able to carry out such large-scale executions as in Mbandaka, for example, without an order from their commanders. Attesting to that possibility, a Belgian missionary told a journalist: “The soldiers acted as if they were just doing their job, following orders. They didn’t seem out of control.”16 In other words, even if these were revenge killings, they were carried out systematically, with the knowledge and complicity of the command structure. UN investigators also concluded that in many cases the massacres were carried out in the presence of high-ranking Rwandan officers and by those following orders from above.
Other scholars—such as Alison Des Forges, one of the foremost chroniclers of the genocide—believe that the RPF was trying to prevent another Rwandan refugee diaspora from being created that would one day, much like the RPF in its own history, return to threaten its regime.
Papy Kamanzi, the Tutsi who had joined the RPF in 1993, was deployed in the “clean-up operations” against the ex-FAR to the north of Goma. He recalled: “Thousands returned to Rwanda on their own. But there were some remaining in the area, those who couldn’t flee and couldn’t return home. The sick and weak. We lied to them. We said we would send them home; we even cooked food for them. But then we took them into the forest. We had a small hatchet we carried on our backs, an agafuni. We killed with that. There was a briefing, an order to do so.” He showed me the place at the back of the skull, just above the nape of the neck.
Shortly afterwards, Papy was deployed to Goma, where he worked for the Rwandan army’s intelligence branch. He considered it an honor. It was an elite group of sixty young soldiers, mostly Congolese Tutsi, who were charged with hunting down “subversives.”
They were put under the command of the Rwandan intelligence chief Major Jack Nziza, a discreet, sinister character. His definition of “subversive” was broad: people who were known to have supported Habyarimana’s government; members of any of the various Hutu militias; people known to oppose the AFDL; people who had personal conflicts with Rwandan officers. Sometimes, just being a Rwandan refugee—women and children included, Papy specified—was enough. They would take them to two sites they used, a house belonging to Mobutu’s former Central Bank governor and a quarry to the north of Goma. There they would interrogate them and then kill them.
“We could do over a hundred a day,” Papy told me. I had a hard time believing him; it seemed so outrageous. “We used ropes, it was the fastest way and we didn’t spill blood. Two of us would place a guy on the ground, wrap a rope around his neck once, then pull hard.” It would break the victim’s windpipe and then strangle him to death. There was little noise or fuss.
I asked Papy why he did it. It was an order, he replied. Why did your commander want to do it? He shrugged. That was the mentality at the time. They needed to fear the AFDL. They had committed genocide. It was revenge, he said. But it was also a warning: Don’t try to mess with us.
Beatrice spent fourteen months crossing the Congo, forced to hide for months in jungle villages where Congolese families took her in. Finally, at the end of 1997, a Belgian friend who had been looking for her for over a year managed to find her with the help of a local Congolese organization. In early 1998, four years after she had fled Rwanda, she arrived in Belgium. She had lost many of her friends and family. It took years for her body to recover, although she would never be free from the nightmares that plagued her. “I still dream of what happened sometimes. I feel guilty for having survived, for leaving my friends behind.” 17
Sixteen years after the Rwandan genocide, it remains difficult to write about Rwandan history. For many, the moral shock of the Rwandan genocide was so overpowering that it eclipsed all subsequent events in the region. Massacres that came after were always measured up against the immensity of the genocide: If 80,000 refugees died in the Congo, that may be terrible but nonetheless minor compared with the 800,000 in Rwanda. The Rwandan government may have overstepped, but isn’t that understandable given the tragedy the people suffered?
In addition, many argued that accountability would destabilize Rwanda’s fledgling RPF government, so it was better to sweep a few uncomfortable truths under the carpet than undermine its fragile authority. This kind of logic would crop up again and again throughout the Congo war: War is ugly, and you can’t build a state on diplomacy alone. If we push too hard for justice, we will only undermine the peace process. An American diplomat asked me, “Did we have prosecutions after the American Civil War? No. Did the South Africans ever try the apartheid regime? Not really. Why should we ask them to do it here?”
The dour shadow that the genocide cast over the refugee crisis was evident already in April 1995, when RPF soldiers opened fire on a camp of displaced Hutu peasants in Kibeho, Rwanda, killing between 1,500 and 5,000 people. At the time, the American defense attaché in Kigali remarked, “The 2,000 deaths were tragic; on the Rwandan scene the killings were hardly a major roadblock to further progress. Compared to the 800,000 dead in the genocide, the 2,000 dead was but a speed bump.”18 A similar logic drove the U.S. ambassador in Kigali to write a confidential coded cable to Washington in January 1997, with the following advice regarding the Tingi-Tingi refugee camp: “We should pull out of Tingi-Tingi and stop feeding the killers who will run away to look for other sustenance, leaving their hostages behind.... If we do not we will be trading the children in Tingi-Tingi for the children who will be killed and orphaned in Rwanda.”19
When I met her in Belgium, Beatrice seemed tired of this kind of reasoning. “Why do they have to measure one injustice in terms of another?” she asked. “Was the massacre of thousands of innocent people somehow more acceptable because hundreds of thousands had been killed in Rwanda?”