Prison of the Past: A Reporter Revisits His ‘Shameful’ Coverage of Rwanda

AFRICA, 7 Apr 2014

Bartholomäus Grill – Der Spiegel

Twenty years ago on April 6, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda began. At the time, many Western reporters played it down as “ethnic warfare,” including Bartholomäus Grill, now a correspondent for SPIEGEL. He looks back with shame.

Ruanda 20 Jahre nach dem Genozid

It was April 1994, and Princess was infected by the feverish mood that had taken hold in all of South Africa at the time. She was our housekeeper in Johannesburg, a plump, sedate and humorous woman, whose real name was Nolizwe Mneno. She had changed her name to make it easier for white people to remember.

The first free election in the country’s history was slated for the end of the month, an election in which all citizens — black and white — would participate for the first time. The end of apartheid made headlines around the world, an epochal event with more than 400 correspondents reporting on it. I was one of them.

On April 16, 11 days before the “mother of all elections,” a press contingent accompanied Nelson Mandela, the future president, to the Umlazi Township near Durban. It was one of his final appearances before the election, and about 50,000 people had gathered for an open-air rally, dancing, singing and celebrating the freedom fighter as though he were the Messiah.

White domination was coming to an end; an African dream was becoming a reality. It was the news story of the day, but only because no one — including me — was aware of the sheer magnitude of the nightmare unfolding in the center of the continent at the same time. I was working for the German weekly Die Zeit at the time and, like others, I too wrote unforgivable stories from afar for which I am ashamed today, 20 years later.


The first reports from Rwanda, 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to the north, were confusing: accounts of military showdowns, bloody unrest, ethnic squabbles and fraternal strife. SPIEGEL published a story in its 16/1994 edition which spoke of “anarchy that feeds on itself.” Rwanda was dismissed as a typically African conflict. “Rwanda?” a British colleague asked, “Oh, it’s just the Tutsi and the Hutu smashing each other’s heads in. It’s never-ending tribal warfare.”

The “tribal warfare” was in fact genocide, the most horrific since the Nazi murder of Jews during the Holocaust and “Killing Fields” of Cambodia.

“We were left alone. The entire world looked the other way,” says Jonathan Nturo, 34, a slender, small-boned man. He is sharply dressed, wearing a red leather jacket, Burberry jeans and sunglasses. He wants to look cool when he visits the hell he managed to escape.

A Mystery to This Day

Standing on a hilltop in Murambi, a scattered settlement in southern Rwanda, Nturo recounts how he and his family and their five head of cattle arrived there. He describes how they, together with tens of thousands of terrified people, set up an emergency camp on a construction site for a high school, next to the same three, now-rusty yellow cement mixers that are still standing there today. Government troops had promised to protect the refugees, and they were still hopeful they would escape the mass murderers. Jonathan Nturo was 14 at the time.

On April 6, at 8:20 p.m., a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down as it approached the airport in the capital Kigali. The circumstances of the incident remain a mystery to this day. But the apparent assassination marked the beginning of the genocide. That same night, the presidential guard and Interahamwe militias (“fighting together” in the official Rwandan language Kinyarwanda) went on a murderous and incendiary rampage through the streets of Kigali. A group of fanatical Hutu had seized power and decided to wipe out the Tutsi minority, which made up about 10 percent of the population, once and for all. The violence swept across the entire country within a week.

“My father didn’t want to believe it at first,” Nturo recalls. “Only when villages began burning in our region and three of my siblings had been killed did we leave and head for Murambi.” They reached what they believed was a relative safe-haven on April 10, at around 4 p.m.

At 10:30 that evening, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, in Kigali, called his operations center in New York. The Canadian officer was the head of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Its mandate was to keep the fragile peace and safeguard the transition to democracy that had been negotiated in the 1993 Arusha Accords.

For months, Dallaire had been issuing dire warnings about escalating violence in Rwanda. In January, he had reported on secret weapons caches, hit lists and death squads in an encrypted telex. Now the peacekeepers’ worst-case scenario had become a reality. Dallaire requested immediate reinforcements, arguing that disaster could be averted with about 4,000 troops and a strong mandate. But his superiors in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, headed by the later UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, turned down the request. They refused to believe that a crime against humanity was about to unfold in Rwanda.

‘African Holocaust’

During the next 100 days, the Hutu regime and its accomplices murdered some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu — the equivalent of five killings a minute. It is likely that never before in human history had so many perpetrators murdered so many people in such a short period of time. Roméo Dallaire would characterize it as an “African Holocaust.”

The inferno erupted in Murambi at 3 a.m. on April 21. Suddenly, soldiers began shooting indiscriminately into the crowd and tossing hand grenades, says Nturo. An hour later, militias from the surrounding hills forced their way into the camp and started systematically slaughtering the helpless refugees, using machetes, knives, spears, sickles, hoes and clubs.

The Nturo family was torn apart in the chaos. Jonathan joined a group of young men who desperately tried to defend themselves by throwing bricks from the construction site at the assailants. But they were greatly outnumbered. Almost miraculously, about 100 of the trapped refugees, including Nturo, managed to escape in the midst of army gunfire. They ran down into the valley and swam across the Murambi River.

Nturo points to a banana grove on the opposite hillside, where he hid in the early morning hours. He is trying not to let on how disturbing the memories are to him.

Nevertheless, he seems distraught, gesticulating wildly, speaking quickly and stuttering occasionally. “We are afraid to talk about it,” he says. He tells us about the sleepless nights when the ghosts of the past return to haunt him, and about the unsuccessful attempts to treat him for post-traumatic stress disorder in therapy.

At least 40,000 people died in Murambi, the scene of one of the most horrific massacres. No one knows the exact death toll, but skeletons are still being found in the area today. “Kubera umurimo wari wakozwe” (“You’ve done good work”), the prefect of the Gikongoro administrative district said, thanking the hordes of killers.

The first TV images appearing around the world during those initial days were so monstrous and inconceivable that commentators referred to the slaughter as an “aberration of nature,” a murderous frenzy, a “maladie de tuer,” or “killing sickness” — as if the genocide had descended on Rwanda like an insidious virus.

Naive Global Press

Today we know that the genocide was not the work of archaic, chaotic powers, but of an educated, modern elite that availed itself of all the tools of a highly organized state: the military and the police, the intelligence services and militias, the government bureaucracy and the mass media. The killers were no demons but the henchmen of a criminal system. They pursued a simple logic of extermination: If we don’t wipe out them, the Tutsi, they will destroy us, the Hutu.

A national memorial was built in Murambi, where the unfinished school buildings were left untouched. “The media didn’t describe what happened here as genocide, but as ethnic warfare,” the first informational panel reads. Rwandans haven’t forgotten how naïve the global press was at the time.

The murderous excesses had nothing at all to do with “tribal warfare.” The Hutu and the Tutsi have shared language, customs and culture for centuries. There were mixed marriages, and many Rwandans were unable to tell whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi. The causes of the tragedy were to be found elsewhere: the pressures of overpopulation in a small, agricultural country, the struggle over scarce resources, colonial segregation policies that had fueled latent racism between the ethnic groups and the ruling elite’s thirst for power.

A sickening stench of decay emerges from the open doors of the classrooms in Murambi. Hundreds of chalk-wide bodies, preserved in lime, lie on wooden platforms inside, people with severed limbs, beheaded children, crushed skulls with spearheads protruding from them, women whose legs were ripped apart to rape them — and faces frozen in expressions of horror.

Time Standing Still

There is probably no other memorial in the world where human bestiality is on such blatant and brutal display. Nturo pushes his Ray Bans up onto his forehead. He has stopped speaking and is fighting back tears.

He only finds his voice again when he goes back outside, stepping onto a concrete slab overgrown with grass. “Under here is the mass grave that the French played volleyball on top of,” he says. The French, who had cultivated a close friendship with the Hutu regime, supplied it with weapons, advised its military and trained its militias. The French also sent a “rescue mission” to Rwanda, Opération Turquoise, when the murderous orgies were over. It created a safety corridor through which the killers, mingled in with hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, were able to escape to Burundi or Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Some boys holding up homemade pinwheels wave at us as we drive away from the memorial. “The normalcy is eerie,” says Nturo. “Sometimes I’m amazed that grass still grows here, that life goes on.”

He wants to go up to Gataba, where his father and brother were beaten to death. They too managed to flee from Murambi, but they only made it to the small village on the next hill. We encounter a man on a bicycle with a stack of brand-new machetes on his rack. The smooth blades glitter in the sunshine.

Nturo intended to speak with the wife of the man who murdered his family members. But as we drive slowly past her shop, he loses his resolve. “No, not today,” he says. “The mood is strange.” In fact, the mood is hostile, as people on the village square stare at our off-road vehicle. Nturo doesn’t want us to get out to interview them. Their answers, he says, can be read in their suspicious faces: Here comes that guy with journalists, stirring up the old stories. It’s time to finally let it go. After all, as they would argue, the “incidents” happened two decades ago, and the past is the past.

But the past refuses to go away, not for Nturo, and not here in Gataba. The bodies were lying on the ground in front of a white-tiled market stand, a sort of sales counter where the meat of cattle and goats was cut up. Four men beat his father and brother to death, says Nturo. Their leader, a wealthy businessman, is now in prison and his wife is running his affairs. Perpetrators and victims live side-by-side in Gataba, with its majority Hutu and minority Tutsi population.

‘It’s Justice’

Some try to suppress what happened 20 years ago, while others are unable to forget. Those who are too vocal about the Hutu-Tutsi question are accused of “divisionism” and given severe penalties for making incendiary remarks. Rwanda’s authoritarian government, which has ordered reconciliation, is still headed by President Paul Kagame, the Tutsi whose rebel army captured the country in 1994 and ended the genocide. Today Rwanda is an economic success, a dictatorship in the developing world modeled after China or Singapore. And just as in those places, anyone who opposes the regime is harassed and silenced, if necessary.

On the trip back to Kigali, we see prison gangs working in rice fields on the valley floor. Ordinary criminals are wearing pink prison uniforms, and from a distance they look like a group of flamingos. In their midst are some dressed in bright orange: They have been convicted of committing acts of genocide. “Everyone should see that they were ‘génocidaires.’ They must pay for their crimes. It’s justice,” says Nturo.

He grew in an extended family of 14, but he and his mother along with two sisters and one brother were the only ones to survive the massacres. He has often been asked to guide tours in Murambi, but has always refused. He has built a tall, protective wall around himself, a wall that begins to crumble whenever he returns to this place of death. His strategy for overcoming the past is to suppress it, through hard work and professional success. He studied business and finance administration at the University of Butare and he earns a good living in his job at an aid organization. He lives alone in Kigali. He doesn’t want to be reduced to an “Abarokotse,” or a survivor who is eternally imprisoned by his memory.

Some Rwandans are innocent captives, including Dancille Nyirabazungu, who has been locked in the prison of the past for the last 20 years. Time has stood still for her since April 1994, she says. Every day, her poverty reminds her of the massacre that took place in the church in Ntarama, not far from her hut. She lost 20 family members and relatives, five of her nine children were killed and her husband was hacked to death with machetes in front of the church altar.

The 61-year-old now lives with her son and two grandchildren in a house consisting of two small, dark rooms. There are no tables or chairs, there is no electricity or running water, just an outhouse in the vegetable garden. Nyirabazungu has just come home from work, her clothes are tattered and dusty. Her job consists of dragging around stones on a construction site, for a daily wage of just under €1.

A Large, Dark Stain

Ntarama is in the Bugesera district, a swampy, inhospitable stretch of land plagued by mosquitoes and where, in the first major pogroms in the late 1950s, many Tutsi fled or were forcibly relocated. In April 1994, during the time of “Itumba,” or heavy rain, they were to be destroyed once and for all, like vermin. The hate-obsessed Hutu called them “Inyenzi,” or cockroaches.

Thousands of Tutsi fled from the surrounding areas to the church in Ntarama, in the hope that this holy place would be protected, because many of the persecutors were devout Catholics who, like their victims, attended mass every Sunday. Dancille Nyirabazungu and her family also sought protection in the church. But on April 15, at 8 a.m., militias surrounded the building. They beat holes into the brick walls of the church and threw hand grenades inside. Then they forced their way into the building and killed those who were still alive.

A large, dark stain — the blood of battered babies — is still visible on the front wall of the building next door, which once housed the Sunday school. There is a stick leaning against the wall. “That,” says Nyirabazungu, “is what they used to skewer the women, from their vaginas to the tops of their heads.” Her voice is flat and matter-of-fact, and if it weren’t for her eyes, it would seem as if she felt no emotion whatsoever. But the horrors of that day are permanently etched into those eyes.

Why? Why? She repeats the question over and over again. Why? She has no explanation for the acts of barbarism. How could one explain that doctors killed their patients in their hospital beds; that teachers massacred their students; that nuns poured gasoline on parishioners and set them on fire?

“Keep going! The graves aren’t full yet!” announcers with the national radio station, Radio Milles Collines, told the unfettered mob. Killing became a civil duty of sorts, and ordinary people, raised to obey authority, complied. They kept on killing, driven by fear, hate and bloodlust, and by greed for the victims’ property.

A Dark Feeling of Foreboding

Nyirabazungu, 41 at the time, hid in the vestry under piles of bodies, pregnant with her son Eric. He was born in June 1994, a child of the genocide. She gave him a second name, Rucyamubicyika, or “He who has survived terrible things.”

Where was God in those days of murder? “He was here, or else we wouldn’t have survived,” says Nyirabazungu. And then she asks, in return: “Where were you? Why didn’t you help us?”


These kinds of questions still shame me today. It wasn’t just the UN, the West and other African nations that failed; it was also journalists, like me. We ran after the big story in South Africa, paying little attention to Rwanda or merely spreading clichés about the country.

On April 15, when the massacre in Ntarama was in full swing, my quickly written remote analysis was published in Die Zeit. I told tales of the “gruesome tribal war” in the heart of Africa, where everyone was fighting against everyone else. Bellum omnium contra omnes — the Latin phrase always fits when you know little about what is actually happening.

At the end, I wrote that foreign intervention was probably pointless. That report contains the most unforgivable mistakes I have ever made in my professional life.

On Sunday, April 24, 1994, it was as silent as a grave in the Catholic church of Ntarama. The bodies were lying between the pews; it was a scene of unspeakable horror. Piles of corpses lay in the church courtyard, in the surrounding bush and in the swamps in the valley below.

But on that same Sunday, the congregation in Regina Mundi Church, the largest Catholic church in Soweto, was singing. The early mass had begun, the election was only three days away, and the people were gripped by euphoria. They sang the national anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, or God Protect Africa, as they celebrated life, freedom and the future. We reporters were swept up by the feeling of elation, and some sang along with the congregation.

There were holes in the ceiling, from the bullets white soldiers fired while hunting down black resistance fighters. But by then, the violent excesses of apartheid were nothing but vague memories. And in those hours of happiness, the violent excesses of Rwanda had not yet entered our consciousness, not even as a dark feeling of foreboding.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan.

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