UN Peacekeepers in Kigali 1994 - Hamilton Wende

Reflections on 30 Years After the Rwandan Genocide

The images, and the memories, never go away, even after nearly 30 years. Recalling them, or looking at photographs from that time, always raises my heartbeat - fear runs through in my head, it always happens, making me feel the old ghosts rising up.

I feel constricted inside; my throat gags slightly and my eyes fill with tears, as powerful, unresolved emotions rush through me, swirling through my body, taking me in some actual, physical flashbacks to the very roads, and villages and green hills of that country of the past, and the blood-drenched slaughter that filled its cool, bright, sunlit air.

These same feelings have undone so many of my comrades. Some of them are forced into early retirement, paralyzing uncertainty, others have suffered sudden, unexpected breakdowns, even weeks-long hospitalization. Three decades have passed and the shock of it all never goes away. I have been lucky. I carry the burden of what we witnessed, and, at times, it is heavy indeed, but I have been able to carry on.

It is our remembering and our lived experiences of covering the genocide in Rwanda that haunt us so. Let’s be clear from the outset: our feelings are nothing – and I really mean this from the deepest part of my humanity – absolutely nothing, in comparison to those who were the actual victims of this boundless slaughter.

They carry psychic wounds that the rest of us can only dimly imagine. And I have only the deepest honour and respect for those who have survived and now continue to build their lives, in spite of what they must always carry with them.

And it is that respect for them and their survival through the horror of what I beheld of their story that inspires me still today. I experienced only a miniscule part of their pain and terror and yet I would be less than human if it hadn’t affected me deeply. I spent two weeks as part of a BBC crew covering the genocide in Rwanda while it was still going on. I, along with journalistic colleagues, aid workers, a few priests, brave UN peacekeepers and some stranded diplomats – we came from outside and who saw what was happening to Rwandans themselves.

The truth of the genocide is so bitterly well-known today, I won’t go into a catalogue of brutality here, although I believe that each story that we uncover, each victim’s testimony, must be told, and recorded as well as we can for all the world to see, and to know, forever. And the work of holding the guilty liable must continue forever too – as in the recent arrest of Fulgence Kayishema.

Stories are the way we try to make sense of the world. Their meanings, the incidents that make up their narratives, and, often, even their very endings, shift and flow as we learn new facts about what happened, we are reminded of extra things, or see them in a fresh way as we experience the growth of our lives.

For nearly 16 years now I have had a particular story unfolding in my life that emerges from being there, in Rwanda, while the genocide was taking place. Like so much in life, it transpired unexpectedly, years after I had left Rwanda – a small, uncertain connection that might so easily have slipped away into our electronic world of endless busyness and frustrated information overload.

It was an email from the husband of someone called Beata, who had been a young girl on a convoy of Tutsi children being evacuated by a Swiss aid agency in June of 1994 from the city of Butare in southern Rwanda, across the border to safety in Burundi. We filmed the convoy for our BBC film. It was a powerful story of fear, of the fragility of survival and of the complex choices people made in the midst of the terror engulfing them.

In Butare we came across the préfet (local governor) named Sylvain Nsabimana who, along with a few soldiers from the genocidal army of the Hutu-dominated Rwandan army, was sheltering perhaps 200 Tutsi refugees in the grounds of his office.

It was a profound relief to meet him. We were so mentally exhausted and deeply traumatised that he literally appeared to us as a saviour, not only of the relatively few Tutsis he was harbouring, but of the possibility of still finding compassion and courage at that terrible time.

It was spiritually astounding to have discovered one person who had found the inner resources to stand against what we had found on our long, terrifying journey through the genocide-ravaged country. The nightmare realm of spilled red blood soaked against church walls as high as a man was tall. Of the desiccated skeleton of a young girl in a polka dot dress with her white-boned skull sliced neatly open by an almost clinically straight, infinitely dark, line. Of the smell of rotting bodies discovered in the driveway next door to our safe house, their hands tied behind their backs with wire and their noses sliced off.

To stand against this, and against the agonizing fate of nearly a million more, hounded to their deaths in so many gruesome ways, that was incredible – he appeared as a miracle to us, and we told our story that way.

A year later, the story shifted. I was covering the first anniversary of the genocide and found myself sitting at a table in the tropical garden of the Milles Collines hotel – the real Hotel Rwanda. Peace reigned in Kigali and birdsong now filled the fragrant air, where, a year before, we heard only machine-gun fire and mortars screaming over the gentle hills.

In that now peaceful garden, I learned new facts about Nsabimana. Rakiya Omar of the NGO African Rights, sat opposite me at a table in the garden and told me: “The BBC got it all wrong in their film. I found out that Nsabimana wasn’t such a nice person after all.”

I worked on that film, I replied. There was no doubt, I said hesitantly, that when we arrived in Butare, he was protecting a number of Tutsis and that he definitely cooperated with the aid agency for those Tutsi orphans to be evacuated.

“Yes,” she told me. “There is no doubt that he saved people, but he, also killed.” She hesitated for a moment. “It’s just one more example of how incredibly complex the situation in Rwanda is.”

The story of optimism and compassion that I carried with me had changed. Dramatically. At the time, in 1995, in my book, True North, African Roads Less Travelled, I wrote: “Whether Nsabimana is guilty or not, remains to be seen.”

And so, the story shifted, again and again. A year or so after that, I was visited at my home in Johannesburg by two prosecutors of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. They wanted my copy of the BBC film I had worked on to use for their case against Nsabimana. I wasn’t prepared to give them my only copy of the film – a battered VHS tape that I had recorded off air for my own archive.

I have often wondered about my reluctance. Of course, there was a technical aspect to it. Getting a copy of a film in those days was extremely difficult.

But there was something deeper than that. What happened in Rwanda had seared my soul; perhaps, if you would like to be more scientifically objective, it had damaged my psyche. I knew, even then, that I would spend some part of the rest of my life unravelling those deep-rooted experiences and the frightening moral challenges that I had encountered among many of the people I met.

I wanted that tape so, through its recorded images, I could remain always at least partially sure of what it was that I had seen.

And then, shortly after 9/11, in an internet café in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after a journey into Afghanistan to the edge of the frontlines with the Taliban, I checked my email for the first time in weeks. There was a message from Nsabimana’s lawyer: would I be willing to testify in his defence at the Tribunal?

I wasn’t sure how to reply. I hadn’t been following the case against him, and internet searches were still in their infancy, so I had no real idea of the extent of his guilt, but my belief and urgent wish for the truth of his courage and innocence had been shattered.

The story was shifting yet again.

The world was consumed by the so-called ‘War on Terror” then, and in the years that followed, my involvement in Rwanda, both physically and psychologically, became an undercurrent in my life. I covered the invasion of Iraq and some of its chaotic, bloody aftermath in the streets of Baghdad. What I had seen of the depths of human violence in the valleys and streets of Rwanda was reflected both in the callous dishonesty of George Bush and Tony Blair in falsely drumming up a pretext for war and then unleashing such an inferno of 21st technological destruction on the people of Iraq; and, equally, in the diabolical sadism perpetrated by Al Qaeda and ISIS that shattered the region.

Amidst all this new viciousness, Rwanda did not leave me. It remained for me, and for the world, an unforgotten testament to the ultimate breaking of the human heart, to the depths of barbarity that humankind could sink to.

Genocidal roadblocks in Rwanda – Hamilton Wende

In June 2011, shortly before another trip to Afghanistan, I learned that the Tribunal had found Nsabimana guilty of aiding and abetting genocide, of crimes against humanity, and of serious violations of the Geneva Conventions.

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The court found that he had failed to discharge his legal “duty to act to protect those vulnerable people within his realm.”

He was, however, pronounced not guilty of conspiracy to commit genocide, and not guilty of actively and publicly inciting genocide.

The court specifically stated that it had not found that Nsabimana “was a direct perpetrator in any massacre or killing perpetrated in Butare prefecture, or that he ordered or was in any other way directly associated with any given attack.”

The court maintained that the charges against him were indeed serious and, although he deserved “substantial mitigation” for participating in the crimes “indirectly through his omission” of his duty, this did not absolve him from guilt as an aider and abettor of the killings.

His story is complex, and is one that I have pieced together mostly from trial records, and a report from human rights Human Rights Watch over the years that his presence has haunted my mind.

In brief, the préfet before him, Jean-Baptiste Habyalimana, who was ethnically Tutsi, tried to protect people as the genocide began on the night of April 6, 1994. But, despite his efforts, within a week, the killing of Tutsis began in the areas surrounding Butare, although it was limited. On April 17, Radio Rwanda announced that he was no longer préfet. The next day, large-scale murder began, although there were some areas of relative calm where, in some of them, the roadblocks were even manned by both Tutsis and Hutus, trying to prevent the violence that was sweeping through the rest of the country.

Threats from Hutu extremists forced Habyalimana and his family into hiding. He was discovered in mid-May and murdered. Extremists slaughtered his family in late June.

The extremists chose Sylvain Nsabimana to take over. At first, he resisted the appointment, and the precise events surrounding his appointment are unclear. Three days later, though, the radio announced that he would be the new préfet, and on April 19 he was sworn in.

At his trial, his defence submitted that he had no other choice but to accept his post because he “feared for himself and his family if he refused.”

Mass killings began in earnest the next day.

This was the moment that Nsabimana’s responsibility for what happened began. For the next two months, there was a ruthless campaign of “abductions, rapes and slaughter that targeted Tutsi civilians.”

The court did not find that “Nsabimana was a direct perpetrator in any massacre or killing perpetrated in Butare préfecture or that he ordered or was in any way associated with any given attack.”

On June 17 Sylvain Nsabimana was removed from his post by the extremists, and replaced with Alphonse Nteziryayo, who, they believed, would carry out the plan to completely exterminate Tutsis more effectively than Nsabimana.

We arrived in Butare on June 16, unaware of the complex politics surrounding Nsabimana, and how exactly he managed his last hours as préfet are unclear, but when we arrived, we found those 200 Tutsis protected on his orders inside the grounds of the préfecture office. “I will protect them as far as I can,” Nsabimana told us that day. That night we fell asleep in our hotel with men walking up and down the road outside carrying machetes.

On June 17, we filmed around town and spoke to people who were wary and defensive, blaming Tutsis for the carnage, one even saying to us it was the Tutsis who killed their own and then showed us the bodies. The atmosphere grew more hostile as each hour passed.

Sometime in these hours, Nsabimana was officially replaced. And yet, the next morning, on the 18th, the Swiss aid agency Terre des Hommes evacuated some 200 children to Burundi, through some 14 roadblocks manned by the military and the extremist Interahamwe.

Nsabimana cooperated with them. He led the convoy of container trucks carrying the children to the border in his black Mercedes. We didn’t fully understand then, but, in fact, he no longer had the clear authority to do this. He was acting, it seems, of his own volition. His motives are unclear, but certainly he exposed himself to a great deal of risk in doing so.

Nsabimana has served his sentence, and he is now a free man.

Of course, the propensity of humanity for cruelty is nothing new, but to experience the utter depths of it oneself, is something bitterly new for every one of us. I remember someone asking me after I came out of Rwanda: “What was it like?”

“You have to relearn the meaning of beauty,” I told her. When I came out of Rwanda and saw all the well-dressed tourists in their colourful clothes on the balcony of the hotel in Nairobi, I felt somehow distanced from them, and from everything around me, as if I were viewing the world from inside a glass container. I felt the same arriving home in Johannesburg, somehow the world had shifted irrevocably for me. I had seen things that no human should ever see, and, for a time, I could not relate to ordinary life. I felt constantly that I was falling off a shelf, plunging into a nightmare, while others around me carried on oblivious, as if in a dream that surrounded my nightmare. I still feel angry within this perception of mine towards the normal world. It is an echo of helpless rage, that, thank God, has not overwhelmed me. It is a longing for judgement, for the world to finally understand. And to stop it from happening. Now, without hesitation. It is deeply irrational, but that’s what PTSD will do to you.

To unlearn it again in Iraq and Afghanistan was hard, especially amongst the bodies in the smoking ruins of what had once been the International Committee of the Red Cross hospital in Baghdad in October 2003, blown up by suicide bombers who drove a car that looked like an ambulance. There I was reminded again that killers like those in Rwanda had no unique capacity for pitilessness.

But somehow, through all of that, my outrage at Nsabimana’s betrayal never left me. The complexity of his choices was superficially simple to condemn. He was guilty of crimes against humanity; and yet, he had saved some lives. There was clearly a self-serving motive to this, and he had used us, as a BBC crew, to tell a distorted story of his goodness. That, in itself, didn’t bother me too much, it could be expected, even understood; but the brutal truth of his involvement in the genocide, even by default, in the deliberate attempt to exterminate the Tutsis and moderate Hutus disturbed me greatly.

Yet there were children, now adults, like Beata, alive because of choices he had made.

The memory of Nsabimana will never leave me. Debating his guilt or innocence took over a decade in a courtroom and generated 125 000 pages of transcripts. I will always know in my heart that in meeting him, I learned that the moral complexity of the human condition when faced with utter evil is ultimately unknowable. We must indeed make judgements based on the evidence available to us – just as judgement was passed on Nsabimana. We must hold evildoers accountable for their actions. But the spiritual dimension of the choices they made – the malevolent deeds they chose to commit and the saving actions that some, like Nsabimana, also chose to undertake are not so easy to balance within the clouded agonizing of the human soul. I cannot truly understand; I can only tell, again and again, of what I saw and heard. And in that very telling and retelling of it as the years go by, I take meaning from the fact that I reported on such suffering and such horror.

But it is the meaning of that convoy from Butare that has changed dramatically for me over the last 30 years. The story has shifted yet again.

In 2007, I got that email from Beata’s husband. He was outlining her experience as a child on that convoy. I remembered it so well, and the memory of it brought the feelings of fear bubbling to the surface again – as they still do, even while I am writing this now.

Once the doors were closed, the inside of the container trucks was pitch black. The children sitting on the steel floor were unnaturally quiet in the darkness. All we could hear was the roar of the engine and the smell of diesel smoke filling the stifling air. We were stopped at a number of the roadblocks, and with every juddering halt, the door would creak open and a beam of sunlight would shine onto the children’s faces as men outside armed with clubs, machetes and rifles leered in.

I reached into the pocket of my camera vest and took a few pictures. I knew, even then, that they would one day be a record of this confusing, terrifying journey. In what little light I could find as the door was opened from time to time, I wrote some of the children’s names in my notebook. I had no clear plan as to what to do with these jottings, but some deep instinct in me wanted to write them down, so that they would not be forgotten. I had no idea of what would happen to them after the convoy reached Burundi.

Tutsi children being evacuated from Rwanda picture No 56 – Hamilton Wende

I wrote about my experiences in Rwanda and visited the country many times in the years that followed. But that email in 2007 opened the possibility of a new comprehension of those events. In the email he described how his wife, then a teenager, and her mother had been on that convoy: “They were lying in the trucks with pagnes [cotton cloths] covering them, and the kids were hiding them.” He also described two “blond or ginger” journalists on the truck with them. That was certainly me and my colleague, Glenn. He said that our presence had prevented Beata’s mother being shot. I had no recollection of that scene, but the story resonated powerfully with me.

I wrote back to Beata’s husband but the email never reached him. I felt empty about his not replying. I had hoped for some connection to talk more about that convoy, and about what being on it had meant for all of us, journalists and children, but there had been only silence.

Four years later, I was running a seminar on journalism in Lesotho and I told the participants about Rwanda, about the convoy and about the email that had seemingly gone nowhere. They were deeply moved by the story that was still incomplete, without an ending, and they encouraged me to follow up.

When I got home to Johannesburg, I dug out the email and decided to send digital copies of the photos I had taken in the rumbling darkness of the container truck.

This time, Beata herself replied. She wrote that because of our presence on the truck her mother had not been shot by a soldier with a kalachnikov [sic]. He had already taken off the safety catch when he was stopped because we were there with our television camera.

The photographs took on deep meaning for her. “Thank you very much,” she wrote. “At last I have tiny, faded, but real proof that this all happened. You can’t really see my mother and I in the pictures – but if you look carefully on picture number 56 you will see a shadow on the right, at the back of the truck. This is where we were lying/sitting. Yes, indeed, this picture is of great help to me.”

I wrote about this in 2011.  I hoped then to meet Beata in person one day. We still never have. She lives in France; I live in South Africa. But, over the years, we have corresponded from time to time. Each meeting of the minds takes us deeper into new meanings that this ongoing story reveals for both of us.

A few years ago we talked by Skype, seeing one another for the first time, at least on computer screens. She is today a sophisticated-looking French intellectual. I told her some of what I recalled of Rwanda and of that convoy. I hadn’t expected it, but the emotion of that time flooded over me. I cried as we spoke, and then felt ashamed of my lack of control. I felt that somehow I had transgressed her memories, that I had overwhelmed her pain with my own, far less important, distress.

So for years, I carried that niggling sense of shame with me. I felt I had no right to break down – even in such a minor way – when she had not.

Beata has gone on to write a novel about Rwanda, and is now working on a memoir of that time that will be published in January of next year. She recently contacted me, sending me proofs and kindly asking me whether what she had written was faithful to what I recollected and the notes, photographs and videos I had of that single day which has come to take on such significance in both our lives.

I hadn’t expected this. As I read, I saw that the story had shifted yet again. The meaning of the past and of our short journey on that convoy has now taken on deeper, different layers of meaning. Nsabimana is out of jail, free now, roaming wherever he is in the world, but Beata and I remain connected, through memory and the ongoing quest to make sense of what happened that day.

Firstly, I no longer feel that sense of lingering shame. Beata in the proofs acknowledges my emotion, and, she too, is grateful for the contact we share over this convoy.

She writes of the photograph no 56, in particular, that in it, there is a form, a shape, she can make sense of.  Nearly 30 years later, that shadow in the back of the darkened container truck has taken on deep, and powerful resonance. I had intended only to record for posterity, but in the recording itself something more has grown. The shadow stands as a reminder of the courage of Beata, her mother, and the children in the back of that truck.

It is a potent symbol of resilience and human agency. Beata, and others, survived. That shadow, too, is a metaphor for the murky underworld of Nsabimana’s own choices. She is alive today, partly because of them.

Beata writes of the hurt she feels as she reaches out into the world to make sense of this short, fear-stricken journey filled with the memory of shadows. No one at the BBC has so far found the original tapes we filmed. Perhaps they will, but I was correct to hang on to my copy of our film all those years ago.

And not everybody has been able to respond to her queries. I write to her that I know, from other conversations, that for some, revisiting this deeply painful journey is too damaging. They are afraid of re-opening these psychological wounds.

“You are right,” she says in reply. “We must all go on into the world and find meaning in our own way.”

Her latest email prompts me to go back to photograph No. 56 after so many years. I see what she had mentioned, that she thinks she can even see something of her mom’s afro hairstyle. We can’t be sure, either of us, of exactly what we can see now, 30 years later, but certainly, the small child standing in front of that dark shadow is bravely hiding something – someone – Beata’s mother, even Beata herself.

I write to her: “I still feel absolute revulsion at the killing that was taking place all around us, and confusion fills my brain – how such cruelty is possible is something I cannot understand, but I must tell, again and again, the truth of what I observed; and I feel a sense of gratitude and peace that your mother and you survived, and that we are still talking about what happened and sharing it with the wider world. I still feel bereft at what happened – and always will – that will never go. But I can say to the world: “This is what happened; I saw it, and I will tell you, and keep telling you, about it, so those people are never forgotten.”

I am not always sure about how we can keep the record straight. I am less sure, much less sure, about how, even by providing that record, we can hold those who do wrong accountable for their actions. That clearly is not always possible no matter how we might try. But in the shifting, layered story of Beata and her survival on that convoy that deceptively sunlit morning, I have learned that the meaning in the suffering we report on is through ourselves being accountable to those whose stories we tell. We cannot ignore the people we report on after we have left the war zone. Of course, it is impossible to respond meaningfully to every person’s story we come across, but we should be aware of their humanity, and if we can help them in some way we must do so. Their stories don’t end after we leave, and we should never forget that.

For a long time, I thought the meaning of Butare lay only in the paradox of Nsabimana. I have learned that it doesn’t – it lies in Beata and her survival. And, crucially, it lies, for me, as a journalist, as a witness, in my willingness to honour her suffering.

I will never be psychologically free of Nsabimana and my distress at the moral complexity of his actions, and of his omissions; but in my contact with Beata there is some deep spiritual meaning. It is the affirmation of hope, of courage and the ongoing, perhaps never-ending, journey to healing.

This was published recently in Daily Maverick

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.