The Triumph of Evil

By Charles Petrie and Spike Zephaniah Stephenson

The story of two UN officials and one hundred days of horror in Rwanda

Days 31-40: Routine sets in

Tutsis in Kigali go into hiding. The southeast of the country is emptied.

Josette Mukunzi[1]

This time the banging on the door was even more violent. By now Josette’s family had run out of money. The fact that her father was an employee of the UN no longer provided protection. Quite to the contrary, it implied wealth. The family had handed over possessions when the cash ran out, but now everything was gone. 

When, the day before, Josette’s father had told the soldiers he had not even enough money to buy them a few beers, he had been badly beaten with rifle butts. Now he was lying on the living room couch in great pain, barely able to move.

Josette heard the pounding on the door from the back of the compound where she was hanging up the laundry. With laundry hanging from the line, a small bathhouse was hidden from view, and Josette quickly stepped into it. 

From her hiding place, Josette saw the soldiers burst into the compound. She thought she recognized the person in the lead, but couldn’t in the moment situate who he was and where she had seen him. They shouted for everyone to come out of the house. Josette’s mother stepped out and was stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet. Josette’s younger sister, Esther, followed. A soldier swung his machete and severed her arm at the shoulder, so that it hung by her side by only a strip of flesh. She staggered around the compound in a state of shock.

Ignace finally made his way out. He pleaded to be allowed to look after his daughter, but the leader of the group had him held against the wall of the house and demanded that he surrender his UN radio and his gun. Ignace attempted to strike out at the soldiers but they beat him with clubs and the butts of their AK47s, and hacked him with their machetes.

When Esther stumbled to a position near the bathhouse, Josette grabbed her and pulled her into the hiding place. She snatched a piece of cloth from the washing line, tied it to Esther’s upper arm and tore away the flesh that had held the arm to her body. Delicately, Josette placed the arm on the ground. Dazed, Esther turned back towards the front of the house. “No, stay and hide with me,” Josette pleaded, but Esther refused to remain alive with her parents dead. She begged of Josette – “Afterwards will you bury my arm with the rest of my body?” – and then stumbled away.

Esther joined the rest of the family. Her mother looked up and screamed when she saw Esther returning. A soldier raised his club and crushed her mother’s skull. Ten members of the household aside from Josette and Esther remained alive - Alphonse, his wife and their three children, Clothilde and her daughter, and three cousins. The one in charge ordered his soldiers to arm their weapons and open fire. Ten more dead.

As they prepared to leave the compound, a soldier aimed his gun at Esther. “Don’t waste a bullet,” the leader said. “She will soon be dead.” Esther lay down among the bodies of her family.

When the group finally moved on to the next house, Josette remembered where she had seen its leader, and who he was.

After a little while one soldier came back alone. Esther raised her head and begged him to kill her. He fired a single shot.

Through all this, Josette lay crunched up in a ball against the inner wall of the outhouse. Her tears flowed, her body trembled, but she was silent. After a long period of quiet outside, she rose to her feet and, peering through the crack of the door, saw the bodies of her family, lying near the open gate.

Josette waited some more. Straining to listen, she heard some activity further along the street, but it was faint. When there was absolute silence, she made a dash for a gate at the back of the compound that gave onto the neighbour’s plot.

The gate creaked as she entered the compound, and a dog barked. The seven-year-old son of the neighbour came to the window. He spotted her and shouted “Cockroach! Cockroach!

Josette ran to the gate of the compound and out into the street. Nobody seemed to have been roused by the noise. At one end of the street, a group of Interahamwe were grilling meat over a fire that had been lit in a ten-gallon drum. The other end of the street was empty. Hugging the wall with her back, Josette crept into the next compound. There was a light in the window of the house. She went to it and peered in. A man and woman whom she knew well were sitting around the table. Josette tapped on the windowpane. They looked up at her. There was a moment of hesitation. The man then got up, walked to the window and drew the curtains shut.

Gromo Alex

By the end of the first week of May, Gromo had finally managed to get himself back to Kigali as head of the UN Humanitarian Assistance Team.

Gromo’s first act in Kigali was to organize a convoy to take him to the houses where UN Tutsi staff had regrouped. He wanted to make sure that all were okay. The first house he went to was Josette’s. He was devastated to find the bodies of the thirteen members of the household lying near the gate. He tried to bury them as best he could, desperate to save their bodies from being eaten by dogs. He realised that visiting the hiding places of the UN Tutsi staff might reveal their location to the killers, so instead of going Florence’s house, he reached her by phone.

Charles Petrie

I joined the UN Rwanda in the beginning of May. With help from Hugh Williams, the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Somalia, I was designated Deputy UN Humanitarian Coordinator. I used the promotion to justify my return to the professional world I had promised my family I’d abandon. I joined the core of the UN humanitarian team that had been evacuated to Nairobi about a week after Gromo had left for Kigali.

As was the case in many UN interventions, the team in Nairobi spent most of their time writing reports of situations they did not see, or briefing ambassadors on developments they knew only at second hand. My boss, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, was an experienced, sophisticated and worldly diplomat. But this far into his UN career, there were limits to the discomforts he was prepared to tolerate.

As soon as I arrived in the temporary UN Coordination offices on the fringes of Nairobi, I spoke to Gromo in Kigali. Gromo sounded in great form and he was chuffed that he had succeeded in persuading me to join him. He described how that morning, while he was out taking food and water to drop-off points for the UN Tutsi staff, the convoy had been shot at by a rocket-propelled grenade. It had ricocheted off the top of one of the vehicles and exploded harmlessly at the side of the road. It was pretty cool, he said. “Cool?” I asked, astonished. “Cool”, he repeated. Apparently, he was compiling a list of the weapons he had been targeted with, and he was pleased to be able to add the RPG to the list. I waited a moment to absorb the information, and then asked him to get me on the next day’s early morning flight to Kigali.

My first impression of the city was that it looked somehow hollow. The people in the streets seemed subdued and instead of the sound of human voices, there was a constant sound of gunfire. Close to the UN compound there was a body on the side of the road. I supposed that it had been dragged there either by one of the packs of dogs I saw roaming the city, or by some good Samaritan who wanted to clear the road of an obstruction.

As I entered Gromo’s office, I found the list he had mentioned behind the door. I had to admit that it was impressive. In just one week, his convoys had been fired upon multiple times. “Gromo, my friend,” I said, “this is crazy. Won’t you and your team feel pushed to try to complete this list? And to take greater risks in order to do so?

Not missing a beat, Gromo laughed and wrapped me up in a bear hug. “Good to see you too, Chuck,” he said.

Since I outranked him,Gromo suggested I deliver the humanitarian segment of General Dallaire’s upcoming evening briefing, known as the ‘evening prayers’. Gromo offered to provide some notes, but thinking I had a handle on the situation - after all, hadn’t I prepared dozens and dozens of situation reports for New York over my UN career? - I told him there was no need. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

That evening, when it was my turn to speak, I offered generalities of the kind that had served as briefings for New York. I was barely into my stride, when the General cut me off. “Listen,” he said – and I did. “If you are going to insult my men with trivia like this, you’ll be out on tomorrow’s plane.” The General glared at me and then relented. “Since you are Gromo’s friend, and he says you know your stuff, I will give you one last chance.” Next morning, I was either to give a briefing worthy of the officers in the room or I was out.

From the corner of my eye, I could see that Gromo was working hard to hold back laughter. He didn’t try to gloss over my error. “You’ve really fucked up,” he said, when the meeting was finished. Chastened, I asked Gromo to provide me with the notes that I’d so foolishly refused before. I stayed up late that night contacting friends in Kigali who were with MSF and the ICRC, and gleaning what information I could. I pored through all the reports I could find.

The next morning after I had finished my briefing, there was a moment’s silence. Then to my relief, General Dallaire said that my name could be taken off that day’s passenger manifest for Nairobi.

Lieutenant Fiacre Mboki

By the end of April, the RPF had opened a corridor from Kigali to Byumba. They began evacuating thousands of people to camps behind the lines, some from existing sites for the displaced, like the Amahoro stadium or the Roi Faysal hospital, and others collected as they moved from house to house. Displaced persons gathered by their thousands at Rutare, where the RPF established its first camp. Eventually the RPF housed 35,000 people in Byumba and another 150,000 at Rutare. In a similar way, as the rebels advanced along the eastern side of the country, they moved the Tutsis they encountered to camps further north.

AsFiacre’s platoon progressed south, he was surprised by the total absence of resistance. No government soldiers, no militia, no Interahamwe. They came across an occasional Tutsi emerging from a hiding place in a swamp or forest, and sent them north to RPF camps, but even the encounters with straggling populations were significantly reduced. The area in front of them seemed empty, and this began to make Fiacre distinctly anxious. Were he and his men being led into a gigantic ambush? Were they about to come up against a well-fortified and heavily-armed enemy force?

And then came the surprising explanation. One morning Fiacre heard on his shortwave radio that the Hutus and the local officials of this region had crossed on foot over the border into Tanzania. During a single night, some two hundred and fifty thousand people moved into Tanzania, and had settled near the Rwandan border. It had been the greatest mass exodus of refugees ever.

Later that morning, Fiacre received new orders from his company commander. His platoon was to continue towards the Tanzanian border. Their objective was not now to fight to take control of the area, but to locate survivors.

Father Vjeko Curic

Father Vjeko had succeeded in transferring the endangered Tutsi population of his parish to the Bishopric of Kabgayi, but next morning he faced a difficult encounter with the Archbishop. His Eminence was unhappy. He insisted that housing communities from one side of the conflict risked compromising the position of the Catholic Church. What position?thought Father Vjeko. They were talking not about two-sided conflict but about the massacre of one group by another. 

For a time, it was in doubt whether or not the Tutsis Father Vjeko had escorted to the Bishopric would be allowed to stay and shelter there. It was only when the Archbishop received calls from Rome, lauding his humanitarian gesture, that he relented and agreed that the people who had arrived the night before would be allowed to remain.

Father Vjeko took this as an open invitation to bring all vulnerable Tutsis to Kabgayi - an interpretation that he knew went well beyond the Archbishop’s intent. The very next day, Father Vjeko drove back to his parish to see if there were others needing rescue.

UN Security Council

The efforts in April to produce a last minute Presidential Statement had highlighted the differing positions on Rwanda and the political interests behind them. After the Presidency passed from New Zealand to Nigeria, the focus of Security Council debates was on the exact description of events in Rwanda. There had been tremendous hesitation and even resistance to the use of the word genocide. France was still pushing for the killings to be described as an outcome of civil war. Rwanda called it aggression. The United States wanted to avoid the word genocide as it could trigger the Convention on Genocide, which brought with it an obligation for international intervention. The Clinton Administration would only go as far as to talk about ‘acts of genocide’, which they insisted fell short of genocide itself.

Then Ambassador Jose Ayala-Lasso, the newly appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced his intention to travel to Kigali between the 11thand 12thof May. It was agreed to defer a decision on what to call the slaughter in Rwanda until his return.

By day 40, while the world body argued over semantics, close to half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed. More than a million people had been made homeless.

[1] Adapted from events as described by the witness

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