Sunday, July 06, 2014

A nightmare with no way out

In just 100 days in 1994, some 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists targeting members of the minority Tutsi community as well as their political opponents. According to the Kigali Memorial Centre, the number was even higher, about one million dead. Either number makes the Rwandan genocide one of the swiftest mass killings in history, with an average of at least about 8,000 victims per day, its matches in the 20th Century including the mass murder, mostly by starvation, of Soviet prisoners of war in the custody of the German Wehrmacht between October 1941 and March 1942 (according to German historian Christian Gerlach, the number of Soviet prisoners who died is likely to have been around 300,000 to 500,000 in each of the months October, November and December 1941). The Gendercide Watch site's page Case Study:Genocide in Rwanda, 1994 includes the following comparison:
Together with the mass murder of Soviet prisoners-of-war during World War II, it was the most concentrated act of genocide in human history: "the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust." (Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998], p. 3.) (Gérard Prunier provides an even higher estimate: "the daily killing rate was at least five times that of the Nazi death camps." Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide [Columbia University Press, 1995], p. 261.)

While the observation that "the dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust" may be accurate if one considers the entire period between mid-1941 and the end of World War II as the time in which the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews was carried out, it is misleading insofar as the bulk of the Holocaust's killing was done in 1942, mostly in the second half of that year. In the preface to his 1992 book Ordinary Men, American historian Christopher Browning pointed out the following:
In mid-March 1942 some 75 to 80 per cent of all victims of the Holocaust were still alive, while 20 to 25 percent had perished. A mere eleven months later, in mid-February 1943, the percentages were exactly the reverse. At the core of the Holocaust was a short, intense wave of mass murder.

Much of the mass murder during 1942 was carried out in the camps of Aktion Reinhard(t) (AR), Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. These camps were at the height of their activity in the months August, September and October 1942. In these three months alone, according to German historian Sara Berger (Experten der Vernichtung: Das T4-Reinhardt-Netzwerk in den Lagern Belzec, Sobibor und Treblinka, Table 2 on p. 254), at least 897,500 Jews were killed in these three camps – 352,100 in August, 255,500 in September and 289,900 in October. This would mean an average daily number of 9,755 dead over a period of 92 days, comparable to the duration of the Rwandan genocide. This period, according to Sara Berger’s figures, accounted for over 65 % of the total number of Jews killed at the three camps in 1942 (at least 1,375,050, thereof 467,650 Bełżec between March and December 1942, 104,300 at Sobibór between May and December 1942, and 803,100 at Treblinka between July and December 1942). Applying this percentage to the 1,249,433 Jewish victims of these camps in 1942 that are recorded in the Höfle Telegram (434,508 at Bełżec, 101,370 at Sobibór, 713,555 at Treblinka) the number killed in August, September and October would be about 815,500 – an average of 8,864 dead per day over a 92-day period.

The Aktion Reinhard(t) camps were not the only killing sites in the period in question. Jews were also being killed en masse at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chełmno, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets and Janowska, while mobile killing squads in the occupied territories of the USSR were busily shooting local Jews who had survived the first wave of killing in the second half of 1941. According to German historian Dieter Pohl (Verfolgung und Massenmord in der NS-Zeit 1933-1945, p. 93), far over 2 million Jews in total were murdered in just 18 weeks between mid-July and the end of November 1942, which would mean an average of about 16,000 deaths per day.

Needless to say, these comparisons don’t make the Rwandan genocide any less appalling. On the 20th anniversary of the taking of Rwanda’s capital Kigali by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which ended the genocide in most of the country, the German weekly Die Zeit published an article that, like other such accounts, is better suited than cold numbers to convey the abysmal horror of those 100 days of hell on earth. Headed "Alptraum ohne Ausweg" ("A Nightmare With No Way Out"), the article tells the story of German development aid volunteers in Rwanda faced with the decision of whether or not to surrender Rwandan colleagues and their families to a frenzied lynch mob in order to save their own lives. What follows is my translation of this article.

20 years ago the genocide in Rwanda claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. A group of German development aid volunteers experienced the murderous killing in their own house. Are they guilty? By Bernd Hauser

Europeans in northern Rwanda lead a good life, in a countryside made of cone-shaped hills. Corn, potatoes and beans are grown in well-cultivated fields going up the slopes. Barefooted men and women greet them in a friendly manner on the twisting paths. From huts spread over the hills come the sounds of everyday live, voices of women, cries of children, bleating of goats.

Project leader Thomas Magura, 36 years old, 31-year-old agrarian engineer Sabine Kramer, a student in practical training and a Belgian colleague are the team in a project of the Association for Technical Cooperation – Gesellschaft für technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) in Giciye. They help the peasants with improved seeds and show them how to lay out fields in terraces so that the soil is not swept away and the yield is higher. At the end of a working day they drink Belgian beer with their local colleagues and eat brochettes, spits with goal meat. After dark the development aid volunteers light the chimney in their house, for in the evening it gets cold at 2,000 meters above sea level.

Thus the Europeans in Giciye live until 6 April 1994. On this day an airplane crash in the Rwandan capital Kigali forces them into a situation with no way out, in which there is only one choice: between guilt and death.

On this evening the plane of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana is shot down, probably by Tutsi rebels operating clandestinely in the capital. The incident unleashes a genocide, which over the next 100 days will claim up to 800.000 victims. The Hutu government's propaganda broadcasting stations mobilize the whole country overnight. "Do your work, finish off the cockroaches", the speakers say. In all villages throughout the country in a state of civil war the Hutu have organized themselves in paramilitary groups. The young militiamen of Interahamwe, which translates as "Those who attack together", understand the message from the radio: they are to kill the members of the Tutsi minority.

The German volunteers don't know how big the hatred is

At 5:30 the next morning the phone rings at the development aid workers' place in Giciye. The caller is Christophe Bazivamo, a Rwandan, who together with Thomas Magura leads the project and is attending a training session in Kigali. Bazivamo's family lives in a house next to the Europeans. He wants to talk to his wife Eudosie. After a few seconds she hangs up and rushes back to the house to pack her things. Eudosie Bazivamo, a friendly, reserved teacher and mother of two small children, is afraid. She is a Tutsi, one of the few still in the region.

At 8:30 hours Thomas Magura reconnoiters the situation and drives to the GTZ bureaus in the village. He learns that on all overland roads in the country roadblocks have been set up – the way out of Giciye is thus blocked. For no one knows who is waiting there: regular and relatively disciplined soldiers? Or drunken youths of the Interahamwe? From Kigali Magura receives instructions not to run the risk of a trip. The development aid workers stock up on food at the local shop; they buy beer, cola, a sack of potatoes. Nevertheless Magura asks his workshop manager Gervais Ndagijimana to prepare the all-terrain vehicles for departure.

Like Christophe Bazivamo the workshop manager, who administers expensive spare parts and precious gasoline, is not from the region. Thereby the Europeans avoid corruption and coterie. In the village Ndagijimana, who is also a Tutsi, seems to be popular and integrated. In the evenings and on weekends he patiently repairs the villagers' mopeds. Yet the villagers see Ndagijimana as an intruder, who robs them of their benefits. In their eyes the well-paid jobs in the development project should be given to locals. The Rwandan out-of-towners are hated in town. The German volunteers don't know how big the hatred is. Rwandans hardly ever show their feelings. To do so is considered unwise.

"There are limits to how deeply one can penetrate a local society", says Thomas Magura. He is sitting in his office in Den Haag, where he lives today. He immediately agreed to a conversation about Giciye. His sonorous voice fills the room. He appears calm and steady. Sometimes he closes the eyes, as if this would help him to recall the details of 7 April 1994.

Around 10:30 hours Alois Nzabanita, also a worker in the GTZ project, takes the workshop manager on his motorbike to the GTZ house. Gervais Ndagijimana apologizes for being late; he barricaded his house in the morning in order to protect his wife and his two children. Magura suggests that he take his family to the GTZ house. Eudosie Bazivamo has already moved to the Germans' house, together with her children, her eight-year-old sister Marie, a nanny and seven suitcases.

The workshop manager goes back immediately to bring his family. But only minutes later he is back: "Ils ont déjà commencé à couper les têtes!", he cries. "They have begun to cut off people’s heads!" Alois Nzabanita has just paid with his life for the favor or taking him along on his motorbike.

Now the Europeans understand how serious the situation in the house is. "It may sound strange", says Sabine Kramer, "but in Africa one is still accorded respect if one it White. At first we thought that they would do nothing to us and we could protect the Rwandans." After the murder of his colleague Gervais Ndagijimana tries to get to his house on a secret path to save his family.

Around 11:30 hours the aid workers watch from the garden of their house as a crowd armed with lances, machetes and cudgels goes to the workshop manager's house. They hear the men jeering, like in a football stadium after a goal has been scored. A short time later Gervais comes running up the slope, reaches the GTZ house in a state of shock. His wife and his children have just been murdered.

The crowd down in the village gets into formation again and turns to the slope, up to the GTZ house. The Germans know one of the leaders: Poulain Hakizimungu is a former project worker. He was always very friendly to his superiors, until he was dismissed half a year before due to frauds. Magura goes outside. Hakizimungu shows him a hand grenade and says: "You have one hour to surrender all Tutsis. If you do nothing will happen to the Whites. Otherwise we will throw grenades through the windows."

"That was quite suspenseful", says Thomas Magura.

Thomas Magura has decided to face the unimaginable horror of that day with maximum detachment. Could such a situation arise anywhere in the world? "Yes, that is part of the human condition." Magura seeks to retain his composure. He speaks in an articulate manner, lectures like a teacher. He reports the facts like an outsider, about his feelings he doesn't speak. Was he afraid? Magura avoids the question. "You have to adapt to the situation and make the best if it", he says. "And that could only mean: gain time."

Via radio the German embassy has recommended to under no circumstances try to protect Rwandans. But the Europeans in the GTZ house have one hope: the gendarmerie in the provincial capital Gisenye. A GTZ colleague in Gisenye, alarmed via radio, tries to persuade the gendarmes to drive to Giciye, hoping that the public officials are still serving law and order.

If you go out, you help the others

Around 13 hours the first stones crash into the GTZ house's living room windows. Magura goes outside again. The leader of the mob makes a new offer: if workshop manager Gervais is handed over, they will spare the Whites, Eudosie Bazivamo and her children.

Can one even understand such a horrible suggestion? When from one hour to the next anarchy and madness are reigning, law and decency all of a sudden are valid no more and one is supposed to send a human being to his death – how does one endure that? "It was as tough as can be", Thomas Magura says today. "But it was clear to me that we had no negotiation margin. I was under such tension that I stood beside me all the time and watched myself: what will he do now? One simply functions."

Back in the house Magura presents the demand to the workshop manager. "If you go out, Gervais, you help the others", says Magura. The workshop manager doesn’t resist. He is in a state of shock.

Again Magura goes out and sets the murderers the condition that Gervais Ndagijimana will only leave the house if he may use a car. The condition is accepted. Magura places a car in front of the door, turns on the motor. In the house the workshop manager changes clothes, wraps a cloth around his head, hoping that the crowd will not immediately recognize him when he runs out the door. The Europeans give him money. Maybe he can buy his life if he makes it to the road block on the country road.

Then Gervais jumps into the all-terrain vehicle and races past the crowd by the yard towards the valley. Stones break the windows. Shortly thereafter: gunshots. The village policeman hits the car's tires; the workshop manager continues fleeing on foot to his store. Then the Europeans hear four, five explosions of hand grenades. They see from afar how men remove the store's roofline. Later they learn that the murderers cut the head off Gervais' corpse and threw it into a river.

"It was an inhuman, grotesque situation, which no one can understand", says Sabine Kramer today in her house in a University town in Hessen. "But we could not save Gervais. They wanted him; he was high up on their list." The negotiations, the possibility of escaping in a car, the new clothes for camouflage, the money: "That was all we could do." Kramer takes a gulp of mineral water. She drinks a lot during the conversation. "A diet", she says, lost in thought.

After Gervais' death, there is quiet in the GTZ house. The Germans feel almost relieved. The mob has gone back to the village. The aid workers talk little; they don't discuss whether they have acted correctly. Each of them seeks an occupation. Under no circumstances must they start thinking. "We couldn’t allow fear or panic. That would have made us weak", says Sabine Kramer. "It was a little like in a dangerous situation in a car: instinctively one reacts correctly, the heart-throb only comes later. Except that in our case seconds of danger became hours."

Sabine Kramer operates the radio. At some time she packs an emergency bag. She wants to be ready for an escape. The table is full of bowls with food. The cook Emmanuelle, a local Hutu, has since morning been frying potatoes, making salads and cooking vegetables. They eat. No one has any appetite, the aid workers eat in silence. Christophe Bazivamo's wife has barricaded herself in one of the dormitories, in death panic. There are still no news about whether the gendarmerie will come to their help.

Around 15 hours the mob is back. Even more men than before, reinforcements have arrived from the neighboring village Karago. The Europeans step outside the door. The young men are primed; they wave about knives and lances. Magura speaks to the leaders: "It was agreed that you would leave us alone if Gervais came out." No one cares about this anymore: "Now it’s the family’s turn!" The young men surround the Europeans, scream at them, threaten with hand grenades, try to take away the car keys from Sabine Kramer. Thomas Magura intevenes.

"Thomas, hand over the keys to the house, we cannot save them anymore", shouts Sabine Kramer. She is desperate. Together with the trainee and the Belgian colleague she gets into one of the vehicles. Magura does not enter. He fears that the car will be attacked if he also enters.

"The situation became more and more confusing. We had to hand over the keys to the house," Magura writes ten days later in a report to his superiors. The report is terse, written in a sober, scientific style. Today, 20 years later, he still talks in the same way about the incomprehensible. Rationality as a sheet anchor in a situation that can only be experienced as traumatic?

A part of the mob rushes into the house. The Bazivamo family is dragged out and murdered a few steps away from the house: Eudosie Bazivamo, two-year-old Alain, two-months-old Christian, Marie, Eudosie’s eight-year-old sister, and Jacqueline, the nanny.

What happens in Giciye is repeated on this day and on the 99 following days, thousands of times throughout the country. "Such a mass hysteria unleashes powers that one cannot imagine", says Thomas Magura in his Den Haag office. For the first time he changes his voice, he now speaks fast and loud. "Just imagine! You stand in these people's way and say: Gervais stays here! One could run this risk, and this is what I reproach myself about in the end, whether I really did all I could to also save the Bazivamo family. But to play the hero, say: 'Only over my dead body!', it would have been of no use ..." The last sentence ends in a murmur.

About an hour after the murder of Eudosie Bazivamo an all-terrain vehicle races onto the yard, with six gendarmes armed with automatic rifles. The young murderers flee to the bushes. When no shots are fired they leave their hiding place and withdraw making threatening gestures. Under the gendarmes' protection the Europeans can leave Giciye and go without harm through the roadblocks manned by drunken youths to the provincial city Gisenye. Some days later they are evacuated to Goma in the Congo, and from there they fly back to Europe.

"We wouldn’t have survived the night in Giciye", says Thomas Magura. "Christophe Bazivamo saved our lives. He knew the gendarmes personally, and only for this reason he was able to convince them via radio to come to our help."

Christophe Bazivamo is a man with a broad back and a hefty head. After the genocide he studied for four years in Göttingen. He has married again, the sister of his murdered wife Eudosie. "I long asked myself: why did the murderers do this to me? I had to accept that there is no real answer", says Bazivamo in his office in Kigali, in rusty German. "Only this one: the perpetrators were misguided. They were poor, uneducated and therefore easy to manipulate."

After returning from Göttingen Bazivamo, a Hutu, quickly advances to Minister of the Interior in the Tutsi-dominated government, where he is one of those in charge of the national reconciliation policy: officially there are no longer Hutu or Tutsi, only Rwandans, is the directive of the government around Paul Kagame. When in 2005 the murder of his family is on trial, Bazivamo stands as a witness before the court. The defendants he knows personally; one of them, a teacher and colleague of his wife Eudosie, he has even entertained to a meal in his house. Three thousand people come to the football field of Giciye, to see how the minister settles accounts with the murderers of his family. Many spectators expect his righteous rage. But what the crowd expects does not happen. The minister doesn't shatter his enemies. When one of the lynch mob's ring leaders describes how his family was killed, he cries.

A story of guilt and forgiveness

A minister who cries in public: in a land in which power has always rested on demonstrated strength and violence, Bazivamo's emotional outbreak is a revolution. The five defendants ask the minister for forgiveness. "I forgive", says Bazivamo. Only if the country overcomes hatred, he said, will it have a future.

Thomas Magura has after 1994 worked mainly in Latin America and Asia. Africa he long avoided, only five years after the genocide he went back there again. In Rwanda he was only one more time, to Giciye he didn't go anymore. Sabine Kramer, on the other hand, returned to Giciye already three quarters of a year after the murders. "I had to go there", she says. "In order to process what I had experienced." The fields were not tended; the GTZ house had been looted, the electricity cables torn off the walls. Sabine Kramer knew almost no one anymore. Almost all the Hutu had fled to the Congo, in fear of the Tutsi, who had been victorious in the civil war.

Thomas Magura wrote in his report: "In the end it is everyone for himself, and it depends on himself whether he masters the catastrophe or goes under." It sounds like a justification. "The report was for me like a cleansing thunderstorm", says Thomas Magura. His adult sons he has never told about these events, "at least not in detail."

Christophe Bazivamo and Thomas Magura met again three months after the murders in Göttingen, where Bazivamo started studying. It was their last meeting. "This unspoken thing: you could not prevent my family’s death. And it is a fact: I could not prevent it!"

"Thomas Magura did all that could be done", says Sabine Kramer. She has often met Bazivamo in Germany, talked again and again about Giciye. When she is in Rwanda on service, Bazivamo, who today is the vice-president of Paul Kagame’s party RPF, always has an appointment for her. "He never laid any blame whatsoever on us", says Sabine Kramer. She is silent, drinks some water. Then she says: "But possibly he also hears other voices inside himself."

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