Sunday Times Books, an imprint of Times Media Books, recently published Valleys of Silence: Into the Rwandan Genocide in which experienced journalist Hamilton Wende shares the personal diary he kept during his time as a reporter covering the Rwandan genocide.
The tragedy started on 6 April 1994, and in commemoration of that day Sunday Times published an excerpt from Wende’s book. Read about his firsthand experience of the atrocities that took place:
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Today marks 20 years since the Rwandan massacres started. On April 6 1994, an aeroplane carrying president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down and violence broke out. Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi population and 800000 men, women and children perished. South African Hamilton Wende witnessed it first-hand as the soundman for a BBC documentary team. This is an edited extract from his diaries of Rwanda and surrounding countries at the time, titled ‘Valleys of Silence’
THE first morning we were in Kigali, Frank took us behind the lines, away from the fighting, and we filmed the damage that the taking of Kigali had wrought. The destruction of a new war was evident in the large numbers of useful things that had been discarded, such as the carton of ballpoint pens spilt on the street or the roofing material that lay untouched on a factory floor. The war was still too close for someone to take them.
The suburbs were quiet now. We couldn’t even hear the explosions at the front. There was just the trundle of wheelbarrows along the rubble-strewn streets as people moved to and fro among the wreckage, fetching water that the Rwandan Patriotic Front had trucked in from the river a few miles out of town.
It was obvious that the suburbs had been bitterly fought over, that in many places territory had been conceded house by house. The walls of many buildings were filled with bullet holes, rocket scars, the roofs twisted and torn open by mortar shells, the interior walls pockmarked by shrapnel. Here and there dried, almost skeletal bodies in military uniform lay forgotten under piles of rubbish inside the houses, and on the walls of some of them blood stains were smeared on the plaster like giant unearthly maps, each wavy brown line marking out the topography of sudden death.
In a garden only 100m from the windows that we left open at night, we found the corpses of two men and a woman rotting and desiccated on the concrete floor of the patio. The bodies of the two men lay side by side and there were neat holes in the backs of their skulls where they had been shot, execution-style. The woman’s arms were outstretched and there was a wedge-shaped gash in the back of her neck where she had been hacked to death. All the fingers of both hands had been chopped off below the second knuckles. I had heard of this, but not seen it before. Often, the murderers first chopped off the noses and fingers of their victims before killing them — to torture them for the crime of being born Tutsi and having “straight” noses and “long” fingers.
As we went from place to place in Kigali, the spirit world of the myriad dead crowded around us and became as real as the world of the guns and the bombs. How much of Rwanda lay hidden, unseen — like the corpses we had only stumbled on by chance — I did not know, but day by day, after near sleepless nights, the horrors multiplied around us so that, in the end, we walked and ate and filmed in a state of exhausted semi-delirium.
Then we were at the epicentre of Rwanda’s holocaust — the palace of President Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana, now abandoned and closely guarded by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. If we looked through the chapel window into the banana fields outside, we could see the wreckage of the Mystère-Falcon jet in which Habyarimana and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi had been travelling when it was shot down on April 6, only a few weeks before.
The glass on the fish tank was smeared with a dried green-brown paste. The bottom of the huge, once ostentatious tank was filled with a layer of sticky muck, but there were no dead fish lying mixed in with the scum — they had almost certainly been eaten. The kitchen, too, was empty of every edible thing. The silver knives, forks and expensive crockery lay untouched in the cupboards where they had been neatly packed. But the food was all gone — not even a grain of salt had been left.
Outside, a pair of peacocks called forlornly in the empty, luxuriant garden. Inside, the stiflingly ornate white-carpeted reception rooms on the ground floor had hardly been touched. We walked upstairs to the second, more private, living room. Glass from a fallen crystal chandelier crunched underneath our hiking boots and a pair of cabinets from China with white lacquer and gold inlay stood against the wall. Everything in this house spoke of the gilded paranoia of a man haunted by the terror of the poverty that lay just outside the breeze-block walls surrounding his property.
Further up and further in we came to the master bedroom and en suite bathroom. The floor was littered with perfume bottles, silk ties and crumpled satin sheets. Beyond lay a small sitting room with deep wooden panels that formed neat, unobtrusive cabinets. One had contained videotapes and books, another a collection of hunting rifles — all looted, but with a surprising number of gleaming brass cartridges still lying all over the floor — and another cabinet concealed a concrete staircase that led to the third floor.
Through the hidden door and up the stairs was the study of the owner of the house, filled with personal bric-a-brac: framed photographs, a medal in a white satin case, an ornate carved walking stick. The desk was covered in dust and broken tiles from where a stray mortar bomb had hit the roof above.
And more lay beyond: a few more steps and we were led into a tiny private chapel with rows of wooden pews and hymn books neatly stacked on the shelves behind each pew. Long rays of sunlight streamed in through a small window in the back. In the front there was a beautiful carving of a black Christ bleeding from the cross. The only thing that was out of place were the handfuls of communion wafers strewn across the floor in front of the altar. Here and there, one could see where the boots of soldiers had trodden on the unleavened bread and crushed it into the fibres of the thick woollen carpet.
It was in these very rooms that Habyarimana had played the delicate and perilous game of trying to juggle the competing demands for a power-sharing government made by the invading Rwandan Patriotic Front — progressively winning more and more territory and increasingly supported by the outside world — and the murderous reluctance of the radical Hutus in his own clique to surrender any power.
It was this attempt at moderation that brought about his own death and precipitated the bloodbath. The sad irony is that the massacres came at a time when Rwanda was closer to a solution to its problems, perhaps, than at any other time in its history. A peace accord had been brokered at Arusha, in Tanzania, and there seemed to be every possibility of installing a power-sharing government made up of Hutus and Tutsis from different political parties.
Then the president’s plane was shot down. Most analysts are convinced that the missile that brought the plane down came from the nearby barracks of the presidential guard. In addition, the evidence clearly suggests that the initial massacres were carefully planned, months in advance. Within an hour of the plane being downed, the genocide began. The presidential guard and units of interahamwe militia known as the “Zero Network” went from house to house, killing Tutsi and Hutu opponents of the government who were on the hit list — the men and women we had met at Byumba on our first day in Rwanda.
From Kigali, the killing spread across the country. After the initial politically motivated liquidations, the butchery was directed almost entirely against innocent Tutsis. The massacres were halted only by the rapid advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.
Lieutenant-Colonel Emmanual Quist from Ghana, with the UN forces in Kigali, watched helplessly from his barracks as people were taken away and killed: “From our compound, I saw lines of refugees. At a roadblock I saw them pull one man out. They looked at his identity card and dragged him away to the side of the road. They hacked him twice in the neck, then they turned his body over and hacked him in the back of his head. Then they went through his pockets. When the man who had done the hacking was finished, he wiped the blood off his machete on the back of his trousers and went back to the roadblock.”
- Valleys of Silence: Into the Rwandan Genocide by Hamilton Wende
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First published in the Sunday Times and used with permission