David Belton worked as a producer at BBC Newsnight and was one of the first international journalists in Rwanda during the Genocide in May 1994. To mark Rwanda 20 and the launch of his book When the hills ask for your blood he provides a moving reflection on Rwanda, the Genocide and the complexities surrounding post-genocide ethnicity and cultural identity.
My first experience of the Genocide in Rwanda was being told to stay out of the country. We were at the border, waiting for our passports to be stamped. It was early May 1994. As we waited, slumped and wilting in the heat, we watched the horrifying spectacle of a European man with his Rwandan wife and two children being harassed by the border guards. When he finally persuaded them to let him leave with his family he told us his story. He was a scientist and had been living in Rwanda for several years and had married a Tutsi woman. They had hidden in their house for several days before making a run for it. They had passed trenches filled with victims which, in the April rains, had flooded, pushing the bodies onto the streets. ‘Don’t go in there,’ he told us. ‘They will kill you.’
We went. And they didn’t kill us. There were awful moments where we witnessed people being killed and we found ourselves held at gunpoint by angry soldiers but we also found it was possible to move relatively freely through the countryside.
‘Why was that?’, I remember wondering to myself. Working in Bosnia and other areas of conflict was much more constrained. It dawned on me that the people we passed on the roads, the killers who stood at their roadblocks, the villagers who sat slumped in their doorways were dazed by the scale of what they had either perpetrated or witnessed and psychologically bludgeoned by the endless hectoring they endured from the state radio, the village mayors, the ideologically fanatical neighbours who exhorted them to kill. ‘Do your national duty and kill a Tutsi,’ the radio proclaimed. And so they did.
For several days we took shelter with an extraordinary priest – a European who had decided to stay. Vjeko Ćurić was a magnetic thirty six year old Bosnian Croat missionary who spoke fluent Kinyarwanda (the language spoken in Rwanda), drank whisky and was fearless. He was singlehandedly braving the roadblocks and helping Tutsis to escape – or getting them food for the camp where they had taken refuge. ‘All this will pass,’ he would tell us. ‘I know these people and they can live together again.’ Ćurić had lived amongst the Rwandese for a dozen years, toiled in the fields with them, heard their complaints and moans, laughed at their jokes, eaten their food. He was a magnetic figure and I trusted him. He helped us move around the countryside avoiding the worst roadblocks, and one on occasion, I am sure that he saved our lives.
Ćurić used to tell me that the story of Rwanda dates far back, before colonial times. Hutu and Tutsi have always lived together – it was the Belgians who ruined things by introducing identity cards and the envy and hatred that that engendered. ‘You have to trust the people again,’ he told me. Four years later Ćurić was dead. Shot to death in a Kigali side street by an unknown assailant. I went back to Rwanda. I wanted to find out what happened to this extraordinary man and what had happened to Rwanda.
And so I wrote a book, When the Hills Ask For Your Blood, about Ćurić and my friend, Jean-Pierre, a survivor who survived by hiding in a cesspit for two months. I found myself drawn back into this strange silent country where people are careful with what they say. ‘The tears of a Rwandan fall inside into his belly,’ is a familiar Rwandan saying and it contains a profound truth. I discovered that Rwandans – traumatised anyway by what they had endured, preferred not to talk about the pain that had been inflicted on it and looked to their leaders to articulate the crime and express the depth of their hurt. ‘We are all victims – not just the Tutsi but the killers too,’ the country’s President, Paul Kagame, told me a few years ago.
Ćurić fell foul of this shattered national psyche. He irritated local government leaders by demanding the genocidaires rotting in prison be given better living quarters and medical treatment, and fell foul of others who resented how he rebuilt destroyed homes for Tutsis and Hutus. He urged Rwandans to talk to one another, dig deep to find moments of forgiveness, reach back to their pasts to find a time that could help them heal. It was too raw, too early for many. His death remains a mystery.
Twenty years later, Ćurić’s message seems more relevant than ever. Rwanda grows stronger economically, all children go to school until they are 13, there is a national health care system – unimaginable improvements from 1994. A remarkable justice system has seen hundreds of thousands of former genocidaires return to their communities.
But as people learn to live together, the government has urged people to forget their ethnic identities and think of themselves as Rwandans. At times I have found their rush too hurried. The right to freedom of expression is curtailed and walking in the hills talking to people, away from prying eyes and ears, they tell me their stories – who they are and where they come from. And I think of Ćurić then and wonder if his strong sense of belief that people need to express who they are and learn to live again leads to a stronger, more self-confident nation of different identities.
Because we all have our stories.
Trauma needs space – for feelings to be explored. It is a delicate balance and Rwanda treads a delicate line between the past and the future.
Read our review of David’s book When the hills ask for your blood, a personal account of Rwanda and the genocide twenty years on. David tells of the horrors he experienced at first-hand. Following the threads of his friends Jean-Pierre and Vjeko Ćurić’s stories, he revisits a country still marked with blood, in search of those who survived and the legacy of those who did not.
David also produced and co-wrote the film Shooting Dogs, about the West’s failures to intervene in the genocide.
The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in the field of Holocaust and genocide awareness and commemoration. It explores contemporary issues surrounding hatred and discrimination, and how we can address these by reflecting on the past and applying lessons to the present day. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who will provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced what it is like to live under state-sponsored persecution.The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.