I was not having a good day. A couple of weeks ago, I’d flown to Nairobi to meet Jocelyn Ortion for a safari. My fiancée. I missed her at Shambalah. I missed her at both game parks. I tried to catch up with her all through Kenya. We kept crossing paths; my fault, I guess. So, she left me a chilly note at Treetops and took off in my chartered plane to wait for me in Tanzania a few hundred miles south.
So that’s how I found myself rattling along a dirt road in a discarded UN Land Rover en route to join her in Tanzania. It seemed like a good idea at the time, being driven through Rwanda in a recreational vehicle that had been sold for scrap to my driver, Leopold Asoferwa, a good soul, who had yet to discover that it had more than one gear. Things just developed that way, my non-safari, and anyhow, that’s how I discovered Rwanda.
We entered Rwanda around dawn that first morning at Byumba. The border was guarded by fidgety nine-year-old soldiers who were shorter than their guns and asked if we had any chocolate. They couldn’t decipher my passport. Did this eagle mean I was Egyptian? Sorry.
Leopold gave them a can of instant coffee and, in spite of not coming up with the chocolate, the kids allowed us to drive on. Leopold explained to me that this was the new regime. Youngish, I thought, and forgot about them until about twenty miles further south when we were stopped at a roadblock held by slightly older soldiers who didn’t want chocolate or instant coffee, but smiled when I offered them some nice American dollars. They accepted them without knowing what they were. I wish I’d been carrying Lire, so many zeros. I asked Leopold who these men were, and he said they were the new government troops. The good guys. But he seemed nervous. In fact, he’d showed his anxiety the moment we entered the country, and he stayed edgy the whole time; he definitely did not want to be driving me through there. He said that he had a wife and children living next door in Kenya, and the only reason he was driving me through this rataba (he told me every so often, as if I had amnesia) was that he needed money to pay for his children’s schools in Nairobi. I could only assume that a rataba was not a place he wanted to be.
Leopold’s other name took some getting used to. A-so-fer-wa, and I said it slowly. As Leopold Asoferwa drove us through thicker overgrowth along the road, he constantly imagined Hutu rebels hiding in the tall grass around us. I had yet to see my first one, so I wasn’t impressed.
Now it was late afternoon of the first day. I was bone-banged weary. We’d been driving over rutted roads, foot-by-foot. I’d been bounced and rattled into submission. I was played out and parched. It had taken all day to make maybe eighty miles, according to what I figured from a French survey map.
Leopold had bought this four-wheeled item from the UN for a very good price, he assured me. I bet he had, I told him. Every part of it had been individually condemned. And as if that weren’t enough, suddenly it proved it by veering off the road. It had lost its steering.
A cable or something had broken. Who knows? I’m no mechanic, so I sat down in the grassy field beside the dirt road and the bargain Land Rover while Leopold crawled under it. As I sat there with evening settling upon the empty fields around us, I couldn’t help noticing that it was quite beautiful. I got my camera and started snapping pictures of the mountains in the distance. After a few minutes of my doing that, he came over to me with a small piece of the car in his hand. He declared that we’d have to camp where we were overnight, an idea he regarded with cool alarm. Terror, actually. And I was not a big fan of the idea.
Without even putting the car in four-wheel drive, he gunned it, spinning its wheels out of the ditch onto level ground in the high grass, then turned the motor off. The fields surrounding us were silent. No birds singing, no roosters crowing, no dogs barking, no voices. The silence was kind of eerie in the emptiness of the area, the wide abandoned fields, especially because I’d be spend- ing the night there.
He would sleep on top; I would sleep inside, he said. I wasn’t frightened, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that I was here entirely by mistake, that I had done this voluntarily.
He started chatting nervously, looking around at the high grass for Hutus. It had grown out of control because of the rain, he said. There’d been lots of rain, but it was also high because the fields had been abandoned by the farmers. They were very rich fields, he said, even richer than Kenya’s, for growing tea, coffee, bananas, avocados, all sorts of grain, the works. He couldn’t stop chattering. The farmers had run away. They were not there any more. And if they’d stayed, they would have been murdered.
But, he said, now things were being made better. Supposed to be anyway. The new regime had taken charge and the Inyenzi were beginning to come back.
I asked him who the Inyenzi were and he told me an inyenzi was a cockroach, but the real name for them was Tutsis, which sounded pretty strange. Without looking at the sky or anything, he said it would rain that night and that we should maybe try to look for better shelter. He pointed to a church we’d passed half-a-kilometer back. A little white wooden church that looked abandoned; the only building in sight. He said he thought we might be able to sleep in it and cook there. So, after watching him tinker with the car for a while, I decided to walk on over there. I took my camera. Rustic little white church, surrounded by pretty trees. Good. That was where I got my first glimpse of the reason for Leopold’s fear, and it became my own. It was still light when I started down the wide grassy path. Halfway there, I waved to this little boy lying in the grass. A black boy, for sure, but still the way he was lying reminded me very much of my cousin Nick, because of the way Nick loved to lie under the sprinklers, summers in Rhode Island when we were kids, when we were six or eight. The little boy didn’t wave back to me, so I called out, “Hello!” But he still didn’t wave. So I figured he must have been asleep.
I couldn’t see it until I walked closer, but his head had been detached from the rest of his body which was turned away from me. His face was toward me, eyes closed, and his skin had gone pale like the kind of papier-mâché mask we used to make at playschool. He had been dead a while. There were many flies, and I can’t tell you how I felt. It was a sort of a seasickness in my face. I was in the presence of death for the first time since my freshman year at Yale, when a frosh had jumped from the bell tower.
Well, even worse, this was murder. I could see that this little boy had been slashed across the back. There was a deep maroon V cut on top of his head. And one of his hands was missing, nowhere in sight.
He was only this very little boy, but someone with a blade of some sort must have been so pissed off at him that he wanted to make sure he’d never grow up. Then, I saw the hand. His hand. I was practically standing on it. I wouldn’t have known it was a hand; it was so tiny and black. Curled up, it looked more like a bird’s foot.
I waved to Leopold. He walked over to me slowly, carrying a tire iron. He stared at the boy. I thought I was going to pass out.
“What happened to him?” I said. “Machete-machete.” He pointed to something a distance away that I hadn’t seen. “There is another,” he said. Buttocks in tall grass. “Who did it?” “Hutu.” He waved his hand at the two bodies. “These are Inyenzi,” he said.
Before I could ask, he added, “They are Tutsi.”
They used to be Tutsi, I thought. Now, they were refuse.
Leopold shook his long head, still looking at the bodies. “These Inyenzi are the clever ones. These cockroaches, they are the farmers who own the cows and the fields, and the Hutus are the stupid ones. But there are many, many more Hutus.”
I couldn’t think of anything to cover the boy with, so we walked down the path toward the church. Leopold’s fingers were drumming on his legs. His eyes were everywhere. He was terrified, and I was learning why.
Halfway to the church, the wind changed and brought us a smell. The fields had smelled fresh green from the rain, but this new smell was sweet, like the odor of feces I had smelled earlier when we drove through a village called Melindi. But then it changed and got much stronger.
Leopold took my hand. His hand was hard as roots. We walked together the rest of the way toward the church hand-in-hand. We both knew we were smelling the smell of death.
Standing outside the church in a wooden shrine was a plaster cast of what must have been Jesus Christ holding his arms out, his palms open, in a gesture of welcome. Jesus had not done well. He had been decapitated, small chunks of him had been cut off, pieces of him lay among crusts of brittle flowers, strewn sacrifices at his feet.
The church door had been nailed shut. Leopold pried at it with the tire iron, and we pulled it open. The smell overcame me. Flies were everywhere. Inside was a full congregation. Dozens and dozens. More than a hundred men, women, and children crammed into its wooden pews. It was a horrible mess. The stench was outrageous, a hundred times worse than natural gas. All of them were twisted or curled or spread, and some were hanging onto each other; and all were dead and had been dead not very long, maybe for a few weeks. Some had gone pale like the boy outside, and some were blacker than lake bottoms. They had been trapped there in the church like bugs, and they all were dead, some in cowering positions, their hacked arms up in front of their heads. They had head cuts, arms and legs nearly cut off. Deep black wounds. Here and there, I saw a child who’d clung to a woman for protection and had been cut clear through. I had never seen so much anatomy.
“Machete,” was all Leopold whispered. “Hutu.”
I stood frozen with my hand over my nose, trying not to breathe. As if that would help.
It was a death these Tutsi surely would have seen coming toward them, and it must have been a loud death, too. Not loud in the way guns fired off indoors are loud, where they stun your ears. Here there would have been the screams and the sound of the machetes hitting bones. That was what they would have heard.
I stood there wondering what it would feel like to see death hacking its way toward me. Being innocent. Not even being a soldier. These dead were probably just poor people who had a bad life anyway. They did not ask to live there.
Then a baby’s arm moved. But before I could do anything, I saw a rat under it. Then another. There were scuttling sounds as the rats resumed feeding. They didn’t mind our presence; there was enough for everyone.
It blindsided my capacity to understand. I mean there I was standing in this wooden church with pews and little scattered books. I wasn’t watching this on a screen. I was there. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of terrible things, but pictures don’t smell bad, and it was impossible not to smell it. I threw up; Leopold didn’t.
Outside behind the church was a storage shed, and we opened the door. It was full of women mostly naked. I didn’t need to be a gynecologist to see that they’d all been raped. Then hacked to death. These women must have been culled from the church, taken out back, raped, killed. Then they were hidden in the shed, maybe in some weird act of shame or contrition. Who knows? We are, after all, born of woman.
I closed the door. I stood outside breathing in gulps.
I was sick. Leopold was panting from fear. The sun slanted beautifully. We were standing in a magnificent field, mountains rising in the near distance. A perfect sunset.
I couldn’t even speak. It was certainly my right to think anything I wanted to think and, in those moments, I didn’t want to be in the world.
“Go fix the car now.” I ordered Leopold. I was through being diplomatic. “Fix the fucking car now.”
He trotted off toward the Land Rover leaving me with the dead. It would be dark soon. There was no flashlight, and he couldn’t work long, not for more than an hour. I certainly didn’t want to be standing in that stinking field any longer, but even before he got to the car I knew we were going to sleep in it that night, close to the dead.
We skipped dinner. I curled up on the back seat. Leopold climbed up on the roof and lay under the tarpaulin holding my hunting rifle. I guess he figured the Hutus wouldn’t see him up there and they’d get to me first. As I lay there, my brain was rapidly churning; this wasn’t summer stock. This was the whole world. I had heard of it.
I lay there spinning for an hour. Whenever there was even a slight breeze, the odor from the church muscled its way inside the car. Sick as I felt, I wasn’t scared. I was detached. I just told myself that the Hutus didn’t want me dead, that I wasn’t Tutsi, and that I was safe from them. Except for robbery. And what do you know? The next day, my camera disappeared at a check- point further south. But without even knowing it, I had shot a full roll of film in the church, emptied the camera. I had the film.
As Leopold had predicted, that night the rains came, but he kept dry on the roof under the tarp. When it stopped and the skies cleared, the moon rose. Jesus, I won’t even try to describe it. Just say that it was a huge perfect circle and that it was white. It was bright as day. I’d given up trying to sleep. It was so white, I think I expected something with more red in it. But it was different than any moon I’d ever seen. It lay there huge and took my mind away from me. I guess the moon can do that. It’s so different from the sun. Try and stare at the sun. I can’t. But I can stare at the moon, which is what I did. I couldn’t stop. It made me look at it more and more. And after a while, it seemed to be working on me, making me think, as if it were a receptacle for my thoughts, asking me to pay attention to it, wanting me to answer it, to come up with an answer to something. An idea. It seemed to be witnessing me. The sky was clear, the land was bright, the moon was rising. I could see the little church that was also white, less than a quarter mile away through the window.
Bloodlines and/or religion, was that all this was? A cultural thing? Methods to deal with differences differed wildly. Why had the Hutus left their victims in plain sight? Babies, mothers, you know; no mass graves needed. As if it were okay. That everyone should know about them. Didn’t this show that they had pride in their work? Everyone else tries to cover up genocide, burn- ing and burying, but to the Hutus this just must have seemed to be an act of prejudice. It was their way to solve the snob thing. Jesus, I thought we Americans were snobs, but this was the ultimate snobbism. Then all those other snob things I’d read about started to look the same. The Serbs and the Russians were methodical, clumsy, messy, and they hid their victims in dis- crete graves. The Turks, the Japanese, Pol Pot were much more open about their genocide. The Argentinians pretended they didn’t do it. Arabs relied on bombs in cars, planes, markets in their fifty-year snit with Israel. The Nazis had a neatness about them; poison gas, a dreadful grace. With schadenfreude, they filmed it in progress, and they would never have stopped filming if they hadn’t been interrupted. All of them, just a bunch of de- ranged snobs.
The moon set, but the night went on and on, and it was a very long night.
In the morning, we drove past another body lying off the road in plain sight, like a chair with a broken leg. Then we passed what must have been a grave, trenches the length of our tennis courts, mounded high with good earth and sticks marking both ends. Then in a mile there was another grave and further on, another. What graves there were, were not yet dry and maybe they would never be, with the rains.
Leopold said that these Hutus had hacked to death one million souls in one hundred days. He called them souls. I asked him if he was religious. He wouldn’t tell me. Many of the Tutsis fled to other countries across the borders, but one million did not. The ones that were hacked to death. There were thousands more left for dead among the dead who did not die and escaped with permanent wounds. Half-dead people. Some unable to speak, out of their minds, dismembered. The survivors. It is a country of old men, orphans, widows. He said “million” casually, as if he’d forgotten what it meant. He didn’t expect me to believe him.
We passed an old woman dragging a bundle behind her on a stick. The remaining Inyenzi were returning home, Leopold said, to their land. I told him to stop the car.
“Ask her what those long graves are,” I told him.
Leopold asked her a question. The woman was terrified to be spoken to. She put her hands to her mouth. She reached in her sack and held out a grubby index card with some typing and a photograph stapled to it.
“Tutsi,” Leopold said. “She cannot speak.”
I thanked her and told Leopold to offer her a ride. She was very tired, but she was too confused to say “yes”. I handed her a pack of Marlboros that she carefully put into her bundle.
“Hutus would never bother to bury anyone,” Leopold said after we’d driven away. “They are much too stupid. But the Tutsis do. They care. They bury their dead.” It was a good sign. More and more, we encountered people on the road carrying possessions, the remainders of families walking back from their exile, in fragments, searching for each other, hoping to find them in the small cement houses that looked like burned-out sculptures, the house where they hoped to begin living again but would relive their tragedies.
By now, I had figured out that one million people divided by a hundred days was ten thousand a day. I did find that hard to believe.
“Is that gossip?” I said. “The one million.” He shook his head. “You have to know how. They were trained by the French. They taught them they could kill one-thousand in twenty minutes. The Hutus learned how all right.”
He said they also clubbed them to death. Had I noticed that the women in the shed had been clubbed to death? No, I hadn’t, I said. Well, they had and sometimes they burned them, too.
“Parents hid their children in the tall grass, but when the children saw their parents being hacked to death they cried out and betrayed their hiding places and then they were killed, too.”
“Why?” I asked. He knew I meant the whole damn thing.
He told me that the French wanted to keep a foothold in Africa and this was the way to maintain a one-party system in Rwanda. “The Hutus had a French- trained militia called the Interahamwe.” Incredibly, had the French begun all of this? The training of a militia for this genocide? That’s what he said. He shrugged. Take it or leave it. I tried to leave it.
On the flight home from Tanzania even though some images blurred, the hacked bodies did not abandon me. They clung to me like cats. The smell of death was in my clothes; the hunchback moon over the little white church, the crumbling statue of Jesus Christ, polished corpses floating in the river, the terrified mute old woman with the torn ID card, the dead boy’s lost hand.
There was another image just before I left Rwanda. Something I imagined that I saw on a huge lake. Lake Kivu.
I changed planes at Heathrow Airport outside of London. The first newspaper I saw carried a front page picture of a dead Israeli soldier. I searched it for news of what I’d seen in Rwanda, any mention. Ten thousand a day for more than three months, one million killed. I couldn’t find a word. I didn’t know why that was. The story was over. The numbers had leveled off; the stacks of bodies had cured. The lone Israeli soldier dead on the front page was the only news, and one million chopped-up Rwandans lived only in my imagination. And the image I’d seen on Lake Kivu.