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Rwanda's not-so-distant horror

Ten years after the genocide in Rwanda, a journalist traveled to the country on special assignment for The Rotarian. His story, which ran in our December 2004 issue, conveys the horror he encountered, as well as the hope — including the initial efforts by Rotarians to provide Rwanda with its first public library. His report is as powerful today as it was then; we reprint it here in a slightly condensed form.


Rwanda’s hills rise above the heat and humidity of equatorial Africa in a soft green patchwork of terraced farms, connected by winding roads and red-dirt footpaths. Everywhere along these roads and trails, you see friends and neighbors stopping to shake hands, share smiles, laugh, and chat.

The beauty and conviviality of today’s Rwanda make it all the more difficult to imagine the country as the setting of one of the 20th century’s darkest episodes. In April 1994, ethnic Hutu extremists initiated a well-organized campaign of genocide against the Tutsi minority that resulted in more than 800,000 deaths. The victims — who included moderate Hutus as well as Tutsis — were mostly hacked to death by machete-wielding gangs while United Nations peacekeepers stood aside, under orders not to intervene.

In April 2004, as the country prepared to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the genocide, I traveled to Rwanda to meet with Rotarians actively working to rebuild their clubs and their nation. After flying into the capital, Kigali, I drove south toward the university town of Butare. Along the way I passed roadside memorials to victims and work gangs of genocidaires, the pink-shirted prisoners whose trials are, in most cases, still pending.

The perpetrators and victims came from all segments of society, and indeed, no Rwandan family was untouched by the genocide. But what about Rwanda’s Rotarians? Before 1994, Kigali and Butare had active clubs, with projects focusing on health, education, and other humanitarian services. As I traveled along the tightly winding roads, I wondered if the bonds forged in Rotary had managed to transcend the madness of ethnic hatred. As the country degenerated into a sea of brutality, had Rotary stood as an island of reason?

One of the first Rotarians I spoke to, Guus Van Balen, shook his head. A member of the Rotary Club of Butare in 1994, he offered a frank recollection that may come as a shock. “Unfortunately,” Van Balen said, “what we can say is that one half of our club’s members murdered the other half.”

Among Rwanda’s institutions, both eminent and workaday, the local clubs were hardly alone in their actions during the genocide. The government, the media, even the churches played their parts. Priests and nuns turned on each other, and teachers killed students. Spouses in mixed marriages attacked each other and their in-laws.

At first, some observers dismissed the killing as a spontaneous orgy of tribal violence. But the campaign had, in fact, been planned for more than a year. Thousands of Hutus trained for and willingly participated in the mass murder, convinced by authorities that it was necessary for their own survival. Van Balen, a Dutch expatriate, was evacuated in the first days of the violence. Tutsis and moderate Hutus who hadn’t escaped or been killed immediately went into hiding. Among them was Fidele Sebulikoko, the president of the Rotary Club of Kigali. A Hutu who was married to a Tutsi, Sebulikoko was discovered by the militias and killed, along with his wife and children.

The genocide lasted 100 days, ending only when a force of exiled Tutsis invaded and gained control of the country. The collapse of the government set into motion an exodus of Hutus, both innocent civilians and genocidaires. As they retreated, the militias burned villages and looted hospitals and government offices. So absolute was Rwanda’s misery that many survivors considered themselves unlucky to have been left alive.

By mid-1994, Rwanda’s green hills were awash in wretchedness and despair, in desperate need of the sort of help that Rotarians had so often been willing and able to provide. But there were no Rotarians left.

Ever so slowly, Rwanda’s darkness began to lift. The new government encouraged reconciliation and invited Rwandans of all ethnicities to return home.

Van Balen, who returned to find his adopted country a shambles, said he cannot begin to describe the depth of his grief, disappointment, and disgust. “I was missing a lot of friends from Rotary,” he said. “And even now, I still can’t forget them. When I look at a photo album, I see people who were killed, and the people who killed them. Some of them are still overseas, running from justice.”

Van Balen began to rebuild his life, as Rwandans began to rebuild their country. But it would be several years before Van Balen could think seriously about rebuilding Rotary. “When you are a Rotarian, you say you are all comrades and friends,” he said. “But to see results like this, it was very hard to believe in Rotary anymore. In fact, it was hard for me to believe in anything at all.”

The genocide of 1994 was the culminating episode in a long series of conflicts between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. Rotarian John Nyombayire had left Rwanda during a flare­up in 1962, settling in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). He served as governor of District 9150 in 1990-91.

In 1994, shortly after the end of the genocide, Nyombayire brought his family back to Rwanda. Among his dreams for his recovering homeland was the revival of Rotary, which had a history in Rwanda dating to 1966. “The club’s image in Rwanda was not good,” said Nyombayire, “so restarting was very difficult. We set up Kigali first [in 1994], then I went to Butare to speak to Guus.”

At first, Van Balen resisted, but Nyombayire was persistent. “Eventually, John convinced me that you can’t stop your life,” Van Balen said. “He told me that you have to go on. There was so much work to be done, and so many people who needed help.” Of the Butare club’s 45 members in 1994, only Van Balen was present in 1998 when RI granted special permission to re-form the club with just 11 members, under the sponsorship of the Rotary Club of Kigali.

Over a few days, I visited several Rotarian projects in the Butare area, including housing, water facilities, hospitals, and schools. An elderly woman, hearing that a delegation from Rotary had arrived, scurried from her garden to meet us. She began to weep as she gestured at her new house. “Merci,” she said, clutching our hands. “Thank you.”

In and around Kigali, I visited an impressive array of Rotary endeavors, including schools, orphanages, hospitals, and public health projects. In 1994, Kigali’s Sainte-Famille cathedral became infamous when its pastor, Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, aided in the murders of hundreds of parishioners. Now, the church’s grounds are a center for healing. Rotarian funds provide food for orphaned children, indigent elderly, and adults with mental illness.

Out of 30 members in the Kigali club in early 1994, only six remained in August of that year, when the club was re-established. Now, the city’s Rotarians have spun off new Rotary, Rotaract, and Interact clubs. Clearly, Rotary is on the move again in Kigali — and people all over the country are feeling its influence.

A few miles west of Butare, the site of the Murambi Technical School occupies a broad plateau with a view of the surrounding hills. In late April 1994, some 50,000 Tutsis converged on the campus, told to go there for their own protection. But militias soon appeared on the surrounding hills and began attacking. Over the next two days virtually everyone on the campus was killed with machetes, hand grenades, clubs, and guns.

For the past 10 years, most of the bodies have lain where they dropped, the flesh falling away and leaving, finally, only bones and scraps of clothing flapping in the wind. Now, the remains are being collected and housed inside a new memorial building, built with international funds. Sixty kilometers to the northeast, there are no plans to move the bones from the floor of the Catholic church at Ntarama, where some 5,000 people died. Beneath the church’s wooden pews are mounds of human remains: femurs, backbones, and ribcages, scattered among bits of clothing and children’s shoes. At the front of the church, a ray of sun angles in from a broken window, spotlighting an altar topped by a cross and a single, cracked human skull.

These rough memorials are part of Rwanda’s attempt to recover.

When I visited Nyamata, the site of another massacre, several bodies had recently been exhumed and brought to the now-abandoned church. The caretaker, who lost his wife and six of his eight children in the genocide, unlocked the door, then hurried away as I stepped inside. The smell of death immediately enveloped me, squeezing the breath from my lungs. Atop blue tarpaulins lay two dozen bodies, twisted and partially decomposed. On many, the fatal wounds were still clearly visible.

I had come to Nyamata looking for answers. But instead, I found my capacity to understand overwhelmed. What could convince human beings to visit such cruelty on their neighbors? And how could those who had the power to stop it refuse to step in?

“Pas des mots,” reads an entry in a guestbook at the memorial. There are no words …

With a light rain tapping at the top of her umbrella, Sonja Hoekstra-Foss walked across a new concrete floor at a bustling construction site near the center of Kigali. Hoekstra-Foss is president of the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga, which is leading the effort to build Rwanda’s first public library. “I don’t think an older club would have dared to do it,” said Hoekstra-Foss. “It was too ambitious.”

While the project is spearheaded by the club, it is deeply symbolic to all Rwandan Rotarians and to those who support it. “In much of the world,” said Hoekstra-Foss, “we take public libraries for granted. But here, many people do not even understand what a public library is. This is a country that has never had one.”

According to many observers, illiteracy and isolation were primary enablers of the genocide. Most Rwandans had no access to information beyond the government-controlled radio, and no access to books or publications that might have offered alternative ideas. In such a closed society, Hutu extremists found it relatively easy to manipulate the population.

“We all know that ignorance had an upper hand in the genocide,” says Rotarian James Vuningoma, a journalist and past president of the Kigali-Virunga club. “If we can give people education and bring them information from outside, it’s less likely that it could happen again.”

Gerald Mpyisi, also a past president of the Kigali-Virunga club, chairs the library committee. “By the end of the year,” Mpyisi says, “the structure should be complete. As soon as we get the additional funding we can start to outfit it with furniture, books, computers, and video. Then, in Rwanda, the tools of knowledge will begin to replace the tools of destruction.”

“Sometimes visitors ask me if I am Hutu or Tutsi,” Dr. Jean-Baptiste Habyalinana told me, on my last night in Rwanda. “I tell them, ‘I’m Rwandese.’” Habyalinana is the president of the Kigali-Mont Jali club; he’s also president of Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. “Since 1994, the change in spirit here has been extraordinary. Most Rwandans are behind the efforts for unity and reconciliation, and the result is now a peaceful country where the traditional hospitality of Rwandans to foreigners has been revived.”

“But unfortunately,” said Cally Alles, a past president of the Kigali club, “people have this great fear of Rwanda. This negative image will change if people visit our country, so we invite Rotarians and people everywhere to do so. They will see that this is a safe place, that we have low crime and low levels of corruption. We have mountain gorillas and beautiful national parks, and we have a friendly, welcoming culture.”

All of these things are true. But as a first-time visitor, what most strikes me is the fact that in Rwanda, more than perhaps anywhere else on earth today, one has the chance to witness such resonant examples of humanity at its very worst — and its very best. Among the latter are Rwanda’s new generation of Rotarians, who have dedicated themselves to repairing their country’s shredded soul. Here, in the cooling embers of one of humanity’s most horrific episodes, a few passionate people returned to salvage what they could and begin again.

“Nearly everything was lost,” said John Nyombayire. “But the spirit of Rotary somehow survived.”

• This story originally appeared in the December 2004 issue and was reprinted in a slightly condensed form in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

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