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Justice on the Grass

Three Rwandan Journalists, Their Trial for War Crimes and a Nation's Quest for Redemption

About The Book

The 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were massacred in just 100 days, was an unparalleled modern-day slaughter. How does a nation pick up the pieces after the killing has stopped?

In a gripping narrative that examines the power of the press and sheds light on how the media turned tens of thousands of ordinary Rwandans into murderers, award-winning author and journalist Dina Temple-Raston traces the rise and fall of three media executives -- Ferdinand Nahimana, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, and Hassan Ngeze.

From crime to trial to verdict, Temple-Raston explores the many avenues of justice Rwanda pursued in the decade after the killing. Focusing on the media trial at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she then drops down to the level of the hills, where ordinary Rwandans seek justice and retribution, and examines whether politics in the East African nation has set the stage for renewed violence.

In the months leading up to the killing, two local media outlets, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) and the tabloid newspaper Kangura, warned that a bloody confrontation was brewing. No one would be spared, they said. Observers said later that fearmongering from RTLM and Kangura played a key role in igniting the genocide, so much so that the three men behind the media outlets became the first journalists since Nuremberg to be tried in an international court for crimes against humanity.

Drawing on extensive interviews with key players, Dina Temple-Raston brings to life a cast of remarkable characters: the egotistical newspaper editor Hassan Ngeze; hate radio cofounders, the intellectual Ferdinand Nahimana and the defiant legal scholar Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza; an American-led prosecution team wary of a guilty verdict that might bring a broadly written judgment muzzling the press the world over; the bombastic American defense attorney John Floyd; heroic Damien Nzabakira, who risked his life to drive forty orphans to safety only to spend eight years in prison accused of their murder; and Bonaventure Ubalijoro, a Rwandan diplomat and politician who believed in miracles.

An extraordinary feat of reporting and narrative, Justice on the Grass reveals a Rwanda few have seen. A searing and compassionate book, Justice on the Grass illustrates how, more than a decade later, a country and its people are still struggling to heal, to forgive, and to make sense of something that defies credibility and humanity.


Chapter One: Beginnings

The wreckage of President Habyarimana's plane was still smoldering when Damien Nzabakira put the last of the children at the orphanage in Kigali to bed. Damien was a strong, solid man who could shush one child while rocking another to sleep. He could inspire trust with a gesture or the tone of his voice. As a result, the children tended to take their cues from him. They loved him enough to decide that if he was not worried, they should not be either. So even though they had all heard the explosion, even though they jumped at the sound of gunfire, they collectively decided to put their faith in Damien and let him, as a grown-up, do their worrying for them. Damien, for his part, tried to minimize what they could hear or see. He read them books. He spoke quietly. He tried to make his calm infectious.

Damien was a compact man with shiny eyes and a cleanly shaven dome of a head. He laughed easily, had a smile that lit up a room, and obviously loved to be around his charges. Damien began his career in teaching because he was determined to pass on the advantages he had had -- an education at elite Catholic elementary and high schools, and a year at the seminary -- to those who might otherwise have no future in a country like Rwanda. Damien was sensitive to how alien the world must look to these orphaned children. They lived in a constant state of flux, with none of the familiar objects or routines of home to calm them. Their lives were an unending series of new circumstances and new people. Damien knew that his presence provided a modicum of stability. And on that April evening he sensed, without being fully aware of the details, that he was all that stood between the children and chaos. He was equally sure that God had put him there at that moment to protect them all.

As the children slept, Damien stood vigil. He cocked his head to listen to the gunfire and tried to map from the sounds how close the violence was to the orphanage. The crack of each gun's report was magnified by the darkness. Damien found himself starting involuntarily with each shot. He walked into one of the orphanage's small classrooms, his shoes chirping over the linoleum, and fished a small radio out of a lower drawer in his desk. He clicked it on. There was a warbling and then a hum and then the sound of RTLM.

He moved toward the window without switching on a light. Outside he could see young men sitting in circles, lit up by bonfires. They passed around large bottles of beer. Some fired their pistols toward the heavens. He watched as the muzzle flashes lit them in brief silhouette.

What Damien didn't know was that a genocide had been launched and all Tutsi, typically the tall, slender minority and anyone who appeared to support them, were targets. Over the course of a week, the murders had become a kind of sport for the Interahamwe militiamen, like hunting. Rooting out the hiding Tutsi had become a battle of wits -- Hutu extremists versus their prey. At first, the Tutsi ran to the predictable places: the churches and government compounds. That made them easy to kill. It was more difficult, however, to ferret out the craftier Tutsi. They hid in the vestibule closets of churches. They found refuge behind false ceilings. They clung to rafters. They lay on the ground, unmoving, hoping their pursuers would think them already dead. Those who twitched, or fell from the ceilings, or moved from their hiding places at the wrong time, paid for their mistakes with their lives.

The Tutsi did not beg to be spared. Instead they asked for a merciful end. They offered money to be shot instead of hacked to death. Killing Tutsi had become the law, a duty. It was not disorder, it was order -- they were all Inkotanyi, accomplices of the invading Rwandan Patriotic Front army, the radio said.

"There will be no more Inkotanyi; there will be none in this country anymore," RTLM told its listeners. "When you see how many of them die, you would think that they come back to life. They themselves believe that they come back to life, but they deceive themselves, they are disappearing. They disappear gradually as bombs continue to fall on them and as they are killed like rats."

Damien watched from the orphanage window as people began moving to the outskirts of the capital, carrying their belongings on their heads. There were bodies in the street, swimming in sticky pools of blood. There were so many people pouring out of the city, Kigali was becoming deserted -- like a remote hill village instead of a capital. For days now, Damien's full-time occupation was to calm the children. But after so many concussive explosions and so many cracks of gunfire, even Damien was losing his grip. The children began to shriek with every grenade blast. They exchanged worried glances when shots were fired. Damien cursed himself for not having taken the group out of Kigali before the fighting started. They would have been in the countryside, safe, if only he had acted sooner. Radio Mille Collines journalists had been beating the war drums for months, ramping up concern that something evil was coming. It had named names. It singled out traitors, enemies, and plotters -- their names rolling out of the radio speakers in an endless stream.

"Jeanne is a sixth-form teacher at Mamba in Muyaga commune," one broadcast had said. "Jeanne is not doing good things in this school. Indeed, it has been noted that she's the cause of the bad atmosphere in the classes she teaches. She urges her students to hate the Hutus. These children spend the entire day at that, and it corrupts their minds. We hereby warn this woman named Jeanne; and indeed, the people of Muyaga, who are well known for their courage, should warn her. She is a security threat for the commune."

The station made clear who could be trusted and who could not. It lauded the vigilant who had found Tutsi hiding in the fields. It wooed the Hutu who were torn about the tastiness of the hunt. Damien listened as young militiamen breathlessly told the listening audience about the impending extermination of the Tutsi. One day slipped into the next as Damien held his radio to his ear and listened as RTLM reported every twist and turn of the unfolding war. And it would have continued that way had it not occurred to him one morning that RTLM offered something more than a blow-by-blow of a massacre. It provided the careful listener with clues. The Interahamwe calls gave Damien a good sense of who was where. He mapped out in his mind which roadblock patrols seemed especially vigilant or deadly. Those who called often to report their progress were to be avoided. Those who phoned in occasionally to say their posts were quiet offered hope of a less explosive confrontation.

Six days after the crash, Damien left one of the nuns in charge of the children and began to walk up the hill toward the Red Cross headquarters where he had once worked. The Red Cross volunteers were sure to help, he thought, as he picked his way through banana groves. He avoided the main roads, moving through the dirt alleyways between the houses. He tried not to look inside the houses, with their doorways open like dark mouths. The walk took about half an hour, and the Belgian volunteers, frightened themselves, were happy to see a familiar face. Damien gave them a wave as he came up the dirt drive and hugged them when he arrived at the door. He needed their help, he said. And he began to lay out his plan.

Less than an hour later, Damien was behind the wheel of a school bus, Red Cross flags snapping from the bumpers, driving back to the orphanage. We will leave all this, he decided, in the morning.

History in Rwanda has always been malleable, growing out of story lines of one's own choosing. If one was Hutu, then heroes were Hutu. If one was Tutsi, the opposite was true. In that storytelling, that exaggeration and embellishment, came the seeds of conflict.

When the colonialists came, to "civilize the savages," the differences between the Hutu and the Tutsi were formalized. It was the colonizers who took two people who had more in common than not and taught them to loathe each other. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the nearby Congo offered rubber and slaves to Belgium's King Leopold. Rwanda, on the far side of the Ruwenzoris, or Mountains of the Moon, offered only proximity. From 1895 to 1916, Rwanda was a German colony. In 1916, in the midst of the First World War, Germany pulled out of the East African territories and Belgium took on the responsibility for Rwanda and neighboring Burundi. Belgian paternal rule lasted forty-five years.

In the late 1800s, race science was in fashion, and no one was given more credit for making sense of the dark continent than British explorer John Hanning Speke. Speke was best known for finding the source of the Nile in a wild and adventurous competition against the more intellectual and taciturn Captain Rich-ard Burton. Speke, ever the glad-hander willing to slap fellow members of the Royal Geographical Society on the back and stand them a pint at the nearby pubs, was decidedly more popular than Burton. British society embraced his theories as gospel. Rwanda would suffer the consequences of Speke's popularity more than a century later. His doctrine, known as the Hamitic theory, laid the foundation for the 1994 genocide.

On his travels in Central and East Africa, Speke came to classify Africans into orders. He decided that all culture and civilization in Central Africa by 1863 had been the work of a taller, sharper-featured people who he decided must have come from a Caucasoid tribe in Ethiopia. This "higher order" of African descended from Noah's son, Ham, who married a Cainite woman, he said. These special Africans had a royal family and a semblance of a government and were, as a result, superior to the native Negroids. The other black Africans, the majority, he casually classified as subhuman. They were the savages who could be taken as slaves without troubling issues of conscience.

"In these countries," he wrote of East Africa,

the government is in the hands of foreigners, who had invaded and taken possession of them, leaving the agricultural aborigines to till the ground, while the junior members of the usurping clans herded cattle -- just as in Abyssinia, or wherever the Abyssinians or Gallas have shown themselves. There a pastoral clan from the Asiatic side took the government of Abyssinia from its people and have ruled over them ever since, changing, by intermarriage with the Africans, the texture of their hair and color to a certain extent, but still maintaining a high stamp of Asiatic feature, of which a marked characteristic is a bridge instead of bridgeless nose.

For posterity, Speke drew his vision of these two Africans in one of his notebooks. On the last page of a sketchbook filled with watercolors of antelope and African birds, there is a quick drawing. On the left-hand side there is a rendering of a small, stocky African. There are dark lines and smudges around the nose as Speke used his chalks to flatten the bridge and flare out the nostrils. Behind that small African man, Speke drew another. Nearly twice the first one's size, this figure was what any European at the time would have drawn to capture the image of an African king: he looked like a slender, regal European in African garb, with a long nose and thin lips.

Taking their cues from the famous British explorer, white rulers in Rwanda decided that the Tutsi were destined for great things. The Tutsi were given administrative duties and the Hutu were shunted aside. They were given menial tasks. In most instances, the Hutu were obliged to work for Tutsi. They tilled their land or grazed their cattle. Enlisting the Tutsi as de facto rulers allowed the Belgians to develop and exploit an enormous network of tea and coffee plantations without having to install a contingent of Belgians on the ground. The Belgians appreciated the natural orderliness of this so much that they institutionalized the differences between Hutu and Tutsi in a series of administrative measures between 1926 and 1932. They issued identity cards, dividing everyone as either Hutu or Tutsi. No one is altogether sure how the distinction was made. Some stories said that anyone who owned ten cows was automatically designated a Tutsi, so that the system was based more on caste than on ethnicity.

However the ethnicity was assigned, it came to be the basis for determining everything from enrollment in the school system (only Tutsi were worth educating, Hutu were too stupid) to civil service jobs (also reserved for the Tutsi). The very act of recording the ethnic groups not only made them more important but fundamentally changed their character. The Hutu and Tutsi designations were no longer amorphous categories; instead, they became inflexible. Europeans began to refer to them as ethnic differences. The elite, the Tutsi, were the immediate beneficiaries, and they played that superiority to its best advantage. By the same token Hutu, officially excluded from power, began to take on the hallmarks of the oppressed. They banded together against the Tutsi. They groused about the unfairness of it all, and they plotted revenge.

The culmination of all this resentment came in November 1959 when an attack on a Hutu political activist sparked the first modern recorded violence of Hutu against Tutsi. Rumors of the attack sent bands of Hutu into the streets. They organized themselves into groups that were eerily like the Interahamwe militia who would succeed them. Splitting up into groups of ten, the Hutu men hunted Tutsi neighbors. Tutsi were summarily murdered. The episode was called the "wind of destruction."

It was after this killing spree that Rwanda's Belgian administrators decided to replace about half the local Tutsi authorities with Hutu. Popular elections were held the following year. It came as a surprise to no one that the Hutu, as the majority, won most of the seats. In September 1961, 80 percent of Rwandans voted to end recognition of the Tutsi monarchy entirely. The Belgians al-lowed Rwandans to claim a republic and retired from the colony completely. Their system of identity cards, however, remained in force. Maintained over sixty years, it eventually became one way Hutu killers identified Tutsi during the genocide. But that would come later. In the meantime, the Hutu consolidated their power in Rwanda by installing a charismatic Hutu leader named Grégoire Kayibanda as president. Thousands of Tutsi fled for their lives. They became stateless refugees in Burundi, Uganda, and Zaire. The revolution of 1959 forever cleaved Rwandan history into a before and an after. The uprising was popularly known as the Hutu Revolution.

From 1959 to 1994, victims and killers were slowly prepared for the coming genocide. Day after day at every level of Rwandan society the seeds of distrust and hatred were sown. Newly em-powered, Hutu teachers would make Tutsi children stand up in the classrooms before their schoolmates. "Look at these Tutsi," the teachers would sneer, as the Tutsi children stood uncomfortably at their desks. "They think they are better than we are." The Tutsi students would try to protest and then would go silent. They were only children. Certainly, they could not be blamed for the crimes that came before them?

And yet they were blamed. Ethnicity came to trail the Tutsi minority like a tin can tied to the tail of a dog. While outsiders assumed that the Hutu and Tutsi were differing tribes, their differences were more superficial than that. While many Tutsi were tall and fine-featured with delicate hands and fingernails the color of blanched almonds, they did not all look that way. It was a stereotype. Similarly, while many Hutu were ebony black, short, and powerfully muscled, some belied the classification on their identity cards. Many looked Tutsi. Tutsiness or Hutuness was as much a state of mind as it was some closely tracked lineage. There were intermarriages that begot Hutu-looking men whose fathers had been Tutsi but who favored their Hutu mothers. Technically, their identity cards would read "Tutsi" since one was assigned the designation of one's father. And there were tall, thin Hutu, the offspring of Hutu fathers and Tutsi mothers, who were also caught between the two groups. Residual Belgian perceptions of Tutsi and Hutu found a place in the Rwandan psyche. Tutsi were seen as a handsomer people, a smarter people. Never mind that there was nothing to substantiate either claim. It was enough that people believed it to be true.

Rwandan mornings smell sweet and sour. The tang of fresh fires mixes with the salt of old sweat and the sweetness of fresh-cut grass. The air is thick and cool. The ground is soft and mossy. Fog gathers thick and white in the valleys and envelops hills sculpted by thousands of gardens. The mist softens the hard edges of the coffee plants and plantain trees. It muffles sound. Children in limp, colorful T-shirts balance on makeshift bicycles made of wood, swimming in and out of focus, taking shape out of the whiteness. Teenagers pulling bullock carts suddenly appear at close range. In every direction the view is the same: coffee plants, mud huts, green hills.

Before the genocide, Rwanda was known as the Tibet of Africa, the land of a thousand hills. The name came from the peaks and valleys of the Virunga Mountains, a volcanic chain that forms the continental divide between the Nile and the Congo river basins. The hills give the Rwandan landscape an enchanting quality, more Central America than Africa. For anyone on foot, however, the hills quickly become oppressive. They make one feel closed in, suffocated. Car engines strain going up the inclines and brakes smoke going down. It is difficult to get anywhere in Rwanda without running out of breath. One hill is left behind only to be followed by ten more ahead. The rolling lushness makes an already tiny place seem that much smaller. Hills are a curse in a place where size really matters. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Its ten thousand square miles hold almost 8 million people, all of whom seem to be clinging to the sides of the hills. Houses lean at angles, small patches of crops struggle to take root.

In one way or another all of Rwanda's battles seemed to spring from the ground on which its people stood. Geographers joke that Rwanda is so small there is no room for its name on a map. Atlases draw arrows -- or allow Rwanda to slip into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire) on one side or into Tanzania on the other: a cartographic metaphor for the Rwandan condition. In the waning days of the genocide, ten thousand Rwandans spilled over the Zairean border every hour, as if Rwanda had filled to capacity and was letting the excess run off. The feet of millions of exiles padded into neighboring countries packing the cinder plains near the Virungas to an asphalt hardness.

There had been other exoduses. Hutu would flee on one occasion, Tutsi would flood the borders on another. It was an endless seesaw of political fortunes -- when one group was down, the other was up. And while those in power jockeyed for advantage, the Rwandan people, resigned to this endless push and pull of politics, would load or unload their worldly possessions onto or off cattle and cart and make the pilgrimage to wherever safety beckoned.

Paul Kagame, a young Tutsi who had grown up in a refugee camp in Uganda, was one of those refugees. His parents had fled Rwanda in 1961, when Kagame was only three years old, amid a rash of anti-Tutsi violence in Rwanda. With little else to do but long for a country that refused to welcome him back, Kagame followed hundreds of other young Rwandan men into the forest to join a Ugandan anti-Idi Amin rebel force led by Yoweri Museveni. When that force succeeded in installing Museveni as the new Uganda president, Kagame was made the head of Uganda's army intelligence.

As highly regarded as Kagame was, however, he still had the sense that he would only be permitted to go so far in his adopted country: he was not, after all, Ugandan; he was Rwandan. He was part of a lost generation who had grown outside Rwanda looking in. And it was out of this general longing to return home that the Rwandan Patriotic Front was born.

More than twenty years before the genocide, in July 1973, General Juvénal Habyarimana, the army's most senior officer, toppled Grégoire Kayibanda in a coup d'état. He assumed the presidency and vowed to end the cycle of violence. He said he would allow those who had fled to neighboring nations out of fear to return. He called on Rwandans to welcome the exiles. He promised that Rwanda's future would be brighter. A trickle of humanity took him up on his offer and returned.

It took only two years for Habyarimana to decide that the returnees were not really so welcome. Rwanda didn't have the resources to absorb them. There were battles over land. Squatters fought for their houses. Exiles demanded the government make good on its promises of right of return. Habyarimana, concerned the violence would shake his hold on power, took drastic action. He closed the borders and made Rwanda a one-party state under the National Republican Movement for Development, or MRND. All local leaders, by default, were decreed MRND members. Overnight, everyone was dubbed an ally of the president. Ensuring that everyone adhered to Habyarimana's political re-organization was relatively easy: Rwanda's communities had been divided and subdivided and cut into so many overlapping pieces, it was easy to keep track of everyone. The nation was divided into ten prefectures, each of which included subprefectures and communes, which usually encompassed about forty thousand residents. The communes themselves were led by burgomasters. They held court once or twice a week to receive citizens and explain the latest news from the capital. More than a mayor, the burgomaster was all-powerful. He determined land use, mediated property conflicts, settled family disputes, placed children in secondary schools, and decided whether cases ought to go to a higher court. Below the level of communes, the communities were further divided into sectors of about five thousand people. Community cells sliced that population even thinner.

The structure made the administration of authoritarian rule child's play. Keeping tabs on citizens and, more important, mobilizing them against threats required a single phone call. And to make sure that the people were ready to follow orders at all times, the government instituted a system called umunganda, literally "work for the public good." Rwandans were compelled, with a simple request from the burgomaster, to repair roads or clear brush. Rwandans were conditioned to do as they were told and not ask questions.

Contrary to popular lore, when the RPF made its first small invasions into Rwanda, in 1990, Rwandan refugee Paul Kagame was not in charge. He was in the United States for a course at the Army's Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and rushed back to Uganda, cutting his studies short, so he could help organize the RPF. Hutu leaders in Rwanda immediately worried that Kagame would be a force to be reckoned with. He was considered the military brains behind Museveni's successful overthrow of the Ugandan government. The mere mention of his name frightened regular Rwandan citizens and his battlefield prowess started to take on mythic proportions.

It wasn't until January 1991, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front raided the town of Ruhengeri, the birthplace of the Hutu Power movement, that members of Habyarimana's cabinet made their plan for a counteroffensive public. "Go do a special umunganda," the prefect in Ruhengeri told local residents. "Destroy all the bushes and all the Inkotanyi. And don't forget that those who are destroying weeds must also get rid of the roots." The roots, presumably, were the Tutsi civilians who might secretly support the RPF. Rwandans who took part in the genocide said later they could hardly be blamed for their actions. They were only following orders.

It is easy to underestimate the damage historical confusion can wreak. For that reason Rwanda needed responsible academics to help set the record straight. University of Rwanda history professor Ferdinand Nahimana believed he was the man to do just that. Born in 1950 to a farming family, Nahimana was the youngest of nine children. He managed to get an education in spite of the fact that he was poor and Hutu. He even received a doctorate in France, where his study of Hutu history was lauded as a step toward helping peace return to his country.

A slender man with a wide forehead and sympathetic eyes, Nahimana spoke in the soft, even tones of an intellectual. He saw no need to raise his voice. Some said his gentle demeanor belied the turmoil that raged inside him. People said that he secretly harbored hatred of the Tutsi and he had come to the conclusion that a history needed to be written that extolled the virtue of the majority people, the Hutu. Nahimana had focused his research on what he perceived were the overlooked contributions the Hutu had made to Rwandan culture.

Nahimana's "new history" was a rejection of an inherited body of understandings that could be traced back to Speke's writings from the Mountains of the Moon. Nahimana felt the Tutsi were not just wrongheaded about their perceived right to pull the levers of power in Rwanda; they were a natural enemy of the Hutu majority. Anything that provided a boost to the Tutsi came at the expense of the Hutu, he said. The Tutsi had no right to rule. Their goal was to return Rwanda to its days as a monarchy. Nahimana had taken his theory to the University of Paris in 1986 and written a dissertation on the Hutu kingdoms of northwest Rwanda. His professor, Jean-Paul Chrétien, awarded him the highest honors for "demystifying Rwandan history."

Nahimana returned from abroad just as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front began forcing Habyarimana's hand on the right of Tutsi exiles to return. The Tutsi offensives had sparked a rapid militarization of Rwandan society by 1990. Sides were chosen along familiar lines: it would be Hutu against Tutsi. Recruits to the Rwandan army grew at breakneck speed. The ranks grew from a few thousand soldiers to forty thousand in just three years. By 1992, the military consumed almost 70 percent of the Rwandan government's budget. Between 1985 and 1990, the military gobbled up 1.6 percent of the nation's GNP; by 1993, three times that amount.

Nahimana might have labored on in relative anonymity had it not been for President Habyarimana. A stalwart supporter of the president's party, the MRND, later renamed the MRNDD in 1991, Nahimana offered to help Habyarimana unite the nation's Hutu majority. He saw it as an opportunity to teach unlettered people about their past, to replace historical rumor and innuendo with fact. He began to educate the masses from a seat at Radio Rwanda, the nation's only government-sponsored station, in 1992. Before Nahimana's arrival Radio Rwanda's broadcasts were mind-numbing. The airwaves were filled with only the dullest fare. There were excerpts of President Habyarimana's political speeches or a recitation of the latest news from an MRND political meeting. When the news was particularly slow, Radio Rwanda would rebroadcast presidential speeches in their entirety -- hours and hours of monotone from a man who seemed to love the sound of his own voice. In comparison, anything Nahimana decided to broadcast would be an improvement.

For a man who was used to speaking to a rarefied audience of intellectuals, Nahimana found himself able to find the right words to reach the eager ears of ordinary Rwandans, men and women who were more characterized by action than reflection. The potential of such an audience was not lost on Nahimana. It was clear that, properly presented, his vision of the Hutu would pour from the speakers of Radio Rwanda into the ears of a receptive audience who could easily turn theory into actual practice. It was not until Nahimana blamed Tutsi rebels for a series of killings in a small swampy town called Bugesera in 1992 that people began to notice that this Hutu professor had been given such a broad portfolio and powerful position.

Initially, all that was known for sure about the events in Bugesera was that some killings had taken place there. Armed men had arrived, and villagers, a lot of them, had been murdered. How the details were filled in beyond that depended on your point of view. Among the Tutsi community, word spread that members of the Rwandan army had arrived and killed hundreds of Tutsi. Hutu heard that the Rwandan Patriotic Front army had arrived and hundreds of Hutu had been killed.

At the broadcast studios of Radio Rwanda, Ferdinand Nahimana handed journalists a communiqué from the Commission Inter-Africaine pour la Non-Violence, a human rights organization said to be based in Nairobi. The communiqué warned that the low-boil fighting in Bugesera was about to change into something bloodier. It would escalate, the communiqué said, from guerrilla warfare to a rash of assassinations. Property would be destroyed. After the battle took place, the RPF would blame the violence on the Hutu, the journalists reading from the communiqué told listeners.

Radio Rwanda decided to air the contents of the communiqué without making a single attempt to corroborate it. Journalists didn't even make the cursory phone call to the Commission Inter-Africaine pour la Non-Violence to ask them about their sources. Had they done that most basic of journalistic checks, they would have discovered that the human rights organization didn't exist at all. Officials in Bugesera had made it, and the communiqué, up.

Hours after the communiqué was broadcast, Ferdinand Nahimana's voice came over the radio. "Annihilate these Machiavellian plans of the enemy Inyenzi-Inkotanyi," the director of the nation's Bureau of Information said, using the Kinyarwandan-language nickname for the Tutsi: "cockroach." The Tutsi were preparing to overthrow the country, he said.

A short time later a truck filled with young toughs from the Interahamwe militia and the presidential guard arrived in Bugesera. Residents recalled the first sounds that evening were the wheezing of truck engines and the clattering of metal. There was the dead sound of boots on the dirt. Orders barked. Then the tangled, unmistakable sound of commotion: short gasps, bare feet thumping across soft earth, small shrieks, and then the dull thud of body meeting ground.

When the work was done, and it didn't take long, corpses lay along the streets frozen in twisted poses, limbs missing, eyes open in startled surprise. At first glance it might have appeared indiscriminate, proof of a world gone mad. Many of the dead looked of a piece: they were tall, thin, fine-featured, the color of café au lait. They lay in delicate repose, floating in muddy circles of blood. Truck engines roared back to life. Metal blades fell with a clatter into the truck beds. The killers melted back into the eucalyptus groves and the bottle green hills without a trace.

This was a dress rehearsal for a genocide.

Nearly two hundred Tutsi and moderate Hutu were dead and fifteen thousand people had simply disappeared. "It was the first time that the radio was used to incite people to violence," the Rwandan expert for Human Rights Watch, Alison Des Forges, would testify later.

What she didn't know was that a young Rwandan journalist named Hassan Ngeze was also using the media, a newspaper called Kangura, to stir up the people of Bugesera. Witnesses would say later that they saw him in Bugesera two weeks before the violence offering passersby copies of the Kangura tabloid. The banner headline read: the batutsi, god's race! Beneath the sixteen-point type was an image of the former Hutu president of Rwanda, Grégoire Kayibanda. The caption under the photograph was fiery: "How about relaunching the 1959 BaHutu Revolution so we can conquer the Inyenzi-BaTutsi?" Another large headline beneath the caption went a step farther. what weapons shall we use to conquer the Inyenzi once and for all?

The newspaper helpfully supplied an answer: beside the headline was a drawing of a machete. While it suggested one ought to take matters into one's own hands, it never directly advocated that anyone kill. It was a fine distinction that would arise when Kangura was the subject of discussion in a court of law years later.

As Bugesera began to bury its dead, a group of men in Kigali were watching the events with satisfaction. Bugesera was their experiment. It was the first phase in a grander plan meant to end this Tutsi problem in Rwanda once and for all. But that was revealed only later. What alarmed moderate forces at the time was Nahimana's decision to broadcast his version of the events. Radio Rwanda had fomented tensions in Bugesera, they said, and Nahimana had intended to whip up residents when he broadcast news of the communiqué out of Nairobi. Why had he not directed journalists to check the veracity of the report? Why had he decided to make a personal appearance on the radio to turn up the heat on the situation? Putting the best face on it, the moderates said, Nahimana exercised bad judgment. At worst, he knew precisely what he was doing and his actions had cost hundreds of Tutsi lives. President Habyarimana bowed under pressure and fired Ferdinand Nahimana from the top job at the Rwandan Bureau of Information (ORINFOR) and Radio Rwanda.

"I was a scapegoat," Nahimana would say later. "I learned that I had been sacked from my position from Radio Rwanda. Then the radio said the council of ministers was appointing me as first adviser, or first consular, for the Rwandan embassy in Bonn, Germany, instead." Witnesses would say later that Germany told the government in Kigali that it would not accept Nahimana into the country because he was a known racist. Nahimana said the job change never occurred because he didn't want it.

Six months later Nahimana would find a handful of people to help him with a new venture. He decided to start his own radio station, a creation he would call Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, or RTLM. The idea came, he said later, when he was having coffee with several friends in the fall of 1992. The conversation had turned to the rise of an RPF radio station called Radio Muhabura. It had started broadcasting in the western part of the country and into the Congo. And while the new station's signal was not strong and its following was not large, it rankled the men sitting around the table drinking coffee. Radio Muhabura gave the Rwandan Patriotic Front a voice. It had been calling on Rwandans, or more precisely Tutsi, to return from their countries of exile. This right of return angered the men. There was barely enough in Rwanda for the people who were already there.

What concerned those aligned with the president most was Radio Muhabura's support of the U.N.-supervised Arusha Accords. The plan outlined a twenty-two-month timetable for Rwanda's political parties, including the RPF and the president's Mouvement Républicain National pour la Démocratie et le Développement (MRNDD), to form a transitional government that would lead, eventually, to democratic, multiethnic elections. The plan was to reintegrate the refugees and the RPF into Rwanda -- to demobilize the government and RPF troops, draft a new constitution, and rebuild the economy. The goals would have been ambitious even if everyone concerned had been eager to make them work. Those who supported them saw the accords as Rwanda's best chance for a new social contract. Those who loathed them, Habyarimana and his supporters among them, couldn't think of anything worse than the plan's implementation.

Their objections came on many levels. Habyarimana didn't trust the RPF and felt that the MRNDD, the only party in Rwanda for decades, was getting short shrift. He felt that the MRNDD deserved more weight in any transitional government and should not share power equally with the political upstarts that had only recently emerged in Rwanda. Members of the ruling MRNDD had another very real concern: they worried that once the transitional government was in place, the RPF would see to it that the president and his entourage would be charged for crimes they committed in the nearly twenty years they had been in power.

"If Radio Muhabura was not doing this major propaganda on behalf of the RPF, and showing that the government and Rwanda was the one who was in the wrong, I think the company, RTLM, would not have been established," Nahimana said later. "This is what motivated people to establish this company; at least in my view it's these factors which dictated my involvement in the establishment of this company."

Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza was the chief ideologue for the stridently anti-Tutsi Coalition for the Defense of the Republic, or CDR, and he made no secret about how he personally felt about the Tutsi and the RPF. He didn't like them.

To follow Barayagwiza's progression through life was to follow the typical path followed by any of Rwanda's Hutu elite since independence. He was educated at a seminary, as many bright Hutu had been, and later was permitted to study law in the Soviet Union in the 1970s at a time when the state in the Soviet Union ranked supreme and when laws were not in place to protect individuals. They were there to protect the state. In postcolonial Rwanda the opportunity to study abroad, much less travel abroad, was limited, and those who returned to Rwanda from such adventures were rewarded. Barayagwiza's experience rather naturally opened the door to politics. On his return several years later to Rwanda, he became a senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and eventually worked as director of political affairs for the Habyarimana government.

Barayagwiza and Nahimana were an odd pair. The lawyer was as fiery as Nahimana was quiet. Barayagwiza was a man who seemed to create a blast area around his beliefs, and Nahimana seemed to be perennially musing. "I can go up the genealogy of my family back to about the ninth generation," Barayagwiza said. "They are Hutus. They brought me up as a Hutu. I grew up in a Hutu culture. I was born before the 1959 revolution. My father did forced labor. My mother used to weed in the field of the Tutsis who were in power. My grandfather paid tribute money. They would tell me: 'That is how things are: we must work for the Tutsis.'"

Barayagwiza, like all true believers, allowed his hatred of the Tutsi to become all-consuming, and because he was the kind of man who inspired people to join his crusade, his passions consumed everyone in the vicinity. His simmering hatred for the Tutsi came to a rolling boil soon after the announcement of the Arusha Accords. He saw Nahimana's RTLM project as an antidote -- a way to avoid the worst of all possible fates: sharing power with the Tutsi. He helped Nahimana find investors for the new venture. The radio station incorporated in April 1993 and was broadcasting by that summer.

"RTLM is a radio station with objectives," one 1993 broadcast said. "Its aim is to tell the truth, all the truth. There are people who call us on the radio and talk to us. Others write to us. Some come to see us, while we meet others and discuss the station with them. Anybody can be an RTLM correspondent, whether they come from Rwanda or are foreigners, whether they are in Burundi, in Uganda, or anywhere else in the world."

Copyright © 2005 by Dina Temple-Raston

About The Author

Dina Temple-Raston is the author of A Death in Texas, Justice on the Grass, The Jihad Next Door, and In Defense of Our America. She is NPR’s counter-terrorism correspondent and host of the radio special, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” She is also the creator, host, and correspondent of the podcast “What Were You Thinking.”

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (August 5, 2008)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743284295

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