Sojourn in Africa’s hot spots

April 20, 2006 at 9:57 am 6 comments

By JOHN OLE KISIMIR

*The writer is one of my mentors in Kenyan and African journalism.

Since my graduation from the university, I’ve traveled to many parts of Africa – the many parts of Africa at war! I’ve ducked bullets. I’ve seen landmines and big guns. I’ve seen battle lines being drawn. I’ve seen children carrying guns that are heavier than them. I’ve shed tears at the immense suffering of African children and their mothers under the hands of ruthless fighting factions – be they governments or rebels.

I’ve met warlords in the dangerous streets of Somalia towns. And too met Pokot and Karamoja warriors in western Kenya. I’ve met well-trained fighting groups as well as encountering merciless rag tag fighters and child soldiers. I have seen things and gone to places that I would never like my mother to hear about.

Be they Kony’s child abductors in northern Uganda, Mai Mai militia in eastern Congo, or Pokot warriors in western Kenya, these groups have one thing in common. They Kill. To them, human life is the cheapest commodity in town. At the end of the day it does not matter how many mothers will mourn the death of their child. I’ve seen this happen over and over. In this situation you don’t even know how to console someone.

As a journalist and humanitarian aid worker in the war torn Horn of Africa, life is exiting and frightening. Many a times I return to a town and realize that my contacts on some street have disappeared – I mean, have been killed. It is depressing.

I was once caught up in a shoot out inside a cinema hall in the Somalia central city of Baidoa during the World Cup 2002. Thanks to the love of soccer. Again soccer took me to more trouble in another town when spectators who are mostly armed started shooting at each other with machine guns. I survived.

To some, especially journalists, curiosity and building a strong CV at the front lines is the big motivation for working in war-torn countries. Others would work in such circumstances to earn good money. But the majority of people that I have met work to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable people under immense stress.

In all my travels and encounter with violence nothing ever shook my life and broke my heart like experiences of the Rwanda genocide that occurred in 1994. The irony in almost everywhere in Africa where war is waged is that the land and people are so beautiful. Rwanda, also known as a country of a “thousand hills” beats many places in beauty both in landscape and even people.

If you are a conference tourist, Kigali City is a great place to be, especially the magnificent five-star Novotel. The streets are busy with people and traffic and business is booming. I thought everyone was just doing fine. No. I was wrong. I drove out of Kigali in search of what genocide really means. I drove past mass graves with hundred of small crosses on top of them. I read names on the plaques of some of them. I took pictures and even waved to cheerful children playing by the roadside. Crops of corn and bananas grow in the fields. Cows, goats, and chickens line the road.

Then I stopped at Ntarama, a small Catholic parish 40 km east of Kigali. Eerily, the pastoral hill country around Ntarama offers no evidence of war, disturbance, or any violence. Brick and tin-roofed buildings in the area look untouched by the three-month war that ended in July 1994.A sign on the road finally announces the church. In French, Kinyarwanda, and English, it reads, “Ntarama Church Genocide site +/- 5000 persons.” Another sign in Kinyarwanda explains that events here should not be forgotten.

Yes, it is now twelve years after the genocide, but the 50-by-20 feet church at Ntarama still stinks of decaying flesh. It is strewn with the bloodied clothing and the bones of the 5,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who were slain here by government soldiers and Interhamwe militia. Ordinary civilians, many neighbors of Ntarama’s victims, also participated in the slaughter. I stood at the door and watched faded identity cards, a child’s plastic shoe and women’s handbags that litter the ground, all covered in years of red dust. On the altar there is nothing but, just one tiny baby’s skull.

“I survived this,” 46-year-old Pacifique Rutaganda, the site caretaker, told me. He has lost 12 relatives in the massacre. The killing started here on 14 April 1994 when Tutsis came here, God’s own Ntarama church for safety. But Rwanda was then a symbol of life without God. Hutu extremists unleashed the bloodbath using machetes, clubs and grenades.

Next to the church, authorities have constructed an open-air shed containing two long tables of unidentifiable body remains. One table has victims’ skulls neatly lined in a long rows. The skulls show visible signs of machete blows – long cracks along the cranium. Other skulls have holes punched in by spearheads. Decaying assorted body parts sit on the table next to the skulls.

I walked between the two rows. I was dumb founded. Thousands of skulls met me. By the time I was in the middle, I was almost dizzy. I turned away from skulls and my eyes met a rib cage, a hip joint and tibia on the other row. I turned from it but met more skulls again. The stench of rotting matter is strong here, but not overpowering.

I looked at the skulls again in more detail. I examined the different cuts on them, the ages and sizes. They were real people killed in a country where four in five people are Christians. But that didn’t keep them from raping, maiming, killing, and violating almost every Christian creed. Worse, more than 40 priests and other figures of the Catholic Church in Rwanda participated in the killings.

“I have 18 people in these bones,” Rutaganda explains. Over and over again since the place was open for public viewing, he has examined the bones hoping that he at least could identify the remains of his beloved children, mother, father and brothers. He keeps hoping.

I walked out of the shelter, signed a visitor’s book and donated a few dollars. I stood at the gates of the church compound and heard somber musical flute tune being blown from the next compound. People are going on with their normal farming activities. I could still smell the odour of human decay. I could not think clearly. I have no remarks worthy of the things I have just seen. What can one say about a place such as this? I felt a creeping discomfort looking at the gentle hills and mud homes and odd passersby. Which villagers here killed their neighbor, which hid in terror? I wondered.

I picked my cameras and left for a friend’s wedding in the capital. Life was different here, youngsters were dancing, stomping feet like Zulu regiments. Everybody was excited and happy but the site at Ntarama church had numbed my joy feelings. I took a taxi to the Airport wishing President Kagame and his government that they get the wisdom and energy to bring peace to these sick land and heal the scars of the past, deliver justice and a process of national reconciliation.

On arrival in Kenya, the media was awash with Felicien Kabuga’s story. The Rwanda genocide perpetrator is here at the comforts of my country while thousands of those he killed rot in Ntarama church. A month passes and I still look at the pictures of the skulls and pray, “Kabuga, may you die under thunder.”

Meanwhile, I got to move. Somalia is still fighting; Antonov fighters are still dropping bombs in Sudan; Democratic Republic of Congo as ever is in an uneasy calm; southern Africa and the Horn of Africa are engulfed in a terrible famine and landmines must be cleared in Angola. Together with other journalists, doctors, nutritionists, disaster management experts, counselors all sorts of professionals, we would be moving around these hot spots giving humanitarian service to the people who mostly have no control over the wars.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kabinti  |  April 20, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    This is a great and insightful article. I cannot imagine what most victims and survivors went through. I’m speechless for how we can be so inhuman.

    Reply
  • 2. Farmgal  |  April 20, 2006 at 10:56 pm

    I must have a very weak spirit coz I will not watch hotel rwanda….now you telling me u went and saw 5000 human skeletons! My God! I pray that nothing like this ever happens again…
    am never the less tempted to ask u to email me afew pics you took inside the church…if u can do make that one at a time. Blessings!

    Reply
  • 3. Anonymous  |  April 21, 2006 at 12:56 am

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  • 4. Anonymous  |  April 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

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  • 5. I refuse to believe these « Kenyan Analyst  |  September 29, 2006 at 5:35 am

    […] * I refuse to believe that we, as a nation, have no idea where good old Felicien Kabuga is. I refuse to believe that our legendary security services have been unable to crack this one. As a journalist friend once said: “Kabuga, may you die under thunder (wherever you are).” And may those who have stood by you find their reward too, here and everlasting. […]

    Reply
  • 6. hiutopor  |  September 20, 2007 at 1:17 am

    Hi all!

    Very interesting information! Thanks!

    G’night

    Reply

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