“The Devil Was Running Things Then”: The Rwandan Genocide and the Poetry of Witness by Andrew Kaufman

Life Sentence
     For Alois

Interahamwe were killing people outside.
They tore down our fence, searching for Tutsis.
Court says I let the killers in. Someone lied.
I have no staff. I cannot guard our factory. 

They cut through the fence. Searching for Tutsis.
Owners and bosses—already fled. To France.
With no staff—how can I protect the factory?
Judges say I am the boss in bosses’ absence. 

The European bosses—all in France.
Court says I brought the killers to those who died.
By law I am in charge. In bosses’ absence.
Two witnesses wanted my job. So they lied. 

I tried to protect the ones who died.
I tell court, “What do I gain? They kill my driver.”
To get my job—two witnesses lied.
“What do I gain? They kill my house cleaner.” 

Why would I do this? He was my driver.
Judges told me, “Confess or you get life in prison.”
One is my driver. One is my house cleaner.
The militia took eight Tutsis out and killed them. 

I do not confess. I have life in prison.
They cut the victims’ throats. But three men did not die.
I see them take my friends outside and kill them.
The militia men have guns. I can only watch. And cry. 

I call the Red Cross for the three who did not die.
So many bodies. Maybe you saw on television?
They have guns. I can do nothing. I can only cry.
I call Red Cross—soon as the killers are gone. 

Maybe you saw the tent camps on television?
On the road to Goma we found a tiny baby.
We took him from his mother’s corpse. His family—gone.
We cared for him in the camp for refugees. 

We find no papers, no family of this baby.
The name we chose means, God’s peaceful gift to me.
He survived with us when we were refugees.
He visits me in prison, with my family. 

My wife’s name for him—God’s peaceful gift to me.
For so much killing there must be punishment.
He is big now. He lives with my family.
I accept—I am here for life and I am innocent. 

For so many murders there must be punishment.
Our country needs peace, conciliation.
I accept I am here for life and innocent.
What do you think? Is this resignation? 

Judges make mistakes. We need conciliation.
The court say I let the killers in. Two men lied.
Mr. Andrew, is this resignation?
Interahamwe were killing everyone outside.

I

I can’t take credit for inventing a single detail in this poem. In condensed form, this is exactly what Alois, the dedicatee, told me over the course of a couple hours in a bare concrete room over a beat-up table in Kigali City Prison in Rwanda.

When I arrived to interview convicted genocide perpetrators, or “génocidaires,” Alois, who had studied in Boston, was fluent in English, and was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, was assigned to be my uncompensated interpreter. It is more accurate to say he was my partner and collaborator through a week of interviews. Beyond being a dedicated, scrupulous interpreter, when he thought a genocide perpetrator was misleading us, he suggested questions that elicited responses that were often harrowing. After each interview we exchanged impressions as Alois helped me assess and process what had just been said and/or omitted. The context and insight he offered were invaluable.

When a prisoner told us, for example, that he shot “only three people . . . all in the heart,” Alois knew to suggest asking, “Who taught you to shoot?” This left the prisoner no plausible response but what he’d been trying to hide: the Interahamwe, the government-sponsored network of local death squads, had trained him, which led in turn to the acknowledgment that in addition to the three murders he’d admitted to, he took part in another “60 or 70.” When another prisoner explained almost jauntily that the six-person death squad he had belonged to “sometimes had to terminate whole families,” including “babies and infants,” and added that “the only thought should be that they killed our president who was like our parent,” Alois was as viscerally appalled as I was.

These are some of the reasons, along with the consistency of Alois’s story (including details I was able to corroborate independently), why I believe the account in “Life Sentence” is truthful. Alois, an ethnic Hutu, was 58 years old at the time, with an almost incongruously affable and trusting manner. He was college educated and married with five children and two grandchildren. Having worked for 15 years for a company that manufactured plastic goods, by 1994, the year of the genocide, he had worked his way up to the position of chief financial officer.

Some background on the Rwandan genocide will put his story, and the poem he inspired, into clearer perspective. Over the course of three months, beginning on April 7, 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were murdered, most by their neighbors, most often by machete or knife. The average of more than 8,400 killings a day exceeded the daily assembly-line efficiency of even the Third Reich. Yet by the time I got to Rwanda, the capital, Kigali, had been transformed into one of the safest and cleanest cities on the planet. The rest of the country, as I found, was equally safe.

Since before the time of its recorded history, the area that is now Rwanda had been populated by two ethnic groups, both of which spoke the same language, shared the same culture, and lived peacefully as neighbors in the same towns and rural communities. The taller, somewhat lighter-skinned Tutsis who comprised roughly 15 percent of the population had traditionally raised cattle and held the balance of power. The darker, more squat and muscular Hutus were farming people and made up nearly all the remaining 85 percent of the population. When Belgian colonizers took control of Rwanda from Germany following the First World War, they further entrenched the power of the Tutsis as a privileged class by establishing them as surrogate rulers, having calculated correctly that as a small minority the Tutsis would be unlikely to turn against their colonial masters. The Belgians issued and required everyone to carry an identity card indicating their ethnicity, mainly to ensure that the Hutus remained an underclass.

As Belgium began relinquishing power in the early 1960s, a Hutu government took over. But rather than abolishing the Belgian-imposed system of ethnic preferences, they inverted it, and in a series of measures marginalized the Tutsis to the point of encouraging periodic pogroms against them. A significant enough portion of the Tutsi population fled to neighboring Uganda where they formed an army of exiles that launched periodic attacks against what they saw as their lost homeland.

In a country where nearly everyone listened to the radio, the only medium to which most people had access, decades of constant, increasingly virulent and hate-filled broadcasts demonizing Tutsis as “cockroaches” had their effect. These featured not only competing politicians but celebrity entertainers, athletes, and personalities. The broadcasts eventually began calling for the killing of individual Tutsis, and then for their extermination. As Rwanda was the most densely populated as well as one of the poorest countries in Africa, the drumbeat of calls to impoverished Hutus to take their neighbor’s land, homes, and lives came to have a seductive appeal.

By the early 1990s, when several political parties vied for power, they competed in large part by seeking to outdo one another in advocating measures against the Tutsis. Depriving the Tutsis of university education was followed by taking their cattle, banishing them from professions, then taking their land and homes, positions which in turn were outdone by incitements to simply murder them. Ironically, it was the movement toward democracy, pressed by the international community, that led in part to Rwanda’s “final solution.”

During the early months of 1994, $750,000 worth of machetes, recently purchased by the government in unprecedented bulk from China, were distributed to Interahamwe cells throughout Rwanda, along with guns and grenades. Lists of Tutsi names and addresses were compiled and distributed. The Interahamwe began setting up roadblocks at which Tutsis were beaten or worse. On the evening of April 6, 1994, the longtime president of Rwanda, the Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana, was killed when his plane was shot down after he had grudgingly agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with the Tutsis. The genocide erupted in full force the next morning.

Following the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia, US President Bill Clinton not only refused to make any effort to stop the genocide, but—apparently anxious to avoid international embarrassment—his administration did all it could to discourage the other Western powers, along with the United Nations Security Council, from intervening. According to General Roméo Dallaire, the head of a small UN peacekeeping force that was in Rwanda at the time, the US, British, or French forces that were dispatched to Rwanda at the start of the genocide each could have stopped it, but their mission in each case was limited to evacuating their nationals.

II

The Rwandan genocide was ended in July 1994 when the army of Rwandan exiles in Uganda drove the government forces out of the country, but this did not end Rwanda’s humanitarian catastrophe. Escaping the fighting and fearing the inevitable spate of revenge killings, 2 million Hutus fled Rwanda, only to find themselves in some of the most massive refugee camps the world had ever seen. Approximately an additional 50,000 people died in these camps, mainly from cholera.

The eighth stanza of “Life Sentence” briefly mentions Alois’s two-and-a-half-year stay with his wife and children in a camp in what is now eastern Congo. Here his 17-year-old son died and Alois and his wife rescued and adopted an infant they had found lying beside his dead mother. The story of their nightmarish journey out of Rwanda is told in part in another poem I dedicated to him, “Fleeing to Goma, Zaire, 1994”:

We walked through killings from Kigali
to Gisenyi. Those who were killed did not fight.
I saw many murdered by fleeing Interahamwe.    

Each night we heard screams and woke among bodies.
Some armed men just ordered, Go! Some killed on sight.
I saw so many shot by the pursuing army.

Old people, children who could not walk, died.
Interahamwe had few guns so they used the machete.

The camps were controlled by the Interahamwe along with officials from the vanquished Hutu government who were rearming in preparation for a renewed war. The Tutsi-led regime invaded the camps to forcibly return the refugees to Rwanda, where they would be under closer government control. But this created the seemingly insolvable problem of identifying and dealing with genocide perpetrators who had been responsible for 800,000 murders. With a tenth of the country’s pre-genocide population of 8 million killed, this challenge was proportional to what the US criminal justice system would face if it suddenly needed to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of 31 million murders, most of which had been committed by death squads.

The Tutsi-led government’s response involved an extraordinary and unprecedented combination of justice and mercy that addressed their security concerns but was inevitably subject to abuse and tragic mistakes. Under the “National Unity and Reconciliation” program, more than 8,000 village or neighborhood-level courts were set up throughout the country beginning in 2004, based on Rwanda’s traditional, precolonial system of justice. Called “gacacas,” these courts tried 120,000 accused génocidaires over the course of more than a decade. Each gacaca consisted of a panel, usually of five “judges,” who were members of the local community. Each underwent six weeks of training for this work, but otherwise none had a legal background, and many had little education.

Under this system, those who took part in the genocide but had not been leaders or organizers on any level were granted clemency in exchange for a full confession of their crimes before the local gacaca, and a public apology to the survivors, if any, of their victims, which the survivors were required to accept. Many of the apologies were extraordinarily heartfelt. Many weren’t. Representation or assistance from lawyers or friends or family members during the hearings was not permitted, and only the judges, who had no investigators to aid them, were allowed to ask questions. Note-taking, or speaking from notes, was not allowed, presumably because it was thought this would provide the educated elite with an unfair advantage. At the one gacaca trial I attended along with about 200 villagers, I was the lone exception.

As Rwanda is not only heavily Catholic but as devoutly so as any country in the world, the apparatus of confession and forgiveness gained a larger degree of acceptance among survivors of the genocide than would otherwise have been likely, due to its parallels to confession and absolution in Catholicism. The Catholic faith runs incredibly deep among many survivors and some of the prisoners I spoke with. It did not appear to have been shaken, in most instances, by the number of priests who fled to France after openly collaborating with the Interahamwe by turning over parishioners who had sought sanctuary in churches, to be murdered and in many cases raped. Not one person I spoke with in Rwanda—and I asked many—questioned God’s existence or providence, although when pressed to explain the genocide a number of them said, “The devil was running things then.” Others were pained to admit they had no answer to this question. (In 2017 Pope Francis formally apologized for the complicity of members of the Catholic Church in the Rwandan genocide.)

I met many genocide survivors in Rwanda who effusively praised granting of clemency to confessed killers, echoing the government’s frequently repeated if implicit messaging that “unity and reconciliation” was essentially the only alternative to a second Rwandan holocaust. As Alois says in the final stanzas of “Life Sentence”:

Our country needs peace, conciliation.
I accept I am here for life and innocent . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Judges make mistakes.

The gacaca system also lent itself inevitably to the settling of scores and to allegations made for ulterior motives. Although he was never accused of personally harming anyone, Alois’s position as a college-educated senior administrator on the factory premises left him responsible for what transpired there under the terms of the gacaca law—notwithstanding that based on his account as related in the poem, he could not have single-handedly stopped a violent mob of génocidaires who were fresh from massacring over 100 people in an adjacent church. As he describes, the case against him was further compounded by workers vying for his administrative job who convinced a witness to give false testimony. Finally, convinced of his innocence, Alois’s refusal to confess sealed his life sentence.

“When they told me ‘life in prison,’ I thought they were joking,” he said to me near the end of his own interview. “I still don’t accept in my imagination that this can happen. This is my story.” He was silent for a moment, then gave a small, self-conscious laugh. Then more silence as he waited for me to ask the next question, or, if none, to announce the time for tomorrow’s interviews.

Andrew Kaufman’s most recently completed book, The Rwanda Poems, based on his interviews of genocide survivors and convicted perpetrators, is due out from New York Quarterly Books in spring 2021. His previous books include The Cinnamon Bay Sonnets, winner of the Center for Book Arts Award, Earth’s Ends, winner of the Pearl Poetry Award, and Both Sides of the Niger. He is an NEA recipient. View more of his work at his website, Andrewkaufman.wordpress.com, and reach him via email at Andrewkauf@aol.com.

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