Genocide through the prism of work

Posted: December 15, 2010 in Genocide Denial
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By Martin Kimani

On the morning of April 16, 1994, Anastase Kinamubanzi was ordered to drive his employer’s bulldozer into the sacristy wall of Nyange church. The order came from Father Athanase Seromba, the parish priest. Inside the simple redbrick building were over two thousand civilians who had mistakenly thought that a church, in this nation of devout Christianity, would shelter them from a week ­old genocidal campaign. Outside, blocking any escape, were policemen and members of a militia armed with guns and grenades alongside a large crowd who now surrounded the parish buildings singing patriotic songs, blowing whistles, gripping machetes, gardening hoes and wooden clubs studded with nails. Local government officials directed and encouraged the unruly, murderous energy of the crowd.

Anastase resisted the order. A decade later, a prosecution witness in Father Seromba’s trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda remembered the exchange this man who made a living building roads for an Italian construction company had with the priest.

‘Really, Father, do you accept that I should destroy this church?’

Father Seromba nodded.

He asked again and again the priest nodded.

Anastase persisted, ‘Father, do you accept that I should destroy this church?’

This time the priest gave a longer reply, ‘Unless you, yourselves, are inyenzi (cockroaches), destroy it. All we want is to get rid of the inyenzi. As for the rest of it, we Hutus are many. If we get rid of the inyenzi, we will build another church. We will build a new church.’

There was work to be done: destroying the church was a step towards building its replacement. Anastase’s heavy machine, like a medieval­ era battering ram, would end the siege at Nyange so the waiting crowd could undertake the sacred act of building a Hutu nation untainted by a Tutsi pest.

The refugees had been under attack for two days. Bullets had been fired and grenades tossed, while men who only a brief while ago had been their neighbours directed arrows and stones into the church. Inside, many cowered and prayed for a miracle, but others fought. They mounted a desperate, despairing defence, throwing back stones and using any loose piece of wood to bludgeon back the charging phalanxes. When there was a lull in the attacks, usually in the evenings, the refugees roasted and ate bananas they collected from a parish grove that would later be turned into a mass grave into which the earth­mover would dump their bodies. The bulldozer brought the impasse to an end. The walls of the church were breached and the roof collapsed. Those who survived the crush ran out into the open only to be cut down. Attackers invaded the church to finish off any survivors. They hacked and bludgeoned men, women and children on the altar and in the small recesses of the church.

Father Seromba would later mount a vigorous defence that he had not issued any order to kill. He was found guilty and is now serving a fifteen­year prison term. Anastase, on the other hand, confessed to having followed the priest’s commands and received a life sentence. From Germany to Cambodia and now Rwanda, mass murderers in the dock have attempted a variation of a single defence: ‘I was following orders.’ Doing my job, obeying my superiors, it was impossible to say no. The Nazis at Nuremberg said, ‘Befehl ist Befehl’ ­orders are orders. They too had used machines similar to Anastase’s to push thousands of murdered people into mass graves. In one of the Kolyma Tales, Varlam Shalamov writes of a tractor driver, Grinka Lebedev, whose face shows pride at fulfilling the orders from the camp administration to clear an old mass grave of its frozen bodies. Watched by his fellow Gulag inmates, who envy his driving while they walk and crawl in exhaustion to their work detail, he ‘carefully carried out his job, scooping the corpses toward the grave with the gleaming bulldozer knife­shield, pushing them into the pit and returning to grab up more’.

We can easily visualise the Nyange bulldozer at a Kolyma or at Treblinka. Its heavy steel part of that vast Nazi network of trains, barbed wire, barracks, gas chambers and lethal chemicals turned into death camps. Yet such heavy machinery was only a bit player in Rwanda. For every person the bulldozer ran over or who fell under a parish wall as it was being flattened, simple work tools wielded by ordinary men and women murdered thousands. It was the steel of the machete, used as energetically and rhythmically as it is daily on thousands of Rwandan farms and homesteads that took centre stage in the grim task of genocide.

There is nothing as quotidian as work; no rhythm is more set in our lives. Work is so common that it is rendered invisible. In many testimonies by Rwanda’s genocidaires, dozens of whom I interviewed in prisons for my doctoral research, the killing is described as work and the genocide as a war. I wanted to find out why they had killed, how they had done it and what they felt about it a decade later. I expected to find wrecks of men, haunted, wasting away from guilt. There may have been some who were in such a dire state, but none of those I met. Instead, what I encountered in many cases was a confident assertion that what they had done was inevitable: that they were themselves victims of an unfortunate war between the Hutu and the Tutsi. They told of orders, devil possession, the mesmeric effects of a radio station that urged on the killing, the suspicion that the victims were part of a sinister plot to kill all Hutus. Some joked easily with me about prison, others held my hand for long minutes as we stood on the porch of the small office I used for my interviews. I knew they were murderers, I had read prosecution files and spoken to witnesses, but none of this brought me any closer to understanding what had happened at Nyange Parish or the hundreds of other killing grounds. Work, war, orders, these words seemed a faint shadow of the images I had seen on television a decade before I came to Rwanda.

I had been a student in the United States in early April 1994 when CNN journalist Gary Strieker’s voice described the footage of a rushing, brown river choked with hundreds, thousands, of hacked up, swelling Tutsi bodies. Roadsides and churches and towns full of the rotting dead were jostling and losing headline space to the suicide of a famous American grunge singer. Three weeks later, they would again play second fiddle, this time to South Africa’s first multi­racial elections. I was the only African in the dormitory television room and so, as was usual with all the many puzzles that Africa threw at my dorm­mates’ innocence, they turned to me for an explanation of Rwanda’s tragedy as April came to an end and newspaper stories kept up a steady count of the accumulating corpses. My defensive, Panafricanist responses to their questions rang hollow even to me. It may have been true that the gruesome drama was the result of neo­colonialism, the Cold War and its support of murderous dictators, the false consciousness of nationalism, the colonial hangover, privatisation and globalisation. But my tongue was stilled. Cameras followed the river of bodies and showed Ugandan fishermen in Lake Victoria pulling swollen corpses into their boats. Young men at hastily erected roadblocks of boulders and felled trees, brandished the machetes they had used to chop down the bodies that lay at their feet.

Experts assembled in studios around the world to explain this catastrophe, wrote of an age­old hatred between Hutus and Tutsis, overpopulation, collapsed coffee prices, lack of education, a culture of obedience. The most common characterisation was that Rwanda was in chaos. The violence was depicted as orgiastic and savage. But mass murder, as I would learn, is an undertaking that demands order. The killers organised themselves on roadblock duty, they joined patrols and search parties, they coordinated their killing action and innovated new ways to find and destroy Tutsis.

Years passed and I went to work for a hedge fund. The market made sense of the world. Our Manhattan trading desk was part of a flat world that American columnists told us was here to stay. Bodies in rivers and churches surrounded by killer farmers were far away, they faded with the passing months and years. Then, one morning on the way to work, I emerged from a New York subway train onto a pavement filled with people looking skywards. Planes commandeered by men using small blades meant for office work had crushed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Three thousand people died. America responded by gathering all the jets and bombs and powers of the Western world to wage war against a small group of men hiding in Afghanistan’s caves. Rwanda awakened in my imagination again. I turned to it and saw that other men with blades, the Hutu genocidaires of old, had sparked a war of seven African countries in Congo.

They had been chased out of Rwanda by an army of Tutsi refugees whose invasion of Congo set off a domino effect of wars and insurgencies that continue to this day. The Rwandan genocidaires maintained their campaign to exterminate all Tutsi peoples, whether they lived in Rwanda or in Eastern Congo. The graves filled up fast as militias and militaries tried to prove their ruthlessness by massacring civilians associated with their enemies. The same assembly of experts from 1994reachedfortheirmicrophonesandpenned headlines. ‘UN SUSUPENDS INVESTIGATION OF ALLEGED CONGO MASSACRES.’ ‘REBELS “EATING PYGMIES” AS MASS SLAUGHTER CONTINUES IN CONGO.’

Men with machetes determined what streams of bodies flowed into rivers and what buildings remained standing. They showed no half­heartedness, no haplessness. Their zeal had nothing to do with me or anything I knew. It was ready to cut millions to death, to be witnessed doing so, and to proceed with little trouble. And for me, life could not go on as it had before. To knot my tie every morning and take the same train to the same airless office felt increasingly absurd as the weeks went by. I needed to know, to delve as deeply as I could manage into this violence and its politics. Quitting was easy.

I left New York having decided to spend the next few years researching the genocide in Rwanda and visited for the first time in the summer of 2003. This tiny country feels as isolated from the wider world as it looks on a map. The Virunga Mountains, rising more than three thousand metres above sea level, run east to west along the north­western border. The volcanic peaks lie roughly perpendicular to the western arm of the Rift Valley ­a great gash in the earth that travels from Syria all the way to Mozambique. To the south­east of Lake Kivu, which covers most of the border with Congo, the altitude rises almost as high as the Virungas. The bulk of Rwandans live in a central plateau dotted with hills that gradually flattens in the east as the inhospitable swamps of the Akagera National Park reach the border with Tanzania.

Kigali, the capital city, lies at the heart of Rwanda. Long before today’s many multi­storey office buildings were built, Saint Famille Cathedral, standing atop a hill, dominated the city. Its façade is of red­brick interspersed with white columns. The cathedral was built to be forbidding in the same style of Kigali Central Prison, which is also almost a century old and is located at the bottom of a hill. I spent many hours at the prison interviewing men and women who had confessed to participating in the genocide.

One was a woman in her mid thirties called Mwamini who had confessed to aiding and abetting the killing of Tutsis in Kigali. She came commended by the prison warden for her efforts to encourage fellow prisoners to admit the crimes they had committed during the genocide. Her hope was that confessing and being seen to cooperate would win her an early freedom. Our long conversations centred on her ex­lover Gerard whom she described as if he were a demon walking the earth. He had been the leader of a small militia in Kigali, she told me, referring to his killing sprees during the daytime as ‘work’. He would come home in the evenings and expected her to run him a bath so that he could clean off the bits of matter and blood that stuck to him after a hard day.

‘Gerard believed that strength alone could earn you the world,’ she said. He had been obsessed with karate and claimed to have once represented Rwanda in a continental championship. Another prisoner recalled how Gerard once lay his gun on the ground and proceeded to hand­chop and karate kick a man to death. I felt I had a chance at last to sit across the killing force whose gruesome effects I had seen on television all those years ago.

I asked to meet Gerard.

If it had been impossible to visualise action from my previous prisoners, if they remained as far from the genocide as they had when I was watching television, here was someone of another order.

Gerard impressed. Tall and swollen with muscle, he moved with a precision that made me, on the other side of the table, feel awkward and nervous. He sat with his hands resting casually on his knees. The pink prison uniform was draped over a body kept in peak condition by rigorous exercise. He wore the uniform elegantly, the trousers ironed, perfect crease showing. I asked questions, but had to restrain myself from blurting out some sort of confession of how drawn I was to him. Nervous, I trained my eyes downward to his hands. They showed no sign of the swollen knuckles I knew to be common to a karate expert. His face was perfect, symmetrical with the smooth skin drawn tight, no shaving bumps or scars – a far cry from the other inmates I had interviewed who showed the wear of living in a crowded, grimy and disease­ridden prison. Gerard had been imprisoned for ten years, and yet he looked as if he had just walked in from the war, looked as if he had won the war.

Here was a man I was willing to believe had indeed earned his world by making blood gush, eyes widen in terror, arms to reach upward to ward off his machete’s blows or the bullets that sped toward cringing flesh at the press of his karate forefinger. The small rewards were a car with a driver, unlimited beer and liquor, rolls of banknotes by his bedside. The bigger reward was that his strong body and the way he used it had momentarily won him a radical and incomprehensible freedom that lasted those hundred days between April and June 1994. Its potency still lingered in his cocky, controlling air: he exuded the confidence of a man who has little more to see and experience than that which has passed. If they had lost this war, no part of that loss had happened to his method. If he had killed with guns, karate and machetes, all he had killed was well and fluently killed. He had the body language of victory.

Gerard made me aware of how hard it must be to hack and bludgeon people all day long. Genocide, after all, demands the physical fulfilment of a political aim. The more I listened to him, the more it dawned on me that I had encountered a language of labour since I first started reading testimonies and interviewing killers. The driver of the bulldozer may have initially recoiled from his assigned task, but, just as with the gung­ho participation of Gerard, his actions too were tied to the job.

Here was a way I could look at the crowd surrounding Nyange Parish on that fateful day. They had carried work tools as weapons: machetes and garden hoes. Where the Nazis drew on the industrial resources of Germany to build their gas chambers, the Hutu Power ideology of genocide drew on agriculture which is the mainstay of most Rwandans.

Farming is Rwanda’s back­breaking work. A population of ten million people, eighty­five percent of whom directly depend on farming for their livelihoods, share less than a million hectares of cultivated land. Tiny family farms dot every available bit of flat land and have taken over many steep hillsides. The Hutu, who greatly outnumber the Tutsi, form the bulk of those who for generations have risen daily to walk to their plots in the morning chill, machete and hoe in hand. There they prune banana plants, root out weeds and plunge the machete into red soil to deposit maize seeds. Crippling or even fatal hunger is never far off, and so work must go on whether the sun is hot in the sky or a chilly rain is falling. The young work, the motions they make with their tools mimicking those of their elders.

You bend at the waist to work a machete or a hoe. The strong arm swipes from side to side, clearing the obstacle. The forearm wipes at the sweat of the forehead when a moment of respite is taken. The hand grasps at a wooden handle made smooth by constant use. Hard down­stroke, soft flick, short chopping motion, inquisitive pokes, feet apart balanced on a steep slope,arms straining to dig up a root. A thousand motions repeated for months and years from generation to generation. The arms become lean and strong, the stomach is tight with both hunger and muscle, holding the standing body upright and true.

Whether it is clearing a forest for a planting or building a ship, work involves a violent reordering of nature and of materials. Imagine for an instant the physical effects on the earth as our labour levels mountains to build railway tunnels or plunges shafts deep into the earth to extract metals that we melt and bend into a thousand shapes. But even as the worker reshapes the earth, his effort changes him just as profoundly. His gait and posture bend to account for his labours; his social relations are transformed as is the society into which he is born.

In Rwanda, the state’s compulsory conscription for communal labour – a practice established during the colonial and postcolonial period and known as umuganda in Kinyarwanda – became an important foundation in recruiting and deploying groups of killers who approached mass murder in roughly the same way that they had built roads or put up public facilities. This immersion of men with the world as they worked, simultaneously nation­building and nation­cleansing, was key to the aim of group extermination.

The French journalist Jean Hatzfeld has interviewed at length a small group of men who grew up together in the commune of Nyamata, a mostly rural area a half hour drive south of Kigali, and participated in the murder of some fifty thousand Tutsis in the space of a month. Their testimony repeatedly links the project to exterminate the Tutsi with community and duty.

One of the Nyamata gang speaks of using the machete in the marshes where the thousands who did not meet their end at a massacre at the local Catholic parish were hunted.

‘I took up only the machete: first because I had one at the house, second because I knew how to use it. If you are skilled with a tool, it is handy to use it for everything – clearing brush or killing in the swamps. Time allowed everyone to improve in this fashion… whoever struck crooked, or only pretended to strike, we encouraged him, we advised him on improvements. He might also be obliged to take another turn at a Tutsi, in a marsh or in front of a house, and to kill the victim before his colleagues, to make sure he had listened well.’

Skill counted as much as enthusiasm. A witness remembers seeing fathers in Nyamata teaching their sons how to slash Tutsis and then watching the children practice the strokes on dead bodies. Reading these testimonies, it became easier to identify the culmination of such a project, a chopping superman, like Gerard. He was built by the intimate nature of killing linked to the day­to­day patterns of Rwandan life.

The distress at taking the first life or smelling the first rotting corpses would ease with time. The teams of hunters would become more efficient. Their machete skills in the marshes would continue improving and be passed on to the young as was done with the planting of a new crop. The body would become as fluent in the hunting and disposal of the enemy as it was in the farm, while the Tutsi body, hidden, cringing, distorted with pain and then swollen in death would become ever more awkward and ill­fitted to the world. The Hutu Nation was rising from the ashes of old Rwanda; the coming utopia could be glimpsed in this hell, an egalitarian nation, where each man was measured not by degrading founding myths, but by the merit earned by work and sweat in the killing fields.

‘I was doing my job’ turns out to have deeper meanings that reveal a dimension of how ordinary men turned into killers, how the nature and language of work, at first glance the most banal of activities, retains an elastic ability to bear transcendent social and political aims.

One of the Nyamata gang put it plainly to Hatzfeld, ‘Suddenly Hutus of every kind were patriotic brothers. We were through playing around with political words…We were no longer in our each­to­his­own mood. We were doing a job to order.’



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