Burying Ghosts

From the book AFTER WAR(S), published in French by Autrement.

By Todd Pitman


Venus Sinarinzi, the house's owner, didn't like people digging around in his yard. They'd already dug 16 meters into the ground and so far the barefoot boys, sent by city authorities down the narrow, half-meter-wide pit carved in his lawn, had only hoisted up a bunch of buckets of dirt and grime. It wasn't what they were looking for.

People -- neighbours, survivors and relatives of the deceased -- said hundreds of corpses had been buried on the property six years ago, during Rwanda's 1994 genocide. They were mostly Tutsis who had been hacked up or shot by extremist Hutus. Most had been stabbed with machetes or bludgeoned to death with clubs, and all of them had been heaved down into a pit that was hidden somewhere under the yard.

In Kigali during the genocide, the corpses -- the ones that weren't just left piled up on roadsides and picked up by prison crews or the Red Cross -- had been buried in mass graves everywhere across the city. They had been hidden under houses, buried anonymously in dirt plots, left decomposing in pit latrines.

But as time passed, most of the remains had been dug up again by the new government and reburied properly, with respect and dignity, to give the deceased their last rites. It was a way to bury the horror and put it all in the past. Ninety-six mass graves had been discovered in Sinarinzi's sector alone since people began looking. And in Kigali city, the remains of 200,000 people -- more than 800,000 were massacred countrywide -- had been found. Most of the remains were to be reburied during memorial ceremonies to mark the sixth anniversary of the killings. But people said there were still more mass graves, some identified, some not. And so the authorities kept looking, spurred on by recalcitrant survivors.

And here they were again, in Nyakabanda, a labyrinth of houses and shops of hardened mud and white concrete on the southern flank of the Rwandan capital, checking out the rest of Sinarinzi's property. They had already found one pit with nothing in it. And then they uncovered an adjacent, nearly identical burrow, and roped down again into the dark depths. This time, out of the deep hollow, the city crew started pulling up more than just dirt.

Hoisted one by one 16 meters up on a single rope, the buckets contained bone fragments and bones, femurs and skulls and shreddings of clothes, some still wrapped around arms whose flesh had all but disappeared. Each of the remains was placed on a large green plastic mat laid over a sprawl of fresh green grass in the front yard. There were other things in the buckets too: small pairs of children's sandals, a child's cheap plastic digital watch with purple cartoon characters on it, a few filthy green identity cards in peeling plastic covers. It was hard to believe it had all come from that single pit.

Issac Kayiranga, a 52-year-old tailor who lived nearby, picked up one of the green cards, half of it blackened by the moist soil it had been buried in, and tried to read the name on it. He couldn't. The photograph had been effaced, along with most of the ink that had been written on it. Under the empty photo was a line that was supposed to indicate the bearer's ethnic group, but that, too, was empty.

It was odd to see that relic of the past, Kayiranga thought, that open indication of ethnic identity. During the war, during the genocide, cards like that had condemned Tutsis to death. Ethnic identity was no longer defined on identity cards. Everybody, of course, still knew who was Tutsi and who was Hutu, but those things, officially at least, had been buried. And they were better left unsaid.

"Useless", Kayiranga said, shaking his head.

Kayiranga was looking for the body of his wife. He last saw her in a white blouse six years ago, when she was dragged away from the orphanage where she worked and where he was hiding. He was here on the off chance he might find her remains. Maybe he could recognise her clothes or find the ring, if it hadn't been stolen, that had been on her finger the day she died. He wanted to give her a proper burial. It wasn't right that she had been so cruelly shot like that, dragged away and brutally struck and then tossed down the pit like trash, like she was nothing.

Kayiranga studied the remains laid out before him, spread across the green plastic sheet in the yard. It was sad. A few days before, when the yard was empty and the workers were pulling up only mud, tears had rolled down his daughter's cheeks at the mere thought that his wife -- her mother -- was still down there. It was hard to see the place where she died and be so close to the dead who lay frozen, trapped as if they were stuck in some time capsule against their will. They hadn't moved in six years while everybody else, the survivors and some of the killers, walked freely around in the city above. It brought back so many memories, Kayiranga said, ghosts from the past that were best kept buried. But the search, the reburial, even symbolically, was something that had to be done.

One of the workers sent by the government to dig the hole, a young Hutu boy covered in a thin layer of grey dust, looked on in silence as Kayiranga shook his head. And then as twilight descended, the boy covered the bones with another green tarp and put rocks around its edges to protect it all from the wind. And then Kayiranga, who came by every day to see if he could identify something, some remnant or link to the past, turned and made his way home down a fractured dirt road, just 200 meters away.

Pointing out all the gravesites was no easy task for Tutsis -- most of those who survived the slaughter had been hidden away at the time, and very few actually saw anything. Many had gathered what they knew from what other people said. But this work, that the state and the survivors wanted to have done out of respect for the dead, wasn't easy for Hutus to do either. Many of them kept quiet out of fear, even all these years later, of being connected to events of the past.

"Hutus are afraid to show where the mass graves are because they think they'll be accused of something and go to prison," said a Hutu teacher named Marc. "If you point a grave out, it raises questions. They'll ask, 'How did you know it was there? How did you survive? What were you doing then?' They'll think you must be guilty of something. Tutsis say there is no Hutu who is not guilty. They say all Hutus are murderers. It's not true. We are all accused of things we haven't done."

Marc, in fact, had risked his life to hide Tutsis in his own house during the massacres. But that mattered little to people who didn't know him. To many Tutsis, he would always be a permanent suspect.

"When you meet someone you don't know, the relationship is based on suspicion," said Frederick Mutagwera, a prominent Kigali lawyer and head of Ibuka, a genocide survivor's group. "You don't know what he is or who he is or what he has done in the past. So some Tutsis say, 'when I meet a Hutu and do not say hello it is because I suspect him. Even though I have no evidence that he participated in the genocide, I imagine that he was involved.' That's not helpful, but it's a reality."

In Kigali after the war, there were no green lines that divided the city into sections. There were no all-Tutsi neighbourhoods, no Hutu-only suburbs. People had lived together before the genocide and so it remained that way afterward -- in Kigali and across every one of the country's thousands of hills. But there was plenty of reason to be divided.

The killings began on April 6, 1994 after a jet carrying late President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down over Kigali. For the next three months, extremists in the former Hutu government, backed by an army of Hutu soldiers and scores of militiamen armed with machetes and clubs, carried out the systematic mass-murder of Tutsis, who made up an estimated 14 percent of the country's inhabitants. The slaughter ended only three months later, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel army led by Paul Kagame composed mostly of Tutsi exiles from neighbouring Uganda, captured the capital and ousted the former government from power. By then around 800,000 of the country's 900,000 Tutsis had been brutally butchered in what was arguably one of the most intense mass killings of the twentieth century.

When the RPF took over the country in July 1994, more than a million Hutus abandoned their homes and fled to the former Zaire. Kayiranga's own house had been pillaged and levelled during the war by his next-door neighbour and friend, a Hutu militiaman nicknamed "the General". The General, if he ever made it to the Congo, never came back, and Kayiranga had taken over his house while he tried to reconstruct his own. In six years, Kayiranga paid no rent, and nobody asked any questions. But then, the General's wife came back.

"She had been in the neighbourhood for three months," Kayiranga said. "But she was too ashamed to come here, because she knew what her husband did. Then one day she did come. She came and told me I must leave the house. I said I needed time to prepare, to prepare to leave. She said she'd heard my house had been destroyed, and she has given me time. But it's incomprehensible," Kayiranga said, "that I must give up this house and be forced to move when my own house was destroyed by them."

Many Tutsis wanted to remain in such dwellings, but were forced out by the new government, much to the dismay of some survivors. It was part of a government policy aimed at encouraging the return of refugees, and also a necessary way to restore order. Some Hutus asking for their property back, however, had been killed, while others had been accused of genocide -- some rightly, some wrongly -- and thrown into prison.

"There will be no reconciliation until there is some kind of reparation," Kayiranga said. "When we see all the guilty punished and reparation is done, then we can live with the rest. But until that happens, there will always be mistrust. We know that even among the people today, the guilty are still hiding."


Rwanda, as a country, has dealt with the genocide's aftermath in part through a culture which encourages people to be reserved -- which encourages people to hide their feelings and, on sensitive matters, to avoid the truth. The only true thing Rwandans said openly about themselves was this: Rwandans will never tell you the truth. And people lived like that. They lived together after the genocide, but it wasn't an atmosphere of trust. It was an atmosphere of mutual, unspoken suspicion. But the problem wasn't just between Hutus and Tutsis.

The war deeply changed the country's demographic make-up as well. If 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, had been killed during the genocide, they'd all been replaced by Tutsis from the diaspora -- people who fled into exile decades before and had only returned after the war. The newcomers had grown up in other countries -- in the Congo, in Burundi, in Uganda, in Tanzania -- and had come back with different cultures, raised on different traditions, speaking different languages. And the Tutsis, in large part, who were in Rwanda during the genocide and by some miracle survived the massacres, were looked down upon by their foreign cousins. Tutsis returning from exile looked at survivors and thought, "how did you survive, you must have collaborated." And the survivors, who had grown up in the country and endured decades of persecution under Hutu regimes which ruled the country since independence from Belgium in 1962, began to resent the fact that most power lay in the hands of the RPF, the new arrivals.

But the new leaders inherited a country that had largely been stripped of all its wealth -- the former government took with it all the foreign currency reserves in the central bank -- and were faced with rebuilding Rwanda almost literally from scratch. But differences aside, what the survivors wanted most of all was simple: justice and, if possible, compensation.

After the war, the new government applied its existing criminal justice system to cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, but it was soon overwhelmed with the task. By the year 2000, around 125,000 suspects had been crammed into jails across Rwanda, though only a handful of that number had been tried. With only a few dozen lawyers available, the government could try only around 1,000 people a year. It would take more than 100 years to terminate the caseload.

"It is very clear now that you cannot deal with what happened using the classical system of justice. No system can deal with violence on this scale," said Rwanda's Attorney General, Gerald Gahima, leaning on a couch in Kigali's new, pastel-orange supreme court building.

"And the way these atrocities were committed, there were a very large number of people involved. If one million people were killed, then easily one or two million other people bear some responsibility. We have around 125,000 genocide suspects in jail, but I'm sure there are huge numbers of people who are still living in the country who are still at large -- at least as many as we have in jail."

It was that single element -- that some of the killers still lived among some of the survivors -- that led many Rwandan Tutsis to quietly question every Hutu he or she saw. And so ghosts from the genocide lived on not only in graves, but also in people's dreams, fears and perpetual suspicions.

When the killings began in 1994, Julienne Mukarutamu, a 32-year-old Tutsi schoolteacher, was at her home in Rubona, a small village 50 kilometres southeast of Kigali. Like much of Rwanda, Rubona is a stunningly beautiful place, where ripening banana fields seem to explode across the hills. The onset of the massacres forced Mukarutamu to flee Rubona, and she spent several weeks hiding in the bush, moving around from one hill to the next, often at night, trying to escape militiamen who were literally hunting down every Tutsi in sight. Eventually, Mukarutamu found refuge at the house of her brother-in-law, a Hutu. But she was soon discovered and knocked unconscious by a small mob, which cut her up with machetes and left her for dead. Somehow, she managed to survive. Afterwards, Mukarutamu returned home to find 41 members of her family -- all but one of her sisters -- dead.

Most people would have left Rubona after such a tragedy, but Rubona was where Mukarutamu grew up. And with little other choice she stayed on, returned to the school where she taught, and continued living. Over the next several years, along with dozens of other survivors, Mukarutamu was able to bring charges against 36 suspected killers in the area, many of whom had returned from the Congo, who had helped to murder her family. All of them were imprisoned.

Many of those in custody claimed innocence, but a few, in exchange for lighter sentences, had confessed to their crimes in court. Such incentives, however, were given on condition that the accused name all those known to have participated in the massacres. And during hearings in Rubona in October 1998, some of the accused did just that. They confessed and then accused several other people -- other people who were free -- people who were neighbours, as it turns out, of Mukarutamu.

As a heavy rain pounded against the tin roof of her house, Mukarutamu, counted slowly on her hands to the number 12. That, she said, was the number of fresh genocide suspects who had been named in court, who were still free, who lived a few hundred meters away from her house.

"It was startling to hear, we didn't know before," Mukarutamu said slowly, running her hand across a purple cloth covering a wooden table in her sitting room. "They admitted in court that they killed these people, my relatives. But then they said there were others too who had helped to kill, and the people they named were all neighbours living around me, people I had lived with for years. When I heard that they were also suspects, I was afraid to return home. I was afraid to return to where these people who killed were still living. But what can I do, what choice do I have?"

The names of the newly accused were sent to a local police inspector, but a year and a half later, little had been done. Justice Ministry officials say the cases are being investigated as time permits and blame delays on the perpetual lack of trained manpower.

"If we had the ability, we would take them and imprison them ourselves," Mukarutamu said. "It's unbelievable to see people who committed genocide, who participated in massacres, living free beside us."

One of those named in court as an accomplice to the killers was 55-year-old Gerard Mutaramirwa, who lives just a couple hundred meters away from Mukarutamu. Nine people, including several members of Mukarutamu's family, had been found dumped in an out-house on Mutaramirwa's banana field during the genocide. In court, they'd said Mutaramirwa was among the killers. They said he had taken a machete and killed. Even other survivors, Mukarutamu said, had seen him kill. Mutaramirwa himself is timid when asked about the accusations. And he does not particularly want to speak about it.

"It's true that the people who were killed were found in my field," he says, standing barefoot in an old grey suit, gripping a wooden cane. "But we found them ourselves. I was not here when they were killed. I was hiding under some trees one kilometre away and came back and found the bodies. The people that accused me are lying. They have no reason to say I was among them. They are jealous that I stay here free in the village, as always. Everybody who killed is now in prison. There are no suspects living here who are still free. Not here."

Mukarutamu, who still has white scars from the machete blows across the back of her neck, cheek, and right hand, still greets her neighbours when she passes them, but that kindness masks a deep fear.

"I would move away from here if it was possible," she says, trying to speak above the pounding rain. "But it is not possible, I don't have the means. We are obliged to live like this, as we are. You can't do anything about it, you can't live next to your neighbour and not say hello. You can't do that in Rwanda."

"With most Hutus, we live as we always did. Trust between us is not total, but we must consider them innocent. Without proof, you can't say who is innocent and who is guilty. You cannot know what they did. But for the others, it is different. Before, we lived with these people as friends, but now that we know they have been accused, there can be no trust. You can't have trust in people who are accused of killing your family. When we see each other in the street, on the surface, it is okay. During the day we all pass each other in the road and we all greet each other, but at night, we are afraid. The fear does not leave, and even now we think we can be killed by these people. Seeing them now, I think they still have the same intentions as before, they still have the intention to kill."


Back in the capital, 40-year-old Pierre Kavubi sits on the patio in front of his house, watching the rain fall down in thick sheets from the sky. Just beyond the fading red walls that surround his own home, Kavubi can see the towering red brick walls of Kimironko Prison.

Kavubi lives across the street from the prison, and every morning around eight, a few hundred inmates file out of the jail in bright pink uniforms. The lightly armed soldiers guarding them do so without much fanfare. The prisoners queue up in a perfect line, board huge trucks and go on work details in the city. They are a daily object of curiosity and fascination for neighbourhood residents: eighty-five percent of Kimironko's 8,000 inhabitants are Hutus, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

One of them, Hassan Nsabimana, led a mob that surrounded Kavubi's home during the slaughter. The mob hacked his wife and four children to death, then ripped machetes across Kavubi's head and hands and threw him down a pit latrine with a dozen other bodies. Bloodied and battered, he awoke at night and escaped on foot, first to an ICRC compound, and later, across into rebel-controlled territory.

It was more than a year after the war ended before Kavubi had some news about the man who tried to kill him. Refugees had begun to trickle back to Kavubi's old neighbourhood in Gikondo, where Nsabimana had also once lived. And one morning in October 1995, Kavubi ran across some just-returned refugees from the former Zaire.

"In those days there were people who came back and I asked if Nsabimana had come also, if he was still alive in the camps or if he was in Zaire," Kavubi said. "They said he was there, still alive. They said he was with militiamen who attacked (the northern Rwandan border town of) Gisenyi. They said the population had captured him briefly and cut him with a machete on his shoulder, but they said he had escaped."

One of the returnees said Nsabimana had fallen sick, and aid agencies were helping to nurse the wound he'd received on his shoulder in Mugunga camp, a large sprawl of huts on a volcanic plain near the Rwandan border.

It was incredible -- and chilling -- news. Nsabimana had not stopped killing, apparently, and Kavubi grew anxious and fearful at the thought that he still might come back to Kigali, track him down and try to murder him again.

It was the last Kavubi would hear until the end of 1996, when refugees flooded back to Rwanda at the start of a rebellion there. Nsabimana came back with them and, apparently hoping nobody would recognise him, he made his way to Kigali. Soon after, neighbours who knew him called the police, and Nsabimana was arrested and taken into custody at a brigade in Gikondo.

"The first time I saw him there, he was surprised to see me. He didn't know I was alive," Kavubi said. "He thought I was dead, buried with the others. He was ashamed and he couldn't even look at me. But I knew why. I called him by his name and I asked him to show me his shoulder. I wanted to see if God had punished him like he'd punished me. And I saw the wound with my own eyes."

"Then I asked him if he remembered what he did and he said he remembered. But he said he never struck me with a machete. I showed him my wounds, the wounds on my back and head and fingers and said, do you remember doing this? And he just looked down and said nothing. I said, 'did it really make you proud to kill my family?' And he didn't say anything."

At ceremonies to mark the sixth anniversary of the killings, the remains of 200,000 people -- murdered residents of Kigali -- were symbolically buried in white tombs on a hill in the capital. Work crews took the remains, a massive collection of shattered bones and skulls, off city trucks and poured them down into newly built concrete mass graves. Kavubi, too, attended the ceremonies that day, under a searing sun with thousands of other mourners who laid wreaths on tombs covered with purple cloths. People, again, were trying to bury ghosts from the past, to put the horror behind them. But there were other ghosts moving through the crowd with them.

Among the mourners, Kavubi saw a Hutu woman who he knew, who friends of his had once overheard boasting of helping to murder someone. She had hoped, apparently, to remain anonymous in the crowd. It wasn't clear why she had come. But when her eyes met Kavubi's, she became nervous and started to back away. Kavubi approached her.

"I bought her a Fanta to assure her that I would do no harm," Kavubi said. "I told her it was okay. You have to understand, there are so many here like that. So many people killed, and they are here now, free. What good would it do to arrest her? You can't arrest everybody, there is not enough space. It's not possible. They can't build enough prisons. If they wanted to arrest everybody, they'd have to build a prison wall around the entire country."

Nsabimana couldn't have known it either, but Kavubi -- unlike most survivors -- had already forgiven him for what he'd done.

"When you are truly traumatised, you can't contemplate revenge. You have no thought in your head, you can't think, you are just numb," Kavubi said. "What I know is that avenging the killings, putting people in jail, it won't bring my wife back. It won't bring my children back. It won't change the past. People who come from outside, they don't understand that. They didn't lose everything, they didn't really suffer. It's they who think of revenge."

"Of course there are people who can't forgive, because of their hearts, because of what they've seen. It's true. But for me it makes no difference whether they are free or in prison. You think all the militiamen and murderers are in prison now? There are so many here who are already free. You have to understand, we already live with them."

"If they asked me," Kavubi said one night on his porch, smoke rising from the darkness inside the prison, "I would tell them to let Nsabimana go."