7 Apr 2014

Memories of horror and guilt after Rwanda’s genocide

For years, the rainy season would bring up bodies that had lain where they were slaughtered. You might see clothes floating in a flooded field or stumble across a leg bone or a child’s skull, half covered in mud.

Nowadays, the rain lifts memories to the surface. It beats down on iron roofs like a manic drum, conjuring demons that Rwandans suppress for the rest of the year.

Pastors, counsellors and doctors open their doors to find people they haven’t seen for months complaining of non-specific pains and worries, sleeplessness and headaches. Rain pitches them back to the second week of April 1994 when the sky opened up like a vast cataract and the killing began.

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My own memories of that week are fragmented, like a reel of old film with frames missing. I can see a truck loaded with bleeding bodies driving at speed through the gates of a hospital in Kigali. Torrential rain washes blood across the yard and down the drains.

I remember thinking: this is not a metaphor – the gutters are running red with blood. At first I believed the images would last forever, but memory is a tricky thing and the pictures in my head have shifted.

Inside the ward I can see a woman holding a baby whose arm has been chopped off with a machete. Or is it a leg? She is wandering around trying to get a nurse to pay attention but the hospital is so full of grievously injured patients that no-one is listening.


Olivier Utabazi, photographed in 2013, is a child of rape during the genocide. His mother gave him the name Utabazi which means “he belongs to them” (credit: Lindsey Hilsum)

Some frames remain clear and frozen despite the passing years: flies buzz over four women with their throats cut outside a clinic in the Kigali suburb of Gikondo. A soldier leans on his AK-47 on the path outside my house. Tracers arc through the night sky, the gunfire stops, the rain eases and there is silence.

I was living in Kigali when the massacres started, working for Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund. Having previously been a journalist, I began to report for newspapers and radio but it was not like other assignments where you go in search of the story – the story erupted around me.

In the years that followed I spent many months in Rwanda; each time I left I found it harder to return. I was mired in that week, unable to subsume my feelings of guilt for having witnessed the horror without immediately understanding what it meant and why it was happening.

Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives were lost before I realised that I was witnessing not simply mass murder but genocide.

To read a longer version of Lindsey Hilsum’s blog, go to the Granta website

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