I went into Kigali on a US National Guard Hercules in August 1994, the genocide was still in progress, tens of thousands of souls separated from their Earthly lives. Chopped, hacked and butchered to death. Women abused in ways leaving them sometimes wishing for the blessing of a release to another place their religion offered them. Few saw hope. Those who did were, are, inspirational.
The genocide, The Rwandan Genocide – should it have a proper title and be placed in the annals of history? The massacre of more than 800,000 people in a short space of time caused changes far greater than the constant talk of peace-building, drip feed of humanitarianism and rescuers running around saving lives and, quite probably, salving their own consciences.
I arrived along with 3 other Save the Children people, the smell of fuel from the equipment being transported in the C-130 Hercules caused air-sickness with one of our number. The Load Master, a Tennessee lady with the twang associated to country and western classics, politely offered her a second sick bag with the rider – ‘Don’t worry Ma’am, when I’m like this, I’m at least a two bag person’. It relived the tension we were all experiencing. Even the seasoned aid worker could not truly envision flying into a place where such carnage had been done. Done not by sophisticated weapons but hand to hand with machetes, pangas, heavy blades that are the mainstay of agricultural work across much of Africa. Chopping and hacking at people as the perpetrators looked at the victims, the people. The executors raped, murdered and moved on for a hundred days. What happens to people’s minds in such a setting? The ramifications were children still born because of issues mothers faced. The women and minorities suffering sexually transmitted diseases as men and boys hyped up did not give a shit about their victims’ health. The mental health aspects have become the subject of endless theses. This all additional to the tens of thousands of lives extinguished.
I am biased, I can not even begin to feel the fear of victims and certainly can not imagine the type of rage required to get up ninety-nine times and carry on abusing women, children and butchering people. I have rarely talked about the time in Rwanda, never understood why fully. After the initial work of setting up logistics and procurement processes with an excellent team during which time I saw first hand the terrifying complacency of French troops sitting as boys ran through market places in south west Rwanda, Zone Turquoise area, swinging pangas, machetes, to clear their paths of people trying to flee the violence. It was not just the altitude and dank rainy day that chilled my bones as boys bounced their blades off the car I was driving. The only things saving me probably being the colour of my skin and the central locking of a car I was ready to drive in a reckless way if things caused me to. No panic, eased through the place, a feeling of disgust and distance inside me. I transferred to Ruhengeri, north east Rwanda bordering Zaire/Congo and Uganda, the Virunga Mountains towered along the borders – gorilla and, sadly, guerrilla, country. We continued to experience killings set to intimidate and reinforce the divisions engineered by big men earning big money exploiting the chaos.
This drastic, horrific period, has had positive ramifications as the pendulum of history swung so far out of kilter, it caused changes as motivated, engaged, people took control. Not the ubiquitous aid workers but local people, building a government accountable to the people. The People.
Some will immediately rise up saying the post Genocide Rwandese Government has perpetrated human rights abuses. Two wrongs do not make a right, but reactions to the heinous crimes without the constant toning down of do-gooding has to be contextualised and understood. Maybe this is a reason for my placing the barriers inside as I could not go through the emotions as well as be objective thinking; crass? I doubt, to experience and feel the power of what went on cannot but impact the way I, and many others, feel about stopping repeats of such heinous crimes. Whether the majority of Rwandese People feel this way, I would be interested to hear. One day.
The consequences of the situation in Rwanda being thrown so far from equilibrium finally challenged, overturned, the false equilibriums continually reinforced by misplaced do-gooding. Keeping people alive without there being real resolution of the manipulations of situations perpetuating an inequity destroying quality of lives brings only salvation to those safely removed from the consequences. The security protocols placed on aid workers reinforces the emotional disengagement of those helping but regularly creating a situation where people become statistics. Statistics or human-interest stories put in boxes on page five of the annual report. Perhaps the reason Rwanda has risen is because the United Nations, UN, was so ineffectual in the early 1990s? As with the UN’s feeble work in Somaliland, where problems persist but the strength of the people is very apparent when juxtaposed with the wider malaise of Somalia?
The lack of understanding as to how change is managed or created is apparent. When strong personalities with a humanity you cannot package in donation bags or show on billboards proclaiming ‘A gift of the people of (fill in country of choice)’ then we see the art of change happen. But the science? Lost in endless political-economic analysis perpetuating the false equilibriums as the present is written out in lengthy reports with opinion and recommendations from those who are at least one step removed from realities. The rise of the Internet has reinforced the separation of analysts on this level from what they are analysing. They are regurgitating in standard frameworks where operational matters of the commissioning agency takes precedence. Development and humanitarianism has become a business, possibly the Rwanda Genocide was a major decision point for how NGOs and the UN marketed what they were doing.
Kagame came in with plans ready, people able to swiftly fit into structures and ensure systems worked. Hundreds of wannabe do-gooders with even pump up hospitals were told – Fit into the plan or get out of Rwanda. The number of organisations was slashed and the sovereign control over agendas exercised from outside Rwanda cut; Rwandans in charge. The country was purged of those people and organisations, well meaning but serving themselves as a priority, be it consciously or subconsciously. The religions not saving people but possibly granting them peace was not replaced by ‘belief aid’ being able to solve all the ills. Kagame exorcised the country granting Rwandans a fresh hope removed from the control of technocrats often of dubious technical merit and with accountability to exactly who’s agenda?
There is always space for people who care and are able to give without seeking reward. An example from Rwanda exemplifies this as I dig back 24 years in a mind prompted to look at things. Why? I am not sure. Perhaps after earning a decent living from delivering humanitarian aid and doing a modicum of development work, the realities of the question – So just what have you achieved Crook? – hits home.
In late 1994 I had the pleasure to meet Roz Carr in northern Rwanda. We, Save the Children, were running a huge child tracing and family reunification programme. Alongside the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, The Red Cross, and despite the paucity of UNHCR support, we were registering ten of thousands of children. One supposed expert managed to wipe 21,000 names from a database including the back up as he tried to show off to the women inputting data. He left with his balding head blushing and his silly ponytail poking out from under a hastily stuffed on motorbike crash helmet.
My Ruhengeri team were told Roz Carr had taken in a number of children, we should go and register them. A chance to meet someone who I was told is famous. I had never watched Diane Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist but the plot was explained to me and so I tripped out with one of the tracing teams.
The lady was awe inspiring as she quietly told of the pre genocide issues, the problems befalling all the people as the killing commenced and how she returned to support the people who made her at home in this place looking out toward the Virunga Mountains. Her pets survived the chaos because they supported each other. The cat caught food for the dog and together they survived until Roz returned. She told the story of cat and dog and it chimed with people around her – Gone was Hutu, Tutsi (and Twa). Instead people were Roz’s people. They stood together.
She taught me a little trick of the Truth Silver Dollar when some things went missing and the askaris, security guards, would not own up who had done it. She told them the Silver Dollar could tell a lie. She asked each guard in turn to put the Silver Dollar in the palm of their hand and answer the question – Did you steal? She knew sweaty palms come with guilt and Roz took on near mystical management power as she picked out the guilty man, sacked him on the spot and turned to all the rest to explain if you tell the truth then we can listen to reasons. Lie and you reap the consequences of your deceit.
Perhaps this is a point to look at the marketing of aid nowadays. Send £10 and we can provide water for a village. £20 provides education for young Camilla or Jamal. You have read the marketing – would it stand the Silver Dollar test?
The Silver Dollar test was used with my own support team when I returned to Ruhengeri from a trip to Kigali. Noticing damage to one Land Rover, I asked what had happened? Did not get a straight answer so gathered the head of office, the logistics manager and the five drivers into a small office, which was a converted walk-in larder. The truth swiftly appeared as did the emotional damage done to people, these men, following the mass killings and the continued nightly disappearances as the Interahamwe crept into our neighbourhood to try to cause disruption and build ethnic hatred serving only the absentee exploiters of resources. We had a room of weeping men and a closed-door session where the truth about the damaged Land Rover opened the gates for real expression of emotions. I had never experienced such an intense couple of hours. Nor have I since. I listened to how our junior age mate, but the office manager, had survived being hidden by a family inside a pit latrine. The family had opened the straight drop hole, had him go inside and then filled the hole. He stood in other people’s urine and excrement to save him from the assholes killing people simply because of their name. Another gentleman told how he used a lorry-load of empty Primus Beer bottles, glass bottles with a return fee on each one, to bribe Congolese boarder guards to let him and his family across as the madness unfurled. This stood me in good stead when the owner of the lorry and the bottles turned up some weeks later to tell, tell, me to sack the gentleman ‘because he was a thief’. I quietly told the gentleman I knew the details and if it was a choice between my family and a lorry load of empty beer bottles then it is no choice at all. Now fuck off out of our office and go count your money elsewhere as we look to try and do something for people well beyond providing beer to drive bad behaviour. The stories resonated; I teared up listening to such hardships, passion, and beliefs well beyond anything I could conjure. The real life stories continued. The Silver Dollar moment had long since past and I was learning from people who had endured coming to savour life.
We became regular visitors to Mulongo Mbabazi. Roz cleaned the racist graffiti from the walls of her house, reassembled her furniture not burnt or simply destroyed for no reason other than resenting somebody else’s good fortune. We sat on the manicured lawn, the dog and cat playing chasing pigeons (Or were they Coy Doves?) drinking tea and eating cake with the hint of charcoal from the baking fuel. The damp was almost ubiquitous this high up under the mountains to be seen down the fine avenue of roses looking to the north and west. I had the pleasure to meet gorilla experts who were returning to do another National Geographic article. They talked about habituating gorillas for more than 10,000 hours. Asked if I had been to see the magnificent creatures who had managed to have a more civilised way of being than the humans now threatening their existence. They brought out stories about Roz travelling up into the forests to sit with the gorillas. Roz reluctantly found out a picture of her small frame sitting in the lap of a, seemingly, monstrous Silverback as he tenderly groomed her hair. Wow was the most erudite comment I could make.
Never went to see the gorillas. Never returned to Rwanda in these intervening years.
Only now delved inside my own mind to offer some lessons and thoughts to my own inadequacies as a professional manager let alone a person who did not, does not, know the full power of emotion.
What lessons to draw from these situations? Certainly the key to achieving is the passion that resonated through those days. Hatred and then love. Love of life, of landscape and communities clinging on to what seemed impossibly steep hillsides. Kindred spirits communicating across languages feeling a cohesive sense of purpose I have only felt in one other instance (ask and I will talk further on real team building).
There is a loathing of certain responses to the Rwanda Genocide. Yes to principles; but let us respect why certain things have happened. Why Rwanda has been a beacon for those seeking good examples of creating decent work, empowering women, engaging youngsters in positive aspects of development. How Rwanda is streets ahead on sustainable management, circular economy work and is claimed by many a bureaucrat as ‘their’ success story on sustainable development goals.
More than anything else:-
The power of truth to open up people, to unite people, when the lies unravel