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early premonitions and the warning of what was to come by philip gourevitch

Excerpted from Chapter 8 of Philip Gourevitch's book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright 1998 by Philip Gourevitch. All rights reserved.

The following excerpt picks up from Gourevitch's account of the life of Odette Nyiramilimo, a Rwandan doctor, and mother of three. Odette, a Tutsi, is married to Jean-Baptiste Gasisira, a Hutu (also a doctor), and as a Tutsi she has prevailed against tremendous political adversity to make a professional life in Rwanda's Hutu Power dictatorship in the years before the genocide.

This chapter begins in the first days of 1994, shortly after the arrival in Rwanda of a United Nations peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, and just four months, as it turned out, before the assassination of the President, Juvénal Habyarimana, set the genocide in motion in April.

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UNAMIR had a much more limited mandate than the Somalian mission: it was prohibited from using force except in self-defense, and even for that it was poorly equipped.
In 1991, Odette became a doctor for the United States Peace Corps mission in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Two years later, when Washington suspended the program in Rwanda, Odette put her kids in school in Nairobi, and took a series of short-term Peace Corps postings--in Gabon, Kenya, and Burundi. When those assignments were over, near the end of 1993, she was reluctant to go back to Kigali. With President Habyarimana resisting the implementation of the Arusha Accords ( the peace agreement struck in August 1993 with RPF rebels), attacks on Tutsis and Hutu oppositionists were becoming ever more frequent, and Odette had only to tune her in to the Hutu power propaganda RTLM radio to feel that her days there would be numbered. But the Peace Corps wanted to resume operations in Rwanda, and Odette was offered twenty-five dollars an hour--in a country where the average income was less than twenty-five dollars a month--to help prepare the program. She was tired of moving her kids around and being apart from her husband, Jean-Baptiste. What's more, following the Arusha Accords, a contingent of six hundred RPF soldiers had arrived in Kigali. And there was United Nations Assistance Mission of Rwanda--UNAMIR.

"Really," Odette said, "it was UNAMIR that tricked us into staying. We saw all these blue helmets, and we talked with Dallaire"--Major General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian in command of the UN force. "We thought even if Hutus start to attack us the three thousand men of UNAMIR should be enough. Dallaire gave us his phone number and his radio number, and said, 'If anything happens you call me immediately.' So we trusted them."

One night in January of 1994, just after she resettled in Kigali, Odette was driving two visiting cousins back to their hotel when her car was suddenly surrounded by a swarm of shouting interahamwe (the Hutu youth militia sponsored by President Habyarimana who would serve as the shock troops of the genocide; interahamwe means "those who attack together"). She hit the accelerator, and the interahamwe threw two grenades. The explosion blew out all the windows, showering Odette and her passengers with glass, and it took them a few minutes to realize that they were unhurt. "I called Dallaire," she said, "but nobody came from UNAMIR. I realized then that these people would never protect us."

Distrust of UNAMIR was the one thing which Hutu Power and those it wanted dead shared as deeply as their distrust of one another. And with good reason. In the months following the signing of the Arusha Accords, Rwandans had watched UN peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Somalia being humiliated by impotence and defeat. On October 3, 1993, five weeks before UNAMIR arrived in Kigali, eighteen American Rangers serving alongside the UN force in Somalia were killed, and television images of their bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu were beamed around the world. UNAMIR had a much more limited mandate than the Somalian mission: it was prohibited from using force except in self-defense, and even for that it was poorly equipped.

On January 11, 1994, when an issue of Kangura, the leading Hutu power newspaper, warning UNAMIR to "consider its danger" was fresh off the press, Major General Dallaire sent an urgent fax to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at UN headquarters in New York. The fax, headed "Request for Protection for Informant," explained that Dallaire had developed a remarkable intelligence source from within the highest echelons of the interahamwe and that he needed help in guaranteeing the man's security. The informant, Dallaire wrote, was a former member of the President's security staff, who was getting paid nearly a thousand dollars a month by the army chief of staff and president of the ruling Hutu party to serve as a "top level" interahamwe trainer. A few days earlier, Dallaire's informant had been in charge of coordinating forty-eight plainclothes commandos, and several government officials in a plot to kill opposition leaders and Belgian soldiers during a ceremony at the parliament. "They hoped to provoke the RPF... and provoke a civil war," the fax said. "Deputies were to be assassinated upon entry or exit from parliament. Belgian troops"--the mainstay of the UNAMIR force--"were to be provoked and if Belgian soldiers resorted to force a number of them were to be killed and thus guarantee Belgian withdrawal from Rwanda." That plan had been aborted--for the moment--but Dallaire's informant told him that more than forty interahamwe cells of forty men each were "scattered" around Kigali, after being trained by the Rwandan army in "discipline, weapons, explosives, close combat, and tactics." The fax continued:

  • Since UNAMIR mandate [the informant] has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave is that in twenty minutes his personnel could kill up to a thousand Tutsis.

  • Informant states he disagrees with anti-Tutsi extermination. He supports opposition to RPF but cannot support killing of innocent persons. He also stated that he believes the President does not have full control over all elements of his old Party/Faction.

  • Informant is prepared to provide location of major weapons cache with at least a hundred thirty-five weapons. . . . He was ready to go to the arms cache tonight--if we gave him the following guarantee. He requests that he and his family (his wife and four children) be placed under our protection.

This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that General Dallaire would learn that Kigali--designated a "weapons-free zone" in the Arusha Accords--was a Hutu Power arms bazaar. It was hardly a secret: grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles were openly displayed and affordably priced in the central city market; planes carrying French, or French-sponsored, arms shipments kept arriving; the government was importing machetes from China in numbers that far exceeded the demand for agricultural use, and many of these weapons were being handed around free to people with no known military function--idle young men in zany interahamwe getups, housewives, office workers--at a time when Rwanda was officially at peace for the first time in three years. But Dallaire's fax offered a far more precise blueprint of what was to come than any other document that has emerged from the time known as "Before." Everything his informant told him came true three months later, and it was clearly Dallaire's judgment at the time that his source should be taken very seriously. He announced his intention to raid an arms cache within thirty-six hours, and wrote, "It is recommended the informant be granted protection and evacuated out of Rwanda."

Dallaire labeled his fax "most immediate," and signed off in French: "Peux ce que veux. Allons'y" ("Where there's a will, there's a way. Let's go"). The response from New York was: Let's not. The chief of UN peacekeeping at the time was Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian who would become Secretary-General. Annan's deputy, Iqbal Riza, replied to Dallaire the same day, rejecting the "operation contemplated" in his fax--and the extension of protection to the informant--as "beyond the mandate entrusted to UNAMIR." Instead, Dallaire was instructed to share his information with President Habyarimana, and tell him that the activities of the interahamwe "represent a clear threat to the peace process" and a "clear violation" of the "Kigali weapons-secure area." Never mind that Dallaire's informant had explicitly described the plans to exterminate Tutsis and assassinate Belgians as emanating from Habyarimana's court: the mandate said that peace-treaty violations should be reported to the President, and New York advised Dallaire, "You should assume that he"--Habyarimana--"is not aware of these activities, but insist that he must immediately look into the situation."

Dallaire was also told to share his information with the ambassadors to Rwanda from Belgium, France, and the United States, but no effort was made at peacekeeping headquarters to alert the United Nations Secretariat or the Security Council of the startling news that an "extermination" was reportedly being planned in Rwanda. Still, in May of 1994, when the extermination of Tutsis was at its peak in Rwanda, Kofi Annan told a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., that UN peacekeepers "have the right to defend themselves, and we define self-defense in a manner that includes preemptive military action to remove those armed elements who are preventing you from doing your work. And yet our commanders in the field, whether in Somalia or Bosnia, have been very reticent about using force." In the light of Dallaire's fax, Annan's failure to mention Rwanda was striking.

"I was responsible," Iqbal Riza, who wrote the response to Dallaire, later told me, adding, "This is not to say that Mr. Annan was oblivious of what was going on." The correspondence, he said, was on Annan's desk within forty-eight hours, and copies would also have been passed on to the office of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was then the Secretary-General. But, according to one of Boutros-Ghali's closest aides, the Secretariat was unaware of it at the time. "It's astonishing--an amazing document," the aide said, when I read him Dallaire's fax over the phone. "This is all at a level of drama that I don't remember experiencing except once or twice in the last five years at the UN. It's just incredible that a fax like that could come in and not be noticed." In fact, Boutros-Ghali did eventually become aware of the fax, but he made light of it, after the genocide, remarking, "Such situations and alarming reports from the field, though considered with the utmost seriousness by United Nations officials, are not uncommon within the context of peacekeeping operations."

Riza took a similar view. In hindsight, he told me, "you can see all this very clearly--when you are sitting with your papers before you, with your music on, or whatever, and you can say, 'Ah, look, there's this.' When it's happening in the heat of the moment, it's something else." He described Dallaire's fax as just one piece of an ongoing daily communication with UNAMIR. "We get hyperbole in many reports," he said, and then he invoked hindsight himself, saying, "If we had gone to the Security Council three months after Somalia, I can assure you no government would have said, 'Yes, here are our boys for an offensive action in Rwanda.' "

So General Dallaire, following his orders from New York, advised Habyarimana that he had a leak in his security apparatus, and there--but for the genocide--the matter might have ended. Not surprisingly, Dallaire's informant stopped informing, and years later, when the Belgian Senate established a commission to sort out the circumstances under which some of its soldiers had wound up slaughtered while on duty for UNAMIR, Kofi Annan refused to testify or to allow General Dallaire to testify. The UN Charter, Annan explained in a letter to the Belgian government, granted UN officials "immunity from legal process in respect of their official acts," and he did not see how waiving that immunity "was in the interest of the Organization."

Toward the end of March of 1994, Odette had a dream: "We were fleeing, people shooting left and right, airplanes strafing, everything burning." She described these images to a friend of hers named Jean, and a few days later Jean called her and said, "I've been traumatized since you described that dream. I want you to go with my wife to Nairobi because I feel we're all going to die this week."

Odette welcomed the idea of leaving Kigali. She promised Jean she'd be ready to go on April 15, the day her contract with the Peace Corps ended. She remembers telling him, "I, too, am tired of this."

Similar exchanges were taking place throughout Kigali. Just about every Rwandan I spoke with described the last weeks of March as a time of eerie premonition, but nobody could say exactly what had changed. There were the usual killings of Tutsis and Hutu opposition leaders and the usual frustration with Habyarimana's failure to implement the peace agreement--the "political deadlock," which the Belgian Foreign Minister, Willy Klaes, warned the UN Secretary-General in mid-March "could result in an irrepressible explosion of violence." But Rwandans remember something more, something inchoate.

"We were sensing something bad, the whole country," Paul Rusesabagina, director of the Hotel des Diplomates in Kigali, told me. "Everybody could see there was something wrong somewhere. But we couldn't see exactly what it was." Paul was a Hutu, an independent-minded critic of the Habyarimana regime who described himself as "always in the opposition." In January of 1994, after he was attacked in his car, he had moved into the hotel for a while, and then he had gone to Europe on vacation with his wife and one-year-old son. When he told me that they had returned to Kigali on March 30, he laughed and his face took on a look of astonishment. "I had to come back for work," he said. "But you could feel it was wrong."

Bonaventure Nyibizi, a Kigali economist, told me that he often wondered why he hadn't left Rwanda in those days. "Probably the main reason was my mother," he said. "She was getting old and I probably felt it would be difficult to move her without knowing where to go. And we were hoping that things would get better. Also, since I was born, since I was four or five years old, I have seen houses destroyed, I have seen people being killed, every few years, 'sixty-four, 'sixty-six, 'sixty-seven, 'seventy-three. So probably I told myself it's not going to be serious. Yah--but obviously I knew it was going to be serious."

On April 2, about a week after Odette's dream of destruction, Bonaventure drove down to Gitarama to visit his mother. On his way home he stopped at a roadside bar, co-owned by the Hutu power leader Froduald Karamira. Bonaventure had a beer and spoke for a long time with Karamira's barman about how Karamira had changed and where the country was going. The barman told Bonaventure that Karamira was saying everyone should follow Hutu Power and Habyarimana, and that later they would get rid of Habyarimana. "I asked him how," Bonaventure recalled. "I said, 'You're giving a lot of power to Habyarimana, how are you hoping to get rid of him?' " Bonaventure laughed and said, "He didn't want to tell me."

The March issue of the Hutu power newspaper Kangura appeared with the banner headline "HABYARIMANA WILL DIE IN MARCH." An accompanying cartoon depicted the President as a Tutsi-loving RPF accomplice, and the article explained that he would "not be killed by a Tutsi" but by a "Hutu bought by the cockroaches." Kangura proposed a scenario strikingly similar to the schemes described by the informant in Dallaire's fax--the President assassinated "during a mass celebration" or "during a meeting with his leaders." The article opened with the words "Nothing happens that we did not predict," and ended, "Nobody likes Habyarimana's life better than he does. The important thing is to tell him how he will be killed."

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