photo of laneGhosts of Rwanda
laura lane

She was consular officer at the U.S. embassy in Kigali and served as liaison between the U.S. ambassador, the Hutu-led government forces and the Tutsi rebel force, the RPF. Although she followed State Department orders to evacuate, she had wanted to stay and try to help: "We could have made a difference, and I was so frustrated. … Nobody wanted to take the risk of American casualties. … We were the embassy community. We could have made a difference." This interview was conducted on Oct. 3 and 4, 2003.

… What is evil?

It doesn't look like anything. It's not the color of their skin. It's not a man or a woman. I mean, in Rwanda, some of the things we saw were women going after their own children. You saw just unspeakable acts. It was something -- I can't describe, it but you can see it in their eyes. It's this blackness that you just can't explain.

Here I was worrying about the 258 Americans, but there were so many other people there that, just because they weren't American, they still mattered, and I wanted to stay.

But I remember so many times coming across some of the [people] in the streets, and it's just this feeling that surrounds you. There's an aura about it, where the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and you just know it and you feel it, and it's there. It's what drove a lot of the insanity in Rwanda, because how else can you explain what happened? How else can you explain wives going after their husbands, or mothers going after their kids? I mean, it defies reason. It was driven by evil, and it was there. …

Where does it come from?

I don't know the answer. I'd love to think that if you give people faith, if you give people education, if you bring your kids up right, that that will not somehow surface. So maybe it's some part of humanity that, if it goes unchecked, just devolves into this. I don't know. …

Maybe evil's a really hard, hard word, when you look at just what goes on in your everyday life. But I know evil now. It is something so deep and awful that it's something that you want to strive every day of your life to try to rid this world of, because you don't want it to take control -- anywhere.

[How is it that] you went to Rwanda?

I was a second-tour junior officer in the Foreign Service. I grew up in a small town [near Chicago,] Illinois, and I always wanted to see the world. I loved other cultures, other countries. I wanted to learn everything I could, and I remember when I bid on Rwanda, I was still dating my now-husband Greg, and people were like, "What, you're bidding on Rwanda?" I said, "Well, I want to learn how to speak French. I want to go to a small embassy where I'm not one of 50 people; I can make a difference, I can really learn a lot and have a great opportunity, and I've never been to Africa. What a neat thing to do."

This was at a time when Rwanda was going through a lot of political difficulties. But I knew that they were going through the Arusha peace negotiations, and I just had this sense of hope, like I was going to go there and I was going to make a difference. …

I remember flying in on the plane and looking out the windows and saying, "Oh, my word, what have I done?" because it's an incredibly beautiful place, and yet at the same time it's such a poor place. You're just struck by the contrasts, the beauty and the warmth of a lot of the people, and yet it's so poor. …

You were not in Africa as a specialist?

Not at all. In fact, I had done a lot of training in Latin American studies, and my first tour of duty was in Bogotá, and so I had a real love of Latin America, and I still do. … So [I] knew nothing about Rwanda. But in going through the language training that the State Department gives you before going to an assignment, I read everything I could about Rwanda, and just was really excited about the experience. …

What was your job?

I was kind of the everything officer. I was the junior officer. It was a very, very small embassy. There are no Marine security guards. There is an ambassador and a DCM and then I was just kind of everything else. There was an admin officer and GSO, but I did the visa work. I did the American citizens services work. I did the economic reporting, which was really, really interesting. I did the military security assistance work, so believe it or not, they actually had me go through [military] training. …

As a result of this work, you traveled around and you met, [in addition to] the Americans, a lot of people on both sides?

Yes, in fact, it was really hard because Rwanda is very much a traditional society, very much a male-oriented, very hierarchical society. So I, as a woman coming into that setting, it was a little bit difficult because, one, I didn't have the military presence, I didn't have the military background. Yet I was representing the U.S. government on many of these kinds of military security assistance-related issues. So it was a challenge.

I approached it in my own way. I knew most of these guys weren't well fed, so I'd have them over to the house and I'd cook dinner for them. Or if I had to go up and meet with a detachment, I'd bake cookies. I know that sounds really ridiculous, but I think it made them realize that they could warm up to me in a different way. Then I developed some really good friendships, which in the middle of the fighting, ended up paying off. I found that I had friends where I didn't realize I had friends. I had people who I could pick up the phone and call and say, "I need your help, I need you to make this happen. I need you to help me get Americans from this point to this point. Can you do this for me?" Because I had a lot of friends that I'd made in my own way, not by presence of power, but by, I guess, a genuine presence that said, "OK, work with me. I'm trying to do my job the best I can, help me help you." And that worked.

Describe [who] your contacts were, both with RPF and also with the government.

I would meet with both sides. I'd get sent up a lot to meet with General Kagame in the north, before they actually moved their forces down. For Greg, those were the hardest days, because I'd go out very, very early in the morning. I'd drive with a Tutsi driver, and I would have to go through a lot of different checkpoints, and I'd get harassed a lot along the checkpoints. ...

I'd go up and meet with General Kagame or some of his commanders, just to talk about programs we were trying to put together, or ways we were going to operationalize some of the training that we had been talking about. Other times, I'd just accompany visiting U.S. government officials across the DMZ up to meet with the rebel forces.

But then I also had a lot of really good contacts in the Rwandan military, and became very close to the U.N. liaison officers -- each of the rebel forces as well as the Rwandan army forces, they each had a liaison officer. I worked very, very closely with them and had a lot of great friendships there, like I said, on my own terms. …

What was the thinking behind sending you, a relatively junior officer, up to meet Kagame?

… I think at the time the thinking was that they didn't want to elevate the level of dialogue that was going on with the rebel forces. So they would send me up as a representative of the U.S. government, but not at too senior a level to give any higher level of dialogue to discussions with the rebel forces at that point in time, given that it was such a delicate balance. So I think [that's why] they sent a junior officer up most of the time.

On the other hand, also you had the ambassador. You couldn't risk having the ambassador go up, so he had to send another officer. We were a small team, and so I was the one who was sent up most of the time to meet with Kagame and some of his other commanders.

What was your impression of Kagame?

I remember when I first saw him I thought he was … so regal. He was so commanding. He had such a controlled presence, but one that you instantly respected him. When I'd go up into his camp, crossing the DMZ, I looked around and saw the conditions that his men had to live under day to day. You could see they all looked up to him. They all had tremendous respect for him. I thought he was a good man, and I could tell that he was a good leader. He earned the respect of the people he commanded, and he cared for them.

So from the very first moment, I very much admired him. So I'd be scared leaving the embassy and driving up, going through the DMZ, because there were always checkpoints and I'd get harassed by grunts along the way. But the minute I got into his camp, I felt instantly safe, and it was, I think, because of his presence. He was someone who you had trust in; if he gave you his word, you could believe it. …

When you're meeting Kagame, how would you characterize the messages that you, on behalf of the U.S. government, were delivering to him? Was he optimistic about the way things were governed?

General Kagame was always someone who was very skeptical. He was very wary. I think he had a sense that things could go very wrong, and while he could have confidence in the fact that we were trying to help him achieve his goal of peace in Rwanda, I don't think he ever trusted the fact that it could actually happen. So in the back of his mind, I think he was always very wary, and he was always trying to think four steps ahead. "What if this all unravels? What do I need to do to protect my men, my people, my country?"…

I think he had a deep abiding love for Rwanda, and wanted to do the right thing by that country. He approached things from the perspective of, he knew all that had been in the past and all of the trouble. I mean, this wasn't the first ethnic uprisings in this country, and he'd been through a lot. So I think he approached it with that perspective of "There is only a small chance that this is going to work," but he was willing to give it a try. …

Let's talk about the February 1994 massacres, and what you did after that. What happened in February, and what was your response?

When I came in to the embassy I knew … we had 258 Americans that I was responsible for. So when I came to post, I made sure I met them all. I made sure that they knew who I was. So when the February uprising occurred, [I] remembered feeling like, for the very first time after arriving -- and we'd been there for several months -- that this was the first time I got the sense that things might not be going all the right way; there were pockets of violence that were bubbling up that could get out of control. It was at that point that I really felt the need to reconnect with all the Americans.

I met with them regularly. I made a point of traveling throughout the countryside checking on them, seeing how all their kids were doing or how their lives were going, understanding who they were as people, and knowing what they'd need. But after that February uprising, I felt as if I needed to make sure I knew exactly where they were, exactly what they needed. …

I took it as job number one for me, and in the end, it paid off, because I knew where every single American was. I made sure every single American got out alive. I wasn't going to leave until every single one left, except the one that stayed behind.

So you went around the country, you and Greg, and you even hiked up into the mountains and--

Yes, in fact -- I mean, this is Rwanda, so you had tremendous communities of development workers. You didn't have any Peace Corps, because the Peace Corps had only just made the decision to come back in. Seventh Day Adventists-- You had church organizations that were trying to help improve the lives of Rwandans. You had gorilla researchers up in the mountains. I had two Americans that were up doing research on the top of the mountain on the mountain gorillas, and I said, "OK, Greg, we're going to hike that mountain. I'm going to take a picture of those people, because if we need to say 'You need to find these two people, these two people are missing,' describing them isn't going to be easy. Let's have a picture, so that we can say, 'These are the two people you're looking for.'"

We traveled to the remotest places, to the smallest villages where only one American was living, teaching in a small school, and making sure that I knew they were there, and making sure they knew I was there for them.

We got to learn a lot about Rwanda through the course of all of our travels and got to see different parts of the countryside. It was very rewarding, and also part of the job.

After the massacres in February, you thought maybe things might go badly. As you traveled around, did that reinforce that gut feeling, or did you think actually it was OK?

I always thought that there was a side there that, if it was allowed to go unchecked, things would disintegrate. But then I also saw people who gave me hope that they could make this work. So it wasn't as if it was that black and white. There was real opportunities to create a lasting peace if the right people could be effective leaders in their communities, and calm a community.

But then there was also that element that I think had all the hatred bred in them. They probably, from the day they were born, were raised to hate the other side, and it's that part that was always there. I just always had hope that the other side would win out. My nature. …

On April 6, where were you?

[Lt. Col.] Chuck Vuckovic had just come in -- what a blessing that was, when I look back at it now. I'd cooked dinner. We'd had lasagna at the dinner table, it was Greg and I and Chuck and we had a couple of friends over. We'd just sat down to dinner, and all of a sudden there was a huge explosion, and it didn't instantly come to me what that was, because I wasn't used to hearing those kinds of sounds. I was used to the gunfire we'd hear sometimes at night, but this was a massive explosion. Greg and Chuck just looked at each other and said "There is something seriously wrong. That was not just a minor blast."

Chuck immediately got on the phones, I got on the phones, and we started gathering information. Within the first hour, we had the sense that a plane had been shot down. We later learned it was the president's plane that had been shot down. I remember, that whole night, just being awake, listening to the sounds, the gunfire.

Right after the president's plane was shot down, what I know now is the Rwandan presidential guard, the Interahamwe, had a plan in place to basically kill all the community leaders and anybody who was on the side of good or on the side of seeing the peace process work. All that night, you heard gunshots, you heard screams, you heard just so much activity that you knew this was going to be an awful night.

In the darkness, you were just-- I remember feeling like, "I don't want this, I don't want the daylight to come, because I don't want to see, knowing what I'm hearing." Throughout the night, of course, we activated the warden system that we just set up, just to reassure the [Americans], to let them know what information we had and to ask them to share information with us. The members of the American community were also our eyes and ears in areas of the city that maybe we weren't in. … By the morning, you had a very clear sense that there was a plan in place, and the plan was not going to be something that was going to bring any good in Rwanda. …

When you talked to people, were they scared? Were people worried?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I was scared, but I didn't want anybody to know that. I wanted them to know that I was going to be there for them. So when we were not talking on the radios, I would be saying to Greg, "What are we going to do? How do we make sure everybody is safe?" But on the radios I wanted to make sure they knew there wasn't anything I wasn't going to do; I was not going to let them down. But on the other end, we had a community of Americans that had kids under the age of 12. It was a community where we didn't have schools for older than twelfth grade and up, so we had a lot of mothers with young kids.

You had people that I don't think had ever been through these kinds of experiences, so there were people that were very, very scared. I remember talking to one woman whose husband worked for Catholic Relief Services. He happened to be in the States, and she was home alone with her two boys. I remember her crying on the phone, saying, "Oh my gosh, they've just taken our neighbor and executed him outside. I don't want them to come in. What if they come into my house, what do I do?" I remember feeling so helpless, because I wanted to get in the car and get over there and help her. But at the same time, there was so much fighting going on, you couldn't move through the streets. All I could do was communicate that I'd be there for her, we'd figure out a way. "Don't worry, Rosa, we'll get you out."…

So the next morning, what happened?

The next morning, we knew that from our house we just didn't have a good base of operations, and we couldn't get access to enough of the people that we needed to be talking to. By that morning, we kind of had a sense that we were not going to be able to wait this out, and that even though Americans weren't being targeted, we needed to get the American community members out.

We knew that the best base of operations for us was at the American Embassy, because it was right next door to the Department of Defense buildings. We knew if we could make it to the embassy, we could then begin discussions with the Rwandan military to negotiate ceasefires. Chuck Vuckovic was just down the road at the hotel. We were in constant contact, and he said, "That's going to be our best base of operations. We'll be able to use some of the communications facilities at the embassy, get in touch with the U.S. government, with the State Department, get in touch with the European Command, and be able to establish a better and more certain communications network."

The last thing we wanted to do is lose communications with some of the Americans. They needed to know that we were always on the other end of the line or that they could tune their radio and hear us. We thought that was very important for keeping people calm and feeling a certain amount of security in what was a completely unsecure situation.

We were able to get a gendarme to come to our house. I remember I took our wedding album, we took our guns, and I think Greg took a toolkit, because he's always ahead about if he needed to rig something. [We] put the dog at our feet, and literally slumped down in the car and drove down the streets, just looking over the dashboard as we hear fire in the background, and made it to the embassy.

It was amazing as you got to the embassy, and it was like this sea of calm. I remember it was the eeriest feeling, because there'd be Rwandan army trucks going up and down the streets blaring classical music. I remembered feeling this is the weirdest, the most surreal situation I've ever been in. I remember driving into the embassy and just going into the communications unit and getting our maps up, getting all the printouts of the Americans, getting everything kind of organized, so that we could start planning an evacuation. …

When you go to the embassy and you set up a communication system, [had you] decided to evacuate yet, or what?

By the time we got to the embassy, it was Friday. We thought at that point that we needed to begin doing the evacuation plans. It was early on in the morning when we began talking. Chuck or I would literally step outside the embassy, walk along the block, looking, making sure there was no fire going on, and then go to talk to the Ministry of Defense folks to say, "OK, we'd like to get our American community out. We'd like to do the following things, get them to checkpoints. Can you work with us on ceasefires in certain areas of fighting?"

So we had the sense that we could successfully and safely get the Americans out. We made a recommendation to the ambassador early on in the morning. The ambassador was at his residence. He couldn't leave his residence. He was in an area where there was fighting going all around, and he couldn't get out. A lot of people ended up taking refuge at his house, mostly Hutus, because in that area, the Rwandan rebels, under the terms of the peace accord, been allowed to occupy the parliament building. So there were a lot of strong rebel forces in that area. So a lot of Hutus fled into his compound. But he was trapped, in a sense, because of the fighting surrounding his residence.

So we communicated by radio to him that we recommended that we do an evacuation. I remember I was frustrated, because I felt that we had the daylight, we had the time to be able to get people out, and it took a while before the ambassador made the decision to allow us to execute the evacuation plan. Regrettably, he made the decision late on Friday. He took a while.

So we couldn't move anybody. Once the sun fell, we didn't want to take the risk of having anyone moving through streets in darkness. So we had to wait until the next morning, which was hard for a lot of people. I remember talking to a lot of the American community members, and some of them were like, "Please just let us get out now, help us get out now." I had to call them back and say, "You've got to wait, you've got to make it through one more night."…

Just to be clear-- Were you saying, "We need to evacuate all the embassy staff?"or just U.S. [citizens?]

The recommendation was to get the American community out. I mean, all of us that made it to the embassy, all of us wanted to stay. We wanted to use the embassy as a base of operation, to not just help the American community, but help anyone else going through this. We had Foreign Service nationals that worked for us who I was also in communication with, who were targets of some of the violence. These were Rwandans who worked for [us].

I had Ricimbi. He assisted me in the visa operations as well as on the economic reporting. I remember talking to him, and he'd tell me over the phone, "They've come by my house twice now. Is there anything you can do? Can you send an embassy vehicle?" He had six children and his wife, and I'd say, "Ricimbi, I'm going to try to figure out a way to get to you," and I never did, I never could … which was hard, because here I was worrying about the 258 Americans. But there were so many other people there that, just because they weren't American, they still mattered. I wanted to stay.

I thought, in this particular conflict, it's the one time where America wasn't on either side, and so we could have been the true neutral force there that maybe could have provided sanctuary for a lot of people. I felt that, while we were in danger, the danger was something that we could face and maybe make a difference. So we really wanted to stay, but made the recommendation that we get the Americans out, all the Americans who wanted to leave. We wanted to help them find a way safely to Burundi, which was the evacuation point we chose as the safest.

I'd been in contact also with the regional security officer in Burundi who, in the course of mapping out what we were going to do, had driven up from Burundi just to the outskirts of Kigali to give us reports about what the roads were like up until just the outskirts of Kigali. So we knew if we could get people out of Kigali in these first few days, where the violence was most intense, we could get them safely into Burundi without incident. That's what the plan was, and that's how it unfolded. …

So the decision was made to evacuate the civilians. Did you know where everyone was?

I knew where everyone was, and some of the Americans were in areas where there was really heavy fighting, and they couldn't move. Other Americans were in areas where there was sporadic fighting, but there was the ability to move along the streets. What Chuck and I were able to do is -- mostly Chuck, because I was always on the phones with people to get agreements to do temporary ceasefires -- so that when Chuck got the word that they would stop fighting in this quadrant for the next 45 minutes, I would be immediately on the phones to every single American who was in that quadrant -- because I had a map I knew where everyone was. I'd be on the phones with them saying, "OK, here's what you're going to do. You're going to put an American flag, if you have one, and if you don't, put a white flag on your car antenna. Drive immediately to X evacuation point, and then we'll give you word from there. Have your battery charged for whatever means of communication [you have] with [you], and we'll be in touch. Report in when you get there." That's how we moved blocs of Americans, for the ones that were trapped in the heavy fighting.

We had an extraordinary communicator. Nobody would have ever expected this man to be as brave as he was, and his name was Walt Myers. There were a couple of people who were immobilized by fear, and they were also in very bad sections of the fighting. Walt, God love him, he grabbed a [radio] and got into an embassy vehicle, and drove to those places. … Whatever he had to do, he got to places to where if someone needed help getting to an evacuation point, he was there for them. Sometimes he went alone, and he was able to help those people who couldn't move because they were too scared. …

You wanted to make the U.S. embassy a kind of safe haven?

Yes. There was a Seventh Day Adventist, his name was Carl Wilkens. He did the same thing at the Seventh Day compound. He just -- Any time anybody who came into his compound, he gave them sanctuary. Any of the forces that came by that tried to search his premises or take people away, he'd give them his VCR, give them his TV, give them his watch. "Whatever you want, take it, but let these people alone." He saved so many people by doing that.

We could have done the same thing at the embassy, and I felt like we had an obligation to do that, particularly for the Foreign Service nationals. These were people that worked right by my side, and just because I was born in the United States of America, I got to get in a car and leave; and they were born in Rwanda, and they had to stay. That wasn't right, and so in the end, I followed the order. Greg and I were the last car out, and there was a very, very sad moment. …

When the decision was made to evacuate everybody, including embassy staff, the ambassador was still at his residence. Why, and how did he eventually get out?

We were ordered to leave, and so we're like, "OK, we're going to organize this last convoy," and we said, "OK, Mr. Ambassador, we're ready to go," and he wasn't leaving. Walt got back from his last mission of mercy, so to speak, around town, and we said, "Walt, the ambassador was supposed to be here at the embassy." There was a ceasefire. He should have been able to make it through. He's not coming and--"

[The ambassador] told you he wasn't leaving?

He said he was going to come, but then he didn't show up. We called back over the radio, and I can't remember the conversation, but I didn't get the sense he was going to get in the car and come. … By that time, the ceasefire in that area had obviously lapsed, and so Walt grabbed the gendarme and then they went to the ambassador's house and brought the ambassador [back].

I had been four days without sleep. We hadn't showered. We were eating MREs, and the ambassador arrived, just having taken a shower, in a suit. I was struck by that, because I was like, "Wow, after all of us have been through, this AID work, we're having the prime minister killed at the house next door--"… It just seemed so [inconsistent] with the whole situation. He was the first car out on the last convoy. We made sure we were the last; we wanted to make sure that no one was left behind. …

[Was] your gut feeling [that the killing] was a plan? Did that make you even more resolved to stay personally and to protect?

Oh, absolutely, because I felt very, very strongly that if there is someone who is planning this kind of evil, they need to know that there is also another group; that we, the Americans, will stand right here and stand against them. I felt very, very strongly about that, because otherwise they think they could get away with it, and that no one would notice that. This would just happen, and everyone would turn their back and let it happen. I didn't want to be a part of that. I wanted to be there to say, "This is wrong, and we're not going to let it continue."

Maybe [that's] hopelessly naïve. We were four people in an embassy and a very small embassy community, but I don't know. I think one person can make a difference, and maybe if we just saved one life, that was one life worth saving. Maybe we couldn't save everyone, but I would have rather stood there and stayed, and said, "I am going to stay, because it is worth that risk." In the end, the decision was taken out of my hands. I followed the orders and we evacuated overland.

When I went back to the State Department, I tried to do what I could to help in providing information, because how many Rwanda experts are there in the U.S. government? There's not that many, and I tried to maintain contact with any of the FSNs whose phone numbers I could still have. …

On that final convoy, were there [Rwandans] on that convoy?

There were. We had we had a convoy of over 100 vehicles with over 600 people, only nine Americans. Greg and I were the last two. The ambassador was at the front, and Chuck was in the vehicle just in front of ours. The rest were just Kenyans, Tanzanians, Germans, Belgians, French -- Anyone, because I was in communication with the other embassies, and some of the other embassies didn't have a plan to get their people out. …

We had a long line of cars, and yes, there were Rwandans in there. There were [Tutsis] in there, and in some cases there were Hutus. It's not like we chose sides. We chose people who wanted to live and who were not part of the violence; and not that we chose them, but they kind of came forward on their own, because not every Hutu was part of the violence. Not every [Tutsi] was part of the violence. Some of them were just ordinary people who wanted to raise their families, live their normal lives. So if they [made] it to our checkpoints, and we could hide them, we did. Some of them were -- We dubbed them "Americans for the day." You know what I mean? We made them honorary Americans so that they could be in the convoy. …

Talk about when you went back.

I remember I was serving on the State Department operation center, which was the 24-hour watch for the State Department. They said they needed people to go back in and help reopen the embassy. Not even a thought -- I was like, "I want to be one of the people going back in."… I remember going back and walking to our house, and the houses all around ours were destroyed. The bunker from which the Rwandan army forces had been fighting [was] still there. [When] we had left our house, we left our one guard, Samuel, there. He said he wanted to stay, and I remember emptying out our cupboards, trying to give him everything that I could think of, so that he could survive there. …

I opened the gates to the compound around our house, and there was Samuel, and he had the biggest smile. I remember hugging him and thinking, "Oh, I'm so happy that you made it." He said that he had protected our house, and I'm thinking, "Oh, my word, like I care about the house? I care about you." But he said, "I protected the house, and everything's safe."

[What was frustrating about the events that unfolded at the embassy?]

The whole system, because how could we walk away from a situation like this? When there was fighting in Liberia, that embassy stood its ground. They were allowed to stay, but there were politics that kept that embassy open. [In] Rwanda, we could have made a difference. I was so frustrated by the fact that it was because of news coverage about genocide that nobody wanted to take the risk of American causalities. Well, we'd gotten the American community out. We were the embassy community. We could have made a difference. Not that our lives were expendable, but I just would have wished that a different decision would have been made. I guess the way we responded to Rwanda really shaped what I thought in the future. I could really -- in whatever capacity I was in [at] the State Department -- where I could actually make a difference. …

The Foreign Service is one of the [groups] of people that are out there in the field, put their lives on the line every day, and there are truly great people. But the system failed those people who have that commitment and dedication every day that they come to work. I was really saddened that Rwanda ended the way it did.

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posted april 1, 2004

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