The Fulcrum

Ngara is a small, pretty hilltop town in northwest Tanzania, a region isolated from the rest of the country by the immensity of Lake Victoria and the bordering countries Burundi and Rwanda. The town sits in a shallow bowl on top of a long, wide ridge, high above the swampy border region. To the west, the view stretches across the last few kilometers of Tanzania and into Burundi, to the south, and Rwanda, to the north.

I was jogging along the western flank of the ridge one afternoon, relaxed and distracted by the watercolor sunset below me, when I passed a small field of piled stones a few miles north of town. They looked like old and untended cairns, some large and some small, all overgrown with grasses and weeds. It was a quiet, lonely scene suggesting an abandoned cemetery.

A few minutes later I passed a farmer walking home from his fields. At the time I was a recent arrival to East Africa, and I was studying Swahili with uncharacteristic earnestness and discipline. I was at what would prove to be the peak of my powers, and so I felt confident trying to communicate with the passing farmer. After a short series of banal niceties, I waved my hand towards the ridge and asked the farmer if there were any dead people that way. Interpreting my gesture to cover much more distance than I had intended, his eyes widened and he replied, “Ehh, Rwanda.” My language skills were not capable of any greater precision, so I had to use gestures to try to refine the meaning of my question. I made a motion that I hoped would signify a much nearer place, and I asked again if there were any dead people. Again his eyes sparked as he thought he understood my question, and this time he said, “Ehh, Burundi.”

Rwanda and Burundi, tiny though they are compared to some of their more conspicuous neighbors, are the fulcrum upon which a big, bulky mass of Africa pivots. Tucked together between giants in the middle of the continent like sickly twins in a bed too small to allow one to toss and turn without disturbing the other, one country sneezes, the other catches cold, and soon the whole region is sick with war.

Ethnically, the two countries are exactly alike; about 85% of the region is Hutu and about 15% is Tutsi. For the first several decades after independence, a Hutu government controlled Rwanda while a Tutsi military dominated Burundi. When either ruling party cracked down on its ethnic opposition, the other swiftly did the same. Rwandese Tutsi and Burundian Hutu refugees intermittently boiled over international borders.

Eric explains that it would be wrong to use the term war to describe what happened in Burundi in 1972. It was more like extermination, as the reactionary military systematically eliminated all potential opposition, generally taken to mean all educated Hutu. The Tutsi soldiers “killed the Hutu political leaders, and then they started to kill the Hutu civilians.” They did not concern themselves with ethnic nuance, “they just looked at your face to decide if you are Hutu or Tutsi.” Though Eric is Hutu, his wife is an ethnic Tutsi. Her father, also a Tutsi, was killed accidentally by the soldiers when they “shot everyone who was in front of their guns. The bullets do not know who is a Hutu and who is a Tutsi.”

Lili recalls that in 1972 the Tutsi soldiers “went into the villages and the streets and the schools and even the churches. They took people away who never came back. They were selecting Hutu citizens who were strong and beautiful and educated. They did not want Hutu to be successful.” Then, “after they killed the educated Hutu, they started taking the lower class Hutu to kill them also.”

Josephine, born in 1933, remembers that the ethnic killings began long before 1972. “There was a system. The leaders wrote the names of people who were required to report to the commune office. I never saw any Tutsi names to be killed, but I saw many Hutu names. This started in 1960.” By 1972, the killings were so frequent that the soldiers had to dig mass graves for their victims. “They dug big holes where they killed the people.”

Eric, Lili, and Josephine all fled from Burundi in 1972. Eric “crossed Lake Tangyanika in a canoe. I paid the Congolese who were carrying people from one side to the other. They were fishermen and they told me to act like a fisherman as well. We were about ten people in the small canoe, and the crossing took more than ten hours.” Because there was fighting in Congo as well, he continued to Rwanda. Lili fled with her father. They “passed through forests” to Tanzania, and from there they “crossed the river to Rwanda.” After seeing her husband killed, Josephine grabbed her children and ran with them “to the bush.” After three days of walking, they crossed the border to Rwanda.

By the end of 1972, all three found themselves among tens of thousands of refugees from Burundi living in Byumba province in northern Rwanda, not far from the border with Uganda. As Hutu, the Burundians were welcomed in Rwanda. They were given land to farm, and they were able to live safely and peacefully for nearly two decades.

In 1990, Rwanda’s own refugees returned to haunt it. Just before independence, in 1959, fighting in Rwanda forced many Tutsi to flee the country. The majority settled in southwestern Uganda among closely related local tribes who welcomed the refugees as something like distant cousins. Though they never naturalized, the refugees from Rwanda attained a degree of local integration in Uganda not far from citizenship. Many fought alongside the current government when it was a rebel movement trying to overthrow the previous tyrant. A number of the Rwandese eventually rose to high ranking positions within the Ugandan military.

Inevitably, there was a backlash. Many Ugandans resented the success of the refugees, who suffered a growing xenophobia and who started to yearn for a safer, more certain home. Though the world tends to remember only the genocide of 1994, the war in Rwanda started precisely on October 1, 1990, when nearly all of the thousands of Rwandese in the Ugandan military simultaneously defected with their weapons and amassed along the border. The next day they had their homecoming. For many, it was the first time they had returned to Rwanda since fleeing in 1959. Others, born in exile, had never been to Rwanda.

Living in Byumba, in the north near the border with Uganda, the Hutu refugees from Burundi were among the first to know of the surprise attack and the developing war. As Jean remembers it, “the war in Rwanda started in October of 1990. There were some refugees from Rwanda who fled a long time ago to Congo and Tanzania and mainly to Uganda. They wanted to come back at that time but the government refused to receive them. The government was for the Hutu and those people who wanted to come back were Tutsi.” Christophe has a similar memory of the war. “The fighting was between the inkontanyi and the government with the interahamwe. The inkontanyi were the rebels, the Tutsi who fled from Rwanda a long time ago. They were under Kagame. The government and the interahamwe were Hutu, under the president Habyarimanana.”

Most of the refugees from Burundi describe the first four years of the war, from 1990 to 1994, in similar terms. “We would escape from one place when the soldiers would come then we would go to a new place for a few days and then we would escape again.” As Hutu who had been welcomed in Rwanda, their allegiance was to the government and they had a natural fear of the invading Tutsi army. It is not the famed genocide of the Tutsi that they remember, but the many Hutu who were killed. “Many of the refugees from Burundi were killed in that war.”

In April of 1994, the war rapidly accelerated to its murderous climax. First a plane carrying both the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot from the sky by unknown men, and then immediately afterwards Rwanda’s Hutu started slaughtering its Tutsi. The genocide lasted for three months before the invading Tutsi army, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, won a military victory.

Jean recounts, “In July, the inkontankyi found me in my house. They were standing on the road when they started shooting at the house while we were sleeping. They shot me and they shot my wife and they killed my son.” After the soldiers left, he and his wife were taken to a hospital, and they each had their right legs amputated. Christophe and his family were also caught by the advancing Tutsi. “My wife was killed by the inkontanyi in that war. They came with bush knives and they cut her in her neck. They did not care who they were killing. They killed the women and they killed the children.”

Josephine was more fortunate. “We were hiding in the bush for two months when the inkontanyi found us. They told us they were not concerned with the refugees from Burundi, but they told us we had to leave Rwanda.”

Like most of the Hutu in Rwanda, the refugees from Burundi fled in advance of the approaching Tutsi army. “We found roadblocks along the way where the interahamwe were asking for our identification cards. We had refugee cards so we gave them our cards. The others without cards, we left behind.” They traveled south, but not back to Burundi where the Tutsi still dominated the army. Instead, and along with hundreds of thousands of Rwandese Hutu, most of the Burundian refugees walked across the Kagera River to Tanzania. They were a part of one long, continuous river of survivors flowing over the bridge, and below them a stream of corpses poured over the Chutes de Rusumo.

Not all the refugees from Burundi were able to aim for the safety of Tanzania. Some, in a dash for then nearest border, had no choice but to return to Burundi. The border there is also marked by a river crossing, but there is no bridge. Eric’s younger brother “drowned in the water at the border because he did not know how to swim – we were being shot by the guns so he thought we were wasting time to wait for the boats.” Lili managed to hire a boat to cross the river, but “there I saw the soldiers were killing all the refugees coming from Rwanda. They were killing all the Hutu. I escaped from them by hiding myself in the shadows of the river. I was not in Burundi for even a single day because I knew I could be killed there.”

Shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of Rwandese Hutu, Eric, Lili, Josephine, Jean, and Christophe straggled into the bulging refugee camps in western Tanzania, where they lived for more than a decade. Rwandans and Congolese came and went, but the Burundians remained. Many of them had not set foot in Burundi since fleeing in 1972; so much time has past that two generations have been born in exile. In 2006, international attention focused on finding durable solutions for the tens of thousands of Burundians in Tanzania; while some were being interviewed for resettlement to the United States, others were boarding buses bound for home.

Rwanda sneezed in 1959, and Uganda caught a cold. From Uganda, the Central African strain of the war bug merged with the strain from the Horn of Africa. The disease bleeds across borders, carried by infected rebels who roam the unpoliced badlands of remote frontier regions, sometimes in hiding but sometimes at the invitation of the neighboring governments. The virus has gone on to affect and infect conflicts in northern Congo, southern Sudan, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Somalia, Darfur, and Chad. All the while, the bug has incubated in its homeland. Burundi sneezed in 1972 and in 1993. Rwanda sneezed again in 1994 and Burundi again in 1996. The Great Lakes region of Africa has remained chronically ill.

The Hutu refugees, many of them guilty of genocide, overwhelmed their host countries and the humanitarian agencies tasked with helping them. They formed a ring of hostile camps around the new Tutsi government in Rwanda, like an enemy army besieging a small city state. Confident in the strength of its experienced and tested military, Rwanda invaded its goliath neighbor, the Congo, where most of the Hutu were camped. Remarkably, for Rwanda is but a pimple on the eastern face of the Congo, the invaders, together with their Congolese allies and puppets, succeeded in toppling the ancient tyrant Mobutu Sese Seke, and in the process managed to route or kill many of the Hutu refugees in eastern Congo.

The invasion did not quash the war virus but instead spread it further. The war in the Congo became known as Africa’s World War, and Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Chad were all exposed and contaminated. Even today, after the foreign governments have renounced the war, there is a vacuum of power, a culture of plunder, and a lot of weaponry in the Congo. The country has no immune system to defend it the next time Rwanda and Burundi fall ill.

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