[This is a fictional ducudrama on the Rwandan genocide first published on June 5, 2005]
I met him at a dinner party. I will never forget him. Even years later, when I see blood, mine from a shaving nick, my wife’s from a kitchen knife, or in a TV drama, I can’t help but think of him and his experience in Rwanda. There were ten of us at the dining room table, and he was a thin black man with a narrow face and large eyes who sat on my right. Soon after we sat down, he leaned toward me and said, “I’m Dr. Laurent Nkongoli.” He paused and smiled. “I’m head of medical research at the Samoeun Institute of Medicine in New York.”
He knew about my research on democide, and soon told met he had been in Rwanda during the Great Genocide. So, when a month later I was about to write an article on the genocide, I invited him to lunch. Laurent was open and frank about his experience, and oh yes, what a story he had to tell. I soon learned that he and his nephew had barely escaped with their lives. I remember well what he told me:
At the beginning of the genocide in April of 1994, Laurent’s nephew, Seth Sendashonga, was a student at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. There was some concern among Tutsi students and faculty at the university about massacres of Tutsi unleashed by the Rwandan Armed Forces in Kigali, the capital. But by Rwandan standards, that was a long distance away. Few worried about it.
So all were taken by surprise when, on the morning of April 10, the Hutu Interahamwe paramilitary militia and Hutu Army soldiers surrounded the university. Once assured that no one could escape, the head of the militia, Stanislas Munyakazi, passed out lists of the Tutu and moderate Hutu students and professors who must be murdered. Each name had a building and a dorm room or office number designated next to it. Consulting the list, squads of three men each entered the buildings and searched from room to room.
Soon, Hutu professors and students whose sympathies lay with those instigating the massacre joined the squads and helped identify those to be killed. They took up machetes themselves and joined the search, using their knowledge of the campus to seek out possible hiding places. Larger squads broke into the classrooms where classes were in session and forced Tutsi professors and students out of the classrooms, marching them through the building and into the university parking lot, where a large group of militia waited.
The militia had the greatest trouble in the university’s Leopold Library. Most had never seen the inside of a library and were unaware of the maze of book stacks. When they discovered that these provided an ideal hiding place and started to search them, they lost themselves in the winding, narrow aisles between the stacks.
This delay saved Seth. He was then a gangly young Tutsi who wanted to be a doctor like his Uncle Laurent, and work at Butare Hospital. Seth was in his second year of premedical courses. He’d been looking for a United Nations book of world health statistics in the Government Documents section on the first floor of the library when he heard shots fired in the parking lot. He rushed over to join other students who were staring out the windows. They could see the parking lot, the trucks parked there, and the militia and some soldiers moving around—all armed. Several large objects lay on the ground. They looked like bodies. Seth opened his eyes wide and gasped.
One of the students at the window called to another, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
But Seth knew. His parents had heard about the genocide in the capital, but Laurent’s cousin, who was in the local Butare government, had said that this was a minor outbreak by Hutu extremists, and not to worry. Nonetheless, they’d told Seth to take a knife with him when he went to school.
Most of the students at the window looked like Hutu. As soon as Seth realized what was happening, he backed away, whirled, and tore back through the stacks. In his haste to escape, he bounced and pushed off one shelf after another, until his flight was marked by the sound of falling books. He slammed out the rear fire escape door into the dumpster area behind Florence Hall and dashed across the pavement to the dumpster. Panting, he looked into it. No good. It was barely large enough for him to hide in. He would be trapped if the militia searched this area, which they were sure to do.
So far he had kept his backpack with him. With his heart pounding against his ribs, he knelt and opened it and tossed aside his books and notes, leaving his knife, water, and the lunch his mother had made for him. He pulled out the nine-inch knife. Sunlight trembled along the length of its blade. He swung the pack over one shoulder so that he could easily drop it, if the need arose. Hugging the building’s wall, knife in one hand, he crept on shaking legs around the corner of the building and into a narrow lane between it and the library. This led to the woods that bordered the parking lot.
His body had known. His instincts had carried him this far. Now his laggard mind caught up. As he slowly crept along, he suddenly realized how very near death he was, as close as if he were about to stumble into a pride of hungry lions. He knew that if even one militiaman or soldier with a rifle came into the lane, he was dead. His whole body started shuddering with the hammering of his heart. He had a hard time getting his breath; he almost fell away from the wall. But it was keep moving or die.
He glimpsed a sliver of the parking lot at the end of the lane. He slowed. Now he could see two militiamen with guns standing at the edge of the lot, obviously stationed there to prevent anyone escaping the massacre. Seth didn’t realize he had been holding his breath until it came out in a wheeze when he realized he was in shadow between the buildings, and the militiamen had not seen him.
Little by little, Seth slinked backwards until the parking lot was out of sight, and then he lay down and sprawled in the lane as though he had been shot. He kept his right hand with the knife in it tucked under his stomach so that he could rapidly pull it out, and he partly covered his head and one eye with his backpack. Trembling, his stomach knotted, he waited.
Now he heard distant screams and cries, gunshots, yells, and cheers—the rumbling symphony of mass murder. A slight breeze carried the acrid odor of gunpowder, the unforgettable smell of blood, and the stench of human excrement evacuated in death or deathly fear.
The cries and shouts, the gunshots and screams grew louder—they came from the parking lot now. Seth slowly inched himself forward so he could see whether the commotion would cover his escape. The two militiamen had joined others who were shooting and hacking with their machetes at a group of men and boys. The militia showed no mercy. Some seemed to enjoy the Tutsis’ pain, and cut open their stomachs or hacked off their legs or arms so that they bled to death in agony. Within minutes all the male victims were on the ground, some writhing in pain and covered with blood, some moaning.
Part of Seth’s view of this slaughter had been obscured by a large group of female students and older women the militia had separated from the males. Now they turned on the females, who were huddled together, screaming and crying. A few fell to their knees, begging for mercy. One woman cried, “Please, kill me fast. Now. No torture. Please.”