June 3, 2005
He knew about my research on democide, and soon told me that 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."
The militia leader shouldered his way through the militiamen. Seth recognized him from photos he'd seen: Stanislas Munyakazi. He stopped in front of the women and held up his hands for quiet.
The women sobbed even louder.
Stanislas waited a few moments and then smiled at the militiamen now standing on both sides of him. Then he turned his flat face back to the women and bellowed, "Do you want to live?"
The crying stopped in mid-sob. All that Seth heard now were the moans of the dying men and boys and muffled shots from inside the buildings nearby. The women all stared at Stanislas.
"Very, very good," he barked. Smiling even more broadly, he added, "Strip. Everything. Or die."
Some hesitated; some immediately began to take off their clothes and drop them on the ground. Some stood dazed, unable to believe what was happening.
Stanislas reached over and took a machete out of the hand of the militiaman standing next to him. He walked up to a young student no more than eighteen. She just stood there, unmoving; head lifted high, lips pressed together, she unblinkingly looked Stanislas in the eye.
He grabbed her by her blouse, pulled her to him, and then stepped aside and tripped her so that she would fall in front of him. Gripping the machete with both hands, he hacked off one of her arms. Without pausing, he stepped over her quivering form and amputated the other. He next cut large slices out of her legs and her back, until she no longer twitched and squirmed in the large pool of blood that had poured out around her. She had not made a sound.
When he finished he turned, panting, back to the group of women. All were now naked. The militiamen leered at them, making obscene jokes and laughing. Two trucks drove up. Stanislas ordered the women into the trucks. Seth knew what that meant. The trucks would take the women to the militia camp, where they would be the militia's sex slaves before being killed.
The naked females lined up behind the trucks and began climbing into them, fully displaying their genitals. Seth saw his chance. The militiamen were getting their jollies, ogling the women. They had forgotten about guarding against anyone escaping. Seth stood up shakily. He jammed the knife up his sleeve, accidentally cutting his arm, swung his pack onto his shoulder, and hurried on wobbly legs past the lot and into the woods.
Once the trees hid him, he dropped to the ground and beat his fist on it in relief. He waited there until he caught his breath, then clambered to his feet and ran along a path, heading for Butare Hospital.
When Seth reached the hospital all seemed peaceful, with the usual bustle of patients around the entrance. He hurried into the hospital and up to the surgical department where Laurent worked.
A nurse told him, "Dr. Laurent is in surgery, performing a mastectomy. We don't expect him out for a half-hour or so."
Seth scribbled a note, folded it, and asked the nurse, "Please be sure to give this to Doctor Nkongoli when he finishes surgery. "
Then, still trembling uncontrollably, Seth went to the waiting room.
Less than ten minutes later, the public address system came on. After some initial background noise and the murmur of voices, a firm voice announced clearly, "Government authorities have ordered all Hutu doctors to come to the hospital entrance immediately. Turn over whatever you are doing to your assistants. This is an emergency."
With a feeling of dŽjˆ vu, Seth frantically searched for a window that provided a view of the entrance. He rushed in and out of several rooms in his search, muttering apologies when he found them occupied, and attracting an angry nurse, who trailed behind trying to stop him. Finally he found a window overlooking the hospital's parking lot.
One quick look out was enough. Stanislas Munyakazi and his militia and a few soldiers were motioning the doctors coming out of the entrance to gather around him.
Seth pointed this out to the nurse, and slowly opened the window while trying to remain in the shadows. Stanislas had a loud voice, as Seth already knew, and he was yelling his loudest at the doctors.
"The Tutsi are foreigners," he shouted. "They are really white men from the North, again trying to take over our country. For the future of Rwanda, and to protect our women and children, you must kill all the Tutsi doctors, nurses, and patients in the hospital. You have no choice. Kill them or we will kill you."
Stanislas slowly turned to look each doctor in the eyes. "Understand?" he asked in a normal voice.
No one spoke.
"Okay," Stanislas barked, and pointed to a truck behind the doctors. "We have weapons in that truck for you-machetes and some axes. Get your weapons and do immediately what you must."
The nurse disappeared. Seth had heard enough. He rushed back to the waiting room, snatched his pack from the chair where he'd left it, and scampered down the hallway, past alarmed nurses, to the surgery. Grabbing a startled nurse by the arm, he breathlessly demanded, "Which surgery is Doctor Nkongoli in?"
Eyebrows raised, the nurse propped one hand on her hip and pointed to the second door down the hallway. As he rushed off, he yelled at her over his shoulder, "Get out. Hutu are killing all Tutsi."
He shoved open the door and burst into the outer surgery just as Laurent was washing up. "We've got to get out," Seth cried. "They're killing all Tutsi here."
"Who?" Laurent asked, regarding Seth. Laurent could tell he was on the verge of panic, so he spoke calmly and continued to wash his hands, hoping to relax his nephew.
"Hutu doctors and militia. I heard the order."
Laurent held his dripping hands in front of him as he stared at Seth. When he saw how frightened usually calm Seth was, he realized they had to act quickly, or die. Laurent dashed to the supply closet, jerked open the door, and grabbed a white coat and surgical hat. Then he ran back into the surgery room, where the patient was just being wheeled out and the nurses were cleaning up. He screamed at them, "Get out. All Tutsis are being murdered." No one had ever heard him yell like that. They all disappeared in a flash.
With Seth hugging his shadow, Laurent quickly looked under the operating room table and sighed in relief when he saw the amputated breast still in the disposal box. He seized it and wiped it over the white coat and cap he held, then over the front of his own coat, mask, and hat, adding to the bloodstains picked up during surgery. Laurent also picked up a surgical knife and made sure it was bloody, as well.
Ah, yes, he thought. He dragged the blood receptacle from beneath the operating table, plunged a rag into it, and shook the rag over his shoes and the bottom of his coat, splattering both with blood.
Laurent motioned Seth over and handed him the coat, mask, and cap. Seth donned the garments, putting the bloody coat on over his backpack. Laurent then splattered the blood on the lower part of Seth's coat and shoes.
"Do you have a weapon?" Laurent asked.
Seth wordlessly showed him his knife. Laurent made it as bloody as the surgical knife.
"Now, hunch down and bulk up so that you don't look so tall and thin, and it's simple," Laurent lied. "We just look like we're seeking and killing Tutsi."
They suddenly heard muffled screams and gunshots, even through the wall of the outer surgery room. Looking in the direction of the sound, Seth's voice broke with fear as he asked quickly, "Won't the Hutu doctors . . . recognize you?"
"No, not if I stay close behind you and have my bloody mask on. Let's go. Quick!"
They rapidly exited the surgery room, carrying their bloody knifes as though ready to carve someone up, and dashed down the hallway to the stairs.
As they passed the recovery room, they heard patients yelling at them, "What's happening? What's going on?" They kept going, knowing that there was no hope for those patients. The militia and Hutu allies would kill all who looked like Tutsi, and any Hutu who objected to the killing.
As Seth and Laurent started down the stairs, two militiamen were on their way up. When they saw Seth with Laurent behind him, they stopped and pointed their guns. Seth smiled and waved his bloody knife, as though saying, "Look what we've done."
One of the militiamen, seeing all the blood, laughed and yelled up the stairs, "Good hunting, eh?"
Seth's hand holding the knife shook wildly; to the militiamen, it must have seemed he was waving in agreement. He almost stumbled down the stairs, with Laurent following. They brushed past the two militiamen.
On the first floor, Laurent directed Seth to the emergency entrance. They passed the bodies of patients and visitors scattered along the hallway. Soldiers bent over some, searching for valuables. A doctor came out of a room with a bloody fire axe in his hand. When he looked at them, Seth waved his knife in greeting. The doctor smiled grimly, and then went into the coffee shop.
They made it to the emergency room, where several doctors and nurses were sprawled on the gore-slick floor. An emergency patient lay on a bloody gurney, where she had been hacked to death. An ambulance attendant was searching the pockets of a dead doctor for money.
Seeing that, Laurent's mouth set in a grim line, and he narrowed his eyes. He looked around. No one else was alive. He walked up behind the attendant, who looked over his shoulder at him. Seeing Laurent's bloody scalpel, the attendant turned back to his search.
Laurent bent over the attendant and grated out, "Find anything?" As the attendant was about to answer, Laurent suddenly straddled him, put his left hand under his chin, jerked his head back, and slit his throat with surgical expertise. Laurent felt no horror, no remorse-nothing-as he did so. To him, it was an execution. Justice had been served.
At that moment, a doctor in a bloody white coat, gore-smeared machete in hand, came in from the hallway. He looked around, saw all the bodies, smiled and waved, and strode back out.
The blood pouring out of the attendant as he squirmed on the floor in his death throes further sickened Seth. He looked ready to retch, and his legs about to buckle in on themselves; he cast his gaze desperately around the room, seeking something to lean on. Laurent grabbed his arm and, partly supporting him, walked them both out the emergency entrance.
A soldier stood guard over an ambulance backed into the emergency parking area. They headed toward him. Seth managed to calm himself enough to join Laurent in waving at the soldier as they approached.
Feigning a south Rwandan accent, Laurent commented casually to the soldier, "Good show." He then asked, "Do you have a cigarette?"
The soldier, a typical southern Hutu with round face and bulky build, rested his Vektor assault rifle in his left hand, butt against his wide hip, while reaching into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. He handed a pack of Cameos to Laurent, who took a cigarette out and handed the pack back.
"I'm terribly sorry," Laurent said, "but I lost my matches while killing Tutsi. Do you have a match?"
The soldier laughed. "Of course. Here." He rested his rifle against the ambulance, took out his matches and, holding the matchbook in one hand, lit a match with the other. He held it out to the cigarette in Laurent's mouth.
At that moment, Laurent drove his scalpel into the soldier's solar plexus and up into his heart. With only a groan, the man dropped the matches, clutched his chest, and fell onto his side, dead.
Motioning Seth to follow, Laurent entered the ambulance and got behind the steering wheel. The keys were still in the ignition. He started the engine, put the ambulance in gear, and accelerated as fast as he could out of the emergency lot. They hurtled down a short lane onto a major road.
Suddenly they heard shots nearby. Glass shattered, slicing into the side of Seth's face. Two holes appeared in his door's window about where his head would have been, if it had not been pushed forward by his backpack between him and the seat. More bullets thunked through the side of the ambulance and shot out the other side. They'd surprised a squad of militia stationed along the road to prevent anyone from escaping in their car. Before the militiamen could aim well, Laurent accelerated the ambulance out of range.
"Where are we going?" Seth barely managed to get out, wiping his cuts with the sleeve of his bloody coat.
"We're heading to our border with Zaire. We should make it in about two hours, if the militia doesn't call ahead. But I doubt they will. We're just two Tutsi, and they are in a hurry to kill hundreds of thousands of us. I don't think they'll take the time away from their more important work."
"What about your wife and my parents?"
"We prepared for this genocide, although we doubted it would reach us. We made arrangements with Hutu friends to hide your parents and my wife until we can sneak them out of the country."
"But, how will they know to hide?"
Laurent told him, "Prompted by the death of our president and the genocide of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in the capital, I arranged a phone signal. Every day, I called my wife when I got to the hospital, at noon, and at five o'clock. If she'd still received no call half an hour after these times, they were to take what we had already packed and seek refuge with our Hutu friends." He reached over from his driver's seat and patted Seth on the leg. "Don't worry, these are good Hutu I have known almost my whole life."
About a mile before the border and outside of the Rwandan town of Bukavu, Laurent pulled the ambulance off the road and they concealed it. Then they walked into the wild forest that covered a good part of the Zaire and Rwanda in that region. They found a little clearing deep in the forest, where they could rest and wait safely.
Seth took off his bloody coat and his backpack, and then joined Laurent where he sat with his back against a tree. "I guess I should eat," Seth mumbled. "Breakfast was a long time ago." He opened his pack, his hands no longer shaking like tree limbs in a storm, but only trembling, and took out the water and his lunch. Then he must have realized that he wasn't hungry at all, because he offered his lunch of fruit and chicken to Laurent.
He declined, saying, "Save it. We'll probably need it before we find other Tutsi in Zaire. They shouldn't be far, however. I understand that there is a large Tutsi refugee camp about two miles west of the border. But I need the water."
Laurent dozed off and on until after midnight; Seth just stared into the darkness. They met no one on their walk into the Zaire. The night sky was clear of clouds, and they steered by the stars when they could see them through the forest canopy. They found many little paths worn by those who had preceded them. Without really knowing it, they crossed into the Zaire within an hour and kept to their westerly course. By midday, they found the Tutsi refugee camp and safety.
There, they later learned that 170 Tutsi doctors, nurses, and patients in all were slaughtered in Butare Hospital. They never found out how many were murdered at the university.
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