Flashback to terror: Survivors of Rwandan genocide watch screening of Shooting Dogs

As Interahamwe survivors watch their ordeal recreated at a controversial premiere in Rwanda, Cahal Milmo reports from Kigali on the conflicting emotions the film has stirred up
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Joseph Nyamiroko never reached the safety of the Amahoro stadium with his family. On 11 April 1994, he witnessed soldiers hacking his wife and son to death with machetes before shooting his brother in the face as they fled towards the sports complex.

Ever since, the 56-year-old shopkeeper has avoided the towering arena. He believes it is where the "ghosts" of his loved ones finally found refuge from Rwanda's genocide.

But on Monday night, almost 12 years to the day after seeing his family butchered on a muddy brick-red road, Mr Nyamiroko finally completed the journey to the stadium.

There he found those ghosts, walking and talking before him on a 20ft-tall cinema screen.

Sat on the terraces with 2,000 others, he saw a version of the events of that day resurrected in the world premiere of Shooting Dogs during a tropical rainstorm. The £3m British film, starring John Hurt, portrays the massacre started at the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) in Kichukiro, a southern suburb of the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

It was one of the most bestial and troubling killing sprees in the planned campaign of extermination which claimed 800,000 lives in 100 days between April and July 1994.

On 6 April, after the genocide began, some 2,500 members of the Tutsi minority, including Mr Nyamiroko and his family, and moderate Hutus sought shelter in the school, which was guarded by a detachment of elite Belgian paratroopers from a United Nations peacekeeping force.

The UN force abandoned the school on 11 April, leaving its inhabitants at the mercy of the extremist Hutu militia, the Interahamwe. Mr Nyamiroko, a tall and quiet man, still bears the scar on his face of a machete wound suffered as he tried to protect his 13-year-old son, Auguste, before succumbing to blows of Interahamwe and government soldiers. He survived because he fell unconscious and unnoticed beneath his brother's corpse.

Words did not come easily after seeing his tragedy recreated inShooting Dogs, which was made in Kigali with 2,000 local extras re-enacting the whooping cries of the Interahamwe (Let Us Strike Together) as they eradicate the Inyenzi - cockroaches.

Mr Nyamiroko said: "It is very, very difficult. I looked for my son on the screen and saw him everywhere. I wanted to shout out for him. Every small boy in this film reminds me of Auguste.

"I know it is not real, it is a film. But it makes me remember those days. For me it is a very painful thing. But I am glad that others will now see what happened. It is important that others must see." As the 12th commemoration of the genocide approaches on 7 April, Shooting Dogs, the fifth European or American film to be made or in production about the genocide, aims to remind Western audiences of the failure of the outside world.

But as hundreds of Rwandans queued in torrential rain on Monday to crowd into the Amahoro stadium to watch the screening in the company of government ministers and cast members including Hurt, questions were being asked about the claim that an undoubtedly powerful film is also an "authentic" recreation of the tragedy it seeks to depict.

Shooting Dogs tells the story of the ETO massacre through the prism of two white Britons - Father Christopher, a Catholic priest in charge of the school, played by Hurt; and Joe, a young teacher, played by Hugh Dancy - who desperately seek to help the refugees crammed into the school, risking their lives to collect medicines and find television camera crews.

In despair, Joe eventually leaves to save his life. Father Christopher decides to stay, declaring his soul is with the terrified Rwandans. He is then murdered at an Interahamwe check point as he tries to drive a group of Tutsi children to safety. The only problem is that neither Joe nor Father Christopher existed. The priest is in fact based on a Bosnian priest, Vjeko Curic, who sheltered the producer of the Shooting Dogs, David Belton, and his BBC crew while working in Rwanda during the genocide.

As Grace, 53, a survivor from the ETO, put it after watching the premiere: "It is a good film but I am a little confused. I don't remember this young man who was the teacher. And the priests were Belgians. They left with the United Nations. It is not quite as it happened. Was what really happened not enough?" The film further departs from history with its climax - the massacre of the abandoned refugees by a baying mob of Interahamwe in the grounds of the school.

In reality, the 2,500 victims, including Mr Nyamiroko and his family, tried to flee their pursuers by heading for the Amahoro stadium where UN soldiers remained throughout the genocide, deterring to some extent attacks on the 50,000 Tutsis sheltering inside.

The ETO refugees were spotted by soldiers from the Hutu-controlled army, rounded up and led on a death march to Nyanza-Rebero, a ridge overlooking the city. After a number of hours, they were slaughtered.

Michael Caton Jones, the film's Glaswegian director, confirmed that financial constraints on the low-budget project meant the Nyanza-Rebero massacre had had to be recreated at the school.

But he insisted that the necessities of dramatic licence - such as creating the composite characters of Father Christopher and Joe - did not tarnish the integrity of the film.

The director, whose credits range from Scandal to Basic Instinct 2, said: "Film can only be a dramatic re-enactment. There is always an essential compromise to ensure that the film does its job. In this case, it was telling the story of Rwandans and their unimaginable trauma. Everybody on this film sought to achieve that. My hope is that a film like this helps them to own the trauma rather than let it dominate them."

They are sentiments with which others in the audience of the premiere - devoid of red carpets, limousines or crowds eager to catch a glimpse of celebrities - seemed to agree. At the ending of the 100-minute film there was no applause. All that broke the silence in the giant national stadium, turned into an open-air cinema for one deluged night, was the muted sobbing of people revisiting private nightmares.

Shooting Dogs recreates in grim detail the militia roadblocks where Tutsi women were kept to be gang raped, their leg tendons slashed so they could not escape; it shows the murder of a mother and her infant while UN troops look on; and the conversion of Francois, the character of the ETO caretaker, from an untroubled Rwandan into a hate-filled Hutu who kills his friends and neighbours.

Patience Myanagenge, 25, one of the extras attending the premiere, who lost a sister in the genocide, said such imagery will always have a ring of truth for Rwandans.

She said: "What an outsider sees in this film is a woman you don't know being killed. But to us it is our mother, daughter, sister. You don't shout and scream. Such a thing is normal for Rwandans. It does not disappear because you cry. It is the basic truth of what occurred. I think people understand a film is not a documentary." Indeed, the makers of Shooting Dogs - financed by the film arm of the BBC, the UK Film Council and a German production company - have been eager to emphasise what they consider to be its key virtue - the fact it was made in Rwanda with Rwandans actors and crew and as much input from Rwandans as possible. By contrast, the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda was made in South Africa.

But aid groups have expressed concern about the effects of making Shooting Dogs on the local population, in particular using the buildings of the ETO itself as the set. A group of schoolgirls close to the filming of a scene at the school had to receive treatment for flashbacks suffered at the sound of actors singing the old Interahamwe chants of "Let's do the work", signalling an imminent slaughter. The decision to show the film to an audience of survivors, with trauma counsellors on hand, drew further concern from aid workers.

One senior Rwandan staff member with a charity working with survivors said: "To put someone who may have seen their wife, husband, mother, brother cut down before them in front of images re-enacting that moment is invoking the same terror that they experienced 12 years ago. At best that is a very violent form of therapy." The questions go the heart of the way Rwanda is coping with an atrocity as desolating and communal as the genocide.

Some argue that in a country where 44 per cent of the population is aged 15 or below and therefore too young to know what took place, the need to reinforce the lessons of what caused the genocide is constant.

Florence Kyarera, vice-mayor of Kichukiro, said: "The trauma that Rwandans feel comes from what happened in 1994, not from a film. It is good that not only British audiences should be reminded about the genocide in this way but also we Rwandans. Especially the young people who have no images of what happened. Our greatest fear is the violence returning for real, not at the cinema." They are concerns that increasingly play on the minds of Rwandans.

Under the rigid rule of President Paul Kagame, the leader of the Tutsi-led army which eventually halted the genocide, the old distinctions of Hutu and Tutsi have been written out of history. Identity cards no longer show the bearer's tribal caste as they did in 1994.

But a survivors advocacy group, Ibuka, claimed yesterday that it had evidence that some of the 23,000 "genocidaires" or genocide perpetrators released last year from Rwanda's packed prisons have returned to their murderous ways.

The genocidaires, who all had to confess to their role in the killing to qualify for release, are due to face justice in the form of the Gacaca trials - a form of traditional village court in which defendants are judged by the community. But the courts are beset with claims that the system will be unable to cope with the enormous burden of at least 100,000 defendants. Ibuka said it had recorded the murders of ten people in recent weeks by released genocidaires who wanted to stop survivors giving testimony against them.

Benoit Kaboyi, the group's chief executive, said: "Survivors continue to suffer at the hands of the architects of the genocide. The government has dealt with the issue reluctantly, which has in turn inspired these persecutors to carry on with inhuman acts. We have learnt of 10 deaths but there is a high possibility that many others have been killed. We are not satisfied with such a situation. The tolerant approach [of the Gacaca] has been chosen but there real fear it might plunge us into another genocide."

The makers of Shooting Dogs say it is this issue that underpins the film. As Hurt put it: "To whip up a people into such belief and hysteria that they create a genocide is the darkest thing a human being can do. It is a kind of duty to make a film like this."

'Trauma is part of who we are'

By Beata Uwazaninka-Smith

I wanted Shooting Dogs to be made and I willingly took part as an extra, despite the memories. I was a 14-year old at school in Kigali and stayed with my uncle and his family. I saw them hacked to death with machetes, in the same way as portrayed in Shooting Dogs. For the next hundred days I witnessed far more than can be shown in one film.

When I talk to groups in the UK to explain what happened it is hard to describe, but this film gives pictures to what I am trying to say.

Of course the film is hard for us survivors, but we did not go on to the set thinking it was for laughs. I cried at times, but the trauma is caused by what we went through, not what was being acted. Trauma will be with us until we die - it is a part of who we are.

When the Kigali Memorial Centre was opened in 2004 people criticised the Aegis Trust, the genocide prevention organisation who established it, saying it would traumatise survivors. So why do so many survivors turn up there? Yes, some break down, collapse and need counsellors. But talking and crying is part of the healing process.

That the BBC took the trouble to come to our country to make the film was great. It was important for survivors to feel part of the film, whether as extras or as part of the crew.

I cannot expect people to know everything - it is so unimaginable, so incomprehensible. Show me a film about the Holocaust that is totally factual and conveys it all.

Everyone should see Shooting Dogs, not just because it is watchable. Maybe we can learn from it so that next time a film like this is made, it won't need to be based on reality.

It may inspire us to urge the Government to use its power at the United Nations to prevent genocide. Politicians can learn from this film what happens when they fail to protect those under threat of destruction, like the black Africans in Darfur today.