It is impossible for a European travelling in Rwanda not to make continual comparisons between what happened there in 1994 and the Nazis' extermination of the Jews. Sometimes it is images from films that come to mind. The story of one man I talked to combined the heroism depicted in Schindler's List, the film about the German who risked his life to save Jews from the gas chambers, with the anguish of Sophie's Choice, in which Meryl Streep played a mother forced by the Nazis to decide which of her two small children should die.
In each case, Hollywood was straining the bounds of credibility, portraying life at what most cinema-goers would take to be the absolute extreme of human experience. Rwanda, in the very heart of the continent where human life began, pushes those extremes further than anything that has come before. Whether victim or accomplice of a genocide in which the average number of people slaughtered every day - between breakfast and lunch - for 100 days equalled the number killed at the World Trade Centre on September 11, every ordinary Rwandan has experienced horror of an intensity inconceivable to contemporary Western Europeans, and unimaginable to almost anyone else.
But even in such a context the story of Marcelin Kwibueta, just granted amnesty after spending nine years in prison for killing his wife, is in a class of its own.
Rwanda calls itself the Land of a Thousand Hills. I had to go up and down and round what seemed to be several hundred of them to get to the place where Marcelin has gone back to live with his seven children. You arrive, on roads barely navigable by four-wheel-drive vehicle, covered in dust. Red dust. Rwanda's earth is red. It was presumably red before the genocide, but you do wonder. Eight hundred thousand human bodies cut to pieces, in the smallest, most densely populated country in Africa, is a lot of blood. Large volumes of it were shed here, in the district of Nyamata, famous even in Rwanda for a Catholic church that was the local Auschwitz, a factory of death.
Marcelin was, by local standards, reasonably prosperous until the genocide happened. Which is to say that he was a subsistence farmer who could read and write and managed to get by on the produce of his land, mainly bananas that he sold or bartered on market day. At the most elemental level, he kept his family clothed and fed. His home has mud walls and no electricity but, in what passes for a local luxury, it does have cement floors. It was in a room of this house, utterly bare save for some stools and a map of the world on one wall - as if hopelessly yearning for a life beyond the terrible little world he inhabits - that we sat and talked. There were no windows, but it was a relief to be in darkness, away from the midday sun, and a comfort to be away from the children, who were playing in the yard outside.
Marcelin is a Hutu. His wife was a Tutsi. That is why he killed her. And that was all I knew when I entered his mud home.
His appearance was the first surprise. He looked fit and healthy and well-fed, despite spending nearly nine years in one of the most crowded prisons on earth. And he did not look or behave like anyone's idea of a cold-blooded murderer. Trim and neat, young-looking for his 47 years, he was cleanly dressed in a yellow shirt and green trousers, sported a neat moustache and wore a crucifix around his neck. He spoke softly, with very little emotion, striving to elicit neither sympathy nor shock. No gesticulating, no raising or lowering of the voice. Just telling it how it happened.
"The killers arrived at my home on 14 April, about a week after the genocide started. There were about 60 of them, all armed with pangas [machetes] or clubs. They surrounded the house so there was no possibility of escape. We had been expecting them. My wife was on a list. Her family was a big Tutsi family in this part. They were all on the list."
In fact, everybody killed in the Rwandan genocide was on a list. Under orders from central government in Kigali, the local authorities in each village, each town, had gone through birth certificates and other official papers to create a census of the people condemned to die - meaning every Tutsi in the country. The planning was meticulous. Part of it was to denounce as collaborators - and therefore also to condemn to death - those Hutus unwilling to participate in the slaughter.
"They grabbed my wife and hit her over the head, they cut her with a panga. But she was still standing. She was still OK. The leader of the group told me I had to finish her off. I had to kill my own wife. I resisted. I said I could not. She had just given birth to a baby. The baby was two days old. They would not listen. They became enraged. The leader said, 'Take this panga. Kill her. Or we will kill you.' I took the panga. I gripped it hard, but I dropped it. It fell to the floor."
Marcelin knew the situation was hopeless. His wife - her name was Françoise, and she was 27 years old - was a dead woman, whatever he did or did not do. The killers had already been busy in the neighbourhood. They had killed Françoise's mother and father, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. Twenty in all. It would have been more had Marcelin not tipped off a few relatives of his wife, had he not helped them to find hiding places.
But he had not had time to hide his own family. There were too many of them. He was too well known. His only hope, he had figured, was that because he was a Hutu they might spare his wife. But once he saw the look in the eyes of the people who came, he knew there was nothing to be done. They were human beings, but there was as much possibility of reasoning with them as there would have been with a pack of hungry hyenas. The quality of mercy had been extinguished. The blood instinct had completely taken over.
The one mercy was that the children did not have to see what happened. Five had been born to Marcelin's first wife, who died of natural causes. She was a Hutu, so they were theoretically out of danger. But the same went for Françoise's three children, aged two and four, and the new-born baby, because in Rwanda ethnic identity is seen as patrilineal. "The children were there when they arrived, but the killers told them to go away," said Marcelin. "My wife grabbed a moment to talk to them. She spoke to my eldest daughter, who was 12, and asked her please to look after the children after she was gone. The she hugged each one, and said goodbye. Then the children went away."
Then the men gave Marcelin his impossible choice. "They said that if I did not kill my wife they would kill all my children and destroy my home, before killing me. A group began to chase after the children, who my eldest daughter was leading to a spot behind some banana trees where they could not see the house. My wife looked at me, desperate. She pleaded, 'Kill me! Please, kill me now!' We went to the back of the house, to be sure the children could not see, though they knew exactly what was happening. I picked up a hoe, a long hoe, to hit her with. I was like a blind man. I could not see. I hit her, and then I hit her again, in the back of the head. Until she died."
I thought of asking him if he had had a chance to say any last words to his wife. I thought I ought to try to get him to visualise for me those agonising last moments of her life, but there comes a point - and this was definitely it - when you have to restrain your journalistic curiosity, when you have to weigh the impact of the story you are going to write against the feelings of the person you are interviewing. He did not collapse sobbing, as he might reasonably have been expected to do at the moment in his narrative when he pronounced his wife dead. But his voice, almost a monotone throughout the two hours we spent talking together, did fall. And, through the merciful darkness of the bare room, I think I detected a watering of the eyes.
What happened next, said Marcelin, was that, with the aid of some Hutu neighbours, he quickly buried his wife in the spot where he killed her. Then he went off with the killers, a marauding gang scouring the land for more Tutsi prey. Why did he join them? "They press-ganged me. Again, I had no choice. They had suspicions that I had been helping some Tutsis and they wanted to keep an eye on me." And get him to kill others? "Yes, but I could not. For example, they found a girl of 18 who I had helped hide on my land. They ordered me to kill her. This time when I refused the others just weighed in and cut her up. She was another relative of my wife."
He says that he killed no one during the weeks he spent with the Tutsi-hunters. "But when we chased people, I joined in. I did help catch them." But only when it would have made no difference whether he showed willing or not. And he had put his forced recruitment to good use, he said. "I was not with the group all the time and when I was away I would warn people they were coming, or help them hide. And I would also give the group false information, leading them to the wrong place, causing confusion among them, giving people a chance to get away."
At this point, the first child he had with Françoise entered the room. Her name is Muchashyka. Now 12, she wore an oddly ornate white dress, the kind she might have worn for her first communion. Marcelin is a practising Catholic, as are most Rwandans. Her father shooed the girl outside. Did she ever ask him about what happened? I put it to him that if the problem people all over the country were facing now was how to live as neighbours with the 40,000 killers (out of 120,000) who had been released from prison under an amnesty like his, what of him, having to live in the same house as the children whose mother he killed?
"She knows what happened, but she does not ask. After the genocide ended in 1994, her uncle came to see the grave and he asked Muchashyka what happened. She was only four then, but she told him, 'My father killed her with a group of men.' Then I was arrested and put in prison."
But what, I insisted, did the children think? He called his eldest daughter, Claudette, now 22, to join us. Healthy-looking and strong, which she has needed to be over the past nine years, Claudette sat on the floor and, staring into the distance, began to talk and talk, corroborating her father's story and reliving the calamities that have filled her life.
"We lived happily with Françoise. For days they had been looking for her, and she always found a place to hide, with my father's help. Until one day, the day they killed her, she decided she had had enough. She said she was fed up with hiding. She said goodbye to us. It was so sad. It was not my father's fault. He could do nothing. He had no choice, and she knew that. She told me I must now be the mother of the family, and then she pleaded with the men not to kill her in front of her children."
After her father went off with the killers, she found a "good Samaritan", as she put it, to look after the baby. But he died of pneumonia after a month. When her father was arrested their house was seized and she went with her six younger brothers and sisters to a town 50 kilometres away (an epic trip in Rwanda) to stay with her paternal grandfather. A couple of years later he died. But she survived, as hundreds of thousands of orphan families in Rwanda have survived since the genocide: somehow, against all odds, with the assistance in really desperate moments of kind-hearted strangers.
Marcelin suffered in prison. "I told the truth of what happened immediately on being arrested, and since there were Tutsi survivors who could back up my story I was sure I would soon be freed. But time passed and in prison I remained. I got sick. I suffered from asthma. But the worst of all was worrying about my kids, how on earth they would survive. But Claudette has been so strong. Still today she cares for the children."
He remained in prison because the justice system in Rwanda has been chaotic. A country so small and poor is simply not equipped to hold 120,000 people in jail. Yet jail them they must - knowing full well that at least as many killers continue to roam free. But the truth of Marcelin's story has been confirmed by the local authorities in Nyamata, who have seen to it that he has been given back his home. "People here know that I have sinned, but they know I am not guilty because they know I did what I did because of pressures I could not resist, and they know I helped people survive."
We go outside to the back of the house. It is a beautiful spot, the fields dense with broad-leaved banana trees, and green hills - the Thousand Hills - all around. He takes me to the precise spot where he killed and buried his wife. She is not there now. "It was a very shallow grave... but luckily they took her away to the Catholic church in Nyamata," said the widower, his eyes fixed on the red earth. "There she had a dignified burial, a big funeral service for the thousands of people that were killed. I am happy about that. You see, I had no time to bury her properly myself. I was under pressure," he said, as if apologising, as if addressing himself to his dead wife. "I was under so much pressure."Reuse content