Bearing Witness to Mass Murder

By Lemarchand, René | African Studies Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Bearing Witness to Mass Murder


Lemarchand, René, African Studies Review


The third day after leaving Tingi-Tingi we began to pass the bodies of the dead and the dying.... My eye fell on a teenager hardly sixteen years old. Like the others she was lying at the side of the road, her large eyes open.... A cloud of flies swarmed around her. Ants and other forest insects crawled around her mouth, nose, eyes and ears. They began to devour her before she had taken her last breath. The death rattle that from time to time escaped her lips showed that she was not yet dead. All who passed by glanced at her and then took up their conversation where they had left off. I stood in a daze in front of this sixteen-year-old girl, lying in agony by the side of the road in the middle of the equatorial forest more than five hundred kilometers from home. As in 1993, when I heard about the extermination of my mother's family, as in 1994, when I saw the burned houses, the fear in the eyes of the fleeing Tutsi, and the arrogance and the hate in the faces of their executioners, as in 1995 when I saw pictures of women and children assassinated by the RPF in the camps at Birava, I was overcome by revulsion. What crime had all these victims committed to deserve such a death?

Marie Béatrice Umutesi, Surviving the Slaughter

In the "witness literature" on the Great Lakes, Marie Béatrice Umutesi's wrenching narrative surpasses all others by its searing, intensely personal quality. She bears testimony to an almost forgotten tragedy: Between October 1996 and September 1997, hundreds of thousands of Hiitu refugees lost their lives in the course of a massive manhunt carried out by Rwandan-backed rebels and units of the Rwandan army. She is unsparingly honest about the scenes of apocalypse she witnessed in the course of her grueling trek across two thousand kilometers in eastern Congo. Hers is the voice of hundreds of thousands who never lived to tell their story-of the countless men, women, and children who died of hunger, disease, and sheer exhaustion in a murderous game of hide-and-seek with advancing rebel units; of the untold numbers trapped at the Tingi-Tingi death camp who fell under the bullets of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) or drowned during the river crossing; and of the hundreds gunned down in Mbandaka as they were about to seek refuge in Congo-Brazzaville. Hers is the voice of the orphaned eight-year-old girl Zuzu who, after walking barefoot for months in the forest in the footsteps of "Auntie" Béatrice, told her one day that she "could do no more, and decided to squat down by the side of the road and wait for death" (193).

The agony of the Hutu refugees in eastern Congo has been all but eclipsed in public attention by the even greater tragedy of the Tutsi genocide. Although the two are intimately connected, compared to the sustained media exposure given to the latter, very little has been said of the events related by Umutesi. One notable exception is Maurice Niwese's moving autobiographical account (2001), a chronicle of his own tragic odyssey during the same circumstances. Unlike Niwese's, however, Umutesi's story is now accessible to the English-speaking reader, including those decision makers in the United States and the United Kingdom who bear much of the responsibility for giving Kagamé's RPF and its client movement, the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo (ADFL), a blank check to carry out their manhunt from October 1996 to September 1997. Not the least of the merits of her book is that it lays bare the central piece of disinformation disseminated by the Rwandan media and uncritically endorsed by the United States (thanks to the thoroughly disingenuous efforts of the U.S. military attaché in Kigali, Rick Orth). The official line was that after the return of some seven hundred thousand refugees to Rwanda in October 1996, the only persons left behind were Interahamwe and former members of the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR).1 Neither Zuzu nor Marcelline, Virginie nor Assumpta, all of them among Umutesi's closest companions, quite fit into this picture. …

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