Walking into the Ntarama Church outside Kigali and witnessing the scenes of mass
slaughter all around, I instantly began to gag and ran outside lest I be sick on
consecrated ground. I walked in several more times but could barely breath.
Never in my life had I seen something so utterly gruesome.
earlier, in April of 1994, approximately 5,000 Tutsi men, women and children had
sought refuge in the church from genocidal Hutu militiamen. But God sometimes
hides and does not protect. After throwing grenades into the church, the Hutu
monsters axed, macheted, clubbed and speared every last person to
Today, their skulls, bones, coffins and blood-soaked clothing
decorate the Church in a macabre orgy of death that left me dizzy and weak. I
considered myself fortunate not to have gone to another church, two hours away,
where nearly 500 lime-preserved bodies, in their crouching postures of death,
lie strewn around the church after being found nearby in a mass grave. They
remain there, unburied, silent witnesses to man’s brutality to his fellow
The night before I had sat with Marie-Jean, a Tutsi woman in her
forties whose husband was hacked to death in front of her eyes when Hutu
militiamen broke into their home. They ripped her eight-month old baby from her
arms and dashed her brains against a wall. Then it was her turn, as she was
savagely gang-raped by more than 10 HIV-positive men leaving her with AIDs. An
attractive and bright-eyed woman, I asked her if she would ever marry again. She
answered that she would never allow any man to ever touch her again. She added
that she stays alive only for her 20-year old son who miraculously
In Rwanda the scars of death are much fresher than in the
German death camps of Poland. The survivors of the fastest genocide in human
history are not octogenarians from my Jewish community but vibrant twenty and
thirty-somethings. Each has soul-searing stories of entire families being
dismembered by machetes, often by their own neighbors and family
The stories do not come naturally. Rwandans have not learned to
easily talk about the horrors they experienced. It comes out only when they have
learned to trust you. One guide drove us around for two days. As he left us at
our hotel in Kigali, he suddenly said, “My grandparents, father, mother, brother
and sister were all killed. I was 14. I survived living in broken down homes
that the Hutus were not searching.” A few minutes later, he drove
Lt. General Charles Kayonga, Commanderin- Chief of the Rwandan army,
whom I met through my daughter who is serving in the Israeli army and who is
part of a unit who hosted him in Israel, witnessed the entire genocide as a
young RPF officer stationed in Kigali.
A soft-spoken man of probing
intelligence and a deep listener, he is a hero who commanded a battalion that
was surrounded by tens of thousands of Hutu killers yet still saved as many
lives as he could. He told me that, given their experience, the Rwandans often
see themselves as the Jews of Africa.
As was the case with the Jews of
the Holocaust, few nations cared that the Tutsis were being slaughtered. The
United States and the United Nations were especially
President Bill Clinton did not have even a single meeting
with his senior staff through the three months of the genocide and refused to
even destroy or block the RTLM radio antenna through which the genocide was
Kofi Annan forbade UN Peacekeeping Chief General Romeo
Dallaire from taking any action that would prevent the genocide.
pleaded but Annan was resolute and ordered the bulk of UN peacekeepers out of
the country. I discovered that the Rwandans are, like Israel, highly suspicious
of the UN and especially the French whom, they argue, aided and abetted the
genocide by training Hutu militiamen. Rwandan enmity toward the French continues
I met several Rwandan youths who had never left the country but
told me if they did the first country they would visit would be Israel, which
seems to be something of a role model to Rwandans steeped in their recent
history. And a group of New York Jewish philanthropists, led by Anne Heyman,
established a breathtakingly beautiful youth village an hour outside Kigali
called Agohozo Shalom which houses and educates hundreds of youths, many of them
The teenage genocide survivors I met there there told
me they believe in “Tikkun Olam,” the Jewish commandment to repair the world,
which they quoted in Hebrew.
Also, like the State of Israel, the Rwandans
feel they have unique security concerns given malevolent military forces on
their Congolese border whose commanders include many escaped militiamen who
perpetrated the genocide and have never been brought to justice.
an immediate and deep kinship with the Rwandan people, especially the survivors
of the genocide. Having read many books on the slaughter, Paul Kagame, the
Rwandan president who as commander of the RPF ended the genocide, has always
been a hero to me. In the anti-genocide community Kagame is a man of towering
stature. After seeing that the world was doing nothing to save his people, he
launched a military offensive and methodically conquered the entire country,
displaying strategic genius that put an end to the genocide.
When he came
to power he did not take revenge against the Hutus who had slaughtered his
people but instead instituted a policy making it virtually unlawful to even
speak of Hutu-Tutsi ethnicity again. Virtually everyone I spoke to told me they
are not Tutsi or Hutu but Rwandan, and that they will never again submit to
arbitrary classifications that were set up by Belgian
Kagame has, of late, come in for significant criticism from
human rights groups and even the American government for not allowing sufficient
press freedoms, political opposition, and for assisting rebel groups in
neighboring Congo, a charge which he strenuously denies.
are allegations of political opposition leaders and even journalists who have
disappeared and one opposition leader who apparently was found decapitated,
although no link to the Rwandan government has been established. Kagame’s
defenders – and they are essentially everyone I met in Rwanda, who seem to
revere him – argue that Kagame and his ministers live under the permanent trauma
of having witnessed a million people massacred by opponents who have, in large
measure, yet to be brought to justice and who foment Rwandan instability from
both outside and inside the country. If he’s tough, they say, it’s because he
has to be, in order to keep the peace and prevent another colossal
What is certainly true is that Rwanda is flourishing as one of
the cleanest countries I have ever visited, and everything feels very safe. An
economic miracle over which Kagame has presided has given Rwanda one of the
fastest growing economies in Africa.
That a nation that less than a
generation ago saw one million of its citizens’ bodies strewn in every corner of
the country can be this orderly, peaceful, and prosperous is indeed an
unthinkable accomplishment for which President Kagame deserves the international
applause he regularly receives.
But that would not excuse some of the
government excesses that are being alleged – though I personally neither saw nor
felt the government as heavy-handed – and it behooves President Kagame to
address these allegations seriously and forthrightly for the many people around
the world, like me, who consider him a giant for having stopped the wholesale
slaughter of millions of defenseless men, women and children, and then promoted
an air of reconciliation in his country.
But it likewise behooves Western
leaders and the American government who are being critical of Kagame to learn
from the Rwandan experience and finally agree to put an end to mass slaughter
and to seriously punish all those who engage in it.
Why are we doing
nothing in Syria? Why have 3.5 million people died of starvation in North Korea
with barely an American response? State department officials shared with me our
government’s concerns about limited press and political freedoms in Rwanda. The
United States must always stand up for liberty and democracy and they are right
to raise these as extremely serious issues with the government of Rwanda. We
dare not be silent.
But I also thought to myself that President Kagame no
doubt considers our country hypocritical for lecturing him about freedom and
human rights when he, as commander of the RPF, begged the US and the UN to
assist him in stopping a genocide that was playing out before the whole world
and neither lifted a finger to assist and might even be said to have impeded the
actions of other African nations who wanted to help.
Kagame may have
concluded that there is no-one to protect his people other than him, and that to
rely on Western leaders is to wait through three long months of useless UN
resolutions and deliberations while one million men, women and children are
hacked to death.
This would not, of course, excuse any human rights
violations which, if they are indeed occurring in Rwanda, must immediately
cease. Kagame is a hero to me and a hero he should remain. I am appealing to
him, in the name of all of us around the world who look up to him, to remain
true to his democratic ideals and totally committed to protecting human rights.
He must think of his responsibility to be an accountable, democratic leader to
his people as well as his obligations to his legions of fans throughout the
globe who do not wish to see the reputation of one of the only men alive who
stopped a genocide tarnished by human rights abuses.
But if America were
to take action to stop the slaughter in Syria, North Korea and other nations
where innocent people are being crushed by evil governments, it would give us in
the West far great credibility when speaking to our allies abroad about human
rights and the infinite value of every human life.
The writer is the
international best-selling author of 28 books, most recently Kosher Jesus, is
the Republican Nominee for New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District.