“Years have to pass before you can start to come to terms with it”

04.04.2014 - Article

20 years on from the start of the genocide in Rwanda, our colleague Bernhard Abels looks back on his posting in Kigali for our 'On the frontlines of history' series.

Today it is 20 years since the start of the genocide in Rwanda. For several months in mid-1994 the German Embassy in Kigali was closed. Our colleague Bernhard Abels was among the first diplomats to take up duty in Rwanda again after the horrendous events.

Wall of remembrance with the names of the dead
Wall of remembrance with the names of the dead© dpa/picture-alliance

“When I arrived, the time of living on Bundeswehr rations was over,” remembers Bernhard Abels, “and the occupants of the communal diplomatic flat in the one and only official apartment that hadn’t been plundered gradually moved out.”

He still has very clear memories of 1 October 1994. That day, as the new deputy ambassador, he flew from Kampala to Kigali, a place he’d never been before: “I think it was the fifth scheduled flight that had landed there since the war ended. When I stepped out of the plane that morning, it had just been raining. The sun was shining and you could see the green hills of the countryside.”

A new start after the genocide

Lake in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda
Lake in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda© dpa/picture-alliance

Rwanda is a beautiful country, says Bernhard Abels, with a justified reputation as being “a very well organised country”. And yet it was a country in which up to a million people were murdered within a few months from spring 1994. “There was relatively little damage in the city. The violence had been directed primarily at people.”

What triggered the massacre of the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremists was a plane crash on 6 April 1994. The plane carrying Rwandan President Júvenal Habyarimana and the President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira – both of whom were Hutus – was shot down (it is not known who was responsible). The killings began on 7 April.

The fate of the refugees

View of the Rwandan capital, Kigali
View of the Rwandan capital, Kigali© photothek.net/Imo

In the days and weeks that followed, more than two million refugees sought protection in Rwanda’s neighbouring countries in dramatic conditions. Foreign diplomats left the country and the Embassy’s locally employed staff either stayed in Kigali or also tried to go abroad.

Bernhard Abels recalls:

We had a VW van as our official vehicle. It had bullet holes. One of the Embassy’s former local employees had taken it to escape to Burundi. The employee didn’t come back, but handed the van in to the Embassy in Bujumbura. We got the van back in Kigali and went on using it.

Surprisingly, the German Embassy buildings had not been plundered and they were hardly damaged at all. “One of our locally employed staff apparently managed to hide from the murderers in a water tank,” says Bernhard Abels. Some of the locally employed staff, like other Tutsi with permanent jobs in Kigali, had sent their relatives away from the city into the country. In previous conflicts that had been regarded as the safer option. “This time, though, that turned out to be a dreadful mistake, and some of them lost their entire families.”

Repercussions of the war made themselves felt

The bones of victims of the genocide in Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre
The bones of victims of the genocide in Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre© dpa/picture-alliance

From autumn 1994 the main focus of Bernhard Abels’ work in Kigali was development cooperation – projects for widows and orphans, for example: “As ethnicity is handed down through the male line in Rwanda, more men were killed than women. Women were often raped, however, with the result that many widows were traumatised twice over.”

Of course, says Abels, the repercussions of the war kept making themselves felt in his everyday work too, first and foremost when mass graves were opened, often with diplomats in attendance.

There were several ceremonies then, fulfilling the functions of funerals and acts of remembrance of the genocide. My first one took place in the heart of the country, at a centre where German nuns had worked. I can still remember how the bones were lying partly in the holes. Once, when I was walking across a field and suddenly tripped, I realised I’d tripped over a skull. And of course the smell stays in your nostrils for a very long time.

A long time needed to process events

Bernhard Abels, Consulate-General in San Francisco
Bernhard Abels, Consulate-General in San Francisco© AA

“Strangely enough it didn’t bother me that much back then, when I was 29,” says Bernhard Abels, now Deputy Consul-General in San Francisco, a long way from Rwanda. That said, he has to this day never seen the film “Hotel Rwanda” and his experience in Kigali has not left him completely: “On 6 April 2004 I attended a little memorial event at the Federal Foreign Office at which a survivor of the genocide spoke. At that moment, ten years on, I suddenly felt very much affected by it.”

With hindsight I have to say it was mainly in the eyes of the survivors, their expression. These were people who, on the surface, seemed to be functioning really well, very friendly people. But when you looked more closely, you saw the despair deep down inside.

Even today, the international community regularly faces the question of when and how it should intervene in countries at war or in crisis. Every case is different, Abels says, but: “To this day I wonder whether early, energetic intervention in Rwanda might not have saved a great many lives.”

German-Rwandan relations

Website of the German Embassy in Kigali

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