Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Under Lock Down

November 19th

It’s Demonstration Day. The whole of Rwanda is being ordered to attend stage-managed protestations of fury at the arrest of Rose Kabuye in Germany. While the official bile is being vented at the E U in general and Germany and France in particular, there’s considered a very real risk that people will take the opportunity to have a go at any muzungu they see in the street. It’s not just that we might get stoned, or spat on, or beaten up; there’s a real risk of robbery and worse. We’d be daft to take the risk. Here in Gitarama we think the protests will only last for the morning, and that it will be safe to venture out cautiously after about 2pm. All the Kigali volunteers are being warned to stay out of sight the entire day.

So as VSOs we’re under strict orders to stay indoors and keep a low profile. Tom, on the other hand, is off to work as usual; he will be in the FHI office behind closed curtains and as long as he doesn’t venture out onto the street he should have no problem. I don’t have that option – my District Office will be closed, and all the other things I want to do – go to an internet café, go to Kigali and do moto practise, go shopping – all involve going out onto the street. So I’m confined to the flat, bored, and frustrated because there’s so much I need to get done and so little time to do it.

It’s interesting – I’ve heard absolutely nothing from the District Office about today. Nobody at all has said anything to me about today’s fun and games; nobody has warned me that as muzungus Soraya and I could be at risk and need to take precautions. We could have left home this morning and got murdered on our way to work. They really are shocking at any form of pastoral care of their volunteers! But that’s nothing – Els texts to ask what time our moto practise is starting in Kigali, and the wording of her message indicates she doesn’t even know the protest is taking place! I send her a quick reply before she can set off and come to any harm.

8.30. Tom has been instructed to make sure he’s off the streets by 8.00. The bakery opposite and the hairdresser have been certainly operating as usual from 6.00 until 8.00; from then on all the businesses visible from the flat began to shut up shop. There’s a heavy police presence to make sure they obey. The District pick-up truck is circulating round the town broadcasting exhortations to come to the big stadium.

At 9.00, while I’m doing my ironing, a procession comes down the middle of the road from Kabgayi; hundreds of young men (I think they’re probably students from the university). Lots of placards, some in French and some in English (“Rwanda deserves peace, too”. Not sure exactly how that ties in to the arrest of a Government minister for possible crimes against humanity). There’s now no traffic at all going along the main road, so it has become a pedestrian highway.

10.00 – I can hear a lot of loud amplified shouting and speeches coming from the stadium. I can’t make out anything of what’s being said. I’m glad Karen’s back in England and that Christi’s at work; their house is more or less directly along the approach road to the stadium. When this little lot finishes there’ll be literally thousands of fired up, indignant Rwandans marching past their front door. Hayley and Soraya and Tinks live barely a hundred yards from the stadium; I text them to make sure they’re OK and laying low.

Our guards have spread a blanket on the front lawn and are sitting watching the world go by – it’s like a bank holiday atmosphere. There’s a few pedestrians walking in both directions along the main road, but in general the town is quiet as a mouse. Hayley texts to see if I’m OK and to confirm we’re on for our bike test tomorrow. We’ll need to get the 700 bus at the very latest; possibly the 6.30.

11.00 there’s two traffic policemen outside our front door, on the pavement. They’re stopping all traffic in both directions and asking them why they’re on the road and not at the protests. It really is a massively orchestrated protest campaign. The guards downstairs have their radio on now, it’s tuned in to one of the local stations and is broadcasting what sounds like a live transmission. I don’t know whether its coming from Kigali or from Gitarama but it’s the usual shouted indignation. The only vehicles the police are letting through unmolested are the big international buses going from Bujumbura to Kampala.

It’s a worrying thought how closely the sounds from these dangerous political speeches match the sounds from the hellfire-and-damnation sermons we hear from the local churches on Sundays.

12.00 we’ve got a little helicopter doing circles over the town centre; I assume it’s the police or security people checking up on us. It might possibly be the newspapers taking photos, but I think nearly all the press coverage of today will be Kigali-based. Low flying aircraft of any sort are so rare here that all the pedestrians outside the flat have stopped to watch the plane. Oops, it’s just done a very low pass almost directly overhead. I’m well tucked in from the windows; nobody could possible see me, even from the helicopter.

OK, so what’s all this about? Rose Kabuye is one of Kagame’s closest aides, and has been with him since the early 1990s. A French judge has accused about nine senior Rwandan government officials, including Kabuye and the President himself, of being directly involved in the decision to shoot down the former President’s jet in 1994. This killed the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi, and was the spark which ignited the genocide. The implication is that the shooting was a deliberate act, sanctioned at the very highest level, by Kagame. (Up to now nobody has known for sure who ordered the firing of the three missiles. Some accuse the French, most accuse the Hutu-led regime of the time, worried that the president was going to agree to some sort of peace initiative which would prevent their carefully laid plans for a “final solution” to Tutsi hegemony in Rwanda). Quite why Kagame, as a Tutsi, should issue an order which he could have predicted would lead to a mass slaughter of his own people is not clear, but this is what the French Judge is implying. It is highly ironic, because you can argue that Kagame and his aides are guilty of precipitating the very genocide that they claim the credit for stopping. Instead of the saviours of Rwanda, they would become the guilty ones, more guilty than almost any of the wretched people now serving life imprisonment in Rwanda itself or in Tanzania for the extremely serious cases.

The Judge issued an international warrant, and any E U country is bound to arrest any of these nine people if they visit it. If Rose Kabuye had come to London instead of Frankfurt we would have been duty bound to arrest her, and all the venom would be targeted on we British in the country. (We would have been hoiked out in an emergency evacuation just like the Kenyan volunteers were in January).

What makes the case more complicated is that, as a serving Cabinet Minister (she’s Kagame’s Minister of Protocol), Kabuye is entitled to diplomatic immunity whenever she travels abroad on diplomatic business. All she had to do in Frankfurt was to say that there had been an error and she was here as a diplomat, even if she only performed one single short diplomatic function during a mainly private trip. Tom and I can’t believe someone as experienced as Kabuye would allow herself to be put into this situation of being arrested by mistake; there must be a purpose behind it.

So we think this is all a calculated affair. We think that of the nine accused, either she is the one with the least evidence against her, or that she is considered the most expendable of the nine if she really does end up in prison. We think Kagame wants to see her come to trial (despite all the froth that is being broadcast) and that he wants to see what evidence the French have. If she is found guilty she will appeal to the international court of justice, and the case could go on for years. If she is found not guilty it will suggest that the French Judge doesn’t have sufficient evidence against any of the nine. In which case the accusations will have to be dropped, and Kagame’s reputation is not only vindicated but strengthened. He will be totally unassailable. It’s a high risk strategy for sure.

Meanwhile a Rwandan commission has issued arrest warrants for a group of thirty-or-so French army officers who were sent to Rwanda by the French as peace keepers in 1994. They were involved in “Operation Turquoise”, which was the French plan to create a “safe haven” in the south of Rwanda and to keep the warring sides apart. This was a disastrous miscalculation; it led tens of thousands of Hutu murderers escape into Burundi and the Congo, and it prolonged the period of mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus behind the French lines, protected from Kagame’s RPF army who had flushed them out of every other corner of Rwanda.

The official line here is that France is hopeless hypocritical in seeking the arrest of Rwandans while protecting its own army officers. It’s seen as a Colonial gesture in which black Africans are held to be worth so much less than white Europeans. And the rest of the west, especially all the Europeans, are seen to be siding with France. Only the Americans are seen as truly independent in the entire affair, and yet it was their refusal to intervene in any meaningful way in 1994 that allowed the genocide to proceed.

12.20 Pick up trucks driving by filled with men chanting patriotic songs, just like before the government elections a couple of month ago.

12.30 the demonstration in the stadium is over. Hundreds and hundreds of people are streaming past my flat towards Gahogo and Kabgayi. This is the most dangerous time of all for me, because many people know two muzungus live here, and if they’re full of righteous indignation then now is when we’ll get windows smashed or unwelcome visitors. I’ve locked the door just in case. But at the moment it’s just people walking quietly by; there’s no noise or chanting; there’s no organised protest. It’s more or less lunchtime and they’ve got other things on their minds.

So life goes on here. The daily rainstorm is on its way; there are dense clouds towards Kigali. There are women going to the market with baskets of vegetables on their heads. The hairdresser has just started playing loud music again. Traffic is starting to come up and down the road. Our next door neighbour is digging his garden.

In the afternoon I go shopping, and manage to get to the internet cafe with Soraya. The evening is spent cooking and getting my stuff up together for the next few days.

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