Fleeing Rwanda to Survive, then Returning to Rebuild, 1994
On April 6, 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated when their plane was shot down near Kigali airport and crashed into the grounds of the Rwandan presidential residence. The incident ignited genocide by the majority Hutus against Tutsis and against those supporting peace negotiations to bring Rwanda out of civil war. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died over three months of slaughter, constituting as much as eighty percent of the Tutsi population. The Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) eventually gained control of the country, a victory that forced another two million Rwandans, mostly Hutus, to flee as refugees.
In the aftermath of the genocide, the failure of the international community to intervene to prevent the atrocities and displacement drew condemnation. Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the PBS news program Frontline: “The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia.” The United Nations and Belgium had forces in Rwanda but no one ordered them to stop the conflict, and most of the peacekeepers withdrew after ten Belgian soldiers were killed. The U.S. had recently suffered a loss of troops in Somalia and determined not to intervene.
Bonaventure Niyibizi, a Foreign Service National (FSN) local staff member for USAID at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali from 1988 to 1997, recalled his experiences fighting for survival during the Rwanda genocide in an interview with Carol Peasley in January 2017.
“The embassy was organizing an evacuation; we stayed in Kigali, struggling to survive”
Bonaventure Niyibizi, Foreign Service National to USAID Rwanda, (1988-1997)
NIYIBIZI: We went to the office on April 6th as a normal workday. I remember that on April 6th I went with [program officer] Dirk [Dijkerman]to the Ministry of Planning. We had this program under the Economic Support Fund. I had raised some issues and highlighted corruption, and then we decided to suspend one or two activities. Those activities were involving local grants and construction and we were working with local government officials. (Bonaventure Niyibizi is seen at left.)
I told Dirk, “You know, since this is going to require some skills that I don’t have, it involved construction and civil engineering, I need someone who will come and look at all these designs.” So we had somebody from the Regional Office in Nairobi. Dirk was acting as mission director.
We met the Minister of Planning for an introduction before the meeting. I stayed with the person from the Regional Office. Our position was that we will suspend those activities and funding [because of corruption], which would almost cost my life. So, a seemingly normal working day.
The government was pushing us to raise the money but we knew very well that the money had been used for corruption with political activities. So, I took the position that we are not going to continue the program, but that I was going to report back to the mission, and I was going to report back to the minister.
We were supposed to have another meeting the following day at 10:00 am, each of us reporting back on what we had done with our superior. We went back to the mission and briefed Dirk (seen right.) We were going to have another meeting the following day at 10:00, on April 7th. It never happened.
I remember that evening. I took the person from Nairobi out for dinner and then took him to the hotel and went back home. It was the end. The following day, we could not reach the mission anymore, road blocks were everywhere, and the killing on a large scale had started during the night. The killing expanded quickly throughout the country.
The Embassy was officially closed and all the Americans were evacuated on or about the 10th of April.
It was that night that the president was killed. There were grenades exploding all night. But that was happening almost on a daily basis. The following morning when I woke up to go to the office, I learned that the president had been killed and there were roadblocks everywhere and the killing had started already.
But there is no way you can organize this killing to this extent in a matter of 10 minutes; it is not possible.
Of course, we could no longer go to the mission. The embassy was organizing an evacuation; we stayed in Kigali, struggling to survive. Many FSNs were killed; others survived.
… [T]he decision was made to close the embassy and evacuate out of Rwanda.
“During the night I was able to listen to the radio, to the Voice of America”
The first week I was in hiding in multiple places around my house. Then it became tense; all the people around my neighborhood had already been killed. Then I got a message that I was next on the list. So we decided to take a risk.
I had tried to reach Mille Collines Hotel, which was like a safe haven because of the UN soldiers present there, but I was not able to because of too many road blocks.
We decided, “We have no option. Let us drive to the church. At least we’ll force them to shoot us instead of killing us by machetes.”
Before, I had tried to reach a UN (United Nations) soldier who was in my neighborhood.
He said, “No, I cannot help you.”
So when we first drove on the road, we were lucky and were able to reach the church. Once we got to church, the killing started there two or three days later, on April 15.
My name was on the list of people they were looking for; they were calling my name. I had to move inside the compound; I was never able to leave that compound till June 13.
When I went into hiding, I took a small radio with me. During the night I was able to listen to the radio, to the Voice of America, and I was trying to follow the situation. Through this I knew that the embassy was closed and that the U.S. government officials were not allowed to talk about genocide. If I understand correctly, the U.S. Government would have been compelled to intervene under the 1948 Geneva Conventions.
By mid-May I was able to reach the phone and called the State Department. There was a lady who had been in Rwanda on consultations and I had her number, then finally I reached Henderson Patrick…who had been my supervisor.
I had kept in contact with him, and we attended the same course in ’93 in Washington.
I told him, “Things are going very bad. The situation has deteriorated; we’re going to be killed.”
I remember they told me that if I am able to reach any US embassy in the region, then they will help me. A very remote and unrealistic dream.
But I couldn’t leave the church; there was no way I could even dream to reach any embassy in the neighboring country.
But I remember Henderson told me, “Bonaventure, you will not die.”
“The guards told me that USAID never employs somebody like me”
But we were there while the killings were going on, in the church. We were evacuated in mid-June, after long negotiations between the Government, the UN and RPF.
After I left the camp, I went to Uganda and reached Kampala on the 3rd of July. I went to the [U.S.] mission (seen left) on the fourth of July. I had no clue about dates. The fourth of July was of course a holiday; I had lost a sense of time and events.
I went back the following day. They were open, but I had difficulties to convince the guard that I was a former USAID employee. The guards told me that USAID never employs somebody like me. I had been living in hiding and camps for three months, I had lost weight and no clean cloths, I had not shaved during this whole period. Somehow they were right.
I told them that I knew the deputy mission director, Laetitia, with whom I had attended the course in Washington the previous year. They only laughed!
Finally, a former colleague, Bob, who had worked in Rwanda, came into the building when I was trying to explain to the guard that I used to be a USAID employee. He recognized my voice and asked me if I was Bonaventure. I said yes. The mission in Kampala had also my name on the list of FSNs killed in Rwanda.
Bob was very kind. We were there talking and hugging, and the guards were asking between themselves if this white man was not crazy.
Finally, they did let me in. We sent messages to Washington, everybody was happy there. Dirk sent me some money in the afternoon and I went to buy some new clothes.
I was thinking about seeking asylum, but my family was still back in Rwanda.
“We reopened the Embassy building… Other survivor FSNs came back slowly”
There was a small team already in Uganda, trying to help and to see how it may be possible to bring an emergency team to Rwanda. I stayed a few weeks in Uganda. I did not know exactly what to do, if I was going to ask for asylum in the U.S.
I tried to contact this team and say, “I’m a former USAID employee, can you help?”
They said, “No.” We cannot hire you…”
I had left my family in Rwanda, so I had to come back after the government was sworn in. My family was back in Kigali from the [refugee] camp.
One day I was walking by the embassy building and met the ambassador’s driver. He told me that Ambassador David Rawson was in Kigali at the Hotel Diplomat. I went to see him, and he was happy to see me alive.
There had been all kinds of reports that I saw in Uganda that were reporting how many FSNs were killed. So, one day I was on the list of killed, one day I was on the list of survivors. Of course, Ambassador Rawson knew I was alive but was not aware that I had come back to Rwanda.
According to the radio, he had been to Addis Ababa. (Rawsom is at left.)
So I met him, said “Happy to see you.”
And he asked me “Can you come tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do?”
So I went there. We reopened the Embassy building. We went inside the embassy and we started doing things.
Immediately I started working to reopen the embassy, relocate employees, talk to the government and so on.
The U.S. government was the first to recognize the RPF Government. I think on the 27th of July, the embassy was officially opened in Kigali. I remember there were only five people when we had the flag up.
Other survivor FSNs came back slowly. They helped a lot to put back the mission on track, they all worked very hard.
At the same time, we had Marines who came to Rwanda and were at the embassy, helping provide water and re-establish the communication system. Although everything had been destroyed or looted, I was able to get my car back and I was driving U.S. officials in my car before they got cars from Burundi and some from Somalia.
[T]he first USAID people who came were Al Smith, on official mission, and Louanne Douris, who was posted in Uganda and came to visit her Rwandan FSN family. She came on a private trip to visit us. Smith came from Nairobi and we started talking how we could reopen the mission. Initially we were operating from the embassy, where the infrastructure was intact. USAID and the Peace Corps had been looted and some parts of the building had been damaged.
One of the few things I kept with me was the security key for the USAID building. I went there and we opened the door. They had tried to force the doors but were not able to break the security door. So I reopened USAID, and we started protecting what was remaining and cleaning what had been damaged during the battle in Kigali.
People from the mission in Uganda helped us to put things in place and rehabilitate the residence for the ambassador, which was on the other side of the city. The team came back slowly.
“Some FSNs were able to come back to Kigali by themselves. Others we had to locate and assist in their return”
It was in this context that [USAID Director] Brian Atwood (seen right) came and went to meet with government officials. He came to the mission; that is when I said, “We FSNs are completely upset. You have seen what happened. Our colleagues have been killed and USAID cannot help their widows and orphans.”
The other point is that we were struggling for the FSNs who have been killed, if there could be payment for the families who survived. It was taking time. I was telling Brian, “I cannot understand how the bureaucracy cannot give some money for the widows and orphans.” I did put it very strongly.
In the end, that was something USAID had to do. Mr. Brian [Atwood] listened to me and to my frustration. I thought I would be fired the same day, but I did want the highest person in USAID to hear the problems we were living in every day. I was not fired and came back to work the following day.
I think more than 25 FSNs had been killed. We were trying to locate the survivors and their families. Ambassador David Rawson was very open and supportive. I remember I was using an official vehicle with the [American] flag to go everywhere in the country.
We identified one doctor, an FSN, who was now working in a hospital in the north with his family. I was allowed to go to all these places and try to find people and bring them back to the mission and the Embassy was ready to accept any surviving FSNs to come back. Everyone who came back was welcome.
Some FSNs were able to come back to Kigali by themselves. Others we had to locate and assist in their return.
I went to the North to find the doctor the first time; this had been a war zone for four years, since ’90. There were landmines everywhere. So I drove in the bush, but I was able to find him and his family. The following week I went back to take the family back, and I found out that the road I had taken, another car had been there and drove on a mine; everybody was killed.
I remember another day when we had been rehabilitating the mission director’s house. It was on the same street as the USAID office, the mission director’s house, and the Peace Corps office. I was on this road every day, day and night, on weekends. On a sunny Sunday, a young girl, eleven years old, going to the church, lost her leg on this same street where we had been walking every day.
“You have to look at yourselves as U.S. Government employees”
We tried to bring people back and to put all U.S. Government property in order and protect it from looting. Slowly we had a small team and USAID was rehabilitated, so we left the embassy and went back to USAID and started a small program with the Ministry of Justice initially. It came back slowly.
The U.S. was the first diplomatic mission to reopen officially in Kigali after the genocide. The ambassador was there, contrary to other countries which did not have their missions open.
Officially I don’t think the U.S. government had approved American direct hires to be back. We had many contractors who came and then just people who were around…
Then of course we had many visits from Washington, both USAID and the State Department, and even staff from the Congress. Permanent assignment [for Foreign Service Officers to the post] came in when George Lewis was appointed, I think in 1995.
I recall we had our first meeting [with the remaining FSNs] at the library in the embassy. The situation was tense and the ambassador was saying “We are back here. We have to consider all of you as U.S. Government employees. What has happened in Rwanda, the tension between Hutu and Tutsi, that is not the way we are going to reopen the mission. You have to look at yourselves as U.S. Government employees.” That was the first meeting; I think we were 10 or 15 from the whole US mission.
[T]he context was different. The old programs were focusing on development, whereas the current situation called for an emergency situation post-war, and the challenges resulting from a genocide committed by neighbors and citizens under the leadership of the government.
The first priority after the genocide was, what is going to happen with the people who have committed the genocide? I think out of 700 judges pre-’94, there were less than 100, some had been killed and others fled the country…
The other challenge was that the [judicial] system pre-genocide was in French; the judges were speaking French and in Rwanda it was becoming a mix of French and English. It was imperative to reconcile these systems and USAID looked at bilingual countries, mainly Canada, to help start training lawyers at the university. I think we worked with an organization in Canada which was bilingual to help people to have excellent English and translate some of the legal texts from French to English.
There were a lot of displaced people, lots of people who had been refugees since the ‘60s who were in Uganda, Congo, Tanzania – relocating them, helping them when they were in transit. A lot of displaced camps inside Rwanda. This was the priority, compared to development activities which we had pre-’94.
I was traveling to Nairobi quite often, because people who were qualified to make decisions on the whole process according to USAID procedures were not present in Kigali.
“We were looking at stabilizing the country, helping people to meet their basic needs”
The U.S. position was “We need to support the government of Rwanda, to be able to cope with the aftermath of the genocide.” So we were involved in those discussions with the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Local Government, Minister of Foreign Affairs – we were everywhere. Most of the time I was with them. At one time there were no Americans in Kigali so basically I was acting as the senior person in the mission.
When we came back we stopped somewhere and had a meeting with the international organizations and NGOs and different people representing the UN…
[T]hey said, “This government won’t survive even for a few weeks.”
NGOs knew exactly what was happening in the camps because the infiltration had started and arms were circulating in the camps. Even the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) in Rwanda, they knew exactly because they were working with those camps, that the camps were not actually camps. They were like military organizations inside the camps.
It was quite a tense situation dealing with the UN, dealing with different representatives from other governments. It was a delicate situation.
I think the U.S. government at the highest level, all of you who had come to Rwanda, did not see any way to re-establish the situation if Rwanda did not have a functioning justice system.
In pre-94, the [USAID] program was focusing on the agricultural sector, the private sector, economic reforms, and health. Those are the kinds of things that were no longer appropriate given the social and political situation and the make-up of the population itself.
It was not something that you could start. The people were not stable, there was no security, there were killings still going around, there were widows and orphans by the hundreds of thousands who had no shelter. It was not possible…
We were looking at stabilizing the country, helping people to meet their basic needs and stabilizing the nascent institutions. It is how it went: to emergency, then to justice and local governance, and then support to the government, direct support to the government.
When you look back, it is difficult to imagine how it was possible to cope with that: to restart the mission in Rwanda and actually help the country itself come back to some level of normalcy, and how much progress and changes have been achieved today.