“Every time I go to the memorial sites and see the skulls, I can’t help myself. Every time I look at them, I cry because I remember my daughter, who was killed during the genocide. So maybe her skull is somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
Thomas “Tom” Kamilindi’s voice is thick with emotion as he speaks of his older daughter, Igihozo. She was just 5 in the spring of 1994 when she left for a vacation with her grandparents. She never came back – one of the victims of the tribal genocide that swept Rwanda in 1994 claiming an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people.
Kamilindi is sharing his painful memories both as a survivor of the mass killings and as a grieving father. But a radio journalist by profession, Kamilindi has covered breaking news in this small Central African country since 1984. And as a member of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, he became one of the hunted during the 100 days of continuous massacres.
“They wanted to kill me,” Kamilindi said, sitting in a Land Rover outside a makeshift tent that doubles as a courthouse. Kamilindi is in the neighborhood to report on the Gacaca; Rwanda has had to revert to its old community-based justice system to prosecute the 110,000 suspects accused of genocide. Each community has its own Gacaca in which local judges come to process the cases once a week.
“After 10 years at Radio Rwanda, I asked for permission to resign in March 1994 and put in my last day on April 6,” Kamilindi said. April 6 also marked the beginning of the genocide. The orchestrated slaughter of Rwanda’s minority tribe, the Tutsis, began after the plane carrying the country’s president was shot down. By July, as many as 800,000 Tutsis would be killed, most hacked to death with machetes and clubs.
“I went to hide in the Milles Collines with another 700 people,” Kamilindi said. The Belgian-owned luxury hotel became one of many places where terrified civilians sought refuge. Kamilindi, a Tutsi, stayed at the hotel for more than a month as the killing continued throughout the country. Together with his wife and younger daughter, he says, he stayed alive by drinking water from the hotel pool. “Leaving the hotel meant that you risked dying.”
After being attacked once, Kamilindi said he still wanted the world to know about the atrocities taking place inside Rwanda. He admitted he might have signed his own death warrant by calling attention to the massacres ravaging his country in a phone interview with French radio in April 1994.
“After that, local radio started calling the Hotel Milles Collines a home for cockroaches,” Kamilindi said. A childhood friend was sent to the hotel to kill him, but that man chose to spare his life. U.N. peacekeepers finally managed to evacuate the building in late May.
“I cannot give up my career as a journalist because life has to go on. I have to keep living,” Kamilindi said. “After all, I survived.”
Kamilindi returned to full-time journalism in December 1994 once the phone lines in Rwanda started to work again and he could do free-lance work for foreign news outlets. Since then, he’s worked for Voice of America and the BCC.
“One reason why I have to continue my work as a journalist is so that I can contribute toward preventing genocide from ever happening again,” he said.
But being a journalist has changed a lot in Rwanda. In the post-genocide society, Kamilindi said, he fights a tribal bias that makes it difficult to collect accurate and complete information.
“Personally, me as ‘Tom,’ I don’t have lots of problems,” Kamilindi said of conducting interviews. “Once I introduce myself, then they know me. And they know my voice from all the years I was on the air at Radio Rwanda, Voice of America and BBC. My name alone is like an identification card for me and so is my voice.”
And it is as that well-known journalist “Tom” that Kamilindi hopes he can make the biggest difference. He says many young people now entering his profession ask him about Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM). Backed by Hutu Power extremists, the radio station was an open proponent of a virulent Hutu-supremacist philosophy leading up to the genocide. As such, the RTLM spread a strong anti-Tutsi message and was used to organize and direct the mass killings in the 1994 genocide. Kamilindi said he gladly discusses the subject so that no other journalist is ever tempted to do the same.
“Back then I tried to fight the incitement on the radio,” he said. “I would ask them, ‘What are you doing? It’s not right, why are you doing that?’ “ One of the people he says he asked was Hassan Ngeze, the former editor of the now defunct Rwandan newspaper Kangura. Ngeze is on trial for allegedly using his newspaper to incite ethnic Hutus to kill Tutsis in the run-up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He also is accused of personally killing Tutsis and supervising killings. He’s currently on trial with Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza. Nahimana is a founder and alleged former director of RTLM; Barayagwiza is a former politician and RTLM board member.
“Hassan just told me, ‘You just leave me alone. It’s life,’ ” Kamilindi said.
Kamilindi believes the genocide and the media’s role in inciting the mass violence are not stopping the new generation from wanting to become journalists. “I have spoken to students who want to become journalists, and they sought my advice,” he said.
While Kamilindi is doing what he can to help the journalism profession to recover in Rwanda, he also is hard at work on his personal recovery. Like thousands of others in this country, he seeks closure for the death of his 5-year-old daughter, Igihozo, whose body was never found.
“By the time I got to the place where she had gone for the holiday with her grandparents, there was nothing left,” Kamilindi said. “I couldn’t even find the place where the relatives’ home had once stood. All the bodies had already been collected and dumped into a mass grave. The grass had already grown over everything. There were no signs of the life that once existed there before.”
However, unlike many other victims of these traumatic events, Kamilindi has found a way to deal with his grief. “I don’t have nightmares mostly because I talk about it a lot,” he said. “They (the mental health experts) say that it’s good to talk about what happened, not to hide those experiences.”
Liisa K. Hyvarinen is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Fla. She served as Dart Fellow for Journalism and Trauma with University of Washington-Seattle (www.dartcenter.org) in 2001 and traveled to Rwanda to participate in trauma-related journalism training in June 2002.