People in the Mist

Well over six feet tall, Louis Nzeyimana has long arms and legs, a strong build and high cheekbones. A veterinary scientist who worked with Rwanda’s mountain gorillas until the country imploded in April, Nzeyimana is an obvious Tutsi, like the vast majority of the 300,000 to 500,000 Rwandans killed in recent months in this Central African nation. But he’s not. He’s a Hutu, generally shorter than Tutsis, but not always. In the madness of Rwanda, Nzeyimana’s Tutsi-like features made him a marked man by his own people, as Hutu government soldiers and rampaging militia men set out to kill anyone remotely resembling a Tutsi.

He was in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, on April 6 when the country blew up with its president, Juvenal Habyarimana, shot down by Hutu extremists in a palace coup. While gunfire and screams filled the air and tens of thousands of corpses stacked the streets, Nzeyimana and his family hid inside their home for 10 days. When he finally got permission to leave the country, he had to drive through a gauntlet of roadblocks where his Tutsi looks put him at the mercy of every gun-toting soldier and goon squad. It was only a 60-mile trip to the Zairean border, but he had to go through 65 checkpoints. At each one, soldiers sticking rifles and machetes in his face demanded to see the governor’s writ of safe passage and the apartheid-like identity card that all Rwandans are required to carry.

“We had to give the identification cards every time,” says Nzeyimana, safe for now in Gloucester, England. His card, like his wife’s, is stamped “Hutu.” His trip was three days of Russian roulette, never knowing which lunatic might not buy his story. The last few roadblocks before Zaire were the most difficult, soldiers scrutinizing his papers incredulously. “I look like a Tutsi,” he admits, still shaken from the ordeal.

Nzeyiniana, who has a Ph.D in Veterinary Science, was the first Rwandan scientist hired by the Karisoke Research Center, which was set up by Dian Fossey, the American researcher, to protect Rwanda’s few remaining mountain gorillas. Fossey’s exploits, portrayed in the film Gorillas in the Mist, brought worldwide fame to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. The gorillas became a prime adventure tourism attraction and an international cause. But the people in the rnist — just as endangered by war, poverty and starvation — were ignored. A year before Rwanda’s present crisis broke out, a dominant male silverback named Mrithi was killed during fighting between the (Hutu) Rwandan army and the (Tutsi) Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The gorilla’s death attracted headlines, but there was no mention of the fact that one out of eight people had been displaced by the civil war at that time, eight of nine Rwandans were poor and one of eight were on the verge of starving. It took a slaughter of apocalyptic proportions for Rwanda’s people to finally receive more attention than its gorillas.

The upheaval began on April 6 when the plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down near Kigali airport, precipitating a killing frenzy in the nation. “I was at home when it started,” says Nzeyimana. “Some friends called at midnight to say the president’s plane had been shot down. At 5 a.m. the shooting started.”

According to Belgium’s Foreign Minister, William Claes, Belgian troops saw who did it. The rocket that struck the plane came from the area of the Kanombe army base on the eastern border of Kigali airport; farther east are the Presidential Guard headquarters. The Presidential Guard was created by a group of men known, in Kinyarwanda, as the Akazu or “Little House” around the president.

President Habyarimana was a Hutu like them. But more moderate, he had agreed to share power with both Hutu opposition leaders, led by interim Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and Tutsi RPF guerrillas. in Rwanda (and neighboring Burundi), Hutu are an 85 percent majority, while there were an estimated 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda.

At five in the morning, a Presidential Guard unit came looking for Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana at her home. She was being guarded by 10 U.N. peacekeepers from Belgium, but it didn’t matter. Uwilingiyimana and three of the peacekeepers were found three blocks away, shot down. A Canadian general found the remaining peacekeepers at Kanombe army base, hacked to death by machete.

The vast majority of victims, however, were Tutsi. Months before the bloodbath, Radio de Milles Collines in Kigali, controlled by the Little House, had incited Hutu listeners against Tutsi: “The grave is half full, who is going to fill it up?” Such taunting fanned Hutus’ historical fear and resentment of Tutsis. Their Mwami kings had ruled over Hutus from the 16th century until this one. While Tutsi comprised the ruling class and owned most of Rwanda’s cattle, the Hutus lived under them as subsistence farmers, like serfs in Europe.

Radio propaganda also reminded Hutu listeners of how they were treated by Belgium, which governed Rwanda as a colonial protectorate from 1917 until its independence in 1962. Belgium’s policy was explicitly racist, educating only the sons of Tutsi. Because the two ethnic groups were often hard to tell apart, Belgian authorities also instituted apartheid-like identity cards that were stamped Tutsi, Hutu or Twa (pygmies, about one percent of the population), still in use today.

But by 1959, Hutus began to revolt and kill Tutsi, with bloodshed continuing for another five years. Philosopher Bertrand Russell called the overthrow and its aftermath “the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.” Historian Alison Des Forges, one of the most quoted experts on Central Africa, believes that up to 20,000 Tutsis perished — a fraction of the present death toll.

Pogroms against Tutsi continued, with the worst massacres in 1990. While the Rwanda army fought the RPF guerrillas, Rwanda’s Hutu leaders directed the slaughter of a few thousand Tutsi civilians. The situation was aggravated further by the abundant supply of arms available to both sides in the war, with hardware flooding Rwanda from around the world. While Uganda armed the RPF, France backed Rwanda’s government, providing weapons, in addition to financing its ability to buy even heavier equipment from Egypt. South Africa also sold Rwanda arms. Much of the weaponry, including hand grenades and automatic rifles, was used this April when Rwanda’s present crisis began.

Within 10 minutes of the president’s plane going down, militiamen known as the Interahamwe or “Those Who Attack Together” began to set up roadblocks in Kigali, and later on all roads leading out of the capital. They slaughtered Tutsi men, women and children and anyone suspected of being one. What was the point of all this carnage? By murdering the Hutu opposition and exterminating the Tutsi as a people, the Little House sought to eliminate all their enemies and to form a pan-Hutu alliance against Tutsi. In particular, they sought to renew the war between the primarily Hutu army and the Tutsi RPF guerrillas, hoping that the Rwandan army, with French backing, would win. But France closed its embassy in Kigali the day that RPF forces began to attack the capital. Six weeks later, the RPF was in control of Kigali airport and the Kanombe army base, while Tutsi guerrillas were photographed lounging triumphantly on late President Habyarimana’s bed.

While the Little House’s plan fell short of its goal concerning the RPF, it did succeed in murdering nearly all of Rwanda’s Hutu opposition leaders along with their spouses and children, and in wiping out perhaps a quarter, perhaps half, of Rwanda’s resident Tutsi population. Even in a world accustomed to wholesale violence, the speed and brutality of Rwanda’s bloodletting has few parallels in modern times.

Beyond politics, the underlying tension that drives hatred between Hutus and Tutsis is the struggle over land. The most densely populated nation in the world, Rwanda is the size of Maryland with a population density just shy of New Jersey. Although the Parc National des Volcans, the gorillas’ habitat, is relatively small with less than 30,000 acres, its rich, black topsoil is among the most fertile in the country.

Within the park, there are about 325 mountain gorillas that sometimes travel into Zaire, with another 320 living in a park in Uganda. But all of them are crowded and live in a closed, genetic pool. And for people living around gorilla habitats, there is not one acre of land to spare. “It’s the same ecosystem,” Nzeyimana told me in Kigali in June, 1993 during a tense cease-fire in the civil war. “In the long-term, to protect the gorillas, we have to find a balance between them and people.”

Dian Fossey recognized the same problem in her autobiography, published in 1983. “The fertile soil adjacent to the park contains 780 inhabitants per square mile,” she wrote. “The people freely cross back and forth into the park to collect wood, set illegal traps for antelope [which sometimes catch gorillas by mistake, especially infants, who often die from gangrene in their wounds], collect honey from wild bee hives, graze cattle, and plant plots of potatoes and tobacco. Encroachment upon this terrain may be responsible for the mountain gorilla becoming one of the seven or so other rare species both discovered and extinct within the same century.”

But unlike Nzeyimana, Fossey’s solution was force. She helped create a team of park guards to keep people out. In addition to using them against families living around the park, Fossey also employed them as frontline troops in a heroic campaign against gorilla poachers, who sold captured infants to zoos, and murdered adults for trophies. In 1985, she was murdered for her efforts. The order came from a Little House official who had been involved in poaching, Rwandan army officers say. But while the film depicts Fossey’s murder as the product of an ongoing struggle with gorilla poachers, the fact is that she was killed after she won an outright victory. By 1984, as a result of Fossey’s efforts, the market for direct gorilla poaching had been entirely wiped out.

Dr. Nzeyimana is no fan of Fossey, who advocated force against gorilla poachers and impoverished Rwandans alike. “For many years, they tried to stop the invasion of the park by people, but it’s not possible,” he said. The best method is to educate people about conservation.”

With millions of people dead, dying or starving now, the situation has grown far more critical. But even before the present crisis, many Rwandans resented what they saw as the West’s disproportionate concern for primate preservation. “We have eight million people here,” said an aid worker a year ago in Kigali, “and all you Americans care about are those damn gorillas.” Now, desperate just to survive, Rwandans have little, if any, reason to support efforts to save the mountain gorilla.

The world, slow to act before and during the cataclysm, has lost its credibility with Rwandans, and, to a large degree, so has the Karisoke Center. Nzeyimana says it’s time for a new direction that fully takes into account the issues that created Rwanda’s crisis. To help both people and gorillas, Nzeyimana says education must replace force as a way to encourage people to stay out of the park. But to make it work, education must be coupled with incentive and human development projects. “The people must be convinced that the gorillas are a valuable resource they can count on.”

Despite his harrowing escape, Nzeyimana is anxious to return to his work in Rwanda. But after the horrors of recent months, it’s unclear what he would be returning to. The question remains whether the Karisoke Center will continue to use Nzeyimana to merely educate Rwandans, or also support his proposals for human development. “This is definitely a new area for us,” says Craig Cummings of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund that raises money for the Karisoke Center, by telephone from London. “But it is essential to the overall program.”

If there’s any lesson that can be drawn from the horrors of Rwanda, it’s that there are endangered people as well as animals and habitats. Ignoring Rwanda’s human needs will lead to more tragedy, says Nzeyimana, and the guarantee of a quick extinction for the mountain gorilla.”