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Recalling Rwanda

Geoff Adams-Spink

Independent disability equality consultant

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Former Today producer Geoff Adams-Spink recalls life-changing events in Rwanda in 1994 and the role it led to five years later.

How had I come to this? Lying in a ditch in the sweaty, tropical heat staring at the red mud-stained soles of Andy Kershaw’s shoes? It was a question I would ask myself repeatedly in the next few hours.

It was May 1994. I had just begun an attachment as a producer on the Today programme. My frequent scanning of the foreign pages of the papers and of the wires told me that we were missing a story. Nelson Mandela was about to be inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa. In the UK, the Major government was in meltdown as the Cabinet fought fratricidal battles over the UK’s future in Europe. John Smith had just died and a four way race was underway to replace him as Labour leader.

I had been alerted to the bloody volatility of the Great Lakes region during my spell looking after From Our Own Correspondent – one of the best jobs in radio. Burundi had seen its own share of bloodletting in 1993 but in 1994 events in Rwanda put Burundi’s troubles into the shade.

I told Todays editor, Roger Mosey, that a huge crime against humanity was taking place and that we needed to report it properly. To his credit, Roger listened and readily accepted my suggestion that Kershaw would be the ideal person to explain the crisis to a Radio 4 audience.

“You can go, but report the crisis from the periphery, look at refugees in Burundi, Tanzania, Zaire and Uganda. Stay out of Rwanda and, for God’s sake be careful.”

Over evening drinks in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, the lure of Rwanda had proved too strong: we had met a group of Rwandan political activists who had offered us a meeting across the border with the RPF rebels. I okayed it with London and we made a hazardous journey in a hired 4x4 to rendez-vous with an active unit.

They showed us empty villages, one in which several bodies had been put down a well. Andy described the scene and I lowered a microphone into the hole to capture thousands of flies busy at their work. The smell was enough to make us want to part company with our breakfast. We were shown a church into which dozens of civilians had been herded and then hand grenades thrown inside. We were en route to see a vantage point overlooking the capital, Kigali, from which the RPF were shelling the murderous government forces who still had hold of Rwanda's principal city.

We had stopped to take some photos at a bridge beneath which flowed a muddy river and along which – every 20 seconds or so – a fresh corpse floated past. Our little convoy had just resumed its journey when the vehicle, two ahead of us in the line, hit a landmine and flipped over. Much scratching of heads, much shouting between the RPF soldiers. Andy and I sat in the back of our 4x4 and started to identify clips to be used in a package. Suddenly, there was an almighty flash: the vehicle in front had inched forward and hit another landmine. Debris rained down upon our car and then the shooting started from the other side of a deep valley.

Andy and I decamped in great haste and lay in the ditch – the only safe cover from the machine gun bullets that were fizzing through the vegetation. We decided – in consultation with our platoon leader, Captain Innocent Kabandana - that the only safe exit was on foot. When I asked if we couldn’t just turn back he just laughed and said, “they are already behind us – that would mean certain death for all of us.”

We walked 11 km in the advancing gloom through villages that reeked of death. The boy soldiers in front and behind us cocked their weapons frequently as any twig snapping or tree branch creaking set everyone on edge. By the end of our hike it was completely dark.

Kershaw has documented the episode in his usual earthy prose in his splendid autobiography, No Off Switch. If we hadn’t lived to tell the tale you wouldn’t be reading this article now.

Rwanda stayed with me, haunted my dreams, made my mood irascible. During one Today morning meeting I all but let fly at a colleague who had become so fatigued with the events in Rwanda that she pronounced the story ‘boring’.

Fast forward five years, and my then wife, Caroline, rang me on her way into the BBC – one of the most positive things about my time on Today had been meeting her. She had been reading Ariel and told me of a job opportunity that almost had my name written on it. World Service Training was looking for a project director to run media training and capacity building in Rwanda – part of the British government’s post-genocide assistance programme. The ideal candidate needed knowledge of the Great Lakes region, experience as a project manager and trainer and fluency in French or Kinyarwanda. I imagine that the candidate list was fairly small. Unsurprisingly given my CV, I landed the job.

For me, revisiting the country in peace time, playing some small part in helping the country to get back on its feet, assisting with the long and painful process of reconciliation, was necessary closure. Probably against her better judgement, Caroline agreed to move to Kigali with me, we found a rambling house opposite the army chief of staff’s residence and I set to work.

We spent two extremely rewarding years boosting the confidence of local journalists and attempting – often unsuccessfully – to encourage managers at the state broadcaster, ORINFOR, to embrace a brighter, public service broadcasting future. We were almost constantly ill with gastric infections of one sort or another. In the end, our kindly, London-based gastroenterologist told us that we would never shake off what he termed ‘tropical sprue’ and that we had better tell the BBC that we needed to come home.

Many friends promised to pay us a visit in Rwanda – only Andy was as good as his word. One sunny afternoon we piled into my Toyota Rav4 and retraced our steps. We identified the exact location of the ambush and pressed on over the bridge to the church in Nyamata.

Andy had come equipped with a small video camera which he turned upon himself and said:

“I’m bloody glad to be alive, and happy to be here with you again my little friend.”

The life-affirming feeling was enhanced by the happy children who ran to keep pace with the Toyota and the busy villages along the route where life had unbelievably managed to return to something resembling normality.

Geoff Adams-Spink is an independent disability equality consultant and former producer of the Today programme.

  • Read more from Geoff, who is currently writing his autobiography, on his blog.

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