Northern Ireland

Rwanda genocide: Noel Thompson recalls horrors he witnessed

Image copyright AFP
Image caption About 800,000 were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide

In 100 days in 1994, from April until July, 800,000 people - mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus - died at the hands of Hutu extremists in the African nation of Rwanda.

On the 20th anniversary of the genocide, BBC Northern Ireland's Noel Thompson recalls the horrors he witnessed during a week there reporting for Radio Ulster.

Images seared into my brain; piles of corpses hacked to pieces along an 80km stretch of Rwandan road; a heap of thousands of machetes, used in that slaughter; the look of catatonic devastation on the face of a nine-year-old refugee girl.

I went to Rwanda to report on the work being done by Oxfam in the refugee camps that sprang up in neighbouring Tanzania.

We flew into the Benaco camp across a sea of blue plastic shelters, home to an estimated 300,000 people, all of them needing food and, more importantly, clean water.

That was Oxfam's task, and how quickly they achieved it.

Within days of arriving on site, engineers had supplied clean water right across the vast area of the camp, sterilising and piping it from a small muddy basin.

Not all the people in the camp were Tutsi victims of the attempted genocide. Many Hutus had crossed the border as well, many of them had taken part in massacres - it was they who had dropped the machetes as they crossed into Tanzania.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Rwandan President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon light a memorial flame at a ceremony in Kigali to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide

There was constant concern that hostilities would break out in the camp, but the overall mood was of fatigue and resignation.

I stood on a river bank in Tanzania, and watched dozens of bodies hurtle down the rapids from the killing fields of Rwanda.

At that site, I persuaded an officer of the Tutsi Rwandan Liberation Front to take me and a couple of other journalists into Rwanda.

Six of us, three journalists, two armed escorts and the officer, made the day-long journey in a civilian jeep.

We passed through village after village, not a living soul to be seen, just hundreds of corpses lying where they had been slaughtered, men, women and children, the stench of death overwhelming in the heat.

After a couple of hours we reached a town, where the survivors of the genocide had gathered from far around.

They looked terrified, a blank look of despair in their eyes, as they took us to churches and other sites of massacre, bodies everywhere, we wondered how they would ever recover.

One of my companions, a Dutch journalist, told how she and other reporters had been told to leave the Rwandan capital of Kigali by the Hutu militias.

As their convoy drove out of the city it was stopped at a Hutu roadblock.

Fifty Tutsis were dragged into the street and chopped down in front of the assembled media. It was a gesture of savage impunity, the militia cared not who witnessed their mass murder.

Back in Tanzania, the aid agencies were every day coming across groups of refugees who had sheltered in disease-ridden swamplands from the Hutu violence.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many of the victims were hacked to death with machetes

I watched one little girl being helped up the steep hillside to the safety of the agency camp, where she was given a handful of peanuts and a cup of water.

I shall never forget the look on her face, it was as if she was in a trance, with visions of unimaginable horror before her. I often wonder what happened to her, what kind of a life she was able to lead.

The Rwandan officer drove me to the red clay airstrip from where I flew in a small plane back to the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

I called the BBC Belfast office and was put through live on air to Conor Bradford on Good Morning Ulster.

I told him I had had three baths, and could not wash the smell of death and putrefaction out of my nostrils.