When the Hills Ask for Your Blood by David Belton – review

David Belton's account of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath serve as a fitting tribute to the actions of a heroic Franciscan priest

My first reaction when confronted with David Belton's book was to ask what is to be gained from yet another book retelling the horrors of the Rwandan genocide? A part of me still feels that way, but what makes this one stand out is that it is not simply an account of the events of 1994. It brings the story right up to date, confronting the dilemmas and tensions that lie not far below the surface in that most tragic and beautiful of countries.

Belton is a television journalist who was first dispatched to Rwanda at the time of the genocide and who has since been back several times. This elegantly written book is part personal odyssey, part history, but above all it is a tribute to one remarkable man, a Bosnian Croat Franciscan priest, Vjeko Curic, who, almost alone among foreigners, stayed throughout the slaughter and in so doing saved many lives.

No recitation of bald statistics can do justice to the nightmare. It is enough to note that in the space of less than 100 days 800,000 men, women and children were murdered, many chopped to pieces with machetes. The victims were mainly from the minority Tutsi tribe. The killers were mainly Hutus, the majority ethnic group. The killers were not some alien species or invading army, they were the former friends and neighbours of those they slaughtered, goaded into an orgy of hatred by an evil, insane regime determined to achieve ethnic purity. Nor was the picture unremittingly bleak; everywhere there were acts of heroism: Hutus who refused to participate in the killing, who sheltered Tutsi neighbours and who, in many cases, paid with their lives.

Belton tells the story in three time frames: 1994, 2004 and 2012-2013. The genocide he recounts by painstakingly reconstructing the experience of two people – Jean-Pierre, his driver and fixer, and Father Curic. Jean-Pierre survived, with the help of a Zairean friend, by hiding for two months and 16 days in a disused septic tank. He emerged to find that while, remarkably, his wife and children had survived, his parents and seven of his 10 siblings had not.

Father Curic, a latter-day Schindler, looms large throughout. A handsome, fearless, irrepressible, whisky-drinking bundle of energy, bribing, cajoling, bullying. One minute giving sanctuary to terrified Tutsi, the next smuggling them out of the country in a compartment on the underside of his lorry. We first come across him driving into the capital, Kigali, as the slaughter begins, to rescue a Tutsi businessman. Confronted by members of the Hutu presidential guard at a roadblock, he tells them that he is en route to collect his cook and offers them $500 for safe conduct. As he drops them back at the roadblock, one of the soldiers leans into the car and fixes the rescued man with a hard stare. "I know he is not your cook," he says. "No one pays that kind of money for a cook."

Before long Curic is organising convoys of food and medical supplies from the Red Cross in neighbouring Burundi to the thousands of desperate Tutsi seeking sanctuary at the nearby cathedral and elsewhere. Each trip involves running the gauntlet of a dozen or more roadblocks and at every one the criminals manning them have to be bribed, and appeased. When some semblance of order is eventually restored, Curic redirects his efforts into building homes and feeding the tens of thousands of alleged genocidaires who clog the local jail.

vjeko curic david belton
Franciscan priest Vjeko Curic, who helped many Tutsis escape slaughter and was assassinated in 1998. Photograph: PR

Perhaps it was inevitable that sooner or later the priest would fall foul of the new authorities. He soon noticed that, for all the talk of reconciliation and justice, revenge killings by forces loyal to the new regime went uninvestigated. Soon he was heard complaining that "life had been simple during the genocide: there were the victims and there were the killers. Now Rwanda was a seething mass of local jealousies and ethnic rivalries". Curic survived several attempts on his life and cheerfully ignored warnings that he should leave until, in January 1998, he was shot dead in broad daylight. His assassin was briefly detained by passersby, but escaped. His death remains unexplained to this day.

In many respects, as Belton acknowledges, Rwanda's progress in the 20 years since the genocide has been remarkable. To be sure, the country is for all practical purposes a one-party state ruled by a Tutsi elite, but great order prevails under heaven. As anyone who has spent time there will testify, there is an energy and efficiency about the new Rwanda that is generally lacking in most other parts of Africa. Singapore, not Africa, is the role model. Officially at least there is no more talk of Tutsi and Hutu, only of Rwandans.

And yet, as Belton soon discovers, one does not have to scratch hard to discover that all is not as it seems. Is it possible, he asks the president, Paul Kagame, for Rwanda to outpace its ethnic past? "There is a long pause. The two presidential aides sit motionless… when he next speaks his voice is whispery quiet. 'We have to,' he says. 'We have no choice.'"

Chris Mullin is a former Africa minister and the author of three volumes of diaries


Chris Mullin

The GuardianTramp

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