Tom Carver, a former BBC correspondent, was based in Rwanda at the time of the devastating 1994 Genocide. He recently returned to Rwanda for the first time since 1994 and was amazed by what he saw. Sunday Times's Allan Brian Ssenyonga managed to squeeze a few minutes out of his busy schedule with VSO as he visited the National Organisation of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry (NOUSPR). Excerpts below:
What was the general picture of Rwanda in 1994?
Very dark. I was based in Johannesburg, working for the BBC. For three years I had been working in Africa, covering conflicts in Angola, Mozambique, Somalia and in the townships of South Africa during the apartheid in the early 90s. In April 1994 apartheid was coming to an end in South Africa and Mandela was elected president. It was a time of happiness and then all of a sudden I was told there was something happening in Rwanda, only to come here and see how grotesque it was.
As a journalist, I had never seen anything like it before. I spent here only 3 weeks. By that time the fighting had ended but in a way I could see that problems had just began. I went to Goma, traversed refugee camps, and I could see that the Interahamwe were still at large. I could see that people were still being killed. And even if I was not their target, I could clearly see that the situation in camps was really awful.
Rwanda had basically been demolished. I mean, there was no government, no infrastructure. There was this massive ethnic division and trauma. So for me it was very dark. I couldn't really imagine anything worse. By then I had been to 5 or 6 wars already but I had never seen anything like what I saw in Rwanda.
And what was so appalling was the organised nature of the Genocide. You see, most of the violence in most parts of Africa tended to be sporadic and episodic, not as organised and clinical as was the case in Rwanda - house to house, village to village. Not even the Bosnian war that I later covered for a year could match this one. In Bosnia many people died but it wasn't as systematic as it was in Rwanda.
The other thing that was appalling was that this was a very close-up conflict because there were not many guns used but machetes; so the killers had to get close to their victims. In Sarajevo, snipers were shooting people from miles away. So the victims couldn't see their killers. But here one could see their killer in the eyes. That made it even more awful.
What difference do you see between the Rwanda of 1994 and the one of today?
I have been away for over 18 years but I've been following Rwanda closely in the news. I never had a chance to come back until now. And it's amazing, I think. Obviously I knew that the government had done a remarkable job in putting the country back together and that it was also doing very well economically.
Those were the stories coming out but to see it with your own eyes is just amazing. For example, yesterday we travelled to Nyagatare and it's amazing to see electricity in the villages and the cleanliness and order of the Police. That is a sign of a developing economy.
You came here as a board member of VSO. But would you have preferred to return as a journalist and get to the core of the Rwanda story besides what VSO is doing?
Well, it's nice to talk to you. I love talking to other journalists. I still do writing myself. Yes, I would have liked to but I am not a journalist on a full-time basis anymore. I have other jobs I need to do. I work for an American non-profit organisation and I am on the board of VSO. For me that is my way of contributing and helping in a small way.
Are you impressed with what VSO is doing in Rwanda?
Yes, I am. I had never been to the field to see what VSO was doing. Before this (trip) I had just been attending board meetings. What I like about it is that they know what they want to do. They are not trying to do everything. The danger of an organisation with limited resources like VSO is that they try to do too much. Here they are only dealing in three areas: youth empowerment, disability and education.
To take you back a little bit...how do you think the media today can avoid a scenario like the one of 1994 when they found themselves on the wrong side of event?
I think there is a long history of the media being manipulated by the state - and not just in Rwanda. It was extreme in Rwanda because there were not many media houses so RTLM and others were able to capture the minds of the people. Because there was no internet, they couldn't see any other form of information and besides, people were not that educated. So they trusted everything they heard.
I think it is a real lesson that the media should not find themselves caught up in such a situation again. And it is the job of journalists to make sure that it doesn't happen. If they feel that they are being asked to do something that is immoral or wrong, then they should try to protest. And I think nowadays it's easier to have other sources of information from the internet. The internet has transformed the media landscape.
How can the media operate professionally without having to clash with government?
I think it is not just the media. It is a two-way thing. The job of the journalist is to tell the truth and the job of the government is to let the journalist tell the truth. Even in countries with a long history of democracy and freedom like America where I live, the government is often tempted to interfere. So it's constant tension that is never resolved. But that is part of democracy.
Do you think the media in Rwanda today is much better than how you left it in 1994?
Yeah. I mean, there is no RTLM telling people to kill each other. It also seems like there are many different media outlets: magazines, websites, radio stations. But is media today perfect, you may ask. Well, I am sure it is not perfect and there are still some challenges to face.
Final word on what you have seen in Rwanda...
Well, if I could say something more about VSO... I think VSO performs a very unique function. Unlike other organisations that bring in their own skilled workers and pay them, VSO uses volunteers. What they do is to draw people who have the best expertise in the right area and persuade them to come and live here. And I think a country like Rwanda can really benefit from that. I would just encourage the Rwandan government to really access and tap the expertise that is available at VSO Rwanda.