In Rwanda, you learn that terror has a kind of geometry. You approach death in increasing increments of fear. You can follow your fear to the scene of a massacre almost instinctively: In the abandoned Jesuit seminary in Kigali, for instance, the room where the priests were killed, Room 28, is just the one you would guess – off by itself, down a dark, downward-sloping corridor that goes on and on, past an eerie plaster madonna in an overgrown field, past every other door.
The cinderblock walls of Room 28 are pitted as if by a jackhammer, the barred windows are smashed, a framed picture of a Rwandan child is smiling down from the wall, and across the floor are strewn dozens of bloody plastic sandwich bags, used for God knows what – for gags maybe, or for worse. Not so long after the massacre, the press corps moved into the rooms of the dead priests. We put little signs on our doors, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front assigned us protection: a somber group of armed teenagers posted at the gates of the late Jesuits’ compound. One day we learned that one of the Jesuits had survived. He was on vacation in Germany in April, when the Hutu soldiers raided the seminary in Kigali and killed seventeen of his colleagues.
He became for us something akin to the blank which they say is always put into one of the guns of a firing squad: we were all able to believe we were sleeping in the room of the holiday priest. The media seminary is clearing out now, the permutations of the Rwanda story seemingly exhausted. We have written about the orphanage, the hospital, the radio station, the gloomy prisons, the returning families. We have been to Room 28, and to the churches where the bodies still lie. We’ve waited for word of war-crimes trials.
The seasoned disaster correspondents – whose appearance heralds the worst, whose disappearance signals the sudden loss of interest that is the prerogative of the editorial classes – have all been leaving. In Africa, at first, it seemed that the invasion of Haiti was to be scheduled around the suffering in Rwanda. In August, Bill Clinton’s Caribbean buildup was bumped from the front pages by the millions of Rwandan refugees crossing into Zaire. Now, in the wake of a “friendly invasion” of Haiti, and new troubles in the Middle east, Rwanda has abruptly disappeared from the news altogether. But nothing, really, has been resolved.
By the end of the summer, most of the media attention was focused Bon Goma, Zaire. Kigali by then was quiet. In the seminary at night we read the books the priests had left behind – mine had a whole shelf of Nietzsche, in German, and a French essay on celibacy. Sometimes we drank scotch from glasses that we cut from empty mineralwater bottles, and the wire-service photographers boasted about how many cars they had looted during the killing. Across the border in Goma there were real hotels and running water and even disco lights in the hotel lounge.
They weren’t much comfort. The lava dust in the air turned your spit black and the death all around you meant you never felt as clean as you did in Kigali, where you had no showers but at least you could breathe. Compared to Goma, Kigali itself is a sort of holiday. …