I was recently invited to Rwanda to speak at a gathering of eclectic geniuses on peacebuilding and also to meet with President Kagame. Rwanda is truly the land of contradiction. I’ve never been to a more placid ex-slaughter zone. Not even Cambodia is so cool. It’s hard to believe – on the surface – that only 13 years ago there was the horror, the horror of Genocide. 800,000+ people slaughtered in 90 days. That’s almost two souls per minute. And some of those paid for the bullet rather than being hacked to death with a rusty, dull machete.
While at Harvard, I had an opportunity to meet Roméo Dallaire, the UN Force Commander during the genocide. He was infamously ordered by Kofi Annan not to save victims because the UN might get bad press if a peacekeeper was hurt. Annan was not yet the UN’s Secretary General - that came later, as a promotion for Rwanda and other good deeds done. Dallaire remains a scarred man, as does Kagame, as does Africa.
Ten years later, I found myself in Burundi, trying to silently prevent a relapse of the same genocide. The earlier genocide remains unfinished business, not just for Rwanda but for the entire region: Burundi, Congo, and Uganda. Since 1994, the area has known only war and ashes. Finally, ten years later, Burundi had a fragile ceasefire and tenuous government, split between Tutsi and Hutus. However, a simple spark would set the region in flames again.
A rebel group called the FNL yearned to be this match. The FNL, also known as the PALIPEHUTU-FNL, was/is the most extreme Hutu group in the neighborhood, seeking sanctuary in the Wild Wild West of eastern Congo, and crossing the border at night into Bujumbura, the capital, to wreak havoc. They knew that if they could assassinate the President of Burundi, the government would explode, followed by Burundi, followed by the region - sort of like Valhalla at the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. It’s all burnt.
My job was to keep the President alive, in public view, and not guarded by a bunch of white guys carrying machine guns wearing sunglasses. And I had a limited budget, no one could know I was there, and it had to be done yesterday. In short, it was mission impossible, for real.
I kept him alive, but that’s another story…
In the first days of my surreptitious visit, I made a special point to visit one of the various unmarked killing fields outside Bujumbura. It was an area where an untold many had perished. I had visited such ghastly sites before, from Phnom Penh to the beach dunes of Liberia. However, Buj was different, as was the entire Great Lakes region, owing to the vast scale of the atrocities. As I walked the ground, the tread of my boots scraped up old bits of clothing and children’s teeth, emerging from the earth a decade later. Big balls of twine in Minnesota get more memorialization.
I felt angry. I was livid. I wanted retribution. Then an opera aria wafted through my head. It was like cool water on hot pavement. It was “Vesti La Giubba” from the opera Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. It’s an aria of egregious pathos, scorned humiliation, and despair. It summed up all that I was at that moment, staring at children’s teeth in the dirt.
Skip to the climax, half way in (at 2 minutes, starting with “Ridi Pagliacci"). This is the famous Carlo Bergonzi version with Herbert von Karajan conducting the La Scala Theater Orchestra of Milan, who own this music.