House of the Dead: Inside the Genocide planning room

Just as every American knows where they were the day two aeroplanes demolished the twin towers, every Rwandan knows where they were the day their President’s personal Falcon 60 aircraft was shot down over Kigali. 
The main entrance to the presidential palace museum. (Fergus Simpson)
The main entrance to the presidential palace museum. (Fergus Simpson)

Just as every American knows where they were the day two aeroplanes demolished the twin towers, every Rwandan knows where they were the day their President’s personal Falcon 60 aircraft was shot down over Kigali. 

The plane crashed in the president’s own back yard on the evening of April 6th 1994, claiming the lives of Juvénal Habyarimana, the President of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the President of Burundi, along with ten other unlucky persons. Their deaths acted as a catalyst, instigating a one hundred day killing-spree that would claim the lives of about a million people. By the end of July 1994, Rwanda was an ashen moonscape. The clock had been unwound to Year Zero.

Rwandans have been commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide since April 7th 2014. I have been in the country over this period to show my support for the Rwandan people and to try and better understand the history of this small but fascinating country. As the Kwibuka (meaning “remember” in Kinyarwanda) ceremonies approach an end, I decide to take a trip to the place it all began: Habyarimana’s mansion.

Located in Kanombe, on the Eastern edge of Kigali, the building is now one of Rwanda’s many national museums. Commissioned to be built in 1976, it was habitable just four years later. Externally the house is relatively unremarkable: large with white walls and a brown tiled roof. The mansion’s interior, however, provides an extraordinary insight into the mind of Rwanda’s former dictator. 

As you enter, the rotund, jowly face of Habyarimana beams down contentedly from a photograph at the end of a hallway. Another wall is adorned with a rather odd-looking picture of a deer, perched at the centre of a range of mountains. Faustin, my smartly dressed tour guide, informs me that this was a gift from Kim Il Sung, the deceased and “Eternal President” of North Korea. 

During Habyarimana’s rule Rwanda was governed as a totalitarian order. In a similar fashion to the Kim dynasty of North Korea, people were enjoined to take part in state-sponsored saturnalia, demonstrating their unending loyalty to the president and his regime. Habyarimana won three consecutive elections in 1978, 1983 and 1988, with 98.99%, 99.97% and 99.98% of the votes respectively. All citizens, even children and the elderly, were obliged to be a member of the president’s party — the Mouvement Révolutionnaire National Pour le Développement (MRND). All other political parties were outlawed until 1990, when a watered-down form of multi-party democracy was allowed to emerge.

A large open-plan dining and living area dominates the ground floor. At one end sits a large wooden table where the Habyarimanas would entertain guests at lavish banquets. One can only guess as to who sat at this table. Popes? Presidents? Ambassadors? Genocidal masterminds? The opposite end of the room was generally used as a lounge; however, during the Kwibuka 20 commemorations it has been home to a photography exhibition. The visual display guides visitors through an affecting tour of contemporary Rwandan history – from the period immediately before the genocide onwards. 

The kitchen – although now showing signs of neglect and disrepair – would have been state-of-the-art in the 1980s. With an abundance of storage compartments, two fridges and several ovens, it must have catered for some sizeable parties. In the basement there is a small dance floor and a DJ booth. Here, I am told, after-dinner celebrations would continue well into the early hours.

A wooden staircase – spiralling and grandiose – leads up to the first floor.

Each stair is equipped with a different alarm, enabling the president to determine the precise step an intruder had reached. The first floor is a maze of interrogation rooms, secret annexes and compartments. Behind one door I find the president’s bedroom. It has been stripped bare as a result of looting. A small glass table made out of elephant’s feet is the only item of any value that remains. 

In another room a gun rack is hidden behind a wooden panel to the side of a television cabinet. To the left hand side of the cabinet a secret staircase leads up to the second floor, at the top of which are several doors. Behind one of the doors is a chapel where Pope John Paul II once gave a private mass – evidence of the Vatican’s cosy relationship with the regime. Another door leads to a room where Habyarimana received advice from his own personal witch doctor. 

At the back of the building is a small seating area in a conservatory. Faustin informs me that this room was where le clan de Madame or Akazu (which translates to “little house” in Kinyarwanda) would meet to discuss politics and strategy. The Akazu were a group of Hutu fundamentalists instrumental in planning 1994’s anti-Tutsi pogroms. The group had close connections with President Habyarimana’s fanatical wife, Madame Agathe, and included Théoneste Bagosora, the “architect” of the Rwandan genocide now in jail in Bamako, Mali for crimes against humanity. To this day, despite calls for her arrest, Agathe continues to live a free and comfortable life in the south of France.

Outside the house there is a clay tennis court, an empty swimming pool, an outdoor bar and a disused fish tank. Faustin walks me across the garden towards what looks like a second swimming pool. “This was where our president kept his favourite pet — two hundred and fifty Kilogram python given as a gift by President Mobutu of Zaire.” The snake’s function was not purely aesthetic: it was also used to intimidate political opponents. The serpent is rumoured to have escaped the night that Habyarimana died. And, according to Faustin, it has not been seen since…

Finally, twenty years after the air crash, I find myself staring at the decaying wreckage of Habyarimana’s Falcon 60 aircraft. It is sprawled in a field behind the house where the dictator once lived. The engine is mangled. The fuselage is contorted. A wing remains balanced on an edge. I find it difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the events that followed the downing of this aircraft. How were so many people persuaded to kill their friends and neighbours? Why did the international community not act to protect civilians? How do the people of Rwanda live together peacefully today?

As I ponder these thoughts, I hear the distinctive rumble of a large aircraft overhead. I gaze upwards. An enormous American military jet has just taken off from Kigali airport and is heading north. I ask Faustin if he knows its destination. “That one is heading to the Central African Republic (CAR)”, he responds proudly. “The Americans are transporting peacekeepers from Rwanda to CAR to prevent another genocide from happening over there.”

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