1994: Despair and the unquiet dead in hell’s backyard

Published: 14 April 2014 7:06 CET

On 6 April 1994, Lasse Norgaard began his job as a regional communications delegate for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in east Africa.

It was the same day the plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, serving as the catalyst for the genocide that would follow in Rwanda.

Norgaard’s role was to help inform the world of the events unfolding in Rwanda, including the work of the Red Cross. Among the many media visits he facilitated, and interviews he conducted, Norgaard penned the following article.

Goma cannot be described. Goma needs to be smelled. Take one deep breath of the stench of the thousands of corpses that have been lying along the roadsides for days and you will never forget it. I am reminded of the stench every time I pass the mass graves and the piles of bodies everywhere, including the bloated ones close to the clinic which must be moved soon, before they crack and their contents spill into the hospital tent where 200 cholera patients gasp for air, while a few doctors and nurses without clean water or adequate medicine struggle to support those with the best chance of survival.

Imagine a relief operation where masks and scarves are mandatory; where the main task for days is not providing food or water or medicine, but removing and burying the dead; where despondency among refugees, local and international aid workers, and journalists alike is as prevalent as the dead; where a light breeze brings the stench of death to the hotel garden as you sit exhausted at the end of the day and try to stop yourself from screaming. Where you just cannot or will not handle it anymore.

And where there are still more and new dead bodies the next morning. Like the man in a suit, lying lifeless with his three boys around him. The youngest child lies with one leg bent under the other and a hand under his head, the same way I prefer to sleep. He is two, maybe three years old. The other boy lies on his stomach, while the third lies on his back, spread out over a large rock like a rag doll with his head turned towards me, staring. He is probably six – stone dead – and I want to remove him but I dare not go closer, because I know he will haunt me forever.

It is not the other refugees in Kibumba camp he stares at. It is me. Every time I pass by over the next eight hours I do not want to look, and yet I feel a need to check he is still there. He keeps looking me straight in the eyes. He becomes an obsession. It is a strange bizarre consolation because I now have a dead friend who remains stable and ensures that I do not feel completely alone in this chaos of a quarter of a million refugees.

Visiting hell's backyard

If Rwanda was hell on earth, this was hell’s backyard. More than one million people fled from northwestern Rwanda, and now occupy a 100 kilometre stretch from Goma town towards the north. In the sports centre next to the hospital, the Red Cross has established a field hospital for wounded soldiers. A few days ago, there were 3,300 patients. Now, there are 2,500 because many have died. "We are now down to 100 deaths a day," says the Norwegian doctor while he struggles to hang drips on the branches of trees, providing intravenous solutions to the patients lying on the ground. Soon, we add them to the pile of corpses on the tennis court.

The worst place is Kibumba camp, which is managed by us, the Red Cross. Between 250,000 and 300,000 refugees sit or lay on volcanic stone, waiting to die or survive. It is a nightmare, because there is no water, and the soil is so rocky that we cannot even dig down the 60 centimetres necessary to bury the dead. Digging wells for water or latrines is a fantasy.
There are two clinics but not enough water or medicine. We put an empty bladder tank on the ground, waiting for the tanker with water to arrive. For three days we wait. We also look for places to bury the dead and are considering purchasing banana plantations from locals, because if bananas can grow, there is enough soil for a cemetery or mass grave.

Orphans and unaccompanied children grab our hands. Beggars are easy  to shake off, but the children cling, saying a whole lot I do not understand, except “Papa Papa”. They need our attention. Their desperate eyes tell it all. You want to help and you want to move but you cannot let go before they are placed in a group with other orphans with a little water and a biscuit and an assurance that someone will take care of them.

The challenge of keeping people alive

Meanwhile, clinics are flooded with cholera and dysentery patients being carried or supported by their families. They are placed outside on flat stones as there is no space in the tents. Many die shortly after and are rolled into mats and placed on the pile of bodies. Suddenly, one body starts wiggling her foot, but the doctor says there is no point in unwrapping her as she will die anyhow.

They are almost worse than the dead bodies; the living dead. The woman who lies at the roadside gasping with two screaming babies clinging to her, next to two men selling potatoes. They are not related, and the men do not know if the woman has any family. I get angry that they do nothing, but how can I even begin to understand what it is like trying to survive among so much death and despair? I have never walked 30 kilometres to get water. And I am frustrated that for the sixth hour, I cannot pull out my half litre of mineral water and drink in front of people who are dying of thirst.

And people are dying of thirst. Those not affected by cholera or dysentery or diarrhoea, are dying of dehydration. We are close to producing enough clean water to irrigate the Sahara, but we cannot get clean water to Kibumba, because we do not have tankers. We can give this message to all the reporters in the press camp in the evening and go "live" to the world via satellite and generators. We can talk directly with reporters from New York and Sydney with just a half second delay, but we cannot get clean water into Kibumba.

Late in the day, a BBC team wants to know what has affected me the most. I am tempted to tell them about last night when a truck carrying food collided with a truck transporting corpses. Both tumbled and dead bodies and food lay scattered and mixed across the field. Instead, I pull the cameraman’s sleeve to show him to my dead friend on the stone. Standing in front of the boy, his younger brother in the sleeping position suddenly starts blinking his eyes. For more than eight hours, probably longer, he has remained stock still and stared at his dead father, and I have not noticed he is alive, my attention drawn to his glassy-eyed brother. We pick him up and carry him to the other orphans where he sits apathetically beside a baby who has just been found on the belly of her dead mother.

"The worst thing I've ever seen..."  All aid workers say to all reporters. It is pure despair, for how else can we describe it? But I do not say it, because I want the odour of death to be shared. I want the smell to seep out of screens and newspapers and be amplified by airwaves to radio listeners around the world. To make them understand. This is not about the sight but the stench.
But no, it is too brutal to force others to feel the same. Because once you get this stench of rotting corpses into your system, you will never get it out again.

The next time someone asks, I will answer honestly: "This is the worst thing I've ever smelled."

Read stories from survivors of the genocide at www.ifrc.org/africa.