Echoes of Violence

Echoes of Violence

Seven years after the fact, the most enduring—and perhaps haunting—image of the Rwandan genocide is that of the nameless Hutu peasant standing over a pit of putrid corpses, a machete in one hand and a radio in the other. The manner of his gaze is unclear, but there is no mistaking the tinny voice blaring from the tiny receiver as anything other than the infamous Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), the station whose broadcasts were a background score to the killings.

The semi-private “hate radio” station, linked to an elite circle of Hutu hard-liners, was allegedly the brainchild of Ferdinand Nahimana, a Sorbonne-trained historian currently on trial before a UN-run court in Tanzania for incitement to genocide. During its brief existence as the first licensed private broadcaster in the country, RTLM quickly surpassed the stilted, government-run Radio Rwanda in popularity with a combination of virulence, humor, and style. “They talked off the cuff about a subject they mastered: hatred,” a former press liaison with the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) told me.

For the notorious state-sponsored Interahamwe militia who were the shock troops of the genocide, RTLM’s broadcasts were orders, its denunciations death warrants. In one well-known incident, an RTLM reporter covering an attempt by UN peacekeepers to rescue a group of refugees from the Hôtel Mille Collines in Kigali relayed the names of all sixty-two evacuees on the air, including several prominent opponents of the regime. Soon thereafter, a group of Interahamwe stopped the UN convoy and singled out several of those named on the radio for abuse; only intense diplomatic pressure saved them from being massacred. Tutsi civilians sheltered in a mosque in Kigali’s Nyamirambo neighborhood in the first weeks of the genocide were not so lucky; after a cue from RTLM, militia and soldiers butchered some six hundred people inside, while the station gleefully reported the results.

In the summer of 2000, six years after it was knocked off the air in the wake of the collapse of the genocidal regime, reminders of RTLM could be found everywhere. The Kigali hostel in which I slept was owned by a nearby church, whose priest, Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, allegedly carried a radio tuned to RTLM during the genocide while singling out Tutsi members of his flock for elimination (Munyeshyaka later fled to France). Walking through the crowded streets, I often passed stalls where one could still buy cassettes featuring the extremist songs of Simon Bikindi (arrested by Dutch authorities this summer and sent to the UN tribunal), a staple of the RTLM diet. And in the city’s central prison, I found many alleged génocidaires, most of them ordinary farmers, such as Frodouald Ndoliyobijya, who recalled RTLM’s antics with a mischievous giggle one minute and in the next humbly told of how he murdered a Tutsi whom his father had tried to save.

RTLM’s lingering omni...