A Festering Malice: the Grenade Attack

What kind of person would throw a grenade at a cemetery? What must happen in a person’s mind for them to be that sick? A heady mix of festering malice, an arrogant disrespect for the sanctity of the dead, a remorseless psyche filled with hate.

So many years after the event, I still found that act so troubling. The Memorial Centre is the final resting place of over 250,000 genocide victims. Why the violence? They have already been killed once.

On the night of Thursday 10th April, after the blue-grey half-light on the cusp of day and night faded in to starry blackness, such an outrage happened.

(This post continues the series Letters from the Heart of Africa.)

That week in April is the the most sacrosanct week in the Rwandan calendar; it commemorates the week that started one of the most shameful episodes in human history, the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The chairs had been folded and packed away, the canopies and awnings were neatly rolled up and leaned up in the the storeroom, ready for next year.

Thursday night was a film night we were Sometimes in April, organised by Patrick, the head of media, for 12 visitors

At 6pm, outside the window, the sun, work done, flopped eagerly in to the violet Kigali hills like a burning ember falling through clouds of ash. A wash of inky blackness engulfed the sky and flooded the many hillsides flecked with a distant glitter of city lights.

By 8pm the darkness was absolute, providing the perfect cover for a heinous manifestation of evil. For it was at that time a grenade was lobbed by an unknown person at Jacques and Ignace, the two policemen who guarded the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.

In the middle of the film, a huge deafening boom resounded; plants shook; window panes rattled. The tourists thought it was a tyre burst, but not Patrick – he instantly recognised it as the sound of an exploding grenade. A genocide survivor from Kibuye, a small town in the west on Lake Kivu, the sound brought him memories of an incident in 1997. Rwanda was then still plagued by renegade militia, genocidaires as they were termed, in the country’s underground. At his high school, a basketball game had just finished and he and his friends joked and bounced the ball to each other amongst a crowd of children walking out of the school grounds. Suddenly there was a huge flash, an ear piercing boom and a blast that threw him through the air. As he came round, his basketball clothes were covered in blood. His ear drums twanged. A grenade had been thrown, he was severely injured. The girl in front of him died instantly. He spent some months in hospital as surgeons brought him back from death’s edge, opening him up to remove the grenade’s killer metal deep in his torso, piece by painstaking piece. Still now some pieces are irretrievably within him and he feels their prick in his ribs when he first wakes.

That’s how Patrick recognised the unmistakable sound of an exploding grenade. Not wanting to shock the guests, he slipped out of the room, saw the injured policemen and helped them in to the car to the hospital. He then calmly parked his own car on top of the blood pool by the guardhouse so that no one would see it – none of the tourists in the centre knew about the attack till the TV networks aired the next day.

The word grenade comes from the French word for pomegranite. Like the fruit which contains many tiny seeds, a grenade contains countless pieces of sharp metal, or shrapnel, but unlike the seeds of the fruit, which seek to prolong life, the metal shards in a grenade seek to end it; their sinister design is to fly through the air at the speed of a bullet, scatter in all directions like spokes from a wheel and to embed themselves in flesh, to sever tendons, to puncture lungs, to blind and to cut nerves.

Whoever did it rolled the grenade so expertly that it stopped just in front of the guardhouse where Ignace and Jacques patrolled. In darkness they didn’t stand a chance. The mechanic of a grenade allows the assailant some moments to escape and the assailant slipped in to the night.

It is operated by two simple procedures of pulling a pin and letting go of a lever. The pin, which sits at the top of a grenade, once pulled, makes the device live and only holding the lever stops it from exploding. When the grenade is thrown, the lever is released and a metal pin inside the grenade descends in to its centre to ignite a fuse. At that point there are just a few seconds left till it explodes. Jacques and Ignace had very little time to react. The shrapnel hit Jacques in the legs; Ignace was not so lucky, the shrapnel embedded in his windpipe. Ignace was pronounced dead on arrival at King Fazal Hospital.

In Rwanda the resilience and strength of her people is not always immediately apparent. They are a quietly spoken people, modest and reserved and Patrick is no difference. Only after hearing their stories of triumph, of a relentless of struggle, their sadness and their courage do their true dimensions become apparent. Rwanda abounds with such people. They have come through so much, seen so much cruelty and yet emerged through it all as decent people, leading decent lives. It is through them that hope remains intact.

I don’t think I ever met a calmer person than Patrick. When everyone was helping with trauma victims, panicking and shouting for drugs, mattresses or water, he would just remain calm and say, “We will have to make do with what we have got.” That is the mark of the man Patrick, quiet, softly spoken, unassuming, seemingly as ordinary as his baggy jeans and his Converse All Stars. Colleague, basketball player, Genocide survivor and now two times death-cheater of grenades. He is remarkable, but in Rwanda, he is not unique.


Half an hour before the explosion, some of my colleagues and I had passed the guardhouse to take a mutatu to Club Habana, a pizza restaurant in Kacyru where we waited for our food in full throngs of after-work banter, rich with humour and friendly teasing. There was Serge and Henriette, the tour guides, Provi the office manager, Nat the web-designer, Charlotte the VSO country manager, Thierry, the building man and me. As the pizzas arrived, Serge, received a text message. His eyes widened. He froze.

He broke the news about the grenade attack, and so began a 24 hour rite of passage that ran the entire spectrum of emotions, of shock, disbelief, fear, anger, acceptance and finally elation.

We were stunned. A table of friends in the middle of a noisy restaurant. Like statues. Vacant gazes. Poker faces. None of whom were speaking. Over the steaming pizzas we withdrew in to a consuming introspection. We thought about Ignace the police officer who had died in the line of duty to protect us.

Speculation ensued. Perhaps it was an attack on the police not on the Memorial Centre? Yes that might be it, someone had a grudge against the police. No one would ever stoop so low as to attack the memorial centre would they? Surely not? In times of denial, an alternative theory, however far-fetched is fumbled for and examined for any modicum of credibility. We were fishing in the dark. Then we came up with hypotheticals: what would have happened had we left a bit later from the office and passed the guardhouse at around 8pm? Would we have seen the grenade roll towards us? Would we have known what to do? Would we have run or laid down on the ground? Would there have been enough cars to take us all to the hospital? As we pondered and debated these hypothetical situations, the pizzas became cold, mouths became parched, throats became blocked.

News arrived in a second text message to Serge that another person had been killed at another memorial in the eastern province. Was it spreading across the country in a organised attack? For a few dark moments we thought that all of Rwanda was slipping that very night back to the bad days – could ugliness and terror be returning to this beautiful land.

What must they have been thinking at that point, my friends the survivors of the genocide? What thoughts, what interior murmurings, were being dredged up in their psyches, like sediment on a riverbed that had once settled but now became disturbed and murky, with a hint of danger.

Henriette got a call from her cousin the deputy mayor of Kigali and she decided to stay with her for the night. We asked around how people were feeling. Charlotte the VSO Country Manager volunteered a spare room to anyone who needed it – no one should have to spend the night alone. Just in case.

Foreigners rarely feel the extent of fear as locals in such situations; we would have just had to scale an embassy wall, for me an escape chute, the British Embassy, just opposite the Habana restaurant. But what about my Rwandan colleagues? Not for them these backups. I would go home in just 6 months, they would be in Rwanda forever.

Of all the places in the world, in Kigali, the safest city I have ever lived in I suddenly felt an emotion I hadn’t felt for many years. Fear.

To be continued.


(This post, The Grenade Attack, is to be continued next week. For the full table of contents of this series Letters from the Heart of Africa, please click here )


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