I sit outside the theater on the third street promenade in Santa Monica, dialing the same number over and over on my cellphone. "You have to come with me," I say to my friend and former "Nightline" colleague Rick Wilkinson. I demand. Then plead. "Please, I can't do this alone." We are talking about seeing a movie. "Hotel Rwanda."
I am wondering if I can sit through it. Wondering if I will start sobbing the way I did in those cursed fields in Africa more than a decade ago. Wondering if the nightmares will start again. But Rick, who was with me in Rwanda, refuses to see the movie. Doesn't even hesitate. The horrors of that place still haunt him. And he is adamant.
I sit there, in the midst of the shoppers and the tourists, the street musicians and the street people, for more than an hour, trying to get up the courage to go into the theater. It's only a movie, after all. But it's a movie having an impact, maybe a greater impact than the coverage of the actual events. It's funny how people think something isn't real until they see it in a movie. Seeing "Saving Private Ryan" let them live through the screaming terror of combat. Seeing "Hotel Rwanda" let them experience the horror of genocide unleashed. But then they went home.
As a visiting lecturer at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, I talked with a number of journalism students fresh from seeing the movie and fired with outrage, demanding to know why nothing had been done. Why had the world remained silent while the butchers did their work? Why hadn't there been coverage? Why hadn't it been on the news? Well, it was. I showed them the tapes of the broadcasts my "Nightline" crew did at the time. And when they were over, there was stunned silence.
I go in alone that night in Santa Monica. As the movie ends and the credits are rolling, I hear that same silence. And then, one at a time, slowly, people begin to speak. "Oh my God." "How could that have happened?" "Why didn't anybody do anything?" For the people in the theater, like my students, the movie is their first taste of the Rwanda nightmare. I have a very different reaction.
I walk back out to join the nighttime crowd. I think that it is a good movie. But it doesn't come close. And I feel that I am different from all of those people enjoying a spring night in Santa Monica. Because I remember.
It was 1994 and I was serving as producer of a "Nightline" crew on the Rwanda-Zaire border. We were making our way deeper into Camp Cholera. At least that's what the journalists called it. It wasn't a camp. Just thousands of people (50,000, 100,000, we never really knew) lying head to toe in a lava field. These were big, sharp lava rocks. Some people had straw sleeping mats. Others thin blankets. But most were just lying on the rocks. The cholera part was true. Disease was ravaging these people. Many of them were already dead. The rest were dying. There were no paths, no roads to get to the center of the "camp." You just had to step over the people. I'm not particularly graceful, but I was trying my best not to step on anyone, not to disturb them. For those who were alive, I didn't want to make their last moments any worse. For the dead, I didn't want to tread on their peace. Refugee camps have a sound all their own. It's a sort of dull roar of human misery. It sounded the same in Rwanda as it did in Kosovo and Somalia. But the smell. That's what you can never get across on TV. The smell of death. It overpowers you.
I was literally straddling a woman, waiting for the others to move on. I didn't have the courage at that point to look down to see if she was alive or dead. Then I felt something on my foot. I looked down and saw a small boy. He looked to be about 5, which meant he was probably 10. Malnutrition will do that. He was lying on his back and had thrown his arm up over his head. His fingers had gotten tangled in my boot laces. As I looked in his eyes, I saw the light go out. And he died. A stranger's face, my face, was the last thing he saw. And all I could do was shake my foot to free my laces from his fingers, and then move on to catch up to my team.
It was five years before I could tell that story. We had gone into Rwanda thinking that we could handle anything. At that point in my career, I had been in a dozen wars, natural disasters, you name it. We all thought we were as tough as they come. We were wrong. Within the first day or so, I think each of us had broken down. We were having food flown in. We finally told them to just send beer and wine. We would trade the beer to the French Foreign Legion troops for their rations. But after a day or two, I stopped eating entirely. Instead, I would sit in front of my tent at night and drink a whole bottle of wine. Hoping that the alcohol would kill the pain. I might as well have been drinking water.
We were covering the end of the slaughter involving the country's two primary ethnic groups. Hutu rebels had been systematically wiping out the Tutsis. This wasn't a war fought with smart bombs. This was machetes and clubs and knives. Almost a million people killed by hand. Genocide the old-fashioned way. When the Hutu killers were finally driven out of the country, their own people were forced out with them. So the killers were in the camps too. Some had the remnants of military uniforms. Others had the swagger of men who have killed and found that they liked it. You could see that in their eyes. We stayed away from them.
There had been a U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda. The commander, Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian, had pleaded for enough troops to stop the genocide. But no one would listen to him. No one wanted to get involved. Rwanda wasn't part of anyone's national interests. He was told to remain neutral. To not take sides. Dallaire, the subject of the documentary "Shake Hands With the Devil," showing in L.A. this month, was destroyed by his experiences. He was found six years later on a park bench in Canada, blind drunk, screaming for someone to kill him. I know why. I know what his nightmares look like.
Every night, when I lie down in my big bed in my nice suburban house and I close my eyes to sleep, that little boy comes to me and tugs on my boot laces. And every night he asks me why we let this happen, and I have no answer. And every night I pray that it will be the last time that he comes for me.
But I know better.
There is evil in the world. I have seen it up close. But nothing, nothing, comes close to Rwanda. When the story began to break in the summer of 1994, none of us knew much about this East African nation. We knew something bad was happening, but most of the journalists had been driven out, or had rightly fled, and information and pictures were hard to come by. At the time, it just seemed like another adventure. We all repeated the jokes that were making the rounds. Toot-toot Tutsi, goodbye. Do that Hutu that you do so well. We were stupid. But we prided ourselves on going where no one else would. And so off we went. There were five of us, including correspondent Jim Wooten, who would do some of his finest work there; Rick Wilkinson, one of my best friends and producing partner; camera operator Fletcher Johnson, a giant of a man with a huge heart; and sound tech Trevor Barker, whom we didn't know. Barker was coming because no one else would.
We flew down to Nairobi, where we picked up supplies and took a charter flight into what passed for the airport in the town of Goma, Zaire, on the border. The story had moved out of Rwanda with the killers' exodus to Zaire. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled with them into the town of Goma. Truly a damned place.
A twin-engine plane brought us down into Goma. From the air, it was beautiful, the area dominated by a huge volcano. But the view on the ground was different. It was hot. And dusty. Dry. Anarchy. There was a terminal building, but it had been so fouled by the mass of humanity passing through the area that you could barely stand to go into the building.
The airport was held by soldiers of the French Foreign Legion. But they pretty much ignored us. We had brought tents and all of our equipment. A crowd of men swarmed us, eager to act as porters. We were not traveling light. There was work for a lot of them. Humping the gear, we went out to a large dirt field between the terminal and the road. There was barbed wire all around it.
The men who were helping with our equipment seemed desperate, and it was hot work. I don't remember what I paid them as a group, but it was more than I ordinarily would have. I figured they needed the money more than ABC did. And I'll never forget how a journalist from another network became angry over what I paid them. I remember him saying, "You paid too much. You'll ruin it for the rest of us. Now they'll expect that." I despised him at that moment.
We laid our tents, boxes, whatever, out on the ground, and finally became aware of where we were. On the road, about 15 feet away, on the other side of the barbed wire, was a steady stream of humanity walking deeper into Zaire. Toward almost certain death. Just as we got there, a woman laid her tiny daughter down in the dust at the side of the road right in front of us. The girl was dead. Who knows how long the mother had been carrying her body, numbed perhaps, or just unwilling to acknowledge what had happened, before her burden became too much. She put the body down, stood, and then merged back into that stream of misery. It was a sobering welcome. We were wrong. We weren't ready.
It was as though my field of vision gradually widened. As I looked around, I realized that there were bodies along the length of the road. Some were wrapped in straw sleeping mats, which were as close to a coffin as any of them would get. Others were just lying in the dirt. Some had been left there by family or friends. Some, not able to go on, simply laid down to die. And that migration continued. People just walking, in single file most of them, on both sides of the road. That was the first day I cried.
There was no infrastructure. Most of the time we were used to working out of hotels, with phones, restaurants, plumbing, all the comforts we ever needed to relax after doing our work. In Goma, there was dirt. We set up our tents, set up our equipment, and then had to find cars and drivers. We ignored the obvious. The cars had been brought from Rwanda. It is very possible, likely even, that their original owners had been butchered. Possibly by the people we were now hiring. Better not to ask.
And so we went to work. We would drive along, and then stop and shoot when we saw . . . well, I'm not really sure why we stopped when we did. Some particularly desperate looking group? No, they were all desperate. I guess it was just random. The children. They caught our eyes. Sometimes they would be sitting by the body of a dead parent. A death sentence for them, as no one else would take care of them. Especially the babies. They would be crying, sitting in the dirt, having no idea what was happening, or why their parents weren't moving anymore. It wouldn't be long before they, too, were lying by the side of the road.
Going into the middle of the camps was truly a descent into hell. A medieval hell. Biblical. People would literally fall over next to us. You could barely tell the dead from the dying. "Drop dead." You can hear kids saying it on just about any playground. But it's different when it actually happens. People do drop dead. Like the proverbial sack of bricks. The first time I saw it, a woman was standing behind my right shoulder. I sensed her go down more than saw it, just a blur out of the corner of my eye. She was there, then she was on the ground. I remember that she hit with a thump. And then she didn't move anymore. And people just stepped over her and went on. So did we.
We filed our stories. We would shoot all day, Jim would write the scripts, and I truly think that only he could have made sense out of what was happening around us. Then, sitting by our tents, next to the road where the people were dying, we would edit our pieces and transmit them by satellite. It wasn't uncommon to see journalists just sitting and quietly sobbing. I know I cried almost every day. We would give random people water. That seemed small enough payment for taking pictures of what were often their last moments. But in my darkest times, I thought that we really did it just to make ourselves feel better. At best, we were giving them a few minutes more of life. That was all that a swallow of water could do. We found a group of children one day, all orphans, who had banded together as children will do. Some of them were barely toddlers. All of them were dying. There were a couple in particular who were in bad shape. I watched Fletcher Johnson filming them. When we went to cut the piece that night, I couldn't find those shots. It turned out that he had rewound the tape in the camera and filmed over them. He couldn't bear to see those pictures used.
Bulldozers came in, or just groups of men with shovels, who dug great pits. Those rolled-up sleeping mats, the ones containing bodies, were dumped into the pits by the hundreds. By the thousands. By the tens of thousands. We realized that even if we did our best work, we still weren't getting it right. It was too much even for television. You couldn't communicate the enormity of it. The sheer crushing weight of so much death.
Certainly no one back home could understand. Normally you could call out on the satellite phones, have a conversation with a loved one. Those conversations became shorter, and rarer. How could you possibly answer the question "How are you doing?"
For one "Nightline" broadcast, Ted Koppel interviewed us. We were all nervous. I have always hated being on TV. But I don't think that was it. I think we were all afraid that we wouldn't get it right, that we wouldn't communicate what was going on around us. I know I was afraid that I would screw it up. As it happened, I went first.
I was on the phone with one of the producers in Washington when my face came on. Her first words were "Oh, my God." I asked what was wrong, fearing that there was a problem with the signal. We were the problem. Everyone who saw those interviews thought that our faces spoke of having seen too much. But everyone there looked the way we did.
Gradually some relief supplies began to come in, brought by Americans in clean camouflage uniforms. One afternoon, just to get away from that road, I walked down to the runway where a huge American transport had landed. One of the first. Onboard, it turned out, were a number of local news teams from the plane's hometown. I found the team from the ABC affiliate and started to fill them in on what was going on. That's a time-honored tradition, the first ones in telling the next ones, and so on. The crews were feverishly filming the supplies being unloaded. I remember saying to the reporter something like, "Well, the real story is just a couple of hundred yards away. C'mon, I'll show you what's going on." He declined. They all did. They filmed the final boxes of supplies coming off the plane, and then got back on to fly home. They never saw the real story, but I'm sure those reports were promoted as "our reporter just back from Rwanda."
We lasted about a week I think, not much more. And then we had to get out. Had to. A new "Nightline" team was waiting in Nairobi. We met with them for dinner at the Carnivore, famous for serving all kinds of meat in a never-ending feast. The noise, the food, the laughter, it was all overwhelming after what we had just left. We drank heavily, and tried to tell the new team what to expect. It all just came tumbling out, but I think it was probably just "you won't believe it" repeated over and over.
Rwanda was the only story that ever gave me nightmares. They lasted for years. The story was the seminal moment in my professional life. No story, before or after, had such a profound effect on me. Why did we do it? I don't know. The flip answer is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Was it a story that needed telling? Absolutely. Did the world listen? I don't know. I fear that people just turned the channel, that the images were too painful. Was it worth it? For many years, if you asked me why I did what I did, I could give you all sorts of answers. To inform the public. For the adventure. It's what I do. It's who I am.
Years later, Elie Wiesel came to speak to the "Nightline" staff. I don't remember anything of what he said, except for one sentence. He said that the role of the journalist is to speak for those who have no voice. That was it. That's what we were trying to do. That's what we had to do. There, and after Rwanda--because there was a dividing line, before Rwanda and after Rwanda--anywhere in the world where man was doing the worst that he was capable of.
When we got home, people complimented the work, but they treated us differently, like we were damaged. Years later, when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I recognized the same attitude. People knew we were hurting, but they had no frame of reference. To this day, there are things about that story that I will only talk about with those who were there. Did we need therapy? Probably. About a year later, we were in Oklahoma City covering the bombing of the federal building. Therapists were brought in to help. I was talking to one of them about what he hoped to do for the firefighters who were digging through the rubble. He said that journalists might benefit from his help as well. He asked what kind of experiences I had had. I told him some of them, and then said that I had been in Rwanda. He shook his head and said, "I can't help you."
Years later, the volcano erupted, destroying much of Goma and those surrounding lava fields where so many had died. Divine justice? A place like that, which had suffered so much, had to be wiped clean. But in the end, I think the lava just covered the evil. It's still there.
Writing this stopped the nightly visits from that little boy with those accusing eyes and that dreadful question. Why didn't the world do more? I still have no answer for him. And now I fear that he may just have given up on me.
I hope not.