We stopped our car along the main road that snakes from Kigali, Rwanda's capital, to the country's western region. We were heading to the volcanoes that soar along the northwest border for a story about mountain gorillas and what has happened to their habitat. But the light was good now, streaking through the rainy season's ever-present clouds, and the cameraman I was traveling with wanted to shoot.
He clambered through the big, dark banana leaves and found a spot to film the halo of light on the green, terraced hills. I followed across the road, wondering again how it is that dozens of children always appear from nowhere when a white person stops in rural Africa - especially a white person with a camera.
I think I was standing there, a bit chilly in the damp, high air, watching the crowd of tiny bodies swarm around my colleague, when I heard the sound for the first time: the slice of a machete, metal against metal - a sharp, sandy noise that caused a muscle spasm along my spine.
I turned and saw a group of farmers walking along the tar. They were barefoot, their skin dusted light brown from the fields. They wore brown shorts and tweedy suit jackets that had lived a much different life in some European or American city. Some were young, maybe 15. Others looked about 50, although faces age differently in this part of the world, and sometimes it is hard to guess. Each man carried a machete, one of which was being sharpened.
These knives, of course, are essential tools for an agrarian society like Rwanda's - they cut through thick brush, they chop bananas from their stalks, they cut twine and firewood. But for me, on my first day in this misty, beautiful country, they screamed genocide.
By now, the broad outlines of what happened in 1994 are widely known in the United States, although we paid pathetically little notice at the time. That summer, gangs of Hutus, the majority ethnic group, killed an estimated 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis. Neighbors killed neighbors, colleagues killed colleagues. When people here talk about the genocide, it is often with a sense of incredulity. It was crazy, they say. It wasn't human. Or all too human, in a way few people want to fathom.
Because of the killings, Rwanda experienced one of the largest, fastest population shifts of the 20th century. Close to a million Tutsis fled the country into neighboring Congo (then known as Zaire) to escape the militias. After the Tutsis gained control of the government, millions of Hutus fled, and the Tutsis returned.
The movement in and around this small country - Rwanda is only a few hundred square miles bigger than New Hampshire - destabilized central Africa. It helped spark the ongoing conflict in neighboring
Congo, another brutal African war that America has largely ignored.
Everywhere we drove, there were reminders of the genocide, although many people here view the summer of 1994 as part of a longer conflict that continued through the 1990s. Each tiny village has its own memorial - sometimes a sagging fence with a few grave markers, sometimes an elaborate obelisk or graveyard with iron gates. Near Kigali, the bones of the slaughtered have been left in some churches, becoming their own monument.
For me, the landscape itself was the most poignant, incongruous reminder.
A denuded forest
Rwanda is stunning. Its terraced hills are covered in a patchwork quilt of greens - the dark green of banana plants, the neon green of bean fields, the lighter green of sorghum stalks. This is the most densely populated country in Africa, and it seems like every inch of land is cultivated. The quilt drapes over the mountaintops and falls to within an inch of the tar roads and to the stoop of every house. It covers the hilly green islands that speckle cobalt blue lakes.
I kept wondering, when the slaughter started, did anyone notice the view?
We were in Rwanda to explore the connections between conflict and environment, and how these intersecting forces affect Africans, a huge percentage of whom rely on natural resources for day-to-day living.
We had realized by now that few people focus on environment during war - in large part because it seems unimportant compared with human concerns such as hunger, death and homelessness. But we were also finding that environmental devastation inflicted during conflict often has a long-lasting impact on an area's chances for recovery.
This was the case in Rwanda's Gishwati Forest, a name that is now illogical since there are almost no trees.
Before the war, the Gishwati mountains were thick with towering African mahoganies and strangler figs. But after the genocide, Tutsi refugees moved into the forest, figuring it would be safer than the nearby U.N. camps, which suffered waves of cholera and ethnic killings. They used their machetes to chop down the trees, replacing them with potato fields and maize plants. Today, only a few acres remain of what was a 30-square-mile forest.
It's hard to blame the refugees. Everyone we spoke to in those mountains had relatives killed in the war. Everyone came here looking for peace.
But because of Gishwati's denuding, the soil quality has deteriorated, and the people living in this once-fertile region are hungry.
The terraced hills have the red scars of erosion, and landslides have killed dozens of people. The rivers are the color of coffee, and the sand wrecks hydroelectric plant machinery and water sanitation stations. When these muddied waters flow into Lake Kivu - the large, brilliant blue lake that separates Rwanda from Congo - they carry excess nutrients that fuel unhealthy algae growth, which in turn devastates the country's fishing industry.
The Rwandan government now recognizes that Gishwati's deforestation was an ecological disaster. It says there should have been a better environmental plan in place - an easy concept in hindsight.
Once again, we thought, rocking along Gishwati's washed-out, hairpin-turn dirt roads, this little country gives the world an example of what not to let happen. The legacy of genocide is everywhere here, even in the trees.
But there is also hope.
The gorilla economy
Rwanda's Virungas Volcano region is home to the mountain gorilla, a highly endangered animal made famous by conservationist Dian Fossey and the movie Gorillas in the Mist. This area saw relatively little habitat destruction during the war, despite the fact that soldiers of all sides regularly skirmished in the thick bamboo forests and tropical jungles.
We spoke to several rangers and conservationists here, asking why. They told us that some aid groups kept money flowing to conservation programs, even during the height of the fighting, which meant that local environmentalists could continue their work. They said rangers and other lower-level staffers took over responsibilities when their supervisors had to flee the country.
But in large part, they said, the habitat remained intact because locals recognized that the gorillas could make them money.
They were right. Today, tourists pay the park system $375 to see the gorillas, slipping up the muddy slopes behind guides who clear the brush with their machetes. In the nearby town of Ruhengeri, visitors stay in a growing number of lodges, buy "gorilla-safe" honey and shop at stores that sell gorilla figurines and hand-painted T-shirts.
One morning we accompanied a tour group. After about an hour walking (or sliding, really) we found the Sabinyo gorilla family in a misty clearing, their dark, teddy-bear fur moist from the constant drizzle. A baby rode on its mother's back. A youth rolled around on the damp grass. A large male munched on a bamboo shoot, keeping his moist brown eyes on the group of camera-toting humans.
I glanced at our guide, who was smiling proudly. I thought about what it must have been like here in the 1990s, this misty, green hideaway far more nightmare than fairytale.
Later, I spoke to a ranger named Digirinana Francois, who worked in this forest during the war. He helped guide veterinarians to the gorillas. He removed poaching snares. I asked him why he did it, despite the danger.
"I was in love with the park, with the gorillas," he said.
I asked whether he was Hutu or Tutsi. He laughed an awkward laugh and paused.
"We are all Rwandese," he said.