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.