An unforgotten death in Africa
By Jon Swain
Time, they say, is a great healer. But how you come to terms with the murder of your adored elder sister in a faraway country in Africa, torn asunder by civil war, by vicious and faceless rebels with whom you share absolutely nothing in common, is far from straightforward.
Do you fester in hatred and seek revenge? Do you wallow in pity? Do you forgive? Do you blank it out? Or do you seek answers and justice? For much of the period I have known him, Richard Wilson, a 30-year-old Londoner, has had to cope with precisely these issues. Today, he tells me he thinks he has found most of the answers after more than four years of painful investigation. But no justice.
He is still grieving and he has written a book about the tragedy: not comfortable reading. But then there is nothing comfortable about the way his sister Charlotte Wilson died. Three days after Christmas 2000, she was killed in Burundi when the bus she was travelling on was ambushed by Hutu rebels, crashed and overturned in a ditch. She was 27.
Charlotte was teaching at a school in neighbouring Rwanda and had recently fallen in love with a 6ft 6in-tall Burundian teacher called Richard Ndereyimana, a former monk. Just a few days earlier the couple had got engaged. They were on their way to celebrate the New Year in Burundi with his parents.
The rebels robbed the passengers of the Titanic Express and ordered them to lie on the ground. Then they opened fire. Her fiancé and 19 other passengers, including children, were killed. Charlotte died with seven bullet holes in her back.
She was blissfully happy, according to her last letters home. “I’m definitely following my star, even if it leads me to places that aren’t part of the conventional road to happiness,” she wrote to her mother.
She was happy, but she was also much affected by the recent genocide in Rwanda, which still cast a shadow over the land. One of the beliefs she held was that it was wrong to target people because of a label. In the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had been slaughtered by Hutus. The Hutus had massacred the Tutsis not as individuals but because they bore a Tutsi label.
Tragically, as her brother has found in his investigations, his sister, too, was very likely seen as a label, not as an individual, by her killers. The rebels labelled her as a white person and to them that was a crime because, as one of them who shot her said in justification before he pulled the trigger on his AK-47: “It is you white people selling the weapons in Africa. Now you are going to feel what it is like.”
“So she had to pay the price for the arms trade,” Wilson says. “The gun that killed Charlotte was probably supplied by a European dealer.”
No family has been more remote from the arms business than the Wilsons. Margot and Peter Wilson were schoolteachers living in Italy when Charlotte was born. Moving back to Britain they had two more children, Richard and Catherine, but Peter died of leukaemia when Charlotte was six. Widowed, Margot never remarried, but devoted herself to her children.
She instilled in them a deep sense of morality, decency and independent thought. Her idealism rubbed off on Charlotte and with such a background it was the most ordinary thing in the world for her — after taking a PhD in microbiology — to leave Britain in 1999 to do voluntary work in Rwanda, one of the most forsaken countries on earth, and put a promising scientific career in London on hold.
Wilson will always wonder why his sister was travelling on that dangerous road when everyone advised westerners against it. But her father’s death when she was six had hit Charlotte just at the age when she was old enough to feel the force of it but did not have the emotional resources to deal with the loss. Even in her twenties she spoke of her grief as a “black cloud” that was always there. It left a hole in her life that could never be filled. Wilson wonders, still, whether it was that “black cloud” that had obscured her judgment so disastrously over Burundi.
A few months before her murder he had visited her in Rwanda and worried that she was reckless about her safety. What worried him most was that she seemed so willing to put her own safety at risk to prove a point. “My sister could be bossy, irritating and stubborn,” he says. But she was also the “most generous, gregarious, good-hearted and energetic person I knew”.
Though only two years apart, their two lives could not have been more different. While she was engaged in poverty, disease, ignorance and the legacy of the Rwandan genocide, he, back in London, was working in IT, on a computer system for ordering carpets and table lamps.
He writes in his book that when he came to study in London, “we met up regularly, swapped music and went to each other’s parties. I was proud of my increasingly glamorous sister, who knew all the good pubs in Hammersmith and who half my friends seemed to fancy.”
The moment he heard the news of her death is still etched on his mind. Wilson was spending a quiet day at his office when the telephone rang. His mother, using her “serious” voice but quite calm, told him to come home as she had something to tell him. He wondered if the dog had died and said he was not coming home without knowing why. “It’s Charlotte and Richard. They were in Burundi. They were on a bus. It was attacked by Hutu rebels,” she said.
She was making him nervous and annoyed at the way she was stringing it out. But he did not expect her to say what she said next. “They’ve been killed, Richard.”
Among his sister’s belongings which were returned from Africa was a letter “to my family in the event of my death”. In it, she apologised for “having got myself killed . . . God willing, we will meet again”.
Amid deepening personal grief, anger at her killers but also towards his sister for taking such a big risk, Wilson began investigating and trying to make sense of the murder. The family set up a fund and used Charlotte’s savings, including a £2,000 inheritance from her father, to help her fiancé’s family caught up in the fighting in Burundi.
I wrote about their generosity in The Sunday Times and in due course got to know Wilson. I have watched, in growing admiration, how, with dogged persistence, he has conducted a singular crusade, not just to bring her murderers to justice, but to understand who they were and why they killed her.
In the process, Wilson abandoned his job, lost his girlfriend, underwent counselling and sometimes was at odds with his mother and sister, both distraught but finding different ways to deal with the grief. Several times the family came close to breaking point, he says.
He has had to wrestle with his own feelings, starting with intense anger and thoughts of having the killers bumped off. But gradually, as he explored deeper into himself, he realised the futility and immorality of such a violent response.
As he explored deeper, too, into the brutal African environment in which his sister was murdered, he began to find the reasons why she was killed.
From the beginning he faced indifference and obfuscation from the British authorities. The police, investigating Charlotte’s murder at the behest of the coroner after her body had been repatriated, told him: “They do things differently in Africa . . . these people are killing each other all the time . . . your sister’s killers are never going to be caught or prosecuted.”
But Wilson refused to believe them. He had inwardly promised his sister, too, at the moment of identifying her body at the morgue, that he would do everything he could to see her killers tracked down and put on trial.
Wilson acknowledges that he got some notable support from some individual Foreign Office officials, but says the police were not helpful. At one point, they accused him of interfering with their investigation by trying to help a crucial wounded eyewitness to the ambush to come to Britain.
On another occasion, a policeman, apparently at Foreign Office bidding, asked his mother to tell her son to back off as his actions were jeopardising a peace process beginning to take root in Burundi.
But, through dogged persistence, he has got further than the police and Foreign Office ever did to shed light on this crime. He located a secret guerrilla document from Burundi which identified the killers and their leader as being the Palipehutu National Liberation Forces (FNL), the country’s only remaining Hutu rebel group, led by Agathon Rwasa.
But though Wilson notified the Foreign Office, the document was kept from him for a year. The Foreign Office claimed it was being translated.
After an even bigger massacre than the Titanic Express — the slaughter of 152 Congolese Tutsis at a refugee camp — the FNL were declared a terrorist organisation and Rwasa a war crimes suspect.
But months afterwards he was shaking hands with the Burundian president as they signed a ceasefire deal in neighbouring Tanzania. Now, just in the last few days, Rwasa has been granted immunity from prosecution.
To Wilson’s dismay, having always said it would oppose an amnesty, the Foreign Office has registered no complaint: “This is very disappointing,” he says.
Thus, he says, the British government seems to be willing to turn a blind eye to murder for reasons of political expediency.
Wilson’s experience has made him wonder how much, for all its fine rhetoric of Africa being a “scar on the conscience of the world”, this government really cares about seeing justice done in Africa.
“Charlotte’s murder was inexcusable but it was not inexplicable,” he says. “There are killers in every society. It simply isn’t true that Africans are intrinsically more violent or value human life less than we do.”
But, he says, the area where Charlotte died in Burundi still lives in the shadow of its history — a genocide of 200,000 Hutus in 1972, the year before Charlotte was born, which gave rise to the FNL, the very same rebel group which killed her and tens of thousands of others.
Without bringing the ringleaders like Rwasa to justice, the rage will not go away. “It will fester,” he says. “Without justice, the dead will refuse to stay buried.” That is why, he says, he has no problem being a “spanner in the works”, campaigning against an amnesty for Charlotte’s killers.
Titanic Express, by Richard Wilson, is published by Continuum, £16.99