FACE-OFF: Jacques Pauw speaks to Kennedy Gihana, the subject of his latest book. He declined Gihana’s request to omit parts of his story.
FACE-OFF: Jacques Pauw speaks to Kennedy Gihana, the subject of his latest book. He declined Gihana’s request to omit parts of his story.

THE bare bones of this story scrape at my heart like sandpaper on a blister. A young man who has lost his family in the Rwandan genocide walks nearly 6,000km, much of it without shoes, from Kigali to Joburg, to get himself educated.

Kennedy Gihana, who started life as a cattle herder for his impoverished grandparents, succeeds, eventually. Today he has a master’s degree in international law.

Those are the basic facts in Rat Roads: One Man’s Incredible Journey by Jacques Pauw (Zebra Press) — an extraordinary tale of bravery, determination, horror and unimaginable cruelty.

The book’s title comes from the Swahili word, panya, which means "rat roads". "They are those little paths you take in order not to be seen and to stay alive," Gihana tells Pauw. "That’s how I’ve survived."

The reason Rat Roads came about is due to Gihana’s path crossing Pauw’s. They may even unknowingly have bumped into each other stepping over butchered bodies on those killing fields, for Pauw was there in 1994, and often thereafter. He admits to being "somewhat obsessed" with Rwanda, reading endless books about the genocide but always feeling that the chronicle of just one person would tell it best.

Then, 17 years after the slaughter, Gihana drifted into his life. Pauw met him early in 2011, listened to him for a few hours and knew before the sun had set that this was the story he’d been waiting to tell. Not only does it encompass Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and SA, but it contains characters who are capable of mindless depravity, and angelic kindness.

Pauw has covered wars from the Congo to Eritrea, Algeria and Sudan. He has won international and local investigative awards, probing the minds of apartheid’s most evil, including Eugene de Kock and Ferdi Barnard. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have both lauded his books.

So he is no pushover and yet this book, his fifth, "has taken more out of me than any I have written before", so much so that he says vehemently: "No. No more books."

Pauw dedicates this one to Gihana, for his honesty, bravery "and for baring his soul to me, however difficult it was".

When they started their interviews, Pauw was unaware of the extent to which the now 30-something lawyer was involved in the killings, and atrocities committed by now Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s rebel army. Gihana was surprised, then dismayed, as Pauw dug into his war-torn years, insisting that he learn the whole truth.

"I dealt with Kennedy on two levels, the personal level because he’s become a friend, and the professional level."

The latter meant that whatever was on the tape was going to be in the book, "and I was not going to let my empathy for Kennedy steer me away from the horrible things he did. Kennedy was far more forthcoming than anybody else I have ever interviewed."

The result shocked them both for there were times that Gihana put his head on his arms and sobbed uncontrollably as his body convulsed with emotion. He begged Pauw to leave out certain details. "But, if I omitted them, I’d not be telling Kennedy’s story. They are what made him who he is."

Gihana didn’t know his father and saw his mother only intermittently; his beloved grandparents raised him. They were all Tutsi, a minority tribe that had ruled Rwanda for years. When the dominant Hutus gained power, they systematically drew up extermination lists, detailing where every Tutsi lived and how many there were of them in each family — including even those where a member of one tribe was married to another. In that case they were all to be killed. Tutsi schoolchildren were earmarked for ridicule and abuse by Hutu teachers.

It was part of a methodical build-up to wiping out a tribe, in much the same way the Jews were targeted by Adolf Hitler.

Kagame, a Tutsi, formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and began plotting the overthrow of the Rwandan Armed Forces. It is alleged he was involved in the 1994 shooting down of a plane, killing two presidents, because he wanted to seize power in Rwanda. It sparked the genocide. It lasted 100 days and 800,000 people were hacked to death with Chinese-made machetes imported specifically for the killing, as were weapons from countries that included SA.

Gihana joined the RPF and was subsequently involved in atrocities committed by the Kagame rebel soldiers as they battled the Hutu genocide machine that had wiped out their families.

The Interahamwe, as the Hutu militia was called, killed quickly and brutally — it had been planned for so long.

When Gihana, exhausted and disgusted after three years of nonstop fighting, tried to delist, he was arrested. He was imprisoned on Iwawa island in Lake Kivu where he and other "deserters" were subjected to brutal discipline, many of them dying from malaria as well as losing limbs and lives to land mines planted there. When he was finally discharged by Kagame and couldn’t find his family, he set off to walk to Johannesburg to get an education. "I kept on asking him if he’d been attacked by wild animals or bitten by snakes, but that incredible walk was a nonevent," says Pauw. SA proved far more challenging.

Gihana spent a decade studying for his LLB, sleeping on park benches, starving, and at one time contemplating suicide as he struggled to be registered at the University of Pretoria, to obtain refugee status, and then permanent residence in SA.

He had written and passed his master’s degree in international law but owed R80,000 in university fees and was in danger of being sued.

"Today, Kennedy is suffering from post-traumatic stress, not only from the killings he’s committed but because his life’s been so volatile," says Pauw.

"I had a team of psychologists willing to treat him at the University of Pretoria but he’s so busy working with the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), to overthrow Kagame, there’s been no time."

Pauw predicts another violent war, saying Gihana "could one day become the Rwandan minister of justice — if he’s not killed". But the now internationally vilified Kagame’s long and brutal tentacles reach into SA.

The night Rat Roads is launched, Frank Ntwali, head of the RNC, tells me about the 11 stab wounds he sustained in an assassination attempt in Johannesburg six months ago.

This is Pauw’s best book yet. It is a serious work that reads like a thriller and makes the reader part of history in the making.