"We just kept hearing these reports that 10 Belgian peacekeepers had been killed and the UN was pulling out and people were dying on a massive scale."
The Rwandan genocide would become one of the greatest human atrocities since the Holocaust as extremists from the ethnic Hutu majority massacred at least 800,000 minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates with gruesome efficiency while the world stood by.
As details emerged, Austin raised money in the United States and worked to get to the beleaguered African nation as soon as possible. Meanwhile, a Tutsi-led military offensive defeated the Hutu Power government in the capital city of Kigali by July 1994 and supposedly ended the genocide. But as Austin and others would learn, the violence was far from over.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed toward the eastern border of neighboring Zaire, among them the perpetrators of the genocide. Hidden inside refugee camps, Hutu militias renewed their strength and began amassing weapon caches with the quiet support of Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
Austin fearlessly penetrated the militia encampments, persuading exiled Hutu military leaders to disclose how they had obtained antitank grenades and high-caliber ammunition. The list included Col. Théoneste Bagosora, considered to be a chief architect of the genocide. Her trick? Austin told them she was a researcher for the neutral-sounding Institute of Policy Studies which was technically true and simply needed to hear their side of the story.
"It was a really treacherous place to be," Austin said. "At the time I appeared young, nonthreatening. I didn't often say I was with Human Rights Watch.... In any kind of organization, people are motivated by many different things. You find those sources that for some reason or another want to help out or are so ego-driven they don't think that any information they give to you is going to be used somehow against them."
She also interviewed members of flight crews who gave her information on cargo companies hired by the Mobutu government to secretly supply its Hutu allies with weapons by falsifying official flight plans and end-user certificates, key legal requisites designed to curtail transnational arms shipments.
According to her later Human Rights Watch report, "The militias in these camps have taken control of food distribution, engage in theft, prevent the repatriation of refugees through attacks and intimidation, carry out vigilante killings and mutilations of persons suspected of crimes or of disloyalty ... and actively launch cross-border raids."
What didn't make sense was how the suspected ringleaders of the genocide could obtain weapons despite the return of peacekeepers to the area and an arms embargo on Rwanda imposed by the UN.
CIA investigators later discovered that planes belonging to Bout were involved in supplying the outlaw Hutus, according to Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun's definitive book on Bout, Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Wiley, 2007).
Austin also came to that conclusion by the end of an eight-month fact-finding trip to the region carried out in 1994 and 1995. Her findings for Human Rights Watch helped propel her to international notoriety as more NGOs focused on illegal arms flows coming from private brokers.
"The Rwandan genocide was really the watershed, for me and for Bout," Austin said. "In the early years, he's building his empire and I'm beginning to narrow what I want to investigate. I was becoming more and more convinced that in all the wars I was looking at, it was logistics. It was all about who could bring in the guns, the fuel keep the war going."
Back then, Bout was still a bit player among many weapons suppliers working on the continent, according to Austin.