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Rwanda: Fifteen years after the genocide

Categories: Sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda, Citizen Media, Ethnicity & Race, History, Human Rights, War & Conflict

Today marks the end of a week of national mourning in Rwanda to mark 15 years since the genocide which killed 800,000 people. On the 7th of April ceremonies were held [1] in the capital Kigali, and in Nyanza, where more than 5,000 people were slaughtered. At a stadium in Kigali, thousands of candles spelt out the word “hope” in three languages.

Rwandan blogger Negrita's Chronicles asked her readers [2] to join the nation-wide candlelight vigil for the victims through her blog:

It has been 15 years since the Genocide forever changed my home and my people.

The world stood silent as cries for help went unheeded.

Please join us in lighting a candle in memory of those whose lives were taken and in hope for a future of peace, justice, and true reconciliation.

In succesive posts, Negrita posted a video [3] for the campaign Candles for Rwanda [4], and the song ‘Never Again’ [5] written and recorded in commemoration of the Genocide. The song [6] was composed by Rwanda's gospel singer Jean Paul Samputu in Kinyanrwanda, but its choruses are sung in different languages (English, French, Swahili, Kirundi and Kiganda) by various popular regional musicians.

Kigali Genocide Museum (Photo by Elia Varela Serra)

Pictures of children victims of genocide at the Kigali Memorial Center (Photo by Elia Varela Serra)

Martin Leach, the head of the DFID (British Department for International Development) in Rwanda attended the ceremonies in Nyanza, which he describes [7] in his blog:

Hundreds of people trudged up the long hill to Nyanza, many of them wearing something purple, a neckscarf, a wrap, even a purple wristband. The colour purple is the colour of mourning in Rwanda and yesterday, 7th April, was the 15th Anniversary of the Genocide. At the top of the hill I joined the large crowd at the Commemoration Ceremony. Wedged between two ambassadors, I heard heart breaking accounts from survivors of the massacre which took place on the site where we were seated, with no one to protect them against the brutal attacks of the militia.

But it was the young people who moved me most: girls dressed in purple and white reciting poems in Kinyarwandan about the need to take courage for the future in spite of the sorrow and grief, and a youth choir with ‘Never Again’ emblazoned on their T-shirts and headbands, singing with emotion about the importance of never forgetting the genocide. And it was emotional. Even the Government Ministers were shedding tears, remembering their experiences and lost loved ones. I can't imagine it – one million people killed in 100 days: as the Lady Mayor of Kigali said ‘an unspeakable evil’ had gripped the country.

Michael Abramowitz of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was in Kigali for the ceremonies. In the blog World is Witness, Abramovitz recounts the testimony [8] of a genocide survivor called Venuste that moved the audience with his story during the ceremony:

Venuste, who looked to be in his 50s or 60s, with a dignified bearing, proceeded to tell the hushed crowd how his family and neighbors decided to take refuge at the nearby L’Ecole Technique Officielle, thinking that might be a safe refuge because of the small contingent of Belgian United Nations soldiers stationed there. But four days later, to their great shock, the small U.N. force departed, telling those gathered on the school grounds that “gendarmes” would rescue them. The U.N. soldiers ignored their desperate pleas not to leave them at the mercy of a menacing crowd of government soldiers and armed militia that surrounded them outside the gates of the school.
After the departure of the last U.N. soldier, Venuste and some 5,000 others who were gathered on the school grounds were forced to walk a jeering gauntlet of Hutu militiamen, soldiers and civilians wielding machetes, guns and other weapons. Some of those who survived described it as a “death walk.” Venuste lost his right arm, hacked off by one of the tormentors. The walkers came to this unremarkable hill, where they were encircled by a gang of killers and set upon with grenades, machetes and clubs. Within a few hours, Venuste said, “We were lying in pools of blood.”

Of the 5,000 or so who sought refuge from the U.N. near here, roughly 100 survived, according to Venuste. He lived only because he laid still under dead bodies, overlooked by the killers searching the carnage for signs of life.

Impressed by the economic development of Rwanda, Abramowitz sees no traces of the atrocities experienced 15 years ago:

As I first-time visitor to Rwanda, it’s hard not to be mystified by the mismatch between the ferocious events of just 15 years ago and apparent calm and prosperity in Rwanda, which aspires to be the hub of an economically vibrant East Africa. As we drove out of town to one of the churches where you can still see the skulls and belongings of murdered Tutsi, we passed by workers digging up ditches on the side of the road to lay down new fiber optic lines. A newcomer thinks: How can this beautiful country, routinely described by Africa hands as one of the better functioning countries on the continent, have experienced such savagery?

Ugandan fishermen pulling bodies out of Lake Victoria that had traveled hundreds of miles by river from Rwanda (Photo by Dave Blumenkrantz, used under a Creative Commons license)

Ugandan fishermen pulling bodies out of Lake Victoria that had traveled hundreds of miles by river from Rwanda (Photo by Dave Blumenkrantz, used under a Creative Commons license)

Colette Braeckman [Fr], a Belgian journalist and author of several books about Central Africa, was also present at the anniversary ceremony in Kigali of which she writes [9]:

Depuis la foule amassée devant le « jardin de la mémoire » et le monument consacré au génocide, des cris jaillissent, perturbent les discours officiels. A tout moment, des corps convulsés ou immobilisés par les syncopes sont emportés par des ambulances. Lorsque Venuste Kasirika s’empare du micro et raconte son calvaire, son récit est ponctué par les sanglots qui secouent l’auditoire.

From the crowds gathered before the “garden of remembrance” and the genocide memorial, cries are bursting out, disrupting the official speeches. The whole time, convulsed or fainting bodies are taken away by the ambulances. When Venuste Kasirika takes the stage and tells about his ordeal, his story is punctuated by the sobbing that shakes up the audience.

Walking around modern-day Kigali, Braeckman makes a similar observation [10] as Abramowitz about the disconnect with the horrible past:

Dans cette cité moderne, ambitieuse, dont les quartiers populaires ont été rasés et les habitants transplantés plus loin, au milieu de ces immeubles abritant des banques, des commerces et des bureaux, au vu de ces parterres taillés au ciseau et de ces espaces verts qui ressemblent à des jardins anglais, comment croire que, voici quinze ans, les bennes de la voirie ramassaient les cadavres à la pelle et les déversaient devant l’hôpital, comme des tas d’immondices ? Au vu de ces gens bien habillés, portant tous des chaussures de ville (les nu pieds sont interdits) comment se souvenir de ces tueurs au regard halluciné, ivres de bière, de chanvre et de haine, ceints d’amulettes, qui brandissaient fusils et longues machettes et traquaient, comme du gibier, leurs voisins tutsis débusqués dans les faux plafonds, les fossés et les fourrés de haies vives ?

In this modern, ambitious city, where the low-income neighborhoods have been razed and its inhabitants have been moved further away; amid these buildings with banks, stores and offices, seeing these perfectly manicured flower beds and these green spaces that look like English gardens, how can we believe that, fifteen years ago, garbage trucks were collecting corpses by the loads and were dropping them at the hospital, like piles of refuse? Seeing these well-dressed people, all wearing city shoes (going barefoot is forbidden) how can we remember the killers with the lunatic gaze, drunk with beer, with pot and with hate, adorned with amulets, brandishing shotguns and long machettes and were hounding, like you hound animals, their Tutsi neighbors that were forced to hide in the double ceilings, in the ditches and in the hedgerows?

Yves Zihindula [Fr], a Congolese blogger based in Goma, remembers [11] the genocide as seen from the other side of the border:

Voici 15 ans jour pour jour, que des centaines de milliers de gens (réfugiés) se sont déversés en République démocratique du Congo. Cette date me rappelle les images abominables des femmes et enfants affaiblis par la faim dans les rues de Goma. Je me souviens avoir vu des cadavres d’homme dans le lac Kivu, jetés depuis la partie rwandaise du lac et emmener par la vague vers les bords du côté congolais. J’ai vu à l’époque des camions à benne transporter des corps humains et déposer dans des fosses communes.

Des souvenirs pas du tout bons. Ça me fait toujours bizarre de réaliser cette tragédie. Des humains s’entretuer. Quand bien même chez les animaux, ces genre des situations arrivent rarement. J’ose espérer que ça ne se répétera plus jamais et que l’Afrique entière (pourquoi pas le monde entier) en a tiré les leçons.

Exactly 15 years ago hundreds of thousands of people (refugees) poured into the Democratic Republic of Congo. This date brings back the appalling images of women and children weakened by hunger on the streets of Goma. I remember having seen human corpses in the Kivu lake, thrown from the Rwandan side of the lake and brought by the waves to the Congolese side. At the time I had seen garbage trucks transporting human bodies and droping them off in mass graves.

Not good memories at all. It still feels weird to realize this tragedy. Humans killing each other. Even between animals these kinds of situations rarely happen. I dare to hope that this is not going to happen again and that the whole Africa (and the whole world) have learnt a lesson.

  • For a detailed background on the genocide in Rwanda, see these posts on the Stop Genocide blog: False History, Real Genocide: The Use and Abuse of Identity in Rwanda [12] and Genocide in Rwanda: “A Distinctly Modern Tragedy” [13].