NEVER FORGET: Visiting the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali

“In all my travels, I’ve never seen a country’s population more determined to forgive, and to build and succeed than in Rwanda.” (Rick Warren)

My eyes filled with tears as I sat in silence with friends in a room at the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali. All around me were pictures of people who had been killed in 1994.

A video overhead showed a young man talking. He talked about his mother and how she’d been murdered. Next was a young woman. Then there was another man. And another woman.

We heard how women were forced to murder their husbands whilst their children watched. Their children were then made to kill them, before being killed themselves. Women were raped. People were burned alive.

What we were hearing left everyone speechless. How could something like this have happened in this beautiful, peaceful country we’d come to know and love? What made it even worse? It wasn’t just soldiers or fanatics doing the killing. It was ordinary people, like you and like me.

Twenty years ago today in Rwanda, fear, years of oppression, pitted rivalry and propaganda led people to start committing some of the most terrible crimes known to mankind. In the space of 100 days, it’s estimated that the Hutus murdered around 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbours (and some Hutus – those thought to be sympathetic of the Tutsis, married to a Tutsi or sometimes those who ‘looked’ like a Tutsi). On the news they called it ‘Civil War’ and ‘Tribal Problems’. It wasn’t. It was pre-meditated genocide.

Although whilst the genocide happened so quickly, it was the culmination of many years of long standing rivalry between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis, caused primarily by outside oppressors.

During the ‘Scramble for Africa’, Germany laid claim to what is now modern day Rwanda. But after the end of the First World War, the League of Nations took control and handed administration over to Belgium. Before that, there had been no Rwanda, no country boundaries in sub-Saharan Africa, only Kingdoms and Chiefdoms. Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side, not always peacefully, but for the most part they did. They speak the same language. In fact being a Tutsi or a Hutu was interchangeable.

The Belgians had always favoured the Tutsis believing them to be superior over the Hutus and gave the Tutsis more access to education and jobs. Resentment grew amongst the Hutus, but over time,  the Belgians favour began to switch to the Hutus causing further friction between the two ethnic groups.

In 1962, Rwanda gained independence from Europe, along with many other African nations around the same time. The Hutus were now in power, after years of oppression by both the European colonisers and to some extent, the Tutsis. Not long after independence in 1963 Tutsi rebels from neighbouring Burundi headed for the Rwandan capital, Kigali but their plan was thwarted. Prominent Tutsi leaders were arrested and killed, the radio stations put out propaganda and people were told to form vigilante groups. It is thought that up to 20,000 Tutsis died. Many more went into exile in Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi.

In Burundi, there was more trouble ahead. After a military coup in 1966, the Tutsis were in power. Hutus were thrown out of government or executed along with many Hutu soldiers. In 1972, the Hutus began to fight back, so the Tutsi leaders set about rounding up any educated Hutus, killing up to 200,000 people/

The situation in Burundi was used to fuel the fire in Rwanda. In 1973, president Grégoire Kayibanda was overthrown and fellow Hutu, Juvénal Habyarimana took control. Over the years, the economic situation worsened, poverty was rife and Habyarimana began to lose his popularity with the people. In 1990 the Rwandan Civil War began when Tutsi refugees in Uganda (the Rwandan Patriotic Front – RPF) were planning to overthrow the president. This would allow them to return to their homeland. A homeland many of them had never seen.

Habyarimana was supported by the French and Congolese governments so the RPF were fighting a losing battle. The invasion displaced many Rwandans, and Habyarimana used this to unite the Hutus against the Tutsis. He accused the Tutsis who remained in Rwanda of being RPF collaborators.

In 1993, a peace treaty was signed between Habyarimana and the RPF but the country was already in a dire situation so to keep the peace, the UN sent in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), but they were not allowed to use force.

The Hutu militia gathered in secret. Weapons, mainly in the form of machetes were shipped in from other countries. In January 1994, an informant brought this to the attention of UN peacekeeper, General Romeo Dallaire, who immediately relayed the information back to headquarters. But he was told to do nothing.

In April 1994, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by a rocket on the approach to Kigali airport, and all aboard were killed, including Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi (also a Hutu). Exactly who shot down the plane, nobody knows. Some say it was the work of Paul Kagame, the current President of Rwanda, who was in 1994, a Tutsi rebel leader. He denies this, and says it was carried out by Hutu extremists to initiate the genocide. French officials have since said that it could not have been Kagame, but nobody really knows.

The militia took over the country and a revenge campaign began the very next day. The militia, known as the interahamwe (which means those who attack together), consisted of the miltary, political figures and even business men. Before she could make an appeal for calm, the female prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her husband were shot dead and the Belgian UN peacekeepers sent to protect her, were tortured and murdered. Dallaire called for 5000 reinforcement troops but to no avail. Troops were sent in to rescue the French, Belgian and American citizens but Dallair refused to abandon his post, and stayed behind to lead the 270 peacekeepers still there, and the 200 local authority peacekeepers supporting them. They had no chance.

It was called a civil war and no-one wanted to intervene.

In a shocking case of history repeating itself, through radio propaganda, the Hutu people were encouraged and ordered to ‘begin your work’ and join in – they were told to spare no-one, not even children.

Hutus headed to schools and churches where Tutsis were hiding and the massacres began.

Some joined in because they were told they would get food or land and by this point, their country in ruins, people were desperate. They were also threatened with the lies that if they did not kill the Tutsis, the Tutsis would kill them and their families. Many others were forced to kill by the militia and if they refused to take part, they would have been seen as Tutsi collaborators and killed too. These campaigns had been festering and spreading slowly over many years. All the militia had to do was ramp up the message.

Ordinary people began killing their neighbours and friends and in some cases, family.

By the time they called it genocide, the lives had been lost and the damage had been done. President Clinton has said his biggest regret is not intervening. Had the 5000 troops been sent in, it’s estimated that 500,000 people would have been saved.

There were many heroes too. Hutus and foreigners from elsewhere who risked their lives to save others. Those like Paul Rusesabagina who was made famous by the film, Hotel Rwanda. Or Senegalese peacekeeper, Mbaye Diagne, who saved around 1000 people by driving them 5 at a time through Hutu roadblocks. Had he been caught, he would have immediately been executed.

The killing continued until July, when the RPF took over the capital and initially, a multi ethnic government was set up.  Over two million Hutus fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the killing didn’t stop there, it continues and around 5 million more people have lost their lives across the border.

Visiting the Genocide Museum in Kigali was probably one of the most harrowing experiences of my travels to date. Clothing covered in blood and bones are on display and the names of the victims are written on the walls. It’s only been 20 years since the Genocide took place, it’s still raw, still very fresh in the minds and on the faces of many of the people you meet. Visiting it makes it real, not just something that happened far away. The entire time I was there, the thoughts running through my head were:

What if that was MY mum, MY dad, MY brother?

Alternatively, what if my dad or my brother were the ones commiting the crimes. Would I have the strength to stop them? Would I risk my life to save others? Or, out of fear, would I do what I was told to do because I thought it would save my children?

Memorial Guides, some the same age as me, talk you through their ordeals and the death of the 5000 people who were murdered on the site. I was 14 when it happened. I cannot even imagine the things they will have seen as children. How do you get over it? Knowing that your entire family was wiped out?

Today I read an article, that stunned me to my very core. The Association Modeste et Innocent, a nonprofit organisation working in Rwanda are running a programme where they take small groups of Hutus and Tutsis and provide them with counselling. The main shocking factor, is that the Hutus involved, have killed the people closest to the Tutsis they are working with. They then formally ask for forgiveness from the Tutsis.

The people in the article are showing the world what it means to be human. To forgive. I do not know how they have found it in their hearts to do so. Could I do it? I really don’t know.

There’s a lot we can learn from the people of Rwanda today. Lessons in resilience, love and forgiveness. I urge you to visit  this extraordinary country and meet it’s extraordinary people. Now, when asked, many people will say, I’m neither Hutu or Tutsi, I’m Rwandan. That’s the attitude the world needs on a bigger scale. I’m not this or that, I’m human. It’s just sad that it takes genocide to make happen.

Rwandans are keen to educate the world as to what happened in the 100 days in 1994, to help us all learn from the past to ensure to promote the message clear NEVER AGAIN. They seem to be forgiving, but not forgetting. Their neighbours commited the crimes, but it was the outside world and the government they trusted who failed them.

But the Rwandan’s plea NEVER AGAIN is unfortunately falling on deaf ears. It is happening again, in Syria and the Central African Republic. It’s already too late.

For further reading I recommend:

  • The State of Africa by Martin Meredith
  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch
  • AFRICA Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden