Rwanda: 20 years after

neer again 2

“My mother and two little brothers were burned alive while trying to escape to Burundi. My older brother was stoned – they put the kids in a ditch and unloaded a truck full of stones onto them. My father was killed with a machete by our next-door neighbour. He’s an old guy now. I still see him whenever I go back to my home town. We exchange hellos.

I’m the only survivor. I survived because I was living with my grandparents at that time.”

Gabi is a tall man in his early thirties. His stature reveals his Tutsi origins, even though nobody in Rwanda talks about Tutsis and Hutus any more. Gabi accompanies me to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which hosts a museum of the 1994 genocide. In the beautiful gardens surrounding the site there are mass graves of thousands of Tutsi men, women and children, a tiny fraction of the million lives that perished in just 100 days between April and July 1994.

To give the visitor a faint idea of the scale of this crime, the museum displays boards filled with endless rows of names, and a room showing photos of genocide victims. As I walk around, hundreds of pairs of eyes are gazing at me from the yellowing pictures.



What happened in Rwanda in 1994?

The museum does a good job of explaining the complicated chain of events that led to the genocide. It was a planned, premeditated and well-executed action that made almost every Hutu civilian an accomplice. Forming 80% of the population, these ordinary people got convinced that they had to grab machetes, knives and any other weapon they had at hand and systematically murder their Tutsi neighbours and family members, going from house to house.

When the Tutsi population was being systematically wiped out, the international community sat with their arms folded. The UN, rather than deploy the 5000 soldiers that allegedly would have stopped the killings, decided to withdraw its forces entirely. Nobody cared about the lives lost in a small, landlocked country in East Africa that had no strategic importance.

It is no argument that the international community didn’t know. Things had been brewing in Rwanda for years before the fateful 7 April 1994 when the moderate Hutu president Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash, allegedly orchestrated by Hutu extremists who wanted a pretext to start the killings. The UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda had been receiving intelligence about the planned genocide for months and was diligently sending reports to the Secretary General. But still the UN did nothing.

Why did it happen?

Things like that don’t happen out of the blue. It took years of hate-filled propaganda to convince Hutus that Tutsis were mere ‘cockroaches’ and had to be exterminated. While Rwanda has always been home to these two ethnic groups, the farming Hutu and the cattle keeping Tutsis, they had managed to live peacefully and intermarry for years. Until white colonisers came and persuaded the slightly lighter and taller Tutsis about their superiority. Deemed ‘almost as good as the whites’, the Tutsis were helping colonial authorities enforce its rule in the country. That division persisted after Rwanda gained independence from Belgium. Identity cards were issued labelling people as either Hutu, Tutsi or Twa (a forest tribe forming less than 1% of the population). When a Hutu government finally seized power, extremist forces associated with it started planning a total extermination of Tutsis – the hated masters.

Living memory

Rwanda is a country of incredible natural beauty, rightly named the country of a thousand hills. It could easily be heaven on Earth if it wasn’t dotted with genocide memorials commemorating monstrosities of unimaginable magnitude.

A short drive from Kigali you will find two unremarkable small towns – Nyamatta and Ntarama. Both are home to Catholic churches that witnessed some of the worst massacres in the history of the Rwandan genocide. In the years building up to the ‘final solution’, so called ‘practice massacres’ were held by armed militias all over the country. Those who sought refuge in churches were spared. Not surprisingly, when the killings started again in 1994, thousands of Tutsis fled to seek safety in churches. And that’s where the killers found them, sparing no one.

The small church of Nyamatta has rows of pews, each covered with clothes of the 10 000 murdered Tutsis. In the centre stands a sculpture representing Virgin Mary, with half of her face shot off by a bullet because she, too, was considered a Tutsi.

inside nyamatta

Outside the church there are several mass graves, one of them open. I walk into a dark, narrow space lined with shelves reaching all the way to the ceiling. Every shelf is filled with thousands of skulls and bones arranged in neat piles.

The smaller church in Ntarama, where 5000 were slaughtered in just one day, is even more shocking. In addition to clothes, it displays artefacts brought by refugees hoping to soon return to their homes. There are school books, bags of maize and beans, and other daily essentials. At one end of the tiny church there is a terrifying display of skulls, each showing different wounds: from a bullet, a machete, or a club. The young guide dispassionately explains which wound matches which weapon. At the opposite end, one can inspect those primitive weapons, normally used for farming or construction. As I visit the church, a group of builders are working outside, expanding the Ntarama memorial site. I’m looking at the fractured skulls listening to the sounds made by the same weapons – tools that can be used to break a stone or crush a human skull.

The guide then leads me to what used to me the church kitchen – the building had been burned almost to the ground and it was left untouched afterwards. It is full of broken cooking pots and pieces of charred clothing. In the middle there is a single shoe.

The small adjacent chapel where builders are hard at work holds another hair-rising memorial. The guide steps over freshly poured cement and raises a piece of cloth hanging from the wall.

“The genocidaires used to smash Tutsi babies against this wall”, she says.

Ntarama is a sobering reminder of how recent the Rwandan genocide is. In one of the corners of the church there is a wheelbarrow filled with dirt-covered bones.

“We only found them two weeks ago”, says the guide.

The construction workers outside are in the process of digging what will become mass graves like the ones in nearby Nyamatta. For now the site is still exactly as it was back in 1994.

From Kigali I travel to the shores of the magnificent Lake Kivu, which constitutes the border between Rwanda and DRC (Congo). Two picturesque towns of Gisenyi (bordering Congolese Goma) and Kibuye were sites of terrible massacres. The rolling hills and blue waters were teeming with corpses.

My imagination starts playing tricks on me. As I dip my foot in the lake one hot morning, I spot a white shape and I instinctively jump out, horror-struck. It is just a white stone, but for a split second I saw a skull.

Later that afternoon I walk down the main road around the lake towards the village centre, hoping to hail a moto taxi on the way. I’m walking in the sun admiring the sweeping lake vistas. Suddenly, a silhouette of an old man appears on the horizon. He is short and stocky, his forehead is low, his cheekbones high and his eyes are hidden deep in his eye sockets. In his hand he is holding a machete. A completely irrational cold panic grips me and I’m ready to turn back and run for my life. The man slowly raises his machete-free hand and waves at me before descending towards his field by the lakeside.

The lakeside has so many genocide memorial sites that even taxi drivers don’t know them all. I visit two of them – one is the St. Pierre church on a hill overlooking the lake. The church is closed, but I can see through the stained glass window. The window pane is red and looking through it into the church gives a terrifying effect, as if the whole church was filled with blood.

st pierre 2

Back in the capital city, I visit Camp Kigali, a military base where UN peacekeepers were stationed. One fateful day in April 1994 ten Belgian blue berets were captured, then tortured and executed there. The building wall is pierced with hundreds of bullet holes. Facing it is the memorial – ten stone pillars, each representing one soldier.

As predicted by the perpetrators of this crime, the execution of its soldiers caused Belgium to withdraw from Rwanda, followed by the rest of the international community. The path was clear for total extermination of Tutsis.

camp kigali

On my last night in Kigali, I decide to dine at Hotel des Mille Collines, one of the best addresses in town. It is known for its exquisite food and service, but more so, it is world famous as ‘Hotel Rwanda’, a place where Paul Rusesabagina, the then hotel manager, offered refuge to thousands of Tutsis.

I sip excellent European wine and chew on my scallops, admiring the glittering city below me and contemplating the words that Gabi said to me. In the Kigali museum, there is a room dedicated to resistance efforts during the genocide and those brave individuals who risked their own lives to save their Tutsi friends as well as strangers. Hotel Rwanda is not mentioned. When I ask Gabi why, he shrugs.

“Only the richest and best connected Tutsis could find refuge in the Mille Collines. It wasn’t for free, you know”, he explains. It may be that Hotel Rwanda is an uplifting story that the West pursued for its own sake. We were in need of a Rwandan Schindler to somehow be able to deal with this monstrosity.


According to the national narrative, nowadays there are no Hutus or Tutsis, there are just Rwandans. But this hasn’t been an easy path, and it is still work in progress.

First of all, what do you do if practically the entire population has been involved in the genocide, either as victims or (the vast majority) as perpetrators? You can’t possibly put thousands of people on trial and then throw all the convicted in jail.

As the genocide was coming to an end and Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front was taking charge, thousands of Hutus fled the country in fear of Tutsi retaliation and settled in UN refugee camps in Congo (then Zaire), Burundi and Uganda. Within days, violent militias took control of the camps, distributing weapons and encouraging residents to take part in raids into Rwanda to kill the remaining Tutsis hiding in the forest. While Tutsis in Rwanda were starving, their killers were well provided for in UN-sponsored refugee camps, and they were continuing their mission of Tutsi extermination undisturbed.

The international community was slow in recognising the Rwandan genocide for what it was. World powers such as France and the United States didn’t acknowledge the genocide until the end of the 90s. The Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was set up in Arusha, Tanzania, to bring to justice those considered leaders of the genocide. Over 10 years of its operation, it only managed to put 50 individuals on trial and convict 29.

The smaller scale civilian perpetrators were to be judged by traditional ‘Gacaca’ courts, or peer-to-peer community courts.

“Imagine killers judging other killers”, says Gabi, very skeptical of the Gacaca courts. “Most genocidaires never confessed, or only issued a half-hearted apology and then continued walking the streets, like the man who killed my father. No one was punished.” To Gabi and many others, the government’s plea to forget and move on sounds like an insult.

Still, Gabi and other Rwandans I talked to, mostly Tutsis (for no one would admit to being a killer), recognise that their country has come a long way towards reconciliation. Gabi has friends who he thinks may be Hutu, but he doesn’t care any more. He wants his children to grow up free of hatred.

The hope is indeed in the young generation. Back in Nyamatta, the church is surrounded by two schools. Walking among the pews filled with clothes of the dead, I can hear the laughter of living schoolchildren. A new church has been erected in the village and I walk in to cool off after what I’ve seen. I sit in one of the pews and watch children pray in front of me. Hutu and Tutsi children are praying together, not aware or concerned about who is who.


Never again?

Many genocide memorial sites in Rwanda bear the inscription ‘never again’ in English and Kinyarwanda.

But when I visit the second floor of the genocide museum in Kigali, I’m stunned by the exhibition commemorating other genocides throughout human history: the massacre of the Armenians, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Yugoslavia… Didn’t we say ‘never again’ every time?

To quote Romeo Dallaire, the general in charge of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda: “The genocide in Rwanda is a failure of humanity which could easily happen again”. (Shake Hands with the Devil, 2003)

P.S. Out of respect for the victims and their families I have chosen not to publish any photos showing human remains.

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