In the beginning, “Hutu” meant you earned less than 10 cows, “Tutsi” that you owned more than 10 cows. The difference was socio-economic, not tribal or racial. That all changed with the Belgian colonists and their introduction of the identity card in 1932.
We were back in Kigali for one more day and were keen to visit the recommended Memorial Centre. So far during our visit it has been closed for memorial week events and we didn’t want to leave without visiting. It was a wet day when we went, a sombre day.
The centre started with a short video and then the exhibition began which set the context for the genocide, starting in the 1960s with the death of the king and the end of the monarchy. When elections and independence came in the early 60s, the ruling power was the Parmehutu government. Theirs was a centralised repressive state with a single party system. Ethnic division, started by the colonialists identity cards, had continued and deepened.
Tutsis began to leave the country, 700,000 exiles resettled elsewhere fleeing Rwanda’s one state policy that favoured the Hutus. There were reprisal killings when Hutus were massacred. Difference in class had become difference in ethnicity. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF, current government and party of Prime Minister Paul Kagame) wanted to re-establish equal rights, and the Prime Minister Habyarimana used the tensions to exploit divisions. He called the RPF and Tutsis “inyezi” (cockroaches) on news agencies and by 1990 a civil war had begun. Opponents of the regime were tortured in prison and murdered. As the exhibition outlines, between 1990-94, the genocide was being rehearsed.
A sustained propaganda campaign against the Tutsis began. In Kangura, a Rwandan newspaper, the 10 Commandments of the Hutu were printed that fuelled hatred against the Hutu. Radio stations broadcast further hate, depicting the Tutsis as coming to take their land back, invoking anger and paranoia. Hutus were encouraged to turn against their neighbours, their friends and colleagues and, where inter-racial marriage had taken place, even their own family.
The Arusha Peace Accords in 1992 were aimed to unifying the parties and demobilising the armies. Refugees were to be allowed to come home but Habyarimana did not want the talks to work and negotiations fell apart. The government took an arms deal worth 12 million, with funding from the French government.
An insider informant warned that the militia, the Interhamwe, were registering all Tutsi in Kigali for an ‘extermination plan’ which would kill up to 1000 people every 20 minutes. There was a cable sent to the United Nations in New York with the warning, but this was ignored, the informant disappeared and his fate remains unknown. The UN have no response to the fax. The rest, as they say, is history. What could have been avoided if the international community had acted?
On 6th April 1994, the airplane carrying Habyramira and the Burundi president Ntaryamira, was shot out of the sky. No-one knows who fired the missile but it was the catalyst for the genocide to begin. Roadblocks were set up, houses were searched; the death lists had been prepared in advance.
The genocide began. Hutus used anything: machetes, guns, any blunt weapon to murder and the atrocities spread across country, fuelled by the hate radio stations. Women were raped and murdered; their children made to watch, then they were attacked and mutilated. Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends turned on friends, family on family. Women and children were direct targets: no new Tutsi generations were to emerge from the killing. Hutus and Tutsi women were to kill their own children, if they had mixed parenting, and young children were forced to participate. The exhibition didn’t glory in the awful details, but it didn’t shy away from them – some of the video footage and photographs made me feel sick, I wanted to turn my eyes away but at the same time I couldn’t.
People had fled in fear to churches in hope that they would be safe but it was here that some of the worst killings happened, the clergy giving away information to the militia. Some images showed the inside of churches filled with rotting bodies, fragments of cloth, the floor and pews hidden by the amount of dead bodies.
Hutu men, women and even children joined in the carnage, blinded by hatred, fear and mob mentality, fuelled by the leaders and architects of the genocide.
The legacy of the genocide was this: one million people murdered, tens of thousands raped, tortured, mutilated, traumatised, 300,000 orphans. The streets were littered with rotting corpses and dogs had to be shot because they’d developed taste for human flesh. Entire families were totally wiped out. As the exhibition said, Rwanda was dead.
Diplomatic staff and foreign workers were evacuated, and though the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda was there during the genocide, a mandate meant they were powerless to prevent the killing. Not one additional peacekeeper or armoured personnel carrier arrived in Rwanda before July. A board simply read “The world withdrew and watched as a million people were slaughtered”.
The RPF moved into Kigali in July to a city decimated. Two million refugees fled into Burnindi, Tanzania, Uganda and what is now called the DRC. A photograph of a child, perhaps about ten years old, with a baby on its back and scanning the missing persons board at a refugee camp made tears come to my eyes.
An International Criminal Tribunal was set up in Arusha in 1996 to prosecute the high-level organisers and since then 75 cases have been heard with 12 acquittals and 16 pending appeal.
Many of the perpetrators remain free, having fled to sympathetic parties in Kenya, DRC and Tanzania.
A huge task began to try those Hutu citizens who joined in the killings, and so gacaca (grass) courts were established. These community restorative justice systems brought together survivors, perpetrates and witnesses before elected local judges. The gacaca courts have heard more than 1.9 million cases in the past 10 years and they are central in post-conflict justice and laying the foundations for peace. Perpetrators can serve half their sentence in community service, building roads and infrastructure.
We spent a lot of our time in Rwanda musing that anyone we’d meet over the age of 25 would have an experience of the genocide. We wondered what those around us, sitting on buses or in restaurants, had experienced and how those who had perpetrated crimes would be living now. In a video testimonial in the exhibition, one woman said how she lived down the road from people who killed her family and how she knew their names, many of those interviewed on film talked about forgiveness to those who had killed their loved ones. The capacity to forgive and to move on seemed so strong and something we dwelt on quite a lot. I don’t know where people have found that ability, or if I’d be capable of the same level of humanity.
The exhibition ends with three rooms: the first a room of photographs where families have come to leave images of those they have lost. The second contains some of the skulls exhumed from the mass graves outside, and amongst them are belongings found there: rosary beads, coins, car keys with a Shell gas company key ring, the lid a blue biro just like the one I have in my pencil case. The third room has some of the clothing found in the graves: tshirts, jogging bottoms, the printed kanga cloths that all the women here wear. It was deeply, deeply moving.
Outside we went to the mass graves. It was raining hard now and it felt awfully fitting. The graves are the resting home of a quarter of a million people and are now covered by concrete where families and strangers lay flowers. There is a wall of names and we stood for a while under our umbrella reading them. A family was standing with a bouquet and singing together.
We went to the cafe to find shelter and to gather our thoughts. I felt shaky and so very sad. This morning we woke to the news that we have dropped bombs on Syria and it feels like there are cycles of war that repeat themselves, times when “the west” has intervened without a mandate and times when we’ve stood by and done nothing. I don’t really understand it all.
Stepping back out into modern Kigali, we walked for miles, feeling lighter than we had done at the memorial. I couldn’t imagine the horrors that had swept these streets just 24 years earlier and how amazing the turnaround has been. The country has moved away from talking as tribes and instead citizens are all taught to be Rwandans. I’ve heard that Paul Kagame has his critics but the work of the government, the educations system and the national psyche in moving on from the past and looking to the future is incredible. We spent the night having drinks at a bar surrounded by people then went for huge and delicious burritos before catching a motorbike back to our hostel. The bike flew through the city, the dark pinpricked with lights all around, the wind in my hair and I thought how lucky we were to be here, now.