top of page

Recounting the trauma: Rwandan genocide

As the world marks UN World Refugee Day, Fatima Najm talks to Rwandan refugees who returned to help rebuild their country. They say recounting the trauma at gacacas ("truth and reconciliation style" courts) and memorials helps them move forward without dishonoring their past.

KIGALI, RWANADA: Kassim Ndayambaje cannot forget the horror of that April in 1994 when his fellow countrymen traded the blood in their veins for venom.

"My father begged his killers to use bullets. He had a little cash put away so that he and his family could die a quick and dignified death."

His killers considered his request for a few minutes while he groveled at their feet. They then took the money and proceeded to hack him to pieces with a machete in front of his children.

A gacaca is about to hear the testimony of a culprit who will get a reduced sentence in exchange for telling families what happened to their loved ones in an attempt to give them closure.

As UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres announced that number of refugees under UNHCR's responsibility had risen to 11.4 million, the international aid agency has every reason to laud this small African country for its efforts to resolve refugee issues in the region.

Rwanda has embarked on a courageous experiment, welcoming back its refugees, even the killers involved in the genocide. They hope their people will unite in a common purpose: Rebuilding the country and finding forgiveness on the way.

Fourteen years later, refugees are still returning from neighboring countries. The seven-year-olds who watched their mothers being ravaged by Hutus are 22 and they will not trade justice for information. They want to see everyone involved hung. Even the hatemongerers. And they don't trust The Hague. They want these killers and accomplices to face local justice at the gacaca.

In school they learn how, once the genocide began, it took the Hutu killers, the Interhamwe, 90 days to decimate the Rwandan population. More than 800,000 Tutsis and many moderate Hutus were massacred in a meticulously planned move to exterminate the "privileged cockroaches" - a label Hutu Power radio station used for Tutsis. Many have lost older siblings and they cringe at the idea of how the schooling system betrayed their loved ones.

"The killers had lists. Teachers would register pupils by ethnicity. Catholic priests would hand over lists of the Tutsis who came to their church to the Hutu Power leadership. The people that you turned to for protection were the one who turned you over to be killed. The radio called for all Hutus to rise and kill the Tutsis," explains Kassim.

Muslim Hutus were among the few who refused to douse their hands with Tutsi blood when hardliner Hutus took to the streets, pulling innocent people out of their homes and slaughtering them in plain view.

"Most Hutus who were Muslim avoided killing Tutsis. Muslims tried to explain it is not in our religion to kill," according to Ndayambaje. "But the extremist Hutus would kill your entire family if the Muslim Hutus refused to obey the killing order."

Mukamusoni Serafina serves as caretaker of the Nyamata church memorial. She explains how her entire family was killed in that same church.

"Many people tried to hide in the churches, but the killers came with priests. First, the men threw grenades into the church and when the people were injured and weak, they forced the gates open, raped the women and smashed babies on the walls. My children and husband were killed here," she says in a flat voice that reflects the emptiness in her eyes. She has told this story before, and she says she will tell it again.

Serafina believes that recounting the events is her duty to all those who died for no crime other than carrying identity cards that betrayed them as Tutsi. Rwandans like her describe their own trauma and relive the painful past in the hope that genocide will never tear at the fabric of her society again.

Paul Ruganintwali says he knows the man who killed his mother. He watched his trial at a gacaca, one of the community court hearings set up to deal with the sheer volume of killers with smaller roles in the genocide.

"I heard him describe how he killed her. Then he told us where her body was. For leading us to the bodies of 130 victims, he was given a reduced sentence," his voice breaks.

But for all the talk of remembrance, Hutu and Tutsi are words that Rwandans can no longer use in casual conversation. At a Chinese restaurant in Kigali I ask the staff whether they were Hutu or Tutsi. The waitress giggled, slightly nervous, shooting a look at her male colleague. He looked alarmed for a moment before he replied: "No such thing."

New legislation forbids Rwandans from identifying themselves as Hutu or Tutsi. The labels were introduced by the Belgians soon after they colonized Rwandans. Instead of accepting Rwandans as diverse people, the Belgians decided the taller, fair ones (Tutsi) were more intelligent and deserved to rule over the darker, shorter Hutus. The Hutus later used the identity cards to target Tutsis in a systematic fashion.

A truck with Chinese lettering eases out of the driveway of a hotel. Signs advertising the Japanese One Love project dot the bulletin board. A Canadian NGO is running a workshop to emphasize that sports can help refugees recover from their trauma. At Khazana, a popular Indian restaurant, a Rwandan college girl shuttling between tables of Rwandan ministers and Western NGO workers, says: "Where was everyone during the genocide? No one came to help us then, but everyone wants a piece of the reconstruction of our society. I guess it's good business. What will the NGOs do if there is no disaster?"

Kassem says: "You can understand why we don't trust foreign aid. This problem didn't exist before the Belgians colonized us. Then the French betrayed half our people by helping the Hutus because they want to encourage French-speaking cultures and they saw Tutsis as more Anglophone. But that is no reason to help the government commit genocide. We wont forget."

To the refugees who have returned to rebuild their country, forgetting means allowing the genocide an opportunity to repeat itself. April 1994 was not the first genocide Rwanda went through. It just happens to be the genocide that the world couldn't ignore. They know how short human memory is, and for them, forgetting is out of the question. They will remind you that it is literally a matter of life and death.

Students like Omar Gassana consider it their duty to remember the events of April 1994. Speaking at the Kigali Genocide Memorial where he volunteers, he says:

"I was ten years old and when the killing began I hid in the house and when I came out a Hutu neighbor made me help him clear dead bodies off the road. We tried to escape but we couldn't get through the roadblocks and then my family got separated. I heard from many people that my mother...she (his tongue stumbles on a distant memory)...Some Hutus found her in the empty house and raped her and left her in the fields, and people told me she was eaten by dogs while she was still alive. It hurts to repeat this. But we must not dishonor the dead. We must remember so we don't repeat."

Because the gacacas are in their last year, Rwandans are still a little afraid, not because they have killed but because they have not. Muslim Hutus who were very vocal about refusing to kill on the basis of peaceful teachings of Islam, are afraid of being silenced by Hutus who issued the killing orders. Guilty Hutus find it easier to kill the Rwandan who remembers too clearly what they did rather than bear the humiliation of admitting their crimes in front of a gacaca.

The horror of the genocide is unfathomable when one is walking past verdant hills, through lush valleys, past women carrying babies bound to their backs, children playing in the shade of massive eucalyptus trees typical of the countryside.

A middle aged woman balancing an impossible-looking load of wood on her head smiles at me as she walks by the Kibuye genocide memorial. I start to smile back and stop cold. The entire Tutsi population of Kibuye is said to have been wiped out here. That potentially makes her Hutu. Could she have been one of the killers? She had a machete in one hand and a rope in another. There was a time when a sight like that would have sent a Tutsi girl scrambling for safety.

Across the country, we traced the trail of killing from Gesenyi, Kibuye, Musanze, Kinigi, Kigali and Ntarama, where signs on the roadside remind citizens to attend the gachacha, to provide witness accounts of the killings, and to pray that the horrors of the genocide never happen again.

The government is experimenting with concepts like "reconciliation villages" where genocide survivors and confessed perpetrators live in the same community, in small tin-roofed houses they built themselves. The forty families that live in Imudugudo, in Nyamata, 30 km south of the capital, Kigali are forced into constant contact. In essence this is President Paul Kagame's rather simple solution to the Rwandan problem.

Rwanda has welcomed back its refugees. The government wants to make the people reconnect as human beings, try the guilty ones, and ask the innocent ones to forgive. The government is gambling on the people's goodwill.

This is a society in transition, and one cannot help but hope their gamble pays off.

Article: Fatima Najm

bottom of page