The Rwandan Genocide

In April 1994 a planned genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda was carried out. 1,000,000 people were killed. In 100 days. Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsis. 20% of the entire population. Men and women. Children and the elderly. Rich and poor. In cities and in villages.

There were state-sponsored extremist militias, the Interahamwe, who were guilty of a lot of the systematic killing. But they were not alone: this was neighbour murdering neighbour in a calculated attempt to wipe out a people based on their race.

Genocide ideology had been spreading through the country for some time. And there was civil unrest at the time. But this was not a generational feud between tribes that had been brewing for hundreds of years. Ethnic tension was a direct result of European colonisation. Ethnic distinctions only begun to matter when the German and Belgian colonial powers created / exacerbated the differences to serve their own ends. Tutsis were cattle herders. Tutsis were an elite minority. Tutsis originally came from the north so were more Aryan and therefore more pure. If you owned more than 10 head of cattle you were a Tutsi. If you had a Tutsi-shaped nose you were a Tutsi. The actual tribes themselves had intermingled. The distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was more based on class than ethnicity. In 1935 the Belgians put race on the national identity card. Race was now fixed. And race was now important.

There are people who were present in Rwanda at the time of the genocide who had literal blood on their hands. They were in actual fact responsible for killing, torturing, mutilating, raping other human beings. And no matter the external factors in play, they each made a decision to take a life. Some have been held responsible. Some have acknowledged their crimes and have sought forgiveness. Some have been punished.

There are people who were responsible for the grand scheme of the genocide. Those who planned it and orchestrated it. Those who paved the way with widespread propaganda. Those who created the Interahamwe militias and who were active in training and supplying them. Those who created the lists of people who would be first to be killed. Those who decided to set up roadblocks in order to stop freedom of movement and make the extermination more efficient. Some have been held responsible. Some have acknowledged their crimes and have sought forgiveness. Some have been punished.

The international community knew this was being planned and did very little. The international community knew it was happening and did very little. The French government supported the Rwandan government and helped to train the militias that carried out much of the killing. The UN made a decision to withdraw staff from Rwanda despite their representative in Rwanda asking for more people. But Rwanda is a small landlocked African nation with no global strategic importance.

The Catholic Church in some cases protected people but in some cases it was the priests who arranged for their churches – full of their congregants seeking sanctuary – to be destroyed. Communities gathering inside a church for shelter made the job of the Interahamwe easier.

But there are people who did something. There are people who refused to kill. There are people who protected their friends and neighbours and hid them in trenches in their field, or in the ceiling. There are people who worked to help people flee.

And these people were not just present in the Rwandan genocide they were also there during the genocides in Namibia, in Cambodia, of the Armenians, of the Jews.

And each one of these people, who had the courage to do what is right in the face of such overwhelming horror, reminds us that there is hope. There are good people who will do good things. But they also remind us of our personal responsibility. They made a choice. A choice not to be complicit in the killing. And that choice was open to every single one of the people involved in the genocide.

I don’t say this to allocate blame. I say this as a reminder to each one of us that we each have the choice and we have a responsibility. And no matter what happens around us, we will always have that choice.

One of the quotes from one of the exhibitions inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial says that genocide is not a single act of murdering 1,000,000 people. It is 1,000,000 acts of murder. And each one of those acts is stopped if we each make the right choice.

Perhaps the most heroic and wonderful thing that I have seen in the Kigali Genocide Memorial is the testimonies of the victims. They want the perpetrators to acknowledge their crimes. They want the truth about what happened to their family. They want to know where the bodies of their loved ones are so that they can be reburied with dignity. They want the perpetrators to seek forgiveness. What they do not want is revenge. And that is the thing that fills my heart so completely and brings tears to my eyes. That people who have undergone such barbarity are able to see that revenge will only beget further cycles of revenge and that violence will only lead to more violence. For them, for all of us, it is the future that matters. And that does not mean allowing criminals to get away with their crimes. It does not mean that we should not hold people to account. We should. But we should seek responsibility and forgiveness and we should rebuild in a way that will contribute to a world in which this does not happen again.

And for the past 20 years Rwanda has been rebuilding itself. It is a safe, beautiful country of one people. It is a lovely place to visit. The young people of Rwanda have high hopes for a peaceful and prosperous future. And they know that this future is theirs to build.

3 Responses to “The Rwandan Genocide”

  1. Sam says:

    Beautiful poignant writing Kath. We do all have a choice. Sometimes we make a choice to look away, to not engage, to ignore, to see it as not our problem. But that choice is also a choice to let the innocent die. If everyone stood up to be counted the world would be a better place for all of us

  2. Anne says:

    Thank you for your poignant commentary and concise history. I have another friend who visited Rwanda for the purpose of facilitating orgiveness strategies. I am so pleased to read about these beautiful people rebuilding their country. Xxa

  3. Godwin Kodituwakku says:

    Thank you, Kath, for the article. These days I am in Canada and read a book written by Susan Thomson on the issue (Whispering truth to the power). The book provides alternative perspectives.

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