7 April 2014 begins a 100-day period of commemoration, which marks 20 years since the Genocide in Rwanda.
On 6 April 1994, the presidential plane was shot down in Kigali, Rwanda, killing the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and igniting decades of racial tensions between the countries’ two main ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi. Rumours began to spread that the Tutsis were responsible for the killings and hate propaganda encouraging people to turn against their neighbours was spread via the radio. Jean Baptiste, a survivor of the genocide, now living in the UK recalls,
‘I listened to [the] BBC one o’clock news; I heard that the plane had been downed and that the corpses of both presidents were charred beyond recognition […] The infamous hate Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines was spewing its venom against the Tutsis, blaming them for assassinating the president.’
What was to follow was 100 days of brutal state-sponsored violence and murder, a genocide carried out almost entirely by hand. Machetes, clubs and other everyday tools were used to inflict extreme violence and death on victims. Members of death squads, the Interahamwe, had been trained for the massacre, while local communities were encouraged to pick up arms too. The state provided support and organisation for the genocide – politicians, intellectuals and professional soldiers incited the killers to do their work. Local officials assisted in rounding up victims and making suitable places available for slaughter. The radio-propelled racial propaganda rang familiar to that disseminated by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels while inciting hatred against the Jews in the lead up to the Holocaust. All this amounted to huge social pressure to participate in the killings. Moderate Hutus and those who refused to kill were often accused of being Tutsi sympathisers and murdered themselves.
The genocide had terrifying intimacy. Frequently killers were members of the same communities and people well known to the victims – neighbours, workmates, former friends and sometimes even relatives through marriage. Sophie, a survivor of the genocide remembers,
‘My neighbours armed themselves and began killing the day after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down.’
Over 100 days approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. Men, women and children were killed in their thousands in homes, schools and churches. Sophie recalls,
‘I heard gunshots, houses and people were being burnt, others were being thrown in the latrines alive, others being thrown in the rivers – tied up together.’
Huge numbers of Rwanda’s female population also experienced rape during the genocide. The United Nations reported that at least 250,000 women and girls were raped and, of those who survived, 70% were estimated to have contracted HIV. Clare, herself a victim of rape, recalls:
‘The worst torture was the rape. But I recognise six of the rapists who still live here in this community. […] The legacy of the rape will remain with us forever, because we’re now HIV positive and dying from AIDS. Slowly, I am beginning to observe my body disintegrate.’
The legacy of rape has contributed to the deep scar left by the genocide. The impact being particularly destructive, many survivors continue to be ostracised from mainstream society. Trauma continues into future generations in the form of memory, but also in the realm of the physical. A huge challenge includes orphaned children, children born with HIV and those conceived from the violent act of rape. Many others have had to rebuild their lives with physical disabilities from injuries sustained during the genocide.
Most survivors still living in Rwanda have had to deal with the reality of living in communities alongside people who murdered their families, which makes justice complicated. In November 1994 the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and, as of April 2014, 47 leaders have been convicted for their role in the genocide. Attempting to prosecute such a huge number of perpetrators (an estimated 200,000) has proven difficult. The restorative style community based Gacaca court system was established to try the hundreds of thousands of civilians who took part in the genocide. The restorative form of justice relies upon local village elders passing judgement and voluntary confessions and apologies from those involved.
The majority of survivors have had to wait for a long time to find out what had happened to their family members. Jean Baptiste says,
‘My family were killed around 20 April and their bodies were dumped in a mass grave. It saddens me because I could not give them a decent burial. […] I lost scores of people who were dear to me. I was the second child of a family of nine children - four girls and four boys. [...] Only I, two sisters and a niece, Marie Louise, survived the mass killings.’
It is estimated that that around 75% of the Tutsi population was murdered during the genocide and that 200,000 people were mobilised to commit murder themselves.
Kwibuka 20 – remember, unite, renew
Today Rwanda is a country reflecting on a difficult past and looking forward. The framework for remembrance over this period is Kwibuka 20, Kwibuka meaning ‘remember’ in Kinyarwanda – the language spoken by many Rwandans.
Remember – Kwibuka 20 firstly asks us to remember those who died, and honour and support those who have survived. Some survivors of the Genocide in Rwanda, such as Jean and Sophie, sought refuge in the UK and today contribute to our understanding of the events that took place through speaking about their experiences on Holocaust Memorial Day and throughout the rest of the year.
Unite – During the 20th anniversary commemoration period, communities across the world will come together to commemorate and learn through shared human values. Recent research commissioned here at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust highlights our need to remember these events. We found that over half (53%) of the UK population are not able name a genocide that has taken place since the Holocaust. Only 24% were aware that the genocide in Rwanda took place 20 years ago.
Renew – We are also asked to renew by sharing from experiences, learning from others and creating a safer world. Sophie now works as nurse in London and often talks in schools. She says:
‘I want people to know about what happened in Rwanda [...] It’s important for people to think about the Holocaust and about genocides that have happened since then. Yes, my family suffered because our neighbours attacked us – but my life was saved by different people who were around me, guided by my God. We must try to build bridges with others and respect humanity in spite of differences.’
As part of our commitment to highlighting the anniversary of the genocide, over the next 100 days we will be inviting guests to blog on their reflections and personal experiences in relation to the atrocities in Rwanda and the legacy it has left. We will also be signposting to resources, dates to remember and life stories for you to learn more about the genocide and the experiences of those who were there. Keep an eye on our Twitter stream for updates.
From learning about genocide, the process that leads to it and the destruction caused in it's aftermath, we can drive ourselves to put these powerful lessons into practice. We can ensure that when we say ‘never again’ it isn’t an empty rhetoric.