Former Diplomatic Editor of The Times Michael Binyon visits Rwanda 25 years on, offering a moving account of the country’s recovery
No country in modern times has been convulsed by murderous atrocities as frenzied and terrifying as the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. For 100 days, beginning in April, soldiers and armed gangs roamed the country, shooting, stabbing, drowning and hacking to death around 800,000 men, women and children – denounced by extremist Hutus as enemies of the country and cockroaches who had to be exterminated.
Now, 25 years later, Rwandais commemorating a genocide that left the small central African country ruined and bloodstained. In every village there will be speeches and ceremonies. School groups will be taken to the 200 memorials across the country where the worst massacres appeared. Church leaders will offer prayers, and Roman Catholics will beg forgiveness for their own church’s savage complicity in some of the crimes.
The massacres were almost a generation ago, but only now is Rwanda coming to terms with the trauma. The killers fled, the dead were buried, the main perpetrators arrested and sent for trial at a specially established international court. Thousands of killers and their surviving victims were brought face-to-face at improvised village courts, established a decade ago to persuade the Hutu thugs who turned on their neighbours to admit their guilt. Many were imprisoned. But now, as they are released from jail and have completed compulsory community reparations, Rwanda is agonising over how the perpetrators can be reintegrated. Can killers and victims ever live side-by-side again?
Rwanda is now peaceful, thriving and prosperous, with 70 per cent of the population too young to remember the genocide. But there has been little real reconciliation. For years, those who survived and those who carried out the killings found it impossible to meet. Their children and families have also been scarred. Shame and denial on one side, rage and resentment on the other, forced them to shun each other. Suspicion blocked all official attempts to eradicate the ideology of hate, spewed out from radios in 1994 in the months before the killings began.
So, this sombre anniversary will focus especially on the young, and on overcoming the guilt felt by the perpetrators’ children and the fear still marking the children of survivors. Across the country, reconciliation clubs, some of them sponsored and supported by British peace-building organisation International Alert, are working to prevent the virus of hatred being passed down to the next generation. Rwanda is determined not to let the example of Yugoslavia shape its future, or the tribalism that still racks neighbouring Burundiand Kenyascar those seeking to move forward.
Reconciliation clubs have been started even in the smallest villages. “My name is Primitive. I lost 20 members of my family. I was alone and traumatised,” the Tutsi survivor told the 30 men and woman sitting in a circle in a village community centre in Ngororero, one of Rwanda’s poorest provinces.
“I thought I would be killed at any time. I got a job as a tax collector but couldn’t collect money from people who tried to kill me. This man here,” he said, pointing to a wizened Hutu villager sitting beside him, “killed my children. He admitted his role and went to jail for seven years. After that we never spoke to each other. I turned my face away if I saw him in the street. Then we joined this club. Now we share everything.”
Pascal, looking older than his 60 years, took up the story. “I grew up with Primitive. We were neighbours. I was like his big brother. But because of this country’s history, we were divided. I was among those convinced that Tutsis were bad and should be killed. I played a key role in the killings. I threw two of his children in the river.
“When the fighting ended, I ran away and stayed two years in the Congo. When I came back, he denounced me to the police, and I went to prison. When I saw Primitive for the first time after that, the tension was very high. But last year he convinced me to come to this club. He has forgiven me. Now we share everything. I wish others like me would also seek forgiveness.”
The two men publicly embraced. Others, perpetrators and victims, recalled the terrible April in 1994. The club, Duhuze – ‘Connecting’ – now helps villagers live to together by sharing community projects, lending money to the poorest and giving them a forum to meet and cooperate.
In another village, the focus is especially on the young – lively, enthusiastic, wearing their yellow club sweatshirts. They meet every Saturday under the trees in the village centre. This week they were acting out an improvised play, showing the pain of restitution and the inherited guilt of the children of perpetrators.
Clutching a stick and playing the role of a victim, one man was ranting to his family. “We’re poor, we have no shoes. My house was looted, and my cows were taken. The court ordered that family to give me back my property. But they won’t. Don’t talk to them. They are still our enemies.”
Another young man plays the perpetrator, gloating over his gains. “We’re doing well – let’s celebrate. We won’t give anything back. They just want our money,” he tells his wife and children. In the next scene, the children of both families meet in a bar. The perpetrators are drinking beer and mock the poor Tutsi children, who respond with lines that could come from Shakespeare: “We eat the same bread. If we’re cut, we bleed like you.”
Guilt seizes the perpetrator’s children. They urge their father to make amends. Bringing beer, food and gifts they call at the house of the Tutsi victim, who shrieks in terror. “They’re coming again! They’re coming to kill us!” “No,” the humbled perpetrator says. “I am here to seek forgiveness.” Little by little, the victim is won over. Finally, he offers his forgiveness. Everyone claps.
The scene is familiar. Young Rwandans see it still all around them. They are too young to remember the start of the genocide. It was sparked by the shooting down of the plane of President Habyarimana, leader of the Hutu-dominated extremist government that since independence in 1962 had been persecuting the Tutsi, then about 15 per cent of the population. The next day, the killings began, long planned by extremist ideologues. Soldiers, police and youths were mobilised into gangs. The killings went on for 100 days until Paul Kagame – now the President, and then leader of the exiled Rwandan Patriotic Front – brought his army in from Uganda, overthrew the extremists and drove the ‘genocidaires’ and more than two million Hutus into Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One of the most horrifying massacres took place in a church in Begesera, close to the capital Kigali, where more than 5,000 Tutsi had sought sanctuary. On 15 April the killers arrived in buses. Cowering in the church, the refugees were knifed, shot and clawed to death with home-made clubs studded with nails. The rough bricks of the Sunday school building are still stained by the blood of the babies’ skulls smashed against the walls. One wall of the kitchen building is missing: it was pushed on top of the victims who were burnt alive with mattresses soaked in oil.
Inside the church, rows of skulls are neatly ranged – kept as proof of the atrocity for the genocide deniers. Their torn money, bibles, school books and old government documents identifying them as Tutsi (forbidden in Rwanda today) are kept in cases. Reminiscent of Auschwitz, the ragged and bloodstained clothing, once worn by the children, is piled up in heaps.
Outside, a long black marble wall lists more than 1,500 names. In underground vaults, coffins hold thousands of bones. Sheets hung on walls underneath the large new roof erected over the memorial site record the visitors’ horror and prayers in both English and Rwandan. The words ‘Never again’ are everywhere. It is a lesson Rwanda hopes that other countries will learn.