Monday 15 September 2008

On Rwanda: my passion and the need to know

Never again Rwanda

In 1994, in 100 days between April and July, genocide was committed in Rwanda. 800,000 people of Tutsi and moderate Hutu origin were slaughtered in an organised and systematic attempt to wipe out the Tutsi race. The world stood by and nothing was done to halt this carnage, even though ample warning was given in the months leading up to the genocide. Four months before the outbreak of the genocide, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire of the UN warned of major stockpiling of weapons and the mobilisation of forces to exterminate the Tutsis. His hands were tied by political apathy and UN red tape. The genocide broke out on 6 April 1994 and the world refused to admit that a genocide was occurring. By the time the international media began to focus on Rwanda, they were calling the events ethnic warfare and they were focusing on fleeing Hutu refugees and calling them the victims.

Many times since World War II we have said "never again" and time and time again it happens again. What continues to haunt me is my own ignorance back in 1994. I cannot remember what happened on 6 April 1994, but I remember that on 27 April 1994 I stood for hours and hours to vote in South Africa's first democratic election. I remember casting my vote and then bursting out in tears as I digested the magnitude of the change we were bringing about. I turned 21 in May and I started my first part-time student job around that time. We had our June exams and then holidays in July. We got back to university in August to find that they had changed the Sociology curriculum. There had been a genocide in Rwanda and I had barely noticed.

I'm old enough now and wiser and I can promise that I will never suffer such ignorance again. I will do everything I can to open people's minds up to these atrocities and to put a human face on war and suffering.

I picked up my first book on the Rwandan genocide about a year ago and it has been a whirlwind year of book after book on the subject. I have often remarked how I sometimes feel like I cannot read anymore. The books have made me feel physically ill at times but then I find I am filled with such energy as I read about the amazing people who survived and overcame the cruellest and most evil treatment a person can encounter. The most recent book that I have read was Into The Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide - The Survivors Speak. Below are several quotes that I have taken from the book. I would both like to encourage people to read this brilliant and moving book and I'd like to express how it touched me too.

A genocide is not an especially murderous or cruel war. It's a planned extermination. At the end of a war, survivors feel a strong need to bear witness; after a genocide, on the contrary, the survivors strangely long for silence. - Jean Hatzfeld, author

I read that a lot throughout this book. I wonder what it must have been like after World War II. Did the survivors of the concentration camps also cover themselves in a shroud of silence? Maybe that is why the "Never Forget" movement began - maybe people had to make a concerted effort to break the silence, to escape the need to just blank out the events and keep quiet.

The day that the killing began in Nyamata, in the street of the big market, we ran to the parish church. A large crowd had already assembled there, because when massacres begin it is Rwandan custom to take refuge in houses of God - Cassius Niyonsaba age 12

"...because when massacres begin it is Rwandan custom...". This really made me put my own existence into perspective. I live in a world where I have not had to adopt a custom in case of massacres. In South Africa, we lived in a violent society where it was custom to have bars on our windows and six-foot high walls with electric fences and gates. This was normal to us but then behind all of that security we were protecting a superb standard of living. But to have to live to protect yourself against repeated massacres? That is a human rights violation in itself.

But we no longer celebrate birthday, because this pains us too much, and it costs too much money. We never row, not even once by chance, because we cannot find a how or a why. - Jeanette Ayinkamiye age 17

Imagine never arguing. Everyone rows! But I understand that - it is almost like a luxury that you simply cannot afford when you are living at the edge of survival.

[On the killing in the church in Ntarama] Very early on, I felt a blow. I collapsed between some benches, pandemonium all around. When I woke up, I checked to see that I was not dying. - Francine Niyitegeka age 25

Isn't that just the sheer epitome of Life? To be so surprised to be alive that it takes a process of self-examination to prove to yourself that you are, in fact, still alive. I can't explain it but it seems that there is so much more to the experience of life than we can ever conceive.

In the evening, we were four families to group together in my house in Cyugaro. There were no mats or mattresses to roll out on the floor because the interahamwe had stolen them. We would exchange a little conversation, above all about the details of that day, or some words of comfort. We did not argue. We teased no one; we did not mock the women who had been raped, because all the women expected to be raped. We were all fleeing from the same death, we suffered the same fate. - Jean-Baptiste Munyankore age 60

There is little I can say about this, but once again - what a gross human atrocity - "all women expected to be raped".

The killers worked in the swamps from nine to four, half past four, as the sun would have it. Sometimes, if it rained to much, they came later in the morning. They came in columns, announcing their arrival with songs and whistles. They beat drums, they sounded very cheerful to be going killing for an entire day. - Angelique Mukamanzi age 25

This goes to show just how systematic and organised the genocide was. These men worked from nine to four each day. They whistled on their way to work each morning, did their day's work and made sure they were safely home again by sundown. Absolutely chilling.

To listen to them, I deduce that in time people will not remember the genocide in the same way. For example, a neighbouring woman talks of how her maman died in the church; then, two years later, she explains that her maman died in the marsh. For me, there is no lie. The girl had an acceptable reason to wish for her mother's death to have taken place in the church. Perhaps because she abandoned her running full stretch through the marsh and was ashamed. Perhaps because it relieved her of an all too painful sorrow; to persuade herself that her maman in this way suffered less, one fatal blow on the first day. Then time offered the girl a little peace, so she could remember the truth, and she accepted it. - Angelique Mukamanzi age 25

I found this really touching and I can understand this process of the truth coming out. I have my own personal experience of trauma and not being able to remember the details of that trauma for quite some time (I was in a bank robbery in 1998 and could not remember the gun being pointed at me).

In the end, there were only us sprinters left. We had begun as five or six thousand; one month later when the inkotanyi arrived, there were twenty of us alive. That's the arithmetic. If the inkotanyi had lingered on the road one week more, our exact number would be zero. - Innocent Rwililiza age 38

The inkotanyi was the name that was given to the approaching RPF soldiers who defeated the interahamwe (the organised Hutu killers) and eventually took over government of the country. Chilling - I have read time and time again from Tutsis that they honestly believe the Hutus thought there would be no survivors, that they would kill each and every single Tutsi.

I have read that after each genocide historians explain that this will be the last. Because no one could again allow such an infamy. That is an amazing joke. Those responsible for the Rwandan genocide are not poor ignorant farmers, no more than they are ferocious and drunken interhamwe - they are educated people. They are the professors, the politicians and the journalists who expatriated themselves to Europe... Hardly any of them killed with their own hands, but they sent people to the hills to do the job. - Innocent Rwililiza age 38

Just imagine. Your highly educated, sophisticated neighbour decides overnight that you are the enemy and that you and your kin need to be wiped off the face of the Earth. It happened and it can happen again.

Married to a Tutsi woman, he tried to save her as well as several of his friends. Among Hutu villagers, he was the powerless witness to the killings in the church and the marshes. Since then, he has quit farming to dedicate himself entirely to the memory of the victims. Indifferent to the heat, he lives wrapped up in an anorak and nods his head, as he tirelessly repeats: "How was it possible, how was it possible?" You first think that this is a question addressed to the person he's talking to; then you realise it's addressed to himself. - Jean Hatzfeld, author

Some people's lives are so broken, so fractured and there is just nothing that can be done to relieve that. Is there a point at which a person is too old or they have seen too much or they are just too shattered to be healed? This is the face of human tragedy.

... there is no word in Kinyarwandan to describe the crimes of the killers of a genocide, a word whose meaning can outdo the wickedness, the ferocity and the category of actual feelings. - Claudine Kayitesi age 21

...and nor should there have needed to be such a word.

The criminals did not bury their victims, because the great numbers put them off. They preferred to get the job of killing done, without the additional fatigue of wiping away the traces. These people were so sure that they would get rid of all Tutsis that they concluded that no one would ever come and interfere with their business in Rwanda. - Claudine Kayitesi age 21

Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

Adolescents suffer more than others from not understanding. They cannot admit that the interahamwe wanted to put an end to them without any prior threat or argument. Without a care, adolescents arrived at the doors of life and machete blows stopped them from entering. They have been in the why of it ever since. - Sylvie Umubyeyi age 34

The task of healing children's minds and moving towards reconciliation must have seemed insurmountable at times.

[On international reporting of Huti refugees fleeing the RPF forces] On the television screens, the reporters said: "Those who have not been killed are the people now fleeing on the long roads to the camps," and in the end they completely forgot the survivors of the Tutsi massacres. - Sylvie Umubyeyi age 34

While the international media was focusing on Hutu refugees, Tutsi survivors were still hiding in the marshes and refusing to come out, refusing to believe that it was all finally over. The Hutu refugees were made up of killers escaping prosecution and Hutu families fleeing the country to escape possible reprisals.

Because if you dwell too long in fear of genocide, you lose hope. You lose what you have managed to salvage of life. You run the risk of being contaminated by another madness. When, in calm moments, I think about the genocide I think about it so as to know where to put it in my life, but I can find no place. I simply mean that it is beyond the human. - Sylvie Umubyeyi age 34

Where does one put such trauma and unimaginable evil? Human being were not made to bear such atrocities.

Below is a list of the books I have read so far on this topic. An excellent (although discontinued) blog to read on current life in Rwanda is Morgan in Africa.

Future books on my reading list include:

Image credit: “Never Again - With Display of Skulls of Victims - Courtyard of Genocide Memorial Church - Karongi (Kibuye) - Western Rwanda – 02” by Adam Jones. Licensed through Creative Commons (source)



  1. Hi Emm,
    Like yourself, I have also recently become familiar with the events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I read a book by past-president of Doctors without Borders James Orbinski "An Imperfect Offering" and he talks about his time during the genocide and what i am reading has just horrified me. I realize this was over 15 years ago now, but to know that it happened and to read about the barbaric way these people were killed, it just sickens me. But like yourself, i also am fascinated and feel the need to read more and more.
    I really like your indepth analysis of your book review above. I can tell this book has had a deep effect on you and it's great that you have this blog and make other people aware.
    Right now i am in the process of searching for an organization that i can join with the goal of helping Rwandans - children in particular.
    Congrats on your wonderful blog and don't stop reading.
    Miriam in Toronto

  2. Hi Miriam. Thank you so much for your comment and for telling me about that book. If you do stop by my blog again, let me know if you ever did find an organisation to help Rwandans.


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