Woman recalls the terror of genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago

‘At least the soldiers would shoot us, instead of being killed by militias with machetes’

Rwandese refugees cross the border to Tanzania from Rwanda on May 30th 1994. Photograph: Jeremiah Kamau/Reuters

Rwandese refugees cross the border to Tanzania from Rwanda on May 30th 1994. Photograph: Jeremiah Kamau/Reuters


As the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide approaches, the country’s president, Paul Kagame is on a tour of Europe commemorating what is known as Kwibuka20; one of the most devastating failures of international institutions that the world has ever known.

Since 1994, Rwanda has been synonymous with genocide. In a planned action, which began 20 years ago this month, about 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in what is commonly referred to as an ethnic conflict but can be traced to the European scramble for Africa.

Before Rwanda’s “divide and conquer” colonisation by Belgium, the division between Tutsi and Hutu was mostly economic and it was possible for a Hutu to amass sufficient wealth to become a Tutsi.

Colonial Rwanda was one of the most centralised and bureaucratic states in Africa. Identity cards were introduced, cementing permanently a Rwandan’s “ethnic” status; Tutsi, Hutu or Twa (a pygmy minority group). Belgium ruled through Tutsi officials, discriminating heavily against the majority Hutu population.

As Rwanda moved towards independence, “Hutu Power” began to assert itself with a wave of pogroms against the Tutsi beginning in 1959, continuing after independence in 1962 and after President Juvenal Habyarimana took power in 1972 in a military coup.

His regime saw the rise of powerful media outlets such as Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines, which stirred ethnic hatred, encouraging “extermination of Tutsi inyenzi ” (cockroaches). The ongoing conflict created a huge population of Tutsi refugees, particularly in Uganda.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s they formed the political Rwandan Patriotic Front. The RPF’s armed wing had been trained with the Ugandan army; its leader, Paul Kagame, attended West Point military academy in the US.

In 1990 the RPF invaded northern Rwanda, prompting serious discussions on power sharing from about 1992.

President killed
In 1994, these discussions were ongoing at Arusha, Tanzania. On April 6th that year, as President Habyarimana returned from a session there, his planewas shot down. Who was responsible has never been proved, but the assassination prompted a wave of killings that had been meticulously planned by his government.

“Mary”(not her real name), a Rwandan living in Ireland, was 18 in 1994. Her father, a prominent middle-class Hutu, married to a Tutsi, was “disappeared” in 1991. “I was in bed: my mother woke me to say Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down. She said. ‘oh good, now everything will stop’.

“Military police started going around the homes . . . that was the night Madame Agathe [Uwilingiyimana, the moderate Hutu prime minister] was killed. They knew who to target first.

“We stayed in the night of 6th April and on the 7th most of the telephone lines were cut off. You would hear from people that this or that family had been completely wiped out and then the panic started. People began to look for refuge.”

Prominent Tutsis, such as power-sharing cabinet minister Lando Ndasingwa and moderate Hutu politicians, were the first to be hunted down.

Ten Belgian peacekeepers from a tiny UN force commanded by Canadian General Romeo Dallaire were among the first victims. The force, far short of what was required, was reduced unilaterally by participating countries, prompting a UN resolution on April 21st that would leave just 270 peacekeepers in Rwanda during the worst of the genocide.

An allocation of over 5,000 more UN troops in May didn’t reach Rwanda for almost six months due to international squabbling.

The international community’s response to the genocide was complicated by existing loyalties; France, as part of its attempts at retaining its influence in the Great Lakes region, was militarily and politically linked to the Hutu regime and even assisted early on in the genocide, airlifting officials including Habyarimana’s wife.

Mary’s brothers were staying at an apartment nearby and went to shelter at a school. She and her mother tried to get to the Hotel des Mille Collines, where the manager, Paul Rusesabagina, sheltered people, as recorded in the film Hotel Rwanda . There were other stories of bravery; Kigali’s small Muslim population, mostly located in the colourful area of Nyamirambo, is credited with saving many Tutsis.

Interahamwe [Hutu militia] cars were flying around and you couldn’t tell which was which, because there was the presidential army as well. At least they were soldiers and we figured they would shoot us, instead of being killed by the militias with machetes,” says Mary.

They were eventually taken to the nearby Sainte Famille cathedral, smuggled in the back of a car by a family friend. They stayed there for three months, hiding separately. Soldiers came every day and took people at random. Many other churches did not provide safe havens – in one, in Kibuye province, a priest ordered his church to be bulldozed with refugees inside, and survivors were shot.

Unprecedented hatred
It was only when the RPF marched into Kigali in July that Mary and her mother were reunited. They also learned that both her brothers were dead.

After the genocide, they moved back to their house, which had been almost destroyed. “It was so weird.

“A few years ago I met an Irish man who volunteered for one of the NGOs. He said – which is true – he’d never experienced the kind of hatred that was there. He was there when the RPF ordered people from the other side to come back. Some of those poor people who didn’t know anything about politics didn’t want to come back.

“This person stood at the side of the street and watched thousands of people walking back. No-one was speaking to anyone, just the sound of steps. It was the most terrifying thing he’d ever seen.”

Deirdre O’Shaughnessy visited Rwanda courtesy of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. She is doing a Masters thesis at UCC on Rwanda’s implementation of political gender quotas.

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