Remembering the Genocide in Rwanda

“We chose to stay together”


In Rwanda no one is playing music. We’re sitting in a bar called Papyrus.

“That’s where there’d usually be karaoke.” The guy I’m with points towards a corner. “The place would normally be packed; wall to wall.”

It’s twenty years since the genocide against the Tutsis — when 800,000 were murdered by their friends, neighbours, and acquaintances — and this is a week of mourning. “Kwibuka20” signs are hung prominently everywhere in capital city Kigali; their slogan: “Remember — unite — renew”.

Rwandan women line up to greet the ‘Flame of Remembrance’ that has been touring the country since January.

The past few days have been heavy with disclosures, admissions, apologies. On Saturday a former genocidaire told a packed stadium never to listen to their parents, because his parents were the ones who told him to kill. A Belgian soldier testified that his colleagues had seen “killers wielding machetes” in their rear view mirrors as they left behind the Tutsis they had been protecting. A survivor told us about the moment a Hutu leader told a group of Interahamwe to “start the work”.

On Monday United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced: “We could have done much more. We should have done much more.”

The press have been told to respect the emotions of those we talk to, but on a bus a man asks loudly: “So are there Tutsi or Hutu neighbourhoods?” “Would they just go door to door?” “Were there many incidences where people tried to protect themselves?”

Today Rwanda is one of the safest nations in Africa, but reminders of the past appear frequently. Like moving to shake someone’s hand, and realising their sleeve is empty. Glimpsing Hotel Mille des Collines (aka ‘Hotel Rwanda’) through a scratched perspex-fronted helmet, whilst desperately clinging to the shoulders of a moto driver. Having to go through metal detectors and bag checks when entering buildings. “It makes sense though”, an NGO worker tells me. “In 1994 Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana was killed inside a government building.”

The projected emphasis during the commemorations has been on reconciliation and on the future. The strive towards positivity in this period is completely sincere, but it’s also partly a survival mechanism. Rwandan President Paul Kagame led the RPF forces that stopped the genocide, and has been a lead figure in Rwanda ever since. In his keynote speech he said that it’s choices, not necessarily feelings, that have formed the country we see today. Simply, he repeated several times, “we chose to stay together”.

Enormous strides have been made. Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It also performs incredibly well on gender equality, and has the highest percentage of women in government globally — 64% after the last election. Violence is very unusual, as is crime.

When surrounded by talk of unity and optimism, despite its pervasiveness, it’s easy to forget the past. The girls I bought my phone from taught me to say “I love you” in Kinyarwanda. The average age here is 18.7. “Next week there’ll be dancing”, I’m told.

Around 30,000 attended the commemorations in Amahoro Stadium on April 7th

On Monday there was a commemoration event in Amahoro Stadium. 30,000 people attended; most queueing for hours to get a seat. About 10 minutes into the speeches a single scream pierced the air. The atmosphere became tense. As the scream turned to a wail, it was joined by many others. Dozens of attendees became so distraught they had to be carried out — at least five from the stand where I was sitting. It was the pure sound of pain and it hurt physically; it punctured your insides.

At Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre fresh flowers are everywhere. Exposed coffins tell you that the dead are still being buried. A ribbon says: “We miss you Daddy”. A ‘Wall of Names’ is notably incomplete. The records of those killed aren’t anywhere near finished.

Rwanda is a country commonly described as “safe”, “calm”, “organised”, and those adjectives are completely accurate. But to dig beneath the surface is to find wounds still raw, trauma untreated, survivors still suffering. Making choices about how to balance progression with remembrance, or the measure of forgiveness required for reconciliation, are issues that the citizens of this country are still grappling with.

The last few days have been quiet. Restaurants and hotels are shut. Wreaths are being laid, and minutes of silence are being observed all over the city. On the gate of my hostel is a sign telling visitors we’re closed for the week. But inside the owner sings as she sweeps the floor.

Sally Hayden is in Rwanda working on a project for the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.