At an Ingando community service camp, speaking to génocidaires who are now serving out sentences that were handed down from Gacaca courts.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”- Rwanda 23 years after the genocide

Reflections from the 7th Transitional Justice Study Trip in Rwanda

by Sangeetha Yogendran


April 7 marks the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. This date was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2003, and was chosen because it is the day the Rwandan genocide started 23 years ago, on April 7, 1994. We all know how approximately 800,000 Tutsis were killed, thousands injured and between 250,000 and 500,000 were subject to systematic rape and sexual violence, all in a mere 100 days. However, there were many lessons to be learned from the week we spent travelling across the country visiting memorial sites, prisons, community service camps, and speaking to survivors, government officials and perpetrators, and I attempt to put some of them into words here, on this occasion of remembrance and commemoration. No matter where in the world we are, and how far away we may feel from Rwanda, there are lessons for us all.

Rwanda made us realise how easy it is to divide people and how quickly hatred can spread. Ethnic divisions laid down during early colonial times, abused by people in power and built on for years and years, need a mere spark to ignite into something horrific. The slaughter in Rwanda over such a short duration did not come out of nowhere. It was not sporadic and unplanned. In this case, the spark was lit with the shooting down of then President Habyarimana’s plane on its descent into Kigali on 6 April 1994. Killings began the very next day, and we learned how roadblocks had already begun to emerge around Kigali within a mere 45 minutes of the plane being shot down.

We realised how ethnic divisions can start from class and caste as in Rwanda’s case, and be exacerbated by colonial policy which favoured one group over the other based on mistaken ideas of racial superiority. Rwanda was made up of several kingdoms and while one theory posits that people did come from different origins, the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa of Rwanda shared a common language and were collectively known as the Banyarwanda. Another theory which we came to learn of was that the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi arose only later and was therefore not even an ethnic or racial one, but one of class or caste distinction.

Imagine the horror at discovering that ethnic divisions which later become lethal, originally started because of the amount of cattle one owned. It was the Belgians who first introduced identity cards in Rwanda in 1935 labelling Rwandans based on their supposed ethnic group. Prior to this, it had been possible for wealthy Hutu to become honorary Tutsi, given the very class nature of the divisions, but the issuance of identity cards prevented any movement between classes after.

Camp Kigali, where where ten Belgian UN peacekeepers were murdered in order to provoke a withdrawal of the UN forces, which then cleared the way for the full scale of the genocide to unfold.

We realised how fallible humans can be, and how easy it is for us to do the evilest of things, especially when such hate has been incited in you for as long as you can remember. We also realised though, that the very people who committed these crimes, are human after all. As we sat face to face with génocidaires in both prisons (for those who committed higher level crimes) and in community service camps (Inguando, for those lower level perpetrators who had confessed to their crimes), we realised how quickly our conversations could normalize, and how easy it was to communicate with people we assumed we would not have been able to even utter a few words to. We listened to them as they explained how difficult it was to separate themselves from what was going on during the genocide, having trusted bad leadership and having had no education to know better. Do not get me wrong, this was no excuse for the crimes they had committed and they knew that. We appreciated the accountability many had sought for themselves. When something like genocide tears apart a country in the way it always does, the key after all is in recovery.

Rwanda taught us that denying the past prevents healing. So much so that denial of the genocide is a punishable crime in the country. We understood the importance of accountability and recovery processes that embraced conciliation and forgiveness, and how it was so successful in Rwanda in great part due to the incorporation of long-standing cultural practices distinct to the country, such as the community-based Gacaca-court system.

Rwanda has embraced remembrance as a means of healing, as we witnessed in every community, every mass grave site and every memorial site we visited, in whatever form it had chosen to remember those lost, some in jarringly graphic detail.

Murambi Genocide Memorial. This former technical school was a site of refuge for 65,000 Tutsis when the killings started, but they had been lured there by the bishop and the mayor, and ended up being the site of one of the worst massacres during the genocide. It is now the resting place for some 50,000 lives.

This week in Rwanda has showed us that while we as humans are capable of horrific things, it is also we who are capable of incredible humility, strength and resilience. From meeting with genocide survivors and being moved to tears by their ability to come back from the darkest of times, ministers and officials working so hard to rebuild a country torn apart in every sense of the word, to genocidaires trying to account for what they did, Rwanda leaves me with nothing but hope for a better tomorrow.

If there’s only one lesson to be learned here, it is to not ignore any clear signs of atrocities being perpetrated on a mass scale. The genocide in Rwanda could have been prevented, and I am reminded that we, as members of the international community, have the duty to uphold the responsibility to protect, and keep our word that never again really does mean never again. In the now iconic words of the former commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1994, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, where there’s a will, there’s a way.