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 Kwibuka 20.
Since 1994, Rwanda has been synonymous with genocide. In a planned action which began 20 years ago this month, approximately 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in what is commonly referred to as an ethnic conflict but can be traced back 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 like 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 Westpoint. In 1990 it had invaded Northern Rwanda, prompting serious discussions about power sharing from about 1992.
In 1994, these discussions were ongoing at Arusha, Tanzania. On 6th April that year as he returned from a session there, the plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down. Who shot it down has never been proven, but the assassination prompted an unprecedented wave of killings that had been meticulously planned by his government.
*Mary, a Rwandan now living in Ireland, was 18 in 1994. Her father, a prominent middle-class Hutu, married to a Tutsi woman, had been ‘disappeared’ in 1991.
“I was in bed – my mother came in and 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 [Uwilingiyama, 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 like 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 21 April that would leave just 270 peacekeepers in Rwanda throughout 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 power regime and even assisted in the early days of 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 Milles Collines, where the manager, Paul Rusesabagina was sheltering people, as made famous 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,” explains Mary.
They were eventually taken to the nearby Sainte Famille cathedral, smuggled in the back of a car by a family friend. They remained there for three months, hiding separately.
Soldiers would appear every day and take people at random. Many other churches did not provide safe haven – in one, in Kibuye province, a priest ordered his church to be bulldozed with refugees inside, and shot survivors.
It was only when the RPF marched into Kigali in July that Mary and her mother were reunited, and they learned that both her brothers were dead.
After the genocide ended, they moved back to their old house, which had been almost destroyed.
“It was so weird. A few years ago I met an Irish man who went to volunteer for one of the NGOs.
“He said – which is true – he’d never experienced the kind of hatred that was there, and the people trying to keep it inside as well. 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 who was in Rwanda at that time 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.”
Mary’s name has been changed to protect her identity. This piece was first published in the Irish Times, Friday 4 April 2014.