Re-building Rwanda

By Lynn Pegler

6th April 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Two decades on, justice and reconciliation have helped the devastated country re-invent itself as one of the most successful economies in Central Africa.

A terrified 13 year old boy crouches in a derelict house while Hutu militiamen patrol outside, searching for more Tutsi ‘cockroaches’ to slaughter.

For more than a month, young Honore Gatera and his 16 year old cousin fight a daily battle against thirst and hunger, desperate to avoid the frenzied systematic genocide sweeping Rwanda.

His parents knew it was coming, he recalls. “The country appeared serene from the surface but there was simmering fear that underneath, something ugly was boiling.

“When the genocide started in April 1994, everything turned on its head and fear became a reality.”

Honore was separated from his family and it became a daily struggle for survival. “I remember seeing death everywhere. It was a case of running, screaming, hiding, hunger, thirst and nightmares – not knowing at what time death would beckon.”

Localised massacres of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority had peppered Rwanda’s history since 1959 – but no-one in the outside world had taken much notice. On 6 April 1994, this changed overnight. Honore’s country, a small landlocked African nation less than half the size of Scotland, was propelled into the international media spotlight.

The trigger was the shooting down of a plane carrying Rwanda’s President Habyarimana and Burundi’s new president Cyprien Ntaryamira on its approach to Kigali Airport. Within hours road blocks were set up across the country and highly-organised Hutu militia began the systematic house-to-house slaughter of Tutsi men, women and children.

Unlike the Nazi Holocaust, whose main perpetrators were professional soldiers, in Rwanda ordinary citizens joined in the killing spree with gusto. Rwanda’s Government-sponsored national newspaper Kangura and Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast vile, dehumanising messages urging loyal Hutus to hunt down Tutsi ‘cockroaches’ and ‘snakes’ and kill them. Pop singer Simon Bikindi even fuelled the violence with vicious Hutu power songs.

Kigali Genocide memorial
Honore Gatera, Manager of the Kigali Genocide Memorial

Abandoned by the United Nations, nearly a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu sympathisers were tortured, maimed and butchered. The world looked on with horrified impotence as the UN Security Council debated the semantics of the word ‘genocide’ and squabbled over who would pay for dispatching extra troops and equipment. No-one intervened.

“Why such extreme hatred?” was the puzzled question on outsiders’ lips.

The key lies in the Old Testament parable of brothers Cain and Abel. Despite Rwandans being unified by one common language and culture, Belgian colonials categorised them into three groups – the Tutsi minority (approx.15%) who tended to be taller, more wealthy cattle-owners,  the Hutu majority (approx. 84%) often physically shorter labourers, and 1% Twa or pygmy. Often it came down to how many cows you owned. Intermarriage and mobility between the two groups was common. Ironically most outsiders would be hard pushed to identify the difference.

Both the colonial rulers and the Catholic Church tended to favour Tutsis over Hutus…. and so the die for racial discontent was cast.

Today as you travel around beautiful modern day Rwanda, the “land of a thousand hills”, you can’t fail to notice that almost every town has a genocide memorial to commemorate the slaughter. The scale of the genocide is hard to comprehend. About an eighth of the population were tortured and murdered in a hundred days of national madness.

Ordinary men, shopkeepers, barmen, teachers, farm workers, were urged by official radio broadcasts “to do their duty” and rid the land of “vile Tutsi cockroaches”. Nearly two million responded with wild, beer-fuelled hatred, killing their neighbours, friends and even relatives with unimaginable cruelty. The murderers armed themselves with machetes, clubs, guns and sticks – anything they could lay their hands on to inflict harm. Often they would cut off the legs and arms of their victims and taunt them as they lay dying in agony. People were beaten, thrown alive down wells and latrines, body piled on body, crushed, wounded and abandoned to lingering deaths. Small children were smashed against walls and women raped before being murdered. Sometimes whole families were wiped out in a single day.

Many Tutsis took refuge in churches where in previous attacks they had been guaranteed safety. But this time their sanctuary became their coffin.

At one small Catholic Church at Ntarama, just south of Kigali, more than 5,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates started gathering on 9 April, fearful for their safety. For six days they cowered in the church and grounds, watching with growing agitation as Hutu militiamen continually threatened them from outside. Weakened by thirst and starvation, they proved no match for Hutu weaponry when the murderers finally stormed the grounds on 15 April.

People inside the church locked the doors but Hutus hammered at the corner of the church to make the roof collapse. When that failed, they used grenades to blow open the main door and then blasted the inhabitants with machine guns, finishing off stragglers with machetes, smashing skulls and hacking off limbs.

Today the church is preserved as a memorial. Inside are macabre reminders of its violent past – racks of skulls, arm and leg bones and victims’ clothing suspended from the ceiling. More than 6,000 bodies are buried in a mass grave within the grounds.

Survivors and other visitors come to remember and attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. The gardens are a poignant place for contemplation and reflection; the peace and tranquillity now punctuated only by birdsong and an English-speaking guide Stanley Mugabarigira who shows visitors around with quiet dignity.

For him it is personal. As a young 16 year old he was caught up in the mass slaughter, although not at this church. “I lost all my family,” he said. “I survived only by the grace of God. And now I am married with a wife and have a son of my own. He is called Malaka, meaning blessed.”

Surviving such trauma is sometimes a mixed blessing, but Mr Mugabarigira embodies the country’s optimism which has allowed Rwanda to embrace reconciliation and rebuild itself into one of Central Africa’s most successful economies.

The killing stopped in July 1994 thanks to soldiers, mostly exiled Tutsis, from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) lead by Major General Paul Kagame, now the country’s president. Initially defence minister and vice-president in the new Government of National Unity, he is widely credited with being the visionary behind the country’s re-construction.

It would have been so easy to launch a tit-for-tat retaliation against the Hutus but instead the new Government promoted the concept of “One Rwanda”. Old ethnic labels were abolished and justice for the victims has run alongside a policy of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Twenty years ago the streets of Rwanda were littered with rotting corpses. Dogs feasted on the decomposing bodies of their masters until a national cull almost wiped out the country’s canine population. Even today the lack of dogs is one of the many surprises about Rwanda.

First time visitors are often impressed not only by the country’s lush tropical beauty but also the tidiness of the pavements and the cleanliness the roads.

Rwanda has won international awards for the quality of its environment and also for its lack of corruption, effectiveness of international aid projects and economic efficiency. Somewhere among all the policy actions to promote economic recovery and reconciliation, the Government has even found time to ban plastic bags. It is also one of only two countries in the world where women members of parliament outnumber than men (the other is Andorra). English has replaced French as the second language taught in schools and in 2009 Rwanda joined the Commonwealth as only the second member country without previous colonial ties to Britain.

Everywhere you look in the capital Kigali and the other major towns, new modern buildings are springing up, new roads being constructed and life is becoming more prosperous for many, although not all.

Honore is typical of a new educated, entrepreneurial middle class who are determined to build a new Rwanda. He worked hard during the day to pay his way through Kigali Independent University. His voluntary work to help other survivors re-build their lives eventually led to a job with the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is run by the UK’s Aegis Trust.

A gruesome reminder of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Skulls of murdered Rwandans on display to the public at the Ntarama Catholic Church Memorial.

The massed graves at the memorial are a constant reminder but now he spends his days as manager of a centre which employs 79 people involved in research and education outreach work to ensure a new generation of Rwandans understand their troubled pathway to peace.

“Some people might shudder from the mere thought of working in an environment where some 250,000 bodies are interred, reminding them of the dark past. But I have found a home here where I have the chance to educate other people, to let them know that this is the ugly price you pay when you allow the devil to enter your heart,” he says.

Making reparations for this hurt has been one of the major driving forces for rebuilding a damaged nation. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in neighbouring Tanzania, has staged show trials for the main perpetrators of the genocide but the vast majority of ordinary ‘genocidaires’ have been dealt with locally.

Indeed this was one of the main challenges facing the new Government – how to lawfully try and punish so many criminals. In June 2002, with more than 115,000 genocide suspects still languishing in jail after eight years, Rwanda came up with an innovative solution to the problem and returned to its community justice roots.

Over 11,000 ‘Gacaca’ (which means ‘grass’) courts were established in local communities throughout Rwanda, each with a panel of 19 elected local judges. They were authorised to try, convict and sentence anyone suspected of murder, assault or property crimes during the genocide.

Remarkably in the 10 years they operated, they judged an astonishing 1.95 million cases, with about 65% resulting in conviction. And rather than let the convicted prisoners rot in jail, they too are involved in the nation’s reconstruction, highly visible in orange and pink jump suits, working the land for the benefit of the new Rwanda.

Many genocidaires have now served their time and been released back into the community, which has again left survivors looking anxiously over their shoulders.

Jean de Dieu Mucyo, executive secretary of Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide, helps survivors and promotes practical measures to rid the country of discrimination and teach the ‘One Rwanda’ philosophy.

“Our biggest challenge is reconciliation,” he says. “It’s difficult to change a person’s mentality so at first sight they do not see a Tutsi or a Hutu but an individual or a Rwandan. For older people it is not easy to take this out if you have lived in that system.

“That is why we are putting lots of resources into educating children. In 1994 you may have had people who killed your family and even eaten them. And now they are living in the same community as you. For older people it is not easy but it is easier for the children.

“It is a process to get over it. Twenty years on, you are still living with it. You will forgive them and build the country together but it is always there under the surface.”

Women’s empowerment and equal rights for everyone are now enshrined in the country’s legislation. Mr Mucyo firmly believes that Gacaca courts have helped the healing process and the combination of effective justice, national forgiveness and education have worked hand-in-hand to create a united Rwanda.

Add into the equation the fact that 67% of the population are under 24, with no memory of the genocide, and the country has a promising future. Dozens of youth projects are helping to give young people a better start in life. Some, like the Miracle Corners Community Centre, are funded by foreign aid. This provides 60 youngsters aged 15 – 30 with the opportunity to train in skills such as plumbing, electrical work, well-building, sewing, dancing and computer skills. Others are sponsored by Rwanda’s new breed of entrepreneurs like Kigali-based artist brothers Innocent Nkurunziza and Emmanuel Nkuranga who run weekly art classes for orphan children and a new co-operative for unemployed women making bags and jewellery.

Honore believes the nation’s future key to peace and harmony lies in removing the fuel of envy and resentment and creating a successful economy where everyone can enjoy a decent standard of living. “We are 55% of the way there but we still have a long way to go,” he says. “There is no quick fix but if we go step by step, making sure that we do everything as perfectly as we can, we will get there. We’re not building on sand.”

Could genocide happen again?

All eyes are on President Paul Kagame who Rwandans widely credit as the author of their current stability and economic prosperity. Although his increasingly autocratic style has earned him many critics abroad, his country’s recent achievements are amazing and people worry about life after the end of his presidential term.

Honore is convinced that Rwanda has moved far beyond any trigger point. Other survivors, who walk the streets with the hatred of former killers still boring into their backs, are not so confident.

Dancers in Rwanda
Miracle Rebirth – Dancers and drummers from the Miracle Corners Community Centre, Rwanda.