All we knew about Rwanda prior to our arrival was that at some point not too long ago they had suffered through a genocide and that more recently their Mountain Gorilla permits had been raised from $750 per person to $1500; something to do with wanting to attract a better class of visitor! We didn’t care about the latter as the permits in Uganda were sitting pretty at $600, but what we did care about was how a country could go through and then recover from an ethnic massacre. Through a recommendation we both read ‘We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families‘, an award winning non-fiction book about the lead up to and eventual slaughter of almost one million Tutsi and Hutu people and how the western world sat back and did nothing to prevent it from happening.

Words to promote forgiveness and in remembrance of the atrocities of 1994

From the moment we left Kigali’s International airport we couldn’t help but notice banners printed with the words Kwibuka 24, Kinyarwanda for ‘Remember’ – it had been 24 years on April 7th since the genocide began.

Excerpt from

During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east-central African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. Started by Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread throughout the country with shocking speed and brutality, as ordinary citizens were incited by local officials and the Hutu Power government to take up arms against their neighbors. By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front gained control of the country through a military offensive in early July, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were dead and 2 million refugees (mainly Hutus) fled Rwanda, exacerbating what had already become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

It’s horrendous what we’re capable of!

Unbeknown to each other the moment Andrea and I stepped out of Kigali’s airport we found ourselves silently judging every person we saw, as if trying to assess whether they were a victim or a perpetrator. The book we had read prior had talked about distinguishing traits of both Tutsi and Hutu, knowledge that we were now using to stereotype every person! Did they have a narrow face, were they tall and skinny, were they lighter skinned; if so then to us they were a victim of the genocide. Anyone that looked older than around 36 was fair game to us to have been involved, with children as both victims and very much guilty parties. We knew this was wrong but it was hard not to when such horrific acts were committed only 24 years earlier.

Aegis Trust run Kigali Genocide Memorial

Hôtel des Mille Collines memorial

First on our agenda was a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, run by England’s Aegis Trust as a facility for remembrance, learning and final resting place to a quarter of a million victims. Not sure either of us were ready for what lay ahead!

It was well worth taking the additional audio option, a service that provided in depth commentary as we made our way through the memorial. The wall mounted information provided plenty of reading that described the genocide, including colonial history, the buildup, massacres, even going as far as highlighting other historic genocides. There was nothing we didn’t read as we wandered through the exhibitions totally numb! On numerous occasions we would be passed by a wailing girl, part of a school trip who had probably just discovered a family members photo showing their fate. The worst by far was a particular girl who was pretty much carried past us leaning on the shoulders of her friends, screaming mama, mama – neither Andrea nor I could hold back tears as we tried to turn up the audio volume to drown out the gut wrenching sound.

We did continue on, submerged in the horrific stories of both Tutsis and Hutus, stories about victims, butchers, and saviors. Towards the end of the exhibits one stood out; around a dozen images of children from age two up to perhaps seven or eight. All were tortured and killed in front of their parents, one specifically died from being stabbed in the eyes! Absolute frenzied brutality. Some were killed by neighbors, some by friends, others by government militia – it really didn’t matter who were the perpetrators, none showed any problem with butchering children.

The Hutu Ten Commandments

Open mass grave at the Kigali Genocide Memorial

A couple more Rwanda genocide book purchases and we went on our way, quietly walking the memorial gardens before returning to the hectic streets of Kigali. We so wanted to ask the locals whether they were Tutsi or Hutu and for their story – which side where they on, do they still have family, how could they accept what happened and move on? We never did bring up the past although we continually heard stories and visited associations and societies where survivors, often orphans, were learning new skills. Women seemed to be the hardest hit, some having lost everyone around them, some the offspring of raped mothers, all trying to fit back into society and stand on their own two feet. Everything was hard to comprehend!

There are many memorial sites throughout Rwanda, a couple in particular within thirty kilometers of Kigali. Both were churches where the Tutsi people expected to be safe from harm, in fact turning out to be slaughter houses where thousands were killed whilst packed inside – there were cases where the pastor actually turned out to be the person that lead the Hutu locals and militia into his church to begin the bloodshed. Random small scale atrocities towards the Tutsi had been committed a few years prior to 1994 and on these occasions they were saved by the church, wrongly assuming that this would be the case this time around.

Nyamata Memorial
Article taken from Genocide Archive of Rwanda

Second Republic – 5th July 1973-6th April 1994
After President Juvénal Habyarimana took power in 1973, he introduced the policy of ethnic equilibrium, which further entrenched discrimination and persecution of Tutsis, especially in the areas of education and employment. These polices to an extent formalized what had been taking place for some time and had been referenced in political speeches by Dominique Mbonyumutwa, the first (provisional) president of Rwanda, and by instructions from Kayibanda to the Minister of Education in 1971.

When the RPF Inkotanyi invaded Rwanda on 1st of October 1990, persecution of the Tutsi across Rwanda increased. The government incited hatred of Tutsis by accusing them of being accomplices of the Inkotanyi. Hate speech became prevalent including in some church sermons. Anti-Tutsi propaganda was developed, which characterised Tutsis as unscrupulous and untrustworthy and as the people who oppressed the Hutu during the colonial period.

In 1992, persecution of the Tutsi in Bugesera carried many of the hallmarks later associated with the genocide in 1994. Interahamwe militias (associated with the MRND political party) and Impuzamugambi militias (associated with the CDR political party) attacked Bugesera, killing many Tutsis and causing others to seek shelter in Nyamata Church. At the time, an Italian nun named Antoinette Locatelli, who was serving as the headmistress of the Section Familiale, tried to inform the international community that the Tutsis of Bugesera were being massacred. The former bishop of the Kigali Catholic Archdiocese, Vincent Nsengiyumva, tried to silence her, saying that if she continued she would be murdered. Despite these threats, however, Locatelli continued to denounce the killings in Bugesera, and she was subsequently shot dead by a military officer.

The periodic killing of Tutsis became a looming threat of the Habyarimana regime, which he would invoke each time there was a RPF Inkotanyi attack. In 1993, an international inquiry accused President Habyarimana of using the civil war as a justification to massacre the Tutsi population in Kibilira, Bigogwe, Mutara, Bugesera and other regions.

Genocide 6th April 1994 – 19th July 1994
Following the assassination of President Habyarimana on 6th April 1994, the genocide commenced in Bugesera almost immediately. On 7th April, extremists started burning down Tutsis houses in Nyamata, but as there were many Tutsis in this area they tried to defend themselves. By 11th April many Tutsi had left their homes and gathered within the grounds of Nyamata Primary School. Women and children had taken refuge in the church, while others were at the Centre d’Enseignement Rural et Artisanal Integré (CERAI).

Killings began at CERAI on the morning of 11th April using similar tactics to those implemented in other parts of Rwanda.  They first surrounded the area where the Tutsis had gathered, threw grenades into crowds and then fired at them with available guns.  They then sprayed capsicum over the dead bodies to check if anyone was still alive and killed those that were with machetes.

Claire Nkima, a survivor of the CERAI killings says that she lay amongst the dead bodies until Tutsi refugees that had been hiding in nearby classrooms came that evening and retrieved her. The survivors of the attack made plans to escape to Gitarama or Burundi, but most did not escape because the killers had established roadblocks to finish their work.

Between the 14th and 16th April, approximately 5,000 Tutsis were killed inside Nyamata Church. Of the few that escaped from the church, they took refuge in nearby bushes and papyrus fields, but later many were found and killed by militia search parties until the RPF Inkotanyi finally liberated Bugesera.

Nyamata Genocide Memorial
After the genocide, following negotiations with leaders of the Catholic Church in Rwanda, the government converted the Nyamata Church into a memorial site. The memorial is composed of a chapel in which victims’ clothes are displayed, along with the weapons used to kill them. Beneath the chapel there is a room displaying the remains of those killed in the church. Mass graves are situated behind the church, with a vault that houses the skulls of victims and other human remains. In addition, the memorial site includes the grave of Antoinette Locatelli, with a placard explaining her life and work in Rwanda, and her eventual murder on the 9th March 1992. President Paul Kagame posthumously bestowed upon Locatelli a medal of honor on the 4th July 2010, during the ceremonies of the 15th anniversary of Liberation Day.

Ntarama Memorial
Article taken from Genocide Archive of Rwanda

Genocide 6th April 1994 – 19th July 1994
On 6th April 1994, within hours of the death of President Habyarimana, the killings of Tutsis had commenced in Kigali. On 7th April, Tutsi homes were set ablaze in Ntarama, with some resistance from local farmers. The Ntarama Interahamwe militia called for reinforcements from other Bugesera-based militia and when they had amassed, they attacked the Tutsis living in Ntarama, who fled to Ntarama Church on and after 9th April. As with many Tutsis across Rwanda, they believed that they would safe at the church compound, largely because during previous violent episodes, religious sites had been respected by the attackers.

On 13th April, Interahamwe militia under the leadership of Francois Karera, the former leader of the prefecture, conducted a census of the Tutsis at the Ntarama Church. On completion of the count, they told the Tutsis that they wanted them to stay together so that the government could guarantee their security. This was a strategy consistent with actions taken in other places across Rwanda and was intended to draw out and bring together those in hiding. On 15th April, soldiers and Interahamwe militia returned to Nyamata Church and began a coordinated and systematic attack against approximately 5,000 Tutsis who were in the Ntarama church compound. The initial attacks involved soldiers and Interahamwe militia armed with guns and grenades; later that day the Interahamwe entered the church and used machetes and other traditional weapons.

The attacks were particularly violent at Ntarama church, even in the context of the wider genocide that was taking place. Some were tortured until they died; the wombs of pregnant women were cut open as the Interahamwe claimed they wanted to see how an unborn baby Tutsi looks. In the Sunday school building children were swung by their legs and smashed into the walls; the killers claimed that they did not want to waste their bullets.

The attack was led by Francois Karera who commanded the soldiers and Interahamwe as well as groups of civilian Hutus. It is estimated that nearly 5,000 were killed with few survivors.

By 30th April 1994, the focus of the attacks had turned to the Nyabarongo River at Akagera. Many Tutsis, including those that had survived or escaped Ntarama Church, had hidden in the nearby marshes under cover of the papyrus. The Interahamwe searched the marshes, often using dogs to identify those in hiding, and killed or drowned any Tutsis who were found.

The genocide in Bugesera ended on 14th May 1994 when RPF Inkotanyi soldiers arrived in Nyamata.

Ntarama Genocide Memorial
The Church of Ntarama was turned into a genocide memorial site to remember the 5,000 people who lost their lives there. This site is of particular national significance and the human remains, clothing and artefacts taken by those killed in the church remain on display at the site. A project to preserve the site in perpetuity is now being undertaken.

Talking Through Art

Handicapped women basket making

If Rwandans could make it through hell and move forward in a positive vein then surely other countries could work through their internal problems and take steps towards peace and acceptance of different cultures. Whilst total forgiveness may never be possible an understanding of the causes of this genocide might ensure it doesn’t happen again.

SIM Card & Coverage
Carrier: MTN, Usage: 16GB, unlimited SMS, unlimited mins
Cost: $37

Arrival/ Departure: Lusaka <-> Kigali, Carrier: RwandAIR, Cost: $397.58 pp

April 29th – May 23rd 2018


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