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The Rwandan Genocide of 1994: What Remains When a Country is Killed?

July 17, 2013

“We will squash the infestation. We will kill the cockroaches.”
-Hutu Power Radio

“Rwanda is clinically dead as a nation.”
-Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1994.


Outside of the Ministry of Finance building in Kigali. A reminder of ‘Never Again.’

The first thing that hit me was the stench of rot, of sickly sweet decay, death and embalming lime.  I had never smelled anything like it before.  Then I noticed the bodies.  White caked figures of preserved sinew and skin.  The bodies of children, their skulls split open.  Women with a bit of preserved hair and curved pelvic bones.  Thigh bones heaped and intermingled with fibulas, with shoulder blades, ribs, feet.  Thousands of bodies, hundreds in each room.  They lay in many identical little wooden houses on top of a hill, the site where they were brutally killed almost twenty years ago.  These people were herded there, with promises of safety, protection by French soldiers.  They didn’t know that the local Hutus were being evacuated from the area.  They didn’t think that once they were on top of this hill that there was no place to run and hide.

Five days after 65,000 people fled to that unfinished school at the summit of that hill, the genocidaires came for them.

I began to heave ragged breaths of air.  The smell continued to follow me from room to room.  Every room was the same, more desiccated bodies, more lime-white crooked forms, but I couldn’t stop myself from entering again and again.  These people died horribly, and somehow that meant that I felt that I had to acknowledge their suffering, it was my obligation, my duty, my burden to at least see.


Pascal lost his father and two brothers in the genocide of 1994.  Faded light scars mark the back of his head, his face, his arms and hands.  He had managed to escape Rwanda with his mother and recover in Burundi from his injuries.

The stained glass windows were simple, as were the graves.  It was still a working church too.

A church and genocide memorial site in Kibuye, by Lake Kivu.

Pascal told me that he was Tutsi.  He said it was obvious who was and who wasn’t.  Tutsis are lighter brown, taller, have thinner noses.  You can always tell, but you are not supposed to talk about it- it is punishable by law.  The government says that we are One Rwanda now, and as such, these ethnic distinctions don’t matter.  The identity cards now just say ‘Rwandan’ on them, no ethnicity noted.  Unofficially though, Tutsis still make up about 10% of the population of Rwanda, Hutus mostly the rest.

They, the Hutus, tried to kill all of his kind.  He described how Hutus took long thin poles, sharpened at one end, and would spear the women with them through their vaginas up to their brains.  It was a slow, agonizing and messy death.  They took the tools of the land, machetes, and turned them on their neighbors.  Not even children were spared.   It was “bad, yes, very bad.”   He was unemotional telling me about these things.  It was so much part of the fabric of the nation, of its history, of his history, that recounting this litany of horrors almost took on a storytelling quality.  That was then, this is now.  That was bad, we are better.  Then we were killers, now we are role models for all in East Africa….

I asked Pascal if he was friends with Hutus now.  He said, “I live next to Hutus.  I am friends with Hutus.  But best friends?  Good friends?  No.  How can I be best friends with those who wanted to kill me, murdered my family, my friends?”

Discussing the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is a perennial favorite in academic conflict circles.  It is considered the ultimate case study.  There were ethnic tensions, but were they primordial or merely colonial fabrications?  There was the application of the label genocide, a rare honor bestowed only on the worst of ethnic cleansing projects.  There was the debate of whether or not to intervene: why did the international community stand idly by for 100 days while over 500,000 people were killed?  They knew about the atrocities.  Was the Clinton’s ‘Somalia syndrome’ completely responsible for the UN’s lack of initiative in deploying peacekeeping forces?  There was the application of universal Western value laden law after the fact, with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, an external body roundly disliked by the Rwandans and not seen as legitimate by the average citizen.  And there was the experiment in transitional justice, the gacaca court system, which was a community led ‘trial’ system which emphasized demonstrations of true sincerity and regret as methods of reconciliation and reintegration of genocidaires into society.

How fences are constructed that make you not want to climb them. How barriers are constructed out of found objects and within a certain cultural milieu.

And of course, conspiracy theorists love debating who shot the Hutu president Habyarimana’s plane down, killing him and the president of Burundi, sparking the start of the genocide.

For a basic summary of the genocide, and important factors leading up to it, please peruse this fact sheet.  

As such, before I traveled to Rwanda I had a firm grasp on the particulars of the 1994 genocide, and the justice orientated aftermath.  I just had no clue what Rwanda, a modern Rwanda, was actually like.  The literature on the country stops with gacaca.  Rwanda as a case study proves more accessible than Rwanda as a country for the average Western-educated white girl.

Once in Rwanda, one is saturated with messages of overcoming genocide.  Reminders of genocide exist when interviewing individual Rwandans alive during the genocide (such as with Pascal) or simply by driving down the highway.  You can see many white signs by the side of the road with the word ‘Jenoside’ (Kinyarwanda spelling) on them; these mark sites of massacres, and there is a disturbing ubiquity to them.  Anyone is allowed to visit these sites for free, and they range from simple grave stones with a little sign to complete genocide memorials with Western style accouterments of audio guides and explanations in multiple languages.  The group of us went to several of these larger memorial sites- the Kigali Memorial Centre, the twin churches of Nyamata and Ntarama about 30 kilometers outside of Kigali, the horrifying Murambi memorial, and I went to see several of the smaller ones as well- the little church with homemade ‘stained glass’ (painted glass) windows, the unmarked tile sepulcher in Kibuye.


Jenoside Memorial in Kibuye, Rwanda.

The Kigali Memorial Centre was interesting because it presented a whole, unbroken and exceedingly clear narrative of the genocide, a narrative that is in dispute but presented like it isn’t.  You walk up the front of the center, and see a garden to your left, and the entrance to your right.  After being presented with an audio guide (you pay for the audio guide, but not for access to the museum, their way of trying to stay financially afloat while also respecting that this is a history that all should have access to) you enter a very modern exhibit which takes you through the build-up to the genocide.  Here the Tutsis are victims only- there was very little discussion of the Belgium occupation, and how Tutsis actively worked to keep their higher economic and political status over the majority ethnicity, the Hutus.  The exhibit highlighted the lead up to the genocide, the radioed anti-Tutsi slurs, the quiet genocidal plan that was concocted by extreme members of government.  The genocide itself was portrayed as against Tutsis only- though many moderate Hutus were killed as well.  The displays neglected to mention that fact.  Nor did they discuss the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s reprisal raids, the thousands of Hutus they murdered while securing the country between April and July 1994, or the thousands more killed between 1994 and 1996 by the RPF or the Rwandan Defense Force.  These deaths are not considered genocidal, but political, and as such, are glossed over.  To the victors go the spoils, for they are the ones able to write the history books.

Walking from house to house at the Murambi memorial. One of us, and our guides.

The exhibit ended by connecting the Rwandan genocide to other genocides around the world, a move that I found extraordinarily clever considering how the Rwandan genocide was ignored by the international community.  Some argued it was just another conflict from ‘the darkest continent.’  A genocide that occurred due to savagery and barbarism, not because of higher political aspirations.  By linking this genocide to the Holocaust, to the Khmer Rouge, to what happened in Armenia, Rwanda is indicating that its history is a world history.  Ethnic cleansing has happened on multiple continents, enacted by many governments.  The international community has no right to judge, and no right to sequester Rwanda as somehow separate from itself.

The Murambi museum was very similar to the Kigali one: slick, modern, unified, sterilized.  But the Murambi memorial is unique in the world.  It is there that I saw the lime preserved bodies.  It is strange to stand on top of a hill and look at a landscape with so much natural beauty, feel the wind play with your hair as you gaze upon trees and flowers and grass, and know that thousands of people died there.  When I was five and a half, and safely learning about the letter ‘P’ in kindergarten, other children died here in fear. Watching as their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters died with them.

It seems that the world should look less bright, less pretty, in acknowledgement of such atrocities.


The view from the top of the hill. Thousands were killed there, and I couldn’t help but to admire the sky.

“The genocide must live on,” insisted Tito Rutaremara, government ombudsmen of the Rwandan government.  He wanted people to be forced to remember, so the cry of ‘Never again!” would always be heard.  He wasn’t the only one.  Every meeting we attended, with government ministers, heads of Western and local NGOs and local academics, the genocide was referenced.  The emphasis changed, of course- the Minister of Defense discussed how his military intervenes in other countries that might be turning down that dark path, the UN Women representative focused on how women’s representation in politics has improved (but was not the result of!) post-genocide, the ICRC representative noted how his organization has to sometimes ‘drink beers with murderers’ in order to reach and support in-need populations.

Rwanda isn’t simply a country that happens to have survived genocide.  It is a post-genocidal country.  Its core identity is derived from having destroyed itself, having lost 1 million of its 7 million people, having been neglected and left to fail by the international community.  Modern Rwanda wouldn’t exist today without its trial by fire.  Rwanda was clinically dead as a country twenty years ago.  What then is this entity, this land of a thousand hills, which thrives in its place today?


An unmarked grave in Kibuye near the side of a dirt road.

I asked Pascal about his three children: aged thirteen, seven and three.  I asked him if he was raising them to be Tutsis, like their dad, like their mom.  He shook his head and smiled.  “No.  We are One Rwanda now.  I am raising them to be Rwandan.  That is all.”

Hopefully that is enough.

This is the second post in a series on modern Rwanda.  To read on constructing a Rwandan narrative, please click here to get to the first post.  To read stories of genocide survivors, about genocide memorials, or about how it is to live today in Rwanda next to neighbors who took part in the killings, please feel free to investigate the links above. 

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    July 17, 2013 1:18 PM

    Luca, you write so well. Your descriptions of the problems in Rwanda are clear. The inhumanity of people to others is repetitively seen in societies all over the world, and has a history that likely goes back to the beginning of homo sapiens on earth. It is also likely that somewhat similar behavior occurred among primates. It could be said “c’est la vie”. One could also say there have been many wonderful developments solving societal problems, including for example the many significant advances in technology of many sorts, including significant medical advances that extend longevity.

    Meanwhile you are having so many and such varied experiences.

    Love from Papa Bert.

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