Compelling news from the refugee and migrant sector
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Remembering the Rwanda genocide – 30 years on

18 April 20240 comments

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda that saw almost a million people, mostly Tutsis, slaughtered in little more than a hundred days.

The reasons behind the scale of the horrific episode are complex.

They included colonial-era favouritism towards the Tutsis that enraged other groups, a media happy to spread hate and a slow response from the international community.

Thirty years later, as the country continues on a pathway to reconstruction and reconciliation, there are still occasional discoveries of the mass graves of genocide victims.

These highlight the horrors that unfolded over in early 1994.

Just days before the 30th anniversary, Rwandan officials announced the discovery of the remains of 119 people thought to be genocide victims.

And as recently as 2020 one of the largest mass graves was unearthed, believed to contain 30,000 victims.

The genocide began on April 6, 1994, when extremists in the Rwandan government unleashed a pre-planned campaign that left up to a million dead in just over three months.

Army, militia, and civilians targeted the country’s ethnic Tutsi minority, moderates from the Hutu majority, and smaller groups. They were stopped only by a rebel takeover.

After the genocide, two million Hutu refugees fled Rwanda, fleeing the advancing rebels fearing reprisals and revenge attacks.

About 800,000 people arrived near the Zairean city of Goma. Their arrival in filthy conditions saw a deadly cholera outbreak.

As the genocide began to unfold, only a few of international aid groups found it possible to provide support, among them was the Red Cross, who reportedly saved 80,000 lives.

But access gradually opened up after rebels took the capital, Kigali, in July.

The incoming Rwandan government, led by then rebel commander Paul Kagame, who is still President, regarded the international community as ineffective.

By 1996, the government “frustrated and angered” at the role of international NGOs, expelled dozens of them.

A recent commemoration of the genocide has taken place at Kigali’s Amahoro Stadium, the sports complex that once provided sanctuary to 12,000 people fleeing the violence in 1994.

Almost a quarter of those who attended were overcome with emotion and had to be carried out of the stadium.

Now, psychologists say members of Rwanda’s post-genocide generation have inherited a legacy of trauma that, thirty years after events they were not present at, is leaving hundreds of thousands of people with undiagnosed symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behaviour.

Despite the shared trauma, government statistics show that few people seek help; in a nation of 12.2 million, only about five per cent seek mental health services.

Despite the enormity of the killings, Rwanda has established a remarkable reconciliation program.

For Tutsis who survived the genocide and saw their loved ones slaughtered once saw reconciling with the Hutu attackers impossible.

But today, reconciliation has become a reality. Rwanda has launched programs aimed at healing the wounds and bridging the divisions with Hutus and Tutsis now participating in mandatory community service programs each month.

President Kagame has insisted on a program where school children are taught to identify as “Rwandan” rather than along ethnic lines and, surprisingly, hundreds of Hutu and Tutsi families now live side by side in ‘reconciliation villages’ which they have built together and work together to maintain.

Another reconciliation initiative is the Gacaca courts, which have no professional lawyers or judges and are characterised by community meetings and dialogue.

“Gacaca had an innovative sentencing scheme. It was impossible to put hundreds of thousands of perpetrators in jail. So it focused on acknowledgement and punishment but with the needs of the nation in mind,” said University of London researcher professor Phil Clark.

“Community service was widely used a sentence. So perpetrators were building roads and fixing houses. Initially, there was criticism and there were lots of problems but the benefits were enormous.

“Gacaca was the only way communities which included both Hutu and Tutsi could live and work together.

“And it a reason why violence hasn’t erupted again,” Prof Clark said.