The week of April 7th is Genocide Memorial Week in Rwanda. This year, the Genocide Memorial is focusing around people who were thrown into rivers or bodies of water and died. In another sense, it is focusing on people who were killed during the genocide whose bodies were not found and they could not be properly buried. During this time, daily life changes; shops are closed down, work and schools are let out, and people gather together to remember this unfortunate event in Rwandan history. Life will not return to complete normality until July 4th, when events celebrating the end of the genocide will occur. Our training program is focusing on the genocide and conduct during memorial week.
The internationally-accepted definition of the term genocide is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” This accurately describes the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, although the Rwandan genocide also has some very interesting particularities. First, the genocide was expeditious. In less than 100 days, the genocidiares claimed the lives of approximately one million victims. It was also an incredibly popular genocide, as more than 800,000 people participated in the killings. The genocide was also unique in its decentralization and proximity. The genocide movement was decentralized to the umudugudu (village) level and carried out, neighbor against neighbor. The use of traditional weapons, as opposed to industrial weapons, the level of animosity, and the range of torture and killing methods used also distinguished the Rwandan genocide from others. Last, the internationality of the conflict separated the experience of Rwanda from that of other countries.
Today, a Peace Corps employee and survivor of the genocide shared her testimony with my training group. I am writing down what I remember from her experience and sharing it with you, although what I write is more accurately my experience of her sharing her testimony. I will never be able to understand, write down, or share her testimony completely or accurately, as only she is able do those things.
She said the road to the genocide began for her when she was 7 years old. She had just started attending primary school. On her first day of school, the teacher told the students to separate by ethnicity. The Hutu students were to move in front of the board, while the Tutsi students were told to move into the square meter tiled space at the back of the classroom used to keep cleaning materials. Her father was an educated man who had strong anti-ethnic beliefs. He had never told her whether she was Hutu or Tutsi. Following her friend to the front of the classroom, she was embarrassed, hurt, and confused when the teacher removed her from her seat and pushed her to the back of the room. After class, her friend shouted, “Your grandparents beat my grandparents and we can no longer be friends.” She ran home and asked her father about her ethnicity. He refused to tell her and instead explained Rwanda’s history with ethnicity and the importance of equality and unity. She stubbornly stated that she would not return to school until he told her.
About 6 years later, she completed her primary school examinations; a test that determined a student’s eligibility for secondary school and possibly university. She did extremely well on all sections of the test, reflecting the high scores of above 80% that she had received on her work during class. However, when her final scores arrived, they showed a high proficiency in agriculture and technical skills, while her math, science, and humanities scores were usually low. She was denied access to secondary school. On the other hand, her friend knew that she did not need to score well on the test to be accepted to secondary school because she was a Hutu. She answered only the first and last questions of each section. She passed the test with incredible results and was accepted to secondary school. The systematic and structural discrimination of the education system was dividing people, stereotyping ethnicities, and creating conflict. That was the root of the genocide.
In the early 1990’s, a rebel group from Uganda attacked and killed a group of Hutus. Hutus associated the Tutsis of Rwanda with the rebels because groups of Tutsis had migrated to neighboring countries at earlier times in Rwandan history. The Hutu-dominated government responded to the attack by rounding up all Tutsis who had any foreign or political connections, jailing them, and bringing them to trial. Her grandmother had fled to Uganda years ago. Further, her father owned a bar in Kigali that allowed free discussion on politics. The police jailed her father, mother, and sister. Her sister was pulled from her class at school because she was told the head master needed to see her. Instead, she was jailed. The government released the prisoners when it received pressure from the international community.
Time passed and things quieted down until a Hutu leader from her neighborhood in Kigali was killed while returning from Butare. Hutus immediately blamed the killing on the Tutsis and retaliated against them. Her neighborhood was attacked and her building overrun. People were wounded or killed, many women were raped, and most of their property destroyed. One woman was raped by a known HIV-positive man and stabbed repeatedly in the chest. She said that this shows that the intent of the raping and wounding was to kill, because the HIV virus was being used at a weapon. Other men threw glasses at the windows so everything shattered in a big explosion. This showed that the intent was also to cause unnecessary destruction. She survived the ransacking because her brother told the perpetrators to take or destroy whatever property they wanted, as long as they didn’t touch the three girls (herself, her mother and her sister). They were extremely lucky.
Shortly after, her siblings fled the country. She said that she was unable to look for her family after they left suddenly in the night because alerting the authorities to their absence would endanger them if the wrong people found them first. Further, it would confirm her ethnicity and establish a connection with the neighboring countries harboring Tutsis. Hutus in Rwanda were extremely fearful of the Tutsi refugees who had settled in neighboring countries at previous times in the event that they should try to return to Rwanda, violently or not.
Small, isolated disturbances and killings had begun to occur in the country. Systematic and structural discrimination of Tutsis was common. This is how she came to adopt a small boy. The boy’s parents had been killed and the boy hospitalized. However, a Hutu extremist ran the hospital where the boy was sent and the boy was thrown out on the street. She found him, brought him home, and nursed him back to health.
She says she remembers the night that President Habyrimama’s plane was shot down. She was working in Kigali at the time. On that day, she had seen a large cloud of smoke rise over the city from one part of town; the same area she typically travels through to get home. She decided to take another way to her house. She was in a car with two other males. When she turned up the street that led to her driveway, she saw a pile up of cars ahead in the road. She asked the men what was going on. They joked that a woman always needs to know the gossip, but one did get out to investigate. He discovered a roadblock. Hutu militias were stopping cars and removing Tutsis. The roadblock was in place no longer than 30 minutes after the president’s plane was shot down. She said this highlights the preparation that must have occurred for the events that followed.
That night, her family attempted to leave their house in Kigali and move somewhere safe. She remembers creeping out of her house and peaking through the front gate. She saw two policemen pacing the street, watching the houses. She moved to the back of the house and looked over the wall. Two more policemen were stationed at the back. She said that even early on in the genocide, Tutsis were already being watched. Her family could not go into hiding that night.
Since the genocide, she has talked to many survivors about their testimony. She says that doing so has made her realize that during the genocide, people were killed in the most atrocious ways one can imagine and people survived in the most miraculous ways. For example, a firing squad is shooting at 20 people and misses one and he or she survives. A group of men baring machetes bears down upon a crowd, slicing everyone to the ground. Everyone is killed, but one is only badly injured. Bodies are being thrown into mass graves. One survivor asks if he is alive or dead and only decides he is alive when he hears the sound of his own voice. In the middle of the night, he crawls over dead bodies and out of the grave to escape. People are being thrown into rushing rapids of water. One person gets stuck in the reeds and survives.
She told the story of an old woman who hid 50 Tutsis in her house and protected them from the genocidiares. There is a story about a girl who was running towards the old woman’s house with the genocidiares chasing behind her. The old woman was beating the dried husks off beans with a stick outside her house. She told the girl to climb into the pile of husks she was beating. When the genocidiaires arrived, they asked the old lady the whereabouts of the girl. The old lady responded that she did not know, but they could check the house if they wanted. She continued beating the husks on one side and then the other, avoiding the girl hidden in the middle. She told the genocidiares that she was a witch and that her staff would harm them if they did decide to enter the house. She had told one of the girls hidden inside to shake a calabash filled with dried beans if anyone approached the house. Upon hearing the strange noise, the genocidiares became scared and left. The girl was saved.
She has her own miraculous survival story. At the time, she was working for an international organization. When the chaos broke out over the city, the international organization sent a car to collect her family and bring them to their office. When the international organization received a memo that under no circumstances was the organization to harbor refugees on their property, the head of the organization moved her family to his house, where they hid for a few weeks before being discovered and barely escaping. Her family was separated and to this day, she has no idea what happened or where her father and mother died.
She says there was one time her American colleague was moving her in a vehicle from the international organization to a new hiding place and they came upon a roadblock manned by the genocidiares. One of the women from her neighborhood was dressed in militia uniform and serving brochettes to the genocidiares. The woman identified her as “the enemy.” The American colleague told the genocidiares that she was his wife and that they had left her papers at the office. After much convincing, the genocidiares let them turn the car around and go back. Again, she was lucky.
She says she remembers the day the genocide ended, because she had worked for an American organization and July 4th had always been a day of celebration. But the end of the genocide was not the end of her fear. She remembers how everyone left in the city after the genocide was gathered in a large compound. Some people came with baggage, some people had nothing. Guards at the gate of the compound went through everyone’s belonging and removed any object that could be used as a weapon. As she looked ahead in line, she saw a lady remove a machete from her bag. The machete was covered in blood. When asked what she had used the machete for, the women responded, “To cut firewood.” The machete was confiscated, but the woman was allowed to enter the compound freely. She left the line. There was no way she was going to stay around people she didn’t know and didn’t trust.
Before separating during the genocide, her family had agreed to meet at the house of an RPF soldier and friend of the family when the genocide ended. She made her way to the house and waited. When her family did not arrive, she began to investigate. She discovered that she had lost almost every member of her immediate family in the genocide, except for her siblings who fled and her grandmother who lived abroad. In the case of many of her family members, she still does not know what happened or how they died. Further, her house was destroyed to the ground and the families of many of her neighbors completely eliminated.
It is impossible to imagine the experiences she or the other survivors had during the genocide. Genocide Memorial Week is an incredibly difficult time in Rwanda. It is a time of remembrance for those who were lost during the genocide. She says that even though she lost so many family members during the genocide, during remembrance, she can only think of one person; her sister. This week, I will be remembering her sister, and all the other sisters, brothers, parents, sons, daughters, relatives, and people who were lost during the genocide.