This Sunday, April 7, Rwanda and the rest of the world will commemorate genocide against Tutsis for the 25th time. This article is a personal account of what I saw in the immediate aftermath and later years as well as what I believe Rwanda’s recovery and reconciliation path tell us about human nature.
I write as a descendant of the 1959 refugees who returned to the land of my ancestors after the genocide to find that over 100 members of my extended family─including uncles, aunties, cousins, nephews and nieces had been massacred because of who they were.
I arrived in Rwanda from Uganda on August 2, 1994 through Gatuna border post by taxi. This was less than a month after the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA, now RDF) had defeated the genocide regime and stopped the genocide.
It was also after the swearing in of the Government of National Unity led by RPF on July 19.
At the time I was fresh from high school.
It was the first time I had set foot on Rwandan soil, having been born in Uganda as a son of refugees President Juvénal Habyarimana had said couldn’t return home because “the country was full”.
Though it was the first visit, the horror of the genocide had met me in Kampala where I was studying. This happened because, for months, we couldn’t eat fish from Lake Victoria as the lake was filled with dead bodies washed downstream by River Akagera from Rwanda.
In fact, as I have noted elsewhere, even foreign media “discovered” the horrors of what was in Rwanda through Lake Victoria since, in April 1994, the world’s cameras, and media were in South Africa where the first multi-racial elections was taking place and where, Nelson Mandela─a black man─was set to be elected president; the first time that was set to take place in the country’s history.
At the time, the world’s media had predicted that if anything ugly was going to happen, it would be in S. Africa where power was expected to be transferred from the minority whites who ruled under apartheid, to blacks under the African National Congress.
Mandela’s election went smoothly and western journalists, now in S. Africa were informed that, in fact, the ugly story was in Rwanda where reports of killings had started filling newspaper pages.
Since flying into Kigali was impossible due to war, journalists and their camera crews flew into Entebbe in Uganda. It’s from here that they first reported on the “mysterious” dead bodies floating on and washing up on the shores of Lake Victoria before they could report from the killing fields in Rwanda.
Today, there are three genocide memorial sites on the shores of L. Victoria─ in places like Kasensero in Rakai district, Ggolo in Mpigi district and Lambu in Masaka.
My maiden journey to Rwanda aimed to accomplish two objectives: retracing my roots and searching for relatives I had never met and finding out whether they had survived the ungodly hand of killers and, second, looking for elder brothers, relatives and friends I had grown up with but who had left to participate in the liberation war.
At the time, I had mixed feelings. Feelings of sadness and anger at what had happened as well as feelings of guilt ─that I hadn’t participated in the war of liberation or done anything to save anyone.
I was also filled with shame that men and women of the country had killed fellow citizens. This shame was to last longer since, in my travels, education and teaching in different countries in later years, I often had to explain what had happened and answer questions such as: “Are you Hutu or Tutsi”?
In conversations, I often later found out that this question was a polite way of verifying whether I belonged to the ethnicity of killers or survivors.
In other encounters in foreign lands, I discovered that while many Rwandans assume everyone in the world knows what happened in Rwanda, unfortunately, outside the halls of power, not many did, in the initial years or even do today.
I remember while doing my master’s degree in the United Kingdom in 2002, I had an opportunity to give a lecture at Ulster University, Northern Ireland on: “The Media and Genocide in Rwanda”. After the lecture─in which I had assumed all in the room knew what had happened, one student asked me: “How many Rwandans know about the Northern Ireland Conflict”?!
There and then, I discovered that not many ordinary Rwandans really knew about this conflict that had been going on for years and, from then, I learnt the importance of explaining to the world what happened in Rwanda and never taking it for granted that ordinary foreigners know.
Similar questions were asked in other places I made presentations on the genocide against Tutsis, including Sweden, Kenya, Zambia, Denmark, etc.
For ordinary foreigners, many of whom have little knowledge of the country and are regularly fed on media stereotypes, genocide wasn’t understood as the state project it was; it was seen in ethnic lenses committed by an ethnic group against another!
That isn’t to say the world didn’t know that the genocide was being prepared; that is well established since powerful nations and institutions like the United Nations knew; it’s to clarify that ordinary citizens in foreign lands, who are the majority, knew very little.
And that’s down to the power of proximity and human tendency to be preoccupied more by happenings in the immediate surroundings than in foreign lands.
As I will highlight, although Rwanda’s recovery and success in different areas has lessened the shame and uncomfortable questions from foreigners, deep down, I sometimes still feel shame and anger that my own people could do this.
At the time of my first visit, I was also wondering what exactly happened to the land of “milk and honey” that our parents always told us about and anxious to find out whether my relatives had survived and whether I would be able to find my way in the land I only knew from my parents’ stories, now tormented by death.
The taxi-man who drove us from Kampala to Kigali had been plying this route since the swearing in of the RPF-led government on July 19, 1994. Throughout the journey, he was telling us horror stories of what had happened; tales of dead bodies in every corner; fears of the probable return of genocidaires and the heroic actions of RPA soldiers who had stopped the genocide.
There were multiple roadblocks and check points on the way to Kigali; everything was checked; and everyone was thoroughly checked.
We arrived in Kigali, late in the evening, around 6pm.
Fortunate for me, I had asked the driver about some RPA officers I had known in their days as members of the Ugandan military and who I knew were still alive. The drive had told me he knew one, and even said he lived in Kiyovu─which isn’t far from the then taxi-park in the middle of the city─where Kigali City Towers sits today.
I had come to know a number of officers because, at the time of the attack in October 1990, I was living in Lubiri Barracks in Kampala with one of my elder brothers who was in the National Resistance Army’s First Battalion together with a number of other officers with Rwandan origin who joined the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and at the time in charge in Rwanda.
On arrival, I asked around and one of the taxi drivers told me he knew the officer I was inquiring about and where he lived in Kiyovu. He offered to take me there.
The smell of death was everywhere. Despair was on every face. Misery was everywhere. Poverty was visible everywhere. Hunger was prevalent on many faces. Displacement of people was the order of the day as was the fear of the possible return of genocidaires to finish their unfinished business and, as we know now, over a million perpetrators of genocide were still at large and on the hills, cities and towns.
Upon arrival at the home of my brother’s comrade and friend, I found he was away in the Southern part of the country still battling with interahamwe, former soldiers and the rampant internally displaced and refugee problem.
Travel at the time wasn’t easy due to lack of civilian transport but, after a week in Kigali and days in Butare─now Huye, I was able to find transport through the said senior military official I had known in Lubiri to take me to Gashora Military barracks where my aforementioned elder brother was based.
We spent the night talking about what had happened to the country; to our relatives and planning how to visit our ancestors’ land, as well as burry our loved ones killed, and how to bring back members of our family still in Uganda.
And although life outside of the house was miserable and the smell of death in the air, my brother, despite the horrors he had witnessed and loss, he was still full of hope as he had in 1990 and reassured me that RPA/F would fully pacify the country; return all the refugees, protect survivors and put the country on the development course.
This message of hope, determination and strong belief in triumph – regardless of pain, and obstacles, is one I found with all officers and men I talked to in the one week I spent at the then Gashora Military Training Wing, which is currently the Rwanda Military Academy, Gako.
In Part Two of this article next week, I will explain my journey to the land of my ancestors, meeting with my three sisters and two nieces who survived; what has become of them since, and how their story connects with the larger national story of triumph amidst adversity.