Jason Nshimye will never forget the morning of April 16, 1994. Shortly after sunrise, his older brother warned him that their entire family — which had taken refuge inside a church complex in his village — would soon be slaughtered by Hutu tribesmen.
“That morning when he said goodbye, I was speechless. I looked in his face and I knew he was a strong man,” recalled Nshimye, who was then 15. “A few minutes later, the killers started coming from all directions. It didn’t take long before they started shooting and throwing grenades. That day, thousands of people died. Babies were left crying day and night, lying in the bush next to their dead mothers.”
The young man’s entire family was wiped out in Rwanda’s 100-day explosion of ethnic bloodshed by Hutus against their Tutsi neighbors — many of whom had gone to school together, shared meals and even intermarried among themselves.
Nshimye spoke Feb. 24 to a Washington auditorium packed with diplomats, dignitaries, students and representatives of human rights organizations. At one point, he held up a thick red book, each of whose 1,079 pages are inscribed with the names of Rwandans slaughtered during those three months of madness. All told, the book contains close to 60,000 names — and those are the victims in just one province of Rwanda.
“There are no words to express what happened,” he said. “Six months ago, I went to visit a memorial site, and on my way back to Kigali, I stopped to talk to an old friend. ‘Why did you kill Tutsis?’ I asked him. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. Every day my kids ask me, ‘Where is grandpa? Where is grandma?’ I don’t have any answers. There’s nothing I can tell them about why they were killed. And I’ll never have the answer.”
Nshimye is an articulate eyewitness to one of the 20th century’s most horrific genocides. His account was clearly the most moving in a solemn day full of speeches, songs and poetry commemorating the 20th anniversary of that nightmare — and ensuring that history does not repeat itself.
The event was organized by Kwibuka20, in cooperation with the Embassy of Rwanda, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation and other NGOs.
“Grief is a necessary part of our life,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation. “For those who failed — and that includes me — we have had a time of reckoning. For those who were murdered in cold blood and hatred, for those of you who are survivors, we are here to stand with you to remember them, because memory is a bedrock for us to move forward.”
Directly addressing Nshimye and other survivors of Rwanda’s atrocities, Smith said: “We do not share your pain, because we can’t understand what you lived through. But we can stand with you. In the wake of genocide, there should never be silence.”
Numerically speaking, Rwanda’s genocide pales in comparison to the 6 million Jews murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust, which lasted from 1933 to 1945. But the carnage in Rwanda spanned only 100 days, and during that short period, an estimated 800,000 people — perhaps up to three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population — were killed, along with tens of thousands of Hutus who opposed the butchering of their Tutsi brethren. Some 300,000 women were raped by men who infected many of them with HIV, and tens of thousands of children became orphans.
The unprecedented massacre was triggered when a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president was shot down, galvanizing killing squads bent on retaliation and wiping out the Tutsi minority. It stopped only when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, defeated the Hutu regime and rebel leader Paul Kagame took control. Kagame has been president since 2000.
“Our country endured one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, only 50 years after the Holocaust,” said Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, Mathilde Mukantabana. “People focus on the 100 days beginning April 7, 1994, but for decades before that, our political leaders had been pursuing the policies of dehumanization that laid the groundwork for this genocide.”
Mukantabana, who became Rwanda’s top envoy in Washington last July, blames her own government, the police, the church and even families for instigating the violence that eventually consumed her country.
“Rwandans of Tutsi descent were somehow enemies within, somehow less than human, and to kill them was an act of patriotism,” said the ambassador. “For years, Tutsi children were denied entry into secondary school on the basis of their ethnicity. Quota systems shut their parents out of civil society jobs. Numerous outbreaks of violence and mass killings in 1959, 1962, 1968 and 1973 drove hundreds of thousands of survivors into exile in neighboring countries.”
But the hatred that boiled over in the 1990s in fact traces its roots to the 1880s, when Belgian colonists — steeped in the “divide and conquer” mentality — enthusiastically exploited existing ethnic rivalries between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen. Belgians generally viewed the Tutsis as superior, helping them fill the ranks of the elite (Tutsi monarchs had also ruled the country for centuries). The majority Hutus rebelled following independence in 1962, killing thousands of Tutsis and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to Uganda. The jockeying for power continued for decades.
Gregory Stanton, president of the nonprofit group Genocide Watch, lived in Rwanda from 1988 to 1989 and saw the dark clouds on Rwanda’s horizon even then.
“I discovered a society that was divided by imagined identities that had been inspired by Belgian identification cards,” he told his audience. “During a meeting with the president of Rwanda, I asked him to remove [ethnicity] from those ID cards, and an icy mask came over his face. He didn’t even answer me. I then told the president that within five years, he’d have a genocide here.”
Former Sen. Russell Feingold, now President Obama’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, called the Rwandan nightmare that arrived five years later “humanity’s darkest hour” — and one that especially pains him as a Jew.
“When I was growing up, my parents worked hard to make sure I understood the devastation and the loss of the Holocaust, which dramatically influences what it means to be a Jew in modern times,” said the Wisconsin Democrat. “This is part of my history. But my experience inevitably differed from theirs. My parents imparted to me the challenge to never forget, while never letting it define me. I am Jewish — a member of a group brutally subjected to genocide — but that does not define me.”
Likewise, Feingold said that this year, the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide, should be a turning point for this small Central African nation — “the year Rwanda defines itself not by genocide alone, but by what has yet to come.”
The longtime lawmaker said he was amazed by the “tremendous strides” Rwanda has made since his first visit there in 1999.
“The enormous challenges it faced after the genocide cannot be overstated. Nearly all economic activity came to a standstill. Agriculture was devastated,” Feingold said. “A tragedy of such magnitude could easily define or even cripple a country. But now Rwanda is one of the most stable, secure countries in Africa.”
Ambassador Mukantabana — who led her fellow speakers in the “Urumuri Rutazima” ceremony, lighting an eternal flame to kick off Kwibuka20’s two-month-long U.S. campaign of hope, resilience and courage — also praised Rwanda’s extraordinary turnaround.
“No one knows better the pain of genocide than the survivors as society collapsed around them,” she said. “To top it off, the international community — under the guise of the United Nations — was rendered powerless. This was a genocide that took place in full view of everyone, in the era of global news, and yet no one stopped it. In the aftermath, what they discovered was a nation destroyed. Any observer would be forgiven for thinking Rwanda had become a permanently failed state.”
Yet exactly the opposite has happened.
“We found within ourselves the resilience and courage necessary to reject the politics of hate and to rebuild from the ashes,” said Mukantabana. She noted that 3.5 million refugees have returned to Rwanda since 1995 and that 1 million Rwandans have lifted themselves out of poverty between 2006 and 2011. Child mortality rates have also been slashed while life expectancy rates have skyrocketed.
In addition, her country now enjoys economic growth of 8 percent a year, though per-capita income is roughly $1,500 a year (when adjusted for purchasing power parity) and 90 percent of its people still depend on small-scale farming. With 11 million inhabitants, Maryland-size Rwanda is already among Africa’s most densely populated countries and is set to grow even more crowded in the coming decades.
At least part of that increase is thanks to a drop in AIDS-related deaths. Rwanda’s adult HIV infection rate now stands at 2.9 percent, among the lowest in Africa.
“AIDS, once a death sentence, is now a treatable, manageable disease, and mother-to-child transmission has been effectively eradicated,” said the ambassador. “Life expectancy has risen by 20 years in the past two decades, something almost unprecedented in history.”
While Rwanda may have overcome its tragic past, it hasn’t completely eradicated the seeds of conflict that fueled the 1994 killings, as longstanding divisions between Hutus and Tutsis still fester throughout the region. After Kagame took power, more than 2 million Hutus are thought to have fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Rwanda led an invasion in 1996 that dislodged longtime Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power but left a vacuum of competing rebel and militant groups. Millions have died in the country’s various conflicts since the 1960s. Today, Kagame is still suspected of backing a proxy war in Congo, in part to control the country’s vast mineral resources.
On that note, Kagame’s legacy, like the man himself, is complicated. The president has been praised as a hero for single-handedly transforming the country and derided as a dictator with blood on his hands. A meticulous, shrewd businessman who has bowled over development experts, Kagame literally cleaned up Rwanda’s streets — Kigali is now one of the safest, best-maintained capitals in Africa. But the veteran warrior is also accused of ruthlessly cracking down on opponents (and even some Tutsi allies who have crossed him) and supporting murderous, Tutsi-led rebel campaigns that have recruited child soldiers, raped women and destabilized the nearby Congo. Only recently did the international community pressure Kagame to sever his ties with the M23 guerrillas accused of wreaking havoc in Congolese villages and towns.
Many of Rwanda’s other African neighbors also remain mired in ethnic strife. The new nation of South Sudan has been teetering on the brink of war ever since clashes broke out between its two main tribal clans. Meanwhile, Boko Haram Islamic extremists continue to slaughter thousands of Christians (and Muslims who don’t subscribe to their hard-line brand of Islam) in northern Nigeria. Religious tensions between Christians and Muslims recently exploded into all-out war in the Central African Republic, and Mali is still recovering from a 2012 Islamic uprising that split the country in two.
The ghosts of Rwanda’s genocide continue to haunt Western policymakers as they grapple with these humanitarian crises — not only in Africa but elsewhere. The civil war in Syria has resurrected the question first posed by Rwanda: When should the world intervene to prevent mass death? Two decades after Rwanda’s bloodbath, there are no easy answers. But experts hope to use this month’s somber anniversary to encourage a serious dialogue on genocide.
“Today is a timely occasion to remind ourselves of our collective failure to recognize the signs of impending violence, to prevent the deaths of so many people,” said Adama Dieng, the U.N. special advisor on genocide prevention. “Drawing from the lessons of Rwanda, we know that genocide is a process that can be avoided at any stage.”
Dieng added: “No part of the world is immune to atrocities. We recognize the efforts of the Rwandan people, and so many others, who have supported Rwanda on its road to recovery. We should never stand idly by and let this happen again.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.