Kwibuka25: the spirit of Rwandans lives on

A visitor looks at pictures of the victims inside Kigal Genocide Memorial.


Whether you like them or not, there is something you have to admire about Rwandans. It is their spirit: strong and courageous in the face of enormous odds; irrepressible, resilient and unbreakable even under the severest strain; forgiving, not vindictive or vengeful; firmly set on the future and refuses to be held by the past.

It has always been like this, but never really appreciated, mostly taken for granted. It took the genocide against the Tutsi to reveal this spirit in all its complexity.

And so this year, when Rwandans commemorate the genocide, they will also be honouring this spirit that has seen the country survive its worst test, rise up from near destruction, rebuild and begin to prosper. That must be the spirit of Kwibuka25.

The mention of genocide brings to mind many things at once, many of them of extreme contradictions, but that have come to define the past and future of Rwandans.

The first is the horror of killing on a hitherto unimaginable scale, with all the associated grisly sights and sounds of both victims and perpetrators that can never be completely erased or silenced.

It is a revelation of the depth to which human beings can descend when all the moral and social restraints have been removed and replaced by hatred, depravity and savagery.

The horrors of those one hundred days in 1994 will always be with us.

But we will also live with and celebrate the courage and bravery of Rwandans who ended the savage slaughter or who made sure there were some left to tell the story and to carry the promise of the nation and the future.

The first among these were the soldiers of Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA). They acted swiftly to end the carnage and keep the country one. How they kept their sanity and level-headedness in the midst of what they came across is a mystery. That they did not break down and descend to the level of the murderers is proof of the resilience of the human spirit and the ability to rise above basic instincts and act with a higher moral purpose.

For this, all Rwandans, even those who find it hard to accept the fact , will always be in their debt. And so it is fitting that at every Kwibuka we pay some of that debt back by acknowledging their role in saving this country and keeping it united. We can never do it enough.

Then there is the bravery of those who were being hunted and killed that we must also commemorate. True, many were led to their slaughter and were either too numbed, resigned, bewildered or outnumbered to resist. But many more put up a brave fight and were only defeated by the superior force of the FAR or the betrayal of those in whom they had trust or who had pretended to offer them protection.

Light of Hope at Kigali Genocide Memorial. Photos  by Sam Ngendahimana.

The brave resistance in the marshes of Bugesera that pinned back the interahamwe for long periods come to mind. The heroic fight in the Bisesero hills is another. There were many others, most of which we do not know about, but in which the spirit against evil was shown.

All these exemplify the national spirit of standing up to evil, asserting the right to life and territory and affirming that no one has the right to deny these.

Remembrance means paying homage to these brave souls and holding them up as heroes whose spirit must continue to define Rwandans.

Equally not to be forgotten must be the courage and selflessness of other Rwandans who saved lives of those being hunted, often at the risk of their own. They were not hunted. They were safer doing nothing or looking the other way. But they chose to shelter, feed  or provide safe passage to others in mortal danger, some of whom they did not even know personally. They did not do so for personal gain or expect a reward.

Aron Gakoko (L) and Kayinamura from Bisesero who resisted and kept fighting for their lives during 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Bisesero. 

Most were ordinary people, many of them poor, with no power or influence, but with an abundance of common decency and ubuntu. Some have been recognised for their humane and heroic acts. Many more have not and will probably never be known. But all of them represent the best spirit of Rwandans.

Many who survived the genocide owe their lives to these unheralded heroes. As the nation remembers and commits to genocide never happening again, we should also keep the memory of those who in their modest way prevented total extermination.

All these made it possible for us to be around today and to be able to make these commitments. They defeated the very purpose of the genocide. That is why they must be integral to all remembrance activities.

The Genocide may have been an attempt to negate the Rwandan spirit, but response to it and the progress the country has made since then is a re-affirmation of that spirit. We should hold on to it and never again let go.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.