We remember but soldier on

Remember. Unite. Renew. These three words have defined Rwanda over the past 20 years. Indeed, there could not have been a better theme as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of a genocide that shocked the world and changed history two decades ago: The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Pascaline Niyigena (L) and Adolphe Gahima carry the Kwibuka Flame from Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi on January 7 shortly after the lighting ceremony. (File)
Pascaline Niyigena (L) and Adolphe Gahima carry the Kwibuka Flame from Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Gisozi on January 7 shortly after the lighting ceremony. (File)

BETRAYAL AND THE RISE. The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is summed up in the betrayal of the people by their own leaders. Nationalism was trampled on with ethnicity, humanity discarded for matchetes. That was 20 years ago, but today, the nation bristles with optimism.

Remember. Unite. Renew. These three words have defined Rwanda over the past 20 years. Indeed, there could not have been a better theme as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of a genocide that shocked the world and changed history two decades ago: The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.


Twenty years ago today, Rwanda descended into hell. For three months, the country was dead and buried. A well-oiled genocide machinery worked the machetes, clubs and any weapon at their disposal in the quest to exterminate the Tutsi. 


In the end, more than a million of them were slaughtered in broad-day light. The world sat back and watched, effectively rendering lip service to their ‘never-again’ slogan.


As the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels made considerable ground against the genocidal machinery, the interim government of President Theodore Sindikubwabo and Prime Minister Jean Kambanda were happy to welcome a rescue mission from their ever-reliable masters in Paris.

Sensing an imminent collapse of their client regime in Kigali, Francois Mitterrand’s government reacted fast to manipulate a wobbly and flawed UN system to hastily deploy a French contingent along the Rwanda-DR Congo borderline to bolster the genocide regime against the RPF liberators or at least provide an escape corridor for the government in Kigali and its militia groups.

But the infamous Operation Zone Turqouise also helped the killers nearly exterminate their targets in western and south-western Rwanda, leaving behind a trail of blood of thousands of innocents, particularly in the Bisesero area in then Kibuye province.

Twenty years on, the Basesero (inhabitants of Bisesero) who survived the Genocide still vividly remember how the French soldiers tricked them into abandoning their resistance hideouts only to leave them at the mercy of the Interahamwe militia and cruel government soldiers who were baying for their blood.

“Around that time, French soldiers arrived in Bisesero and surrounding areas and convinced us that they had come to save us, to stop the killings. They encouraged us to come out of our hideouts, promising that they would protect us,” Eric Nzabihimana, 48, told The New Times in a recent interview.

“They lied to us. When the killers attacked us, the French were nowhere. I think they tricked us; we fell for their trap and paid dearly.”

That was around mid-May. Once they were exposed, the Bisesero Tutsi could no longer repulse their attackers – something they had courageously managed for weeks prior to the French soldiers’ arrival. More than 54,000 Tutsis who had converged on Bisesero hills were ultimately killed, 40,000 of them in just two days – May 13 and 14.

Fulfilling ulterior motives

Ultimately, the French succeeded in their Plan B of giving a cover to the regime and its killers who safely trooped into DR Congo (then Zaire), along with millions of civilians, whom they would use as human shield in subsequent attempts to forcibly return to Rwanda and as a tool to question the legitimacy of the new establishment in Rwanda. 

In the Congo, the previously indifferent UN bureaucrats and Western government and NGO industry fell over their heels to deliver supplies to Rwandan refugees in camps that also served as training grounds and facilities for logistic stockpiles for the defeated genocidal army and its allied militia for future offensives against Rwanda.

The rest is history. (Up till now remnants of the militia that committed the Genocide against the Tutsi remain active in the Congo where they continue to conscript children in their ranks with impunity and passing on to them genocide ideology – right under the noses of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force).

Back in Rwanda, the new government was faced with colossal challenges never experienced anywhere else. A million of people had died so tragically with the stench of death blanketing the country, families had disintegrated with orphans roaming the lifeless streets, rape victims and wounded widows were crying out for assistance yet the national coffers had been completely looted, bands of extremists in the countryside were still killing under night cover, the Tutsi belonging to the Old Caseload refugees (those who fled from the ethnic cleansing of 1959, 1964 and 1973) were returning to a country on the brink, among other challenges.

Of course, there were no medical care systems in place, no public infrastructure to speak of, teachers and medical staff had either fled or died, prisons were overcrowded, et cetera. Experts saw Rwanda as unviable as a nation state, predicting that its best case scenario was to turn into a failed state. 

Yet, even as the world powers murmured about their failure to prevent the Genocide, they still folded their hands and let the cash strapped post-Genocide government struggle to create a semblance of life and restore hope in a shattered people in the immediate aftermath.

World awakens

It was only after months, if not years, that the world’s financial systems and powers started to show a sense of solidarity with post-Genocide Rwanda, which saw the coming on board of development partners in the country’s fragile healing process, and the creation of a financial monster in the name of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) ostensibly to try key masterminds of the Genocide. 

Indeed, compared to what Rwanda managed to achieve through its modest justice system, especially via the semi-traditional Gacaca courts which were specially reintroduced to help expedite Genocide trials, the ICTR later proved to be a white elephant. 

In the 18 years or so of its existence, the court has consumed a whopping $2 billion on trying just about 70 cases, whereas the Gacaca trials involving 1,951,388 cases were adjudicated at a cost of $40 million in only 10 years (2002-2012).

While we remember our comrades whose lives were brutally cut short, we should also reflect on how far we have come as a nation. We have come of age. Ours has been a journey never travelled before. It’s been a journey of disappointment and difficulties but, most importantly, resilience and humbling results.

From ashes, Rwanda can now hoist its flag on international soils in peacekeeping missions. The Rwanda Defence Forces and National Police Force’s contribution to world peacekeeping mission is only bettered by five other global nations.

In 1994, UN peacekeepers abandoned the dying Batutsi and fled as if there was nothing going on. This was the case at ETO Kicukiro in Kigali among many other places where peacekeepers turned their backs on those they were being paid to protect. Their supreme bosses had conspired and decided that the Blue Berets had no job to do in Rwanda – even as Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, the helpless Unamir Force commander had implored Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros-Ghali to reinforce the mission with more boots on the ground to help stop the killings. As the peacekeepers withdrew on April 11, machete-wielding militia paced to slaughter those who were under their protection. Thousands were left to die. At least 3,000 people at the facility were killed that day.

Today’s transformed

But fast forward, Rwandans are today ensuring that atrocities like they witnessed that can lead to genocide do not happen not only at home but across borders and overseas.

Genocide survivors have refused to be held back by a bitter history and are actively rebuilding their lives and partaking in the country’s development, we have made considerable gains in reconciliation and promotion of ‘Rwandanness,’ and a new generation of IT enthusiasts and broadminded Rwandans is emerging. 

This week, the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda released the results of the Fourth Population and Housing Census (2012) which indicated that the life expectancy of Rwandans has risen to 64.5 years. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Genocide, the figure stood at a dismal 38 years.

The report also shows that of the nearly 11 Rwandans, one million are estimated to live under the poverty line. Significantly, one million Rwanda moved above the poverty line in a space of five years (between 2006 and 2011).

By 2012, up to 98 per cent of mothers received antenatal care from trained personnel, while more than 90 per cent of the children received vaccination, nearly 80 per cent of households had health insurance.

Economically the country’s GDP has nearly doubled in every 10 years with the economy growing at an average of 8 per cent over the last decade.

Sir Paul Collier, professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, says: “Rwanda has achieved and sustained rapid economic growth. Few other African countries have managed to do so. This is despite the evident fact that Rwanda’s opportunities are more limited: it is landlocked and lacks valuable natural resources.

“But more distinctively, the economic and social benefits of that growth have been widely spread across the society. We know this from independently analysed household survey evidence that has tracked progress”.

At this pace, it’s safe to say that the country is on course to achieve a middle-income economy status over the next six or so years as envisioned in its Vision 2020.

From what transpired over the last 100 days of the Kwibuka (Remembrance) Flame tour, it is evident that Rwandans have never been more prepared to pursue their shared dream – a homeland they truly deserve and one that will make future generations proud.

That is the best way we can honour the memory of our loved ones.

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