Can Rwandan Survivors Ever Truly Forgive the Murderers in Their Own Country?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 6 2014 7:30 AM

Unreconciled Rwanda

Twenty years after the genocide, the country has made tremendous progress. But how much can survivors forgive murderers?

Rwandans take a break during a youth soccer game in the Gikondo suburb of Kigali on March 16, 2014.
Rwandan children take a break during a youth soccer game in the Gikondo suburb of Kigali on March 16, 2014.

Photo by Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images

KIGALI, Rwanda—In April, Jean Pierre never switches on his television, afraid of what might happen to his wife, Grace, if she sees the programs broadcast during Rwanda’s annual genocide commemoration week.

“I’ve taken her to hospital twice in April,” he said. “She had flashbacks. She was crying and saying that the militias had come back.”

A Tutsi living in Kigali, Grace was slashed with machetes and left for dead during the 100 days of slaughter that began on April 6, 1994, shortly after Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down over the Rwandan capital.

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The attack mobilized Hutu government soldiers and allied extremist militia, who orchestrated the genocide to exterminate the Tutsi minority. In villages across the densely populated country, neighbor turned on neighbor as victims were hacked to death, burned alive, clubbed, and shot.

The fighting ended in July 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-led rebel movement that swept in from Uganda, marched on Kigali and seized control of the country—but not before some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed.

“When the commemoration week starts, many people get traumatized because the past comes straight back into their hearts,” said Jean Pierre, 44, who declined to give his real name.

A flame of remembrance has been touring Rwanda’s green hills for the past three months, with both survivors and perpetrators presenting their testimonies at each stop. On April 7, President Paul Kagame will use it to light a national flame of mourning, which will burn for 100 days.

But many say this show of collective mourning masks deep divisions in a country struggling to overcome lingering resentment and achieve true reconciliation and justice. The specter of the genocide, said to be the fastest of its scale in history, is omnipresent in Rwanda, a tiny, mountainous land lying in the heart of Africa.

Signposts off the tarmac roads point to churches where massacres took place. Inside, skulls and bones are neatly arranged in lines. The clothes of the dead are piled on the pews. School books, rosary beads, and identity cards belonging to the dead are displayed alongside rusty machetes and pipes left behind by the killers.

The guides are all survivors, often still visibly traumatized.

“All of my family were killed. Sometimes it is difficult to talk about it,” said Stanley, who works at the Ntarama church memorial, 30 kilometers south of Kigali, where more than 5,000 people were killed. “As a survivor, this is one of the ways to fight genocide and its ideology.”

Some argue that the government, led by Kagame, a Tutsi, constantly evokes the horrors of the genocide to justify its tight grip on power. Last year, it launched a campaign called “I am Rwandan,” which has seen Hutus born after the genocide apologize in the name of their ethnic group.  

“[Kagame] wants the blood to keep flowing symbolically,” said Gérard Prunier, a French academic who has moved from being a Kagame sympathizer to a fierce opponent. “He wants the survivors to be full of hatred and pain because that’s the basis of his legitimacy.”

The one-sided nature of the government’s genocide narrative is making it difficult for many to bury the past, analysts say. There is no official recognition of Hutu who were killed either during the genocide or in revenge massacres by the RPF, in which up to 30,000 Hutu died, according to a leaked United Nations report.

“Hutu see that those who are commemorated are Tutsi victims ... but they themselves are not allowed to commemorate their victims,” said Filip Reyntjens, a political scientist at the University of Antwerp. “It increases rather than decreases ethnic polarization in Rwanda.”

He said this polarization was reinforced by the justice meted out in the wake of the genocide when village courts, known as gacaca, were established to clear a backlog of genocide cases that had overwhelmed Rwanda’s judicial system.

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