Friday, April 17, 2009

Rwanda’s Genocide: 15 Years Later

By Michael Abramowitz
Director, Committee on Conscience
World is Witness
April 07, 2009

KIGALI, April 7—Silence fell over the thousands who gathered on this picturesque hill in Kigali as Karasira Venuste began the simple story of what happened to him and some 5,000 other Tutsi near this exact spot 15 years ago: “Evil people killed many of us in unspeakable conditions.” The hush was punctuated only by the occasionally audible sobs and cries from those in the audience for whom such testimony can never fail to shock.

On the morning of April 7, 1994, Venuste and his neighbors in a nearby village heard the news on the radio that the plane of Rwanda’s Hutu president had been shot down the night before. Thinking of the threats and violence directed at his fellow Tutsi over the past several years, he believed it likely that he and his neighbors would be blamed by the government and their allies for the incident.

“We are done for,” Venuste thought to himself. “We are finished.”

Venuste, who looked to be in his 50s or 60s, with a dignified bearing, proceeded to tell the hushed crowd how his family and neighbors decided to take refuge at the nearby L’Ecole Technique Officielle, thinking that might be a safe refuge because of the small contingent of Belgian United Nations soldiers stationed there. But four days later, to their great shock, the small U.N. force departed, telling those gathered on the school grounds that “gendarmes” would rescue them. The U.N. soldiers ignored their desperate pleas not to leave them at the mercy of a menacing crowd of government soldiers and armed militia that surrounded them outside the gates of the school.

After the departure of the last U.N. soldier, Venuste and some 5,000 others who were gathered on the school grounds were forced to walk a jeering gauntlet of Hutu militiamen, soldiers and civilians wielding machetes, guns and other weapons. Some of those who survived described it as a “death walk.” Venuste lost his right arm, hacked off by one of the tormentors. The walkers came to this unremarkable hill, where they were encircled by a gang of killers and set upon with grenades, machetes and clubs. Within a few hours, Venuste said, “We were lying in pools of blood.”

Of the 5,000 or so who sought refuge from the U.N. near here, roughly 100 survived, according to Venuste. He lived only because he laid still under dead bodies, overlooked by the killers searching the carnage for signs of life. The next day, the survivors were rescued by RPF fighters, the rebel force that ended the genocide and took power in Rwanda.

Venuste’s testimony was among the most emotional moments in a highly emotional day here, devoted to the government’s morning-to-midnight official commemoration of the 1994 genocide that saw some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus murdered by the direction of the radical Hutu government in just three months. My Museum colleagues John Heffernan and Michael Graham and I were privileged to be invited to attend the ceremonies, which included similarly heart-wrenching statements by two young people orphaned by the genocide and a stadium gathering highlighted by the lighting of 10,000 lights to symbolize Rwanda’s recovery from darkness. To some Rwandans, memories of the genocide are still so raw that medical personnel were required to tend to wailing participants whose painful memories were re-awakened by the testimony they witnessed this week.

My colleagues and I have been spending the week meeting with Rwandans, visiting memorial sites and discussing the terrible events of 15 years ago with colleagues gathered from around the world.

As I first-time visitor to Rwanda, it’s hard not to be mystified by the mismatch between the ferocious events of just 15 years ago and apparent calm and prosperity in Rwanda, which aspires to be the hub of an economically vibrant East Africa. As we drove out of town to one of the churches where you can still see the skulls and belongings of murdered Tutsi, we passed by workers digging up ditches on the side of the road to lay down new fiber optic lines. A newcomer thinks: How can this beautiful country, routinely described by Africa hands as one of the better functioning countries on the continent, have experienced such savagery?

As the scholars gathered here this week reminded us, a variety of factors contributed, particularly a long legacy of sowing ethnic discord for political purposes, first by occupying European powers, then by the succeeding Rwandan governments. A complete indifference by the rest of the world to the outbreak of genocidal violence, as exhibited by the behavior of the UN forces stationed near Nyanza, allowed the killing to rage out of control.

This, in fact, is one of the main messages this week from Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who offered a blunt appraisal in his speech to the dignitaries and ordinary citizens gathered on the hill at Nyanza. Responding to criticism of the government’s tactics in recent years, Kagame decried the “cowardice” of the U.N. and the rest of the world. “We are not like those who said, ‘Never again,’—yet they abandoned those they were responsible for,” he said. “They abandoned them even before one shot was fired.”

We were all intrigued to see Kagame first-hand. He is one of the world’s most interesting political leaders; his handling of Rwanda’s economic and political affairs has attracted favorable attention from a diverse lot of world figures, from Tony Blair and Bill Gates to pastor Rick Warren and Bill Clinton. He is also considered by many to be an authoritarian leader whose ruthless anti-insurgency tactics helped fan conflict and misery in the neighboring Congo and brought “suffering and death to many innocent Rwandans,” in the words of former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, in his fascinating account of Rwanda’s rebirth, “A Thousand Hills.”

The task of recovering from the kind of genocide experienced here is immense, and Kagame evinced obvious pride in the steps he says the nation has taken to achieving reconciliation. He has mixed a hard-line against the leaders of the genocide while offering lower-level perpetrators and killers a chance to reenter society if they admit their crimes and repent. He tells his countrymen to remember the past but look to the future. As one of his admirers told us this week, his policy has been to offer his countrymen a chance “to get ahead” through economic development and political reconstruction—not to “get even” with the thousands of fellow Rwandans who participated in the killing.

It’s impossible for us to know how deeply this ethic has taken root and how much reconciliation has penetrated beyond a surface level, so crucial to making “never again” a reality here in Rwanda. But that’s one of many questions we have during this sobering week.

About World is Witness:
World is Witness, a project of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, bears witness to genocide and related crimes against humanity around the world. Our staff and guest contributors bring you updates from the field, eyewitness testimony, photographs, interactive maps and more. Witness for yourself here on our website and inside Google Earth.

Related Materials:
On The Myth of Economic Prosperity in Rwanda

Rwanda Today: When Foreign Aid Hurts More Than It Helps

United States Remembers 1994 Rwandan Genocide

Yesterday a victim, today an oppressor: how aid funds war in Congo

The Power of Horror in Rwanda

The genocide in Rwanda: The difficulty of trying to stop it happening ever again

Rwandan Genocide and Reconciliation: Samputu dismisses IBUKA ‘Negationist’ accusations


At April 21, 2009 at 12:13 PM , Anonymous JCN said...

Mr. Abramowitz:

What a shame!

How could you support the heavyweight criminal the world has ever hosted? How could you dare write “Paul Kagame is one of the world’s most interesting political leaders”? Do you see any difference between Hitler and Paul Kagame? No big difference at all. The only difference is that Kagame is recidivist and for that I have all proofs he’s the mastermind, the Rwandan genocide brain.

Do you remember when I called you about this issue, and you told me you don’t know, you’ve been told that Kagame is good man and African and Rwandan leader? Quite on the contrary, you praise him! How could Americans praise Bin Laden and Jews the Nazi Fuhrer? I am very not only disappointed but also upset. You should not shame the Holocaust survivors.

Those who support criminal Kagame should be strongly condemned so that they do not repeat it again. Those who shame you by their attempts to legalize Paul Kagame and the RPF criminals’ crimes should be treated as criminals too. For this I assume what I am saying. Please go through my blog and you will understand that you’re doings are to be condemned.

I’ve come to believe that the feeling of being betrayed, being abandoned and shame for it underlies much of the anger and violence among the Rwandan genocide survivors. Either you’re doing it because of narcissism; either you’ve been told to so accomplishing somebody’s wish.
I’m more worried about the Rwandese terrorist and genocidaire sympathizers in Europe and America, and especially when it’s about those whose parents and relatives got mass-slaughtered by the German Nazis. I do think that at one hand praising and worshiping Kagame and his RPF criminal organization and spreading up lies about the 1994 tragic events is now a war crime.

I do know RPF criminals helped by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton engage ritual behavior and set-in-stone beliefs as a way to seize “control” of Rwanda. Did you know Paul Kagame killed more than 8,5 millions of Rwandan and Congolese people? In these circumstances, you are no longer shame based but rather become somebody with healthy, reality based self-esteem. This healing has nothing to do with politics or any actions that any person can take - unless we can offer lots of therapy for the fascist element of those who support the present Rwandan fascism led by the criminal our planet has ever seen.
Instead of pledging extra support to prosecute war criminals and genocidaires you support their impunity.

Shame on you.

I look forward to hearing back from you.

At April 21, 2009 at 12:15 PM , Anonymous NN said...

The Rwandan economy as a whole is sinking instead of booming.

To get a better appreciation of how bad Rwandans are doing economically, please read the latest report, entitled “Rwanda Today: When Foreign Aid Hurts More Than It Helps”.

This is an economic analysis of the situation in Rwanda today prepared by the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation in collaboration with Emmanuel Hakizimana, Ph.D., Université du Québec à Montréal and Brian Endless, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago.

Here some of the key findings:

1) Members of one minority tribe (the Tutsis) have seven times more representation in the government, per-capita, than members of the majority tribe (the Hutus).
2) In a discriminatory measure, the government recently banned the use of the French language in teaching and administration, despite the fact that the vast majority of Rwandans speak French in addition to Kinyarwanda. French has been used for decades as the language of commerce, education and law in Rwanda. French speaking Rwandans now find their entire careers and livelihoods at risk.
3) Rwanda has gone from being a “low-inequality” country in the 1980’s to being in the world’s bottom 15% in terms of inequality today.
4) One-third of Rwanda’s population now suffers from nutritional deficiencies, and life expectancy is among the 20 lowest in the world at only 44 years.
5) Wealth and power are concentrated in the cities, the government’s stronghold, leaving 92% of the poor in underrepresented rural areas.
The full report is available in English at the following link:


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