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Rwanda marks 30 years since 1994 genocide of Tutsis

Isaac Mugabi in Kigali, Rwanda
April 7, 2024

April 7 marks 30 years since the start of a genocide that would see nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered in Rwanda. Scars on survivors' bodies remind Rwandans of the killings. A deep trauma also remains.

Human skulls preserved are exhibited on April at the Genocide memorial in Nyamata
Hutu extremists attacked Rwanda's Tutsi minority and Hutus who stood in their way, targeting human rights activists, journalists and politiciansImage: SIMON MAINA/AFP

Rwanda is commemorating the 30th anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

More than 1 million people — mostly from the Tutsi minority ethnic group, but also moderates from the Hutu majority who tried to protect Tutsis — were systematically murdered by Hutu extremists during a 100-day killing spree that started on April 7, 1994.

The United Nations is holding events to remember the victims and honor the survivors. 

"We will never forget the victims of this genocide," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement earlier this week. "Nor will we ever forget the bravery and resilience of those who survived." 

'I could hear my siblings' screams'

Freddy Mutanguha, a Tutsi, is one of the survivors.

Mutanguha was 18 years old at the time of the genocide and on a school break in his home village of Mushubati in Kibuye, a city around 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Rwanda's capital, Kigali.

Hutu extremists had been hunting down young men they suspected of sympathizing with the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a mainly Tutsi rebel group led by Paul Kagame, now Rwanda's president.

Fearing the worst for her son, Mutanguha's mother advised him to hide in the house of a Hutu former classmate. 

While Mutanguha was safe with his school friend, his family — who were at a nearby location — stayed alive by bribing a group of Hutu extremists with money and alcohol.

But on April 14, the family ran out of money, and the extremists murdered Mutanguha's parents and four of his sisters. Only his sister, Rosette, managed to escape.

"I could hear my siblings' screams as they were mercilessly killed," Mutanguha told DW. "They begged their attackers to spare their lives, promising never to be Tutsi again, but in vain.

"They threw my sisters in a nearby pit. Some were still alive and they finished them off with rocks. My parents were killed by machetes."

Mutanguha remained in his hiding place because the killers were also looking for him.

"It would be suicidal if I left my hideout," Mutanguha told DW, adding that his sisters were only 4, 6, 11 and 13 years old when they were killed.

Apart from losing his parents and four sisters, more than 80 members of Mutanguha's extended family were murdered in the genocide.

Some of the people who killed Mutanguha's loved ones were released as part of a plea deal that allowed perpetrators to serve half of their sentences in exchange for providing vital information to prosecutors about suspects and where victims' bodies had been dumped. The ringleaders, however, remain in prison.

Mutanguha, who served as a vice president of IBUKA, a group for Rwandan genocide survivors, is now the director of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where some 250,000 remains of genocide victims are buried

Difficult healing process for survivors

Despite Rwanda's efforts to push for reconciliation between survivors and those who perpetrated the genocide, the journey to healing has been a bumpy road for survivors like Mutanguha and his sister.

"Perpetrators don't often tell the whole truth, which is a setback to reconciliation efforts and which is disturbing for survivors," said Mutanguha, explaining that one of the killers of his family withheld considerable information.

"He was released after serving 15 years of the 25 he had been sentenced to just for the little information he shared with the prosecutors," he said. "We have to live with it after all our loved ones will never come back."

Healing Rwanda's mental health

However, Mutanguha acknowledged that Rwanda has made significant progress in reconciliation. That's a sentiment he shares with Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, who has researched developments in Rwanda for the last 20 years.

"Rwanda has made enormous strides in terms of post-genocide reconciliation when you consider that hundreds of thousands of convicted genocide perpetrators are today back living in the same communities where they committed crimes, side-by-side with genocide survivors," said Clark.

"Most of these communities are peaceful, stable and productive, and the progress that Rwanda has made is clear," he added. 

"Many commentators predicted Rwanda would go through further cycles of violence after the genocide, as is the case in most of the neighboring countries," he added. "It warrants a deeper understanding that Rwanda has managed to avoid that fate."

How social media hinders reconciliation 

Genocide survivors have had to process their feelings and work together with perpetrators, according to Mutanguha. However, the Rwandan diaspora remains the main stumbling block to the unity of Rwandans.

"They [diaspora] are notorious for spreading divisive information on social media platforms and to their families back home which hinders reconciliatory efforts, especially among the youth who know little about what happened 30 years ago," he said.

Survivors remember Rwanda's 1994 genocide

Decades of interethnic tensions and violence had already resulted in several waves of migration before the 1994 genocide. Many of the expats never returned to Rwanda.

Clark agreed that the Rwandan diaspora is the greatest challenge for reconciliation — the people who did not participate in the reconciliation processes in their homeland. 

"The most destructive interethnic dynamics are currently among Rwandan populations in North America, Western Europe, and other parts of Africa which flow back to Rwanda itself," he said. "The next crucial phase of reconciliation needs to happen in those communities outside Rwanda."

Reconciliation process poses serious security threat

President Kagame's most prominent critic, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, called reconciliation a far-fetched dream and said to achieve it, all Rwandan refugees would need to be repatriated.

"There are still many Rwandan refugees especially in neighboring countries that must be repatriated for genuine reconciliation to happen," Ingabire said in a New Year's message on her party's YouTube channel.

"We live in peace, but reconciliation is still low, and there is a deep mistrust among Rwandans," said Ingabire. "The Rwandan government is also concerned about refugees in neighboring countries who chose to take up arms and fight it. This problem will never end unless we who are inside the country unite and reconcile first."

Ingabire was referring to rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an ethnic Hutu rebel group.

Kagame has long viewed the FDLR as an existential threat to Rwanda. The group has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.

The FDLR's ongoing existence, allegedly being tolerated by the government in neighboring Congo, has led to accusations that Rwanda supports competing rebel groups like the M23 movement. Rwanda has denied supporting the M23. 

The recent uptick in fighting has created serious tensions between Rwanda and Congo — including threats of going to war by Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi — which suggests that the gaps in the reconciliation process pose a serious security threat to the entire region, even 30 years after the genocide.

Rebuilding lives, restoring hope

There have been a multitude of efforts — by the government, civil society and everyday citizens — to move beyond a genocide ideology, but not everyone has had the change of heart needed for a rapprochement.

Weekly dialogue clubs and associations at the community level, where people discuss past and present conflicts, have  been essential in helping Rwandans heal and move forward positively.

Clark said the situation is much more positive today than five or 10 years ago. But, he added, "most Rwandans I speak to say there's still a long way to go."

Mutanguha indicated it was important that the Rwandan genocide be commemorated around the globe.

"Remembering what happened in Rwanda 30 years ago should not be a thing for the Tutsis who survived the genocide — but for the whole world to learn from it because it was a crime against humanity," he said. 

Edited by: Keith Walker