Rwanda: The Art of Remembering and Forgetting

Two decades after the genocide, Rwandans navigate the way forward.

If you arrive in Rwanda today to witness ceremonies commemorating the genocide that began here 20 years ago, you might expect the country to be a mournful place. Up to a million people were murdered by their neighbors in roughly a hundred days, and you could reasonably expect that tragedy, guilt, shame, and rage continue to weigh heavily on the Rwandan people. The skeletons of genocide victims are still occasionally discovered, stuffed into sewers and under dense bushes. Fragments of bone and teeth still turn up in church parking lots. And by and large the country is still oddly devoid of dogs: During the genocide the animals acquired a taste for human flesh and had to be exterminated.

But today Rwanda bears few obvious scars of its cataclysm. Its rapidly modernizing capital, Kigali, is one of the jewel cities of Africa. A lacework of tree-lined boulevards and greenswards rises and falls over a cradle of verdant hills and valleys. New construction is transforming the city center, with upscale hotels, a grand shopping mall, and a state-of-the-art convention center. The airport bustles with tour operators picking up clients arriving to visit Rwanda's national parks, which hold the nation's famous mountain gorillas. Add to that Rwanda's rising standard of living, steady economic growth, and low incidence of corruption, and you have a country that in many ways is the envy of the continent.

A metal fence cordons off one of the many construction projects that are changing Kigali’s skyline, including a state-of-the-art convention center, a mega shopping mall, and new luxury hotels. “If you were here in 1994 and saw the city today,” said resident Claude Disi, “you would never believe it is the same place.”

Prisoners who exhibit good behavior at Kigali’s Nyarugenge Prison are allowed to spend their days working in one of three trade shops. The prison houses roughly 3,000 inmates, most of whom are serving sentences related to their role in the 1994 genocide.

Life here bears no relation to the darkness that descended over the nation beginning on April 7, 1994. To find evidence of that period, you have to look into the hearts of the people where those memories lie buried. During today's official events, Rwanda's leaders will urge its people, if not to forget, to set aside many of their bitterest memories to help sustain the country's impressive progress.

Remembering is a tricky thing. It can release a river of volatile emotions that can drown you in sorrow or shame, and it can also unleash a torrent of vengeful anger. But forgetting is equally treacherous, lest those who were lost died in vain or the crucial lessons learned are not passed on to future generations. Rwandans of all walks of life navigate this complex riptide of emotion every day, each in his or her own way. It is far more art than science.

Former Catholic priest Benoit Sebyiatsi, 67, has served 16 years of his 30-year sentence. Witnesses said he encouraged Hutu soldiers to kill a man and two boys. He claims he is innocent and dismisses the idea of offering an apology to Tutsi: “For what? I have done nothing wrong.”

The Boy Who Hid From His Friends
"It began when we heard the plane crash," said Gaston Bizimana, a 34-year-old Tutsi who works as an independent tour operator. "I was 14 and my school was just there," he said, pointing a long, slender finger out of the car window toward a spot in the valley below the road. "That is when my journey began," he said.

The plane crash he is referring to killed Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, who was returning from Tanzania, where he had signed a peace accord with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group that had been fighting a guerrilla war with the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government.

For centuries, the ethnic distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi in the African kingdom of Rwanda meant relatively little to the people, who united behind their monarch. But during the late 19th century, European colonizers began using ethnicity as a way to divide and subjugate the people. In 1935, the country's Belgian overlords implemented a national system of identity cards that required Rwandans to declare their ethnicity. And things were never the same. Violent ethnic bloodlettings punctuated the next three decades, sending many Tutsi—outnumbered nearly four to one by Hutu—into exile around the region.

But in April 1994, things seemed on the verge of a major change. The outmanned and outgunned RPF, led by a brilliant young strategist named Paul Kagame, had taken a significant swath of northern Rwanda, forcing President Habyarimana to the negotiating table in Tanzania. A plan for a multiethnic, power-sharing government had been agreed to, and a lightly armed force of 600 RPF fighters had been dispatched to Kigali along with a force of UN peacekeeping troops to help begin implementing the accords.

The sun had slipped below Kigali's hills on April 6 as President Habyarimana's jet, which included eight other passengers, including Burundi's president, also a Hutu, was on final approach to the city's airport. Witnesses later described seeing two surface-to-air missiles streak across the sky. The plane burst into flames and crashed onto the grounds of the presidential palace, exploding on impact.
"My friends and I heard the explosion," said Gaston. "Many people in the city heard it." In the coming days, the army joined with the Interahamwe, militias comprised of Hutu extremists, to set in motion what a UN special inquiry later called "the systematic slaughter of men, women, and children."

"That night I heard grenades exploding and lots of shooting, so I decided to walk to my home village in Kamonyi District," said Gaston, as our car approached a bridge over the Nyabarongo River.

Clothing removed from the bodies of genocide victims hangs on the walls of the sanctuary at Ntarama Church, now a memorial site. “Male and female of every age group were killed here, from babies to old people, in almost every way you can imagine,” said Bellancilla Unitonze, a genocide survivor and memorial guide, “bullets, grenades, machetes, even smashing the children’s heads against the wall.”

"This was my first challenge," he pointed at the bridge. "There were soldiers checking people's identity cards to cross the bridge. I decided that I would try to cross the river, but I didn't know how to swim and I could see crocodiles." So he opted to face the soldiers, telling them he'd lost his national identity card.

"One of them shouted 'You are Tutsi' and he pushed me on the ground and pointed his rifle at me. 'No,' I said. 'I am Hutu. My parents are living on the other side.' Another soldier came over and said, 'Why are you bothering with this small boy?' And I ran to the other side. I was lucky it was soldiers. If they had been Interahamwe, I would have died right there."

We made the 20-mile (32-kilometer) drive to Kamonyi and parked the car just off the main road. Gaston uncoiled his lanky 6'4" frame from the car. We followed a path that cut through thickets of thorn trees and eucalyptus. "Do you smell that?" he asked, plucking a eucalyptus leaf and holding it to his nose. "That is the smell of my home."

After several minutes of picking our way past small groves of coffee plants and banana trees and carefully tended plots thick with cassava, beans, corn, and sweet potatoes, we emerged from the path at a wide pasture that sloped toward a deep valley. "This is my family's land," Gaston said. "I used to play football [soccer] here. Hutu and Tutsi, we were all together." In the far distance three of Rwanda's majestic volcanoes were visible. He pointed to one. "That is where the gorillas are."

At five o'clock on the morning of April 7, the family awoke to see houses burning across the valley. His parents told his three brothers, two sisters, and him to flee into the bush.

We walked along the edge of the pasture, and Gaston began pointing out thickets where he had hidden. "You could not stay in one place, because the Hutu searched every day. Some of the boys I played football with were helping their fathers look for us. Sometimes they used dogs. When the dog made a noise, they knew you were hiding in that bush. When they found one person, they would cut them here," he pointed to his Achilles, "so they couldn't run. When they found another, they cut him and put him with the first one. When you were five, they killed all of you on that spot." He pantomimed chopping with a machete.

After a month, the Hutu began using loudspeakers to announce that the fighting had ended and that all Tutsi could come out of hiding. A few fell for the ruse and were hacked to death.

By day Gaston lay curled beneath thornbushes. By night he scavenged for cassava leaves, careful not to disturb the plants too much lest he give away his presence.

Prisoners who exhibit good behavior at Kigali’s Nyarugenge Prison are allowed to spend their days working in one of three trade shops. The prison houses roughly 3,000 inmates, most of whom are serving sentences related to their role in the 1994 genocide.

"There was one Hutu house where I could get water, late at night when there was no moon," he pointed across the valley at a small house with a curl of smoke rising from a chimney. "That is the only family in this whole valley that helped Tutsi."

In mid-June, after nearly a hundred days of hiding, Gaston was rescued by RPF troops who had fought their way down from the north, ultimately driving the army and Interahamwe out of Rwanda into neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). "At first I was afraid to come out, but the RPF had very bad uniforms, so I knew they weren't government soldiers."

Of his family, only he and his father survived. The bodies of his mother, three brothers, and two sisters were never found. Most of the Tutsi homes were not rebuilt, the survivors opting for new, government-provided houses closer to the main road.

"This hillside is so quiet now," Gaston said. It used to be filled with sounds. Women laughing, children singing, men calling to each other across the fields. As he describes it, I can tell he's hearing the sounds.

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit