On April 7, Rwanda will mark the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. Within a space of three months, about one million people lost their lives in the tragedy that turned a country, once known as ‘A tropical Switzerland in the heart of Africa’ into one of the darkest places on the continent.
It will also be 20 years since myself and a group of other youths found ourselves in the Rwandan countryside where most of the unfortunate killings took place. Like millions of other young people around the world with a Kinyarwanda heritage, we were inspired by the struggle of the ‘Inkotanyi’, fighters of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, and their eventual liberation of Rwanda. Around September 1994, visible scenes of killings and evidence of decomposing bodies were still common occurrence in different parts of Rwanda.
The euphoria that surrounded the return of Banyarwanda Diaspora to their country after decades as refugees was mostly centred around new beginnings and determination to build a new Rwanda. In avoiding our own discomfort and confronting the ugly reality of mass killings of innocent people, we have allowed these memories to fade. But in the midst of celebrating progress and achievements, we have not reflected much on the lives of those who were caught in the genocide.
As a result, I realise that I, and many others who should, do not really know beyond the basics of what everyone knows. We have not fully heard the voices, reflected on images of children whose lives were cut short, and confronted those who committed these atrocities.
To a great extent, the 1994 genocide is yet to be acknowledged by our generation as the worst tragedy of our time. Early this year, as the 20th anniversary commemoration referred to as Kwibua20 got underway, I kept telling myself that I should mark this milestone by visiting one of the genocide memorials. Gisozi in Kigali was the closest so I decided to go and pay my respects on March 1. The visit to Gisozi left me with more questions than answers, and a deep sense of shame because I lacked the courage to deal with the uncomfortable reality. We ran away from responsibility because acknowledgement comes with the duty of doing something about it.
It is important to note that this failure has not remained at an individual level; it extends to nation states and other important institutions, especially those in Africa. For example, whereas Rwandan embassies around the world have marked ‘Kwibuka20’ with series of events, no country has thought it important to mark this day with an activity in solidarity with the victims and survivors. Not even the African Union has adopted a motion to annually commemorate this activity as something to reflect upon. Going forward, we should study how it was possible to cause the loss of almost a million people in just 90 days!
If we say ‘Never again’ and mean it, we should ensure this memory lives through education and passing on stories of survivors, especially to the young generation. Young people should know what can happen when leadership fails, and how destructive human behaviour can get where hate is left to manifest itself into an ideology.
Genocide, like any situation of warfare, destroys not just the political or economic structure of the country but it destroys the spirit of that country as well. Once the spirit of the country is destroyed, it takes a miracle for that country to recover. Today, a miracle has happened in Rwanda. Like President Paul Kagame once said, “Rwanda’s body was assaulted, it was toured, it succumbed, but the spirit never did”. The country has recovered beyond all our imagination and has since emerged as one of the best examples Africa has to show to the world. Let’s honour the memory and this resilience by ensuring such tragedies never happen again.
Mr Uwihanganye works at LèO Africa Forum.