In April 1994 the Rwanda genocide took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, who were slaughtered by the ethnic Hutu majority extremists. This year marks the 20-year anniversary of Kwibuka, which means remembrance. Rwandan survivors whose mothers, fathers, and entire families were brutally murdered remember their loved ones, but do not choose to recall the trauma visited upon them. The memory and the loss are still painful, and will continue to be so.
In addition to the murder of their families, hundreds of thousands of women were raped repeatedly by multiple men attackers, and those who survived do not know the fathers of their children. Moreover, many contracted HIV/AIDS as a result of the rapes. At the headquarters of the Association of Women Genocide Survivors in the Rwanda capital, Kigali, women receive antiretroviral (ARV) medication to temporarily stave off the worst of the symptoms from HIV/AIDS.
Those who gave birth to children as a result of the rapes during the Rwanda Genocide sometimes have never celebrated their children’s birthdays, as the memory of their birth is too painful. The legacy of the genocide includes illness and depression, equaling a huge emotional and physical burden. One survivor said that the rape was a death sentence enacted by her attackers, whom she said very well knew that they were HIV positive and they deliberately infected the women .
The Rwandan government says that the 20th anniversary of the Genocide is an opportunity to unite in forgiveness. For the young, there is no personal memory of what happened before they were born. There are only stories from their elders, which are less fierce as time passes. Memorial services are held, serving as a reminder to not repeat past mistakes. And, the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center in Rwanda serves as a constant reminder, as well.
However, for those Rwandans who remember it all too well, the trauma is still as fresh as it was when the Genocide occurred. For those who became mothers as a result of rape 20 years ago, and for their daughters, reminders are everywhere. For one 20-year-old young woman, the daughter of a woman who was raped as a teen, the question is existential: She asks herself why she exists. Her mother says she forgives her militia attackers because the government requires her to do so. That doesn’t remove her pain, however.
The Rwanda Genocide lasted 100 days, beginning on April 6, 1994, and the massacre left approximately 800,000 Tutsis as well as Hutu sympathizers dead. Historically, there was little difference between Tutsis and Hutus. The only distinction was that Tutsis raised cattle. It was only after colonization by the Germans in 1894 that the delineation was made by external influence. Under the Germans, Tutsis were put into roles of responsibility. After German defeat in World War I, the Belgians colonized Rwanda and further solidification was made for the categories of Tutsi and Hutu, with required identity cards. The Tutsis were also in leadership positions under the Belgians and led to animosity between the two groups.
The Genocide began when the plane of Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down just over the capital of Kigali and he was killed in the crash. He had run a totalitarian regime for two decades in Rwanda, excluding Tutsis from participating. This changed eight months before his death, when he signed the Arusha Accords, which allowed Tutsis to participate in the government. Within 24 hours after the president’s death, Hutu extremists took over the government and blamed the Tutsis for the assassination. They began the slaughter immediately, starting with Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the government.
Then, because everyone had an identity card, it was easy for the killers to go door to door throughout Rwanda, killing men, women, and children. They used hand weapons and avoided bullets because of the cost. Many were tortured before they were killed. No place was safe, not even schools, hospitals, or churches. In a horrific mass slaughter, the mayor of a town – a Hutu – encouraged the thousands of Tutsis who lived there to seek refuge in a church, and then betrayed them to the Hutu extremists. Throughout the Genocide, the dead were left where they were killed. The Hutus did not honor the dead enough to bury them. Rather, to further degrade them, they left them where they were slaughtered, exposed to the elements, and allowed them to be consumed by wild animals.
The question that has plagued the world is why it stood by while this rampant genocide continued, especially after the U.N. Resolution of 1948 that stated that genocide is a crime under international law and will be prevented and punished. One theory is that because Hutu moderates were killed early on, some countries believed that this was a civil war rather than genocide. Of course, considering that Rwanda is a Low-Income Country (LMIC) without marketable natural resources, and factoring in systemic racism, there were unspoken reasons that the world did not intervene.
The Genocide stopped when the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a trained military group comprised of previously exiled Tutsis, entered Rwanda and gained full control in July 1994. By that time, eight hundred thousand had been slaughtered. The trauma of this reality still reverberates 20 years later, for those mourning their loved ones, and for those women and teenage girls forced into motherhood against their will.
By Fern Remedi-Brown