April 7, 1994 marked the start of one of the worst genocides in human history. The plane carrying then-President Habyarimana of Rwanda crashed, and the largely Hutu-influenced radio station urged Hutus everywhere to “kill the cockroaches.” 800,000 lives were lost over the course of the next 100 days in a brutal, bloody loss of life that left scars that were more than just physical. Twenty years have passed since the Rwandan genocide occurred, and for many, the anniversary holds lingering nightmares.
There were years of hate speech from one of the chief tribes in Rwanda that targeted one of the other tribes, the Tutsis. During that time in Rwanda’s history, there was a Hutu Power movement afoot that promoted the denigration of Tutsis wherever possible. Tutsis are tall and lean, with esthetic features that historically meant they were going to be placed in jobs that made a great deal of money, such as cattle ranching. By comparison, the Hutus often found themselves in labor intensive jobs, because their physical build often meant – again from a historical view – that they would be put on farms to work or in other menial labor positions. If they worked on farms, it was lower level farming than the more esteemed cattle farming the Tutsis generally engaged in. It was class warfare at its finest.
When the Hutu radio station implored Hutus to take on the Tutsis, the Rwandan genocide began. Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, now retired and then leader of the peacekeeping force that was to oversee the peace talks that President Habyarimana was to be involved with, was unfortunate witness to the Rwandan genocide, and bears the mental scars of that time even now today. He is now a Liberal senator in the Canadian government, and the Rwandan genocide left him, as well as those who served with him, with post traumatic stress disorder. He was one of the first to put a public face on the condition, and has admitted that he was struggling with nightmares and general insomnia in the lead up to the ceremonies revolving around the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
Major Brent Beardsley, also retired, struggles with PTSD as well. Beardsley did not experience symptoms of the condition until 2000, six years after returning home. He was teaching programs very similar to the scenarios he ran into while in Rwanda, and he found that it became too much to take after a while. It got to the point where he was completely unable to put his boots on, and he was able to bear his PTSD thanks to his religious faith and his willingness to talk about it, but his colleague Maj. Luc Racine was not so lucky. Racine was also in Rwanda during the time of the genocide and his PTSD became too much to bear; he committed suicide in 2008.
The 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide clearly holds lingering nightmares for those who lived through the tragedy. What remains clear is that those who lived through the deaths of anywhere from 800,000 to a million people will continue to struggle to regain their sense of “normal,” as many people with post traumatic stress do. Maj. Jean Guy Plante, media spokesperson for the mission, was one of the so-called “lucky ones;” he says he is free from the torment of PTSD, though he has no idea how he escaped it. He says he saw the very worst that humanity could offer during that time. With over 800,000 killed by machete or through other means, it is quite clear that the Rwandan genocide is truly one of the worst tragedies that humanity has had to endure.
By Christina St-Jean