Lest we forget: Rwanda 22 years on

22 years after the Rwandan genocide, the country is working hard to come to terms with its past – and agencies like Concern have a role to play.

On 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down over the capital, Kigali. The attack triggered the start of the Rwandan genocide that tore the African nation apart. In just 100 days, over 800,000 people were brutally killed in one of the worst ethnic-cleansing massacres the world has ever seen.

Newstalk’s Shona Murray visited Rwanda with Concern and made this video with director Matthieu Chardon. She spoke to people who lived through the genocide and who are now undertaking the difficult task of rebuilding – their lives, and their country.  

While Rwanda is attempting to move on from those dark and desperate days – and has since developed a progressive constitution – 22 years after the awful events of 1994, accounts of the massacre are still deeply disturbing.

Nyamata Genocide Memorial

A memorial to the victims of the systematic and brutal killings that were a hallmark of the Rwandan genocide, can be found in the small village of Nyamata – 30km to the south of Kigali.  It is believed that up to 45,000 people were killed in this village in April 1994 – 10,000 of them in Nyamata Catholic Church.

Anne O’Mahony – Concern’s Director of Programmes – explained the gruesome pattern of the time:

The church has always been a place of refuge… [but] this time in Rwanda, [when] the people fled to the churches, the churches were then surrounded, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed there. The very place that they should have felt most secure turned out to be the biggest killing zones.

Nyamata Catholic Church is now a memorial to the genocide. In it can be found the bloodied clothes of many of the victims; in the crypt are thousands of skulls, femurs and other bones of people who were brutally murdered there. One coffin in the crypt holds the body of a woman who was killed while her infant child was still on her back. She had been raped by over 20 men before a spear was inserted inside her to kill her. The baptismal font in the church is another gruesome memorial. Once used in joyous times, in April 1994 it was used to inflict death upon the very same babies who might have been baptised there – their little heads and bodies bashed to death against the marble.

Nyamata_Genocide_Memorial.jpg
Nyamata_Genocide_Memorial.jpg

Nyamata Catholic Church is now a memorial to the victims of the 1994 genocide who were murdered there. Still from Changing lives in Rwanda film.

Coming to terms with genocide

Concern Worldwide was among the first NGOs to arrive in Rwanda to help its people in the aftermath of the slaughter. Anne O’Mahony recalls a staff, also struggling to come to terms with their collective experience:

We had wonderful staff. They would come into work and work hard to try and build a recovery programme. But there were days when they would be completely blank. They would zone out. There was nothing in their eyes; there was no expression in their face; and they just sat there.

The murder in Rwanda had been wholesale – indiscriminate. Dominic Dahimana, from Negasoze village in the south of the country, spent 15 years in prison for his part in the violence.

I was one of the people mobilised on the 18th of April to go and kill the Tutsi in Simbi church...we had a meeting with soldiers about how to take strategic positions at the entrances of the church so that the 20,000 Tutsis who were hiding inside could not go free…We were convinced that we had to kill the Tutsis. We were told this by our leaders at that time.

He now lives side by side with members of the Tutsi community like Jeannette Mporera, who narrowly escaped being murdered by the rampaging mobs of which he was part. Jeannette tells us her story:

On the 18th of April 1994 when all of the Tutsis gathered in Simbi church, where they thought they had security, I thought that I could not go because I had four children who were very small. For some reason I had the idea of going to a nearby elderly Hutu neighbour, who agreed to mind me and my children. We heard that they had killed all of the people at the Simbi church. After three days hiding, I went outside, thinking that the killing was over. But they got me and I was beaten and left for dead. They thought I was dead and left me. The lady was minding my children. This is how we survived.

Dominic Dahimana (left) was part of the Hutu mob that killed 20,000 Tutsis in Simbi church on 18 April 1994. Jeannette Mporera (right) was targeted as a Tutsi, beaten and left for dead by the same mob.  Still from Changing lives in Rwanda video.
Dominic Dahimana (left) was part of the Hutu mob that killed 20,000 Tutsis in Simbi church on 18 April 1994. Jeannette Mporera (right) was targeted as a Tutsi, beaten and left for dead by the same mob. Still from Changing lives in Rwanda video.

Dominic Dahimana (left) was part of the Hutu mob that killed 20,000 Tutsis in Simbi church on 18 April 1994. Jeannette Mporera (right) was targeted as a Tutsi, beaten and left for dead by the same mob. Still from Changing lives in Rwanda film.

Reconciliation

It is difficult to understand how, after such horror, communities can even begin to reconcile with each other – and rebuild their lives. And yet, the green shoots of reconciliation can be seen in Rwanda today. Initiatives like the Gacaca courts and the AMI programme are helping. But agencies like Concern can also have a role in helping to promote reconciliation and in helping communities rebuild their lives.

Nyiramtezimama Alyera, saw hundreds of her community killed in front of her, including her husband and two of her children.

After the genocide I was left without a home, without a husband, with no money…I was in a terrible situation. I was empty. Can you imagine how that was?

Concern helped Nyiramtezimama by giving her money to buy a plot to build a home for herself and her children. We also helped her fulfil her basic needs, educate her children, and to eventually re-integrate into her community.

We now live well. We are living together with the Hutu. I have forgiven them. I don’t have any conflict any more. I give them forgiveness. What else can I do?

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