• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Out of the abyss

ALL three are ­survivors.

Clockwise from top, skulls at Nyamata Church and memorial; victims' clothes at the church; children at Maza Primary School; and survivors Rutayisie Ramaelho, left, Mukiryumdu Chamto, and Ahowendeye JamiboscoPhotographs: David Pratt
Clockwise from top, skulls at Nyamata Church and memorial; victims' clothes at the church; children at Maza Primary School; and survivors Rutayisie Ramaelho, left, Mukiryumdu Chamto, and Ahowendeye JamiboscoPhotographs: David Pratt

At the time of "the killing" one was a child, the other a teenager and the third a grown man.

We are sitting talking about those dark days of 1994 when hell came to Rwanda, as nearby these survivors' children play noisily in the grounds of the local Maza Primary School, close to the southern Rwandan town of Huye.

There is no ethnic distinction made here in the school. Some of the youngsters running around are Hutus, some Tutsis.

Just a little while earlier, these same parents and children had gathered to watch, listen and applaud a song and dance performance as part of a school prize-giving ceremony for winners of a pupils' reading competition.

The three people I am talking to are two men, Rutayisie Ramaelho and Ahowendeye Jamibosco, and a woman, Mukiryumdu Chamto.

"The youngsters are lucky," says Ramaelho, nodding in the direction of the cacophony coming from the playground. "But we older people still carry these things with us."

"These things" that Rutayisie speaks of are memories of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He was just 18 when more than 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred in less than 100 days at the hands of predominately Hutu killers.

This, by any historical standards, was no ordinary massacre. Carried out by hand using everything from kitchen knives and chisels to hammers and hatchets, the daily death rate was five times that of the Nazi death camps.

For almost two months the daily toll averaged well in excess of 11,500, with some days as many as 45,000 killed. One murder was committed every two seconds of every minute, of every hour, for days.

Today, as you read this, Rwandans, including the three survivors I met at Maza School last week, will remember those who died and reflect on a time when their nation slid into a nightmarish abyss from which, 20 years on, it is still trying to surface.

What sparked this orgy of bloodshed is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say for those unfamiliar with the story that it had its roots in the ethnic classification system imposed by Belgian colonists in 1916 and the growing resentment it fostered between Hutus and Tutsis.

This boiled over into genocide sparked by the death of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994. Tutsis were said to be to blamed and within hours a campaign of violence spread from the capital across the country that would last the next 100 days.

"I remember the morning after it started, I was scared, they [the government] were telling people to kill others, so people started slaughtering neighbours, but as a Christian I decided not to join them," says Jamibosco, who was 32 at the time.

He remembers how a group of Hutus came to his house and killed his Tutsi neighbour.

Later he fled with his wife. In the panic the couple lost one of their children, who was miraculously reunited with them some months later.

Today, Jamibosco and his wife often sit in the evening talking of those traumatic times and fielding questions from their youngest children, for whom 1994 is the stuff of horror folklore.

He says the youngsters are shocked and even become afraid, asking if such things could ever happen again.

"As parents we all need to reassure them that this will not happen again, but we must make sure too that their education and understanding prevents the remotest possibility of such thinking ever taking root," he tells me.

The third of the survivors I was to meet at Maza Primary School was just a child when the genocide ripped apart her family.

MUKIRYUMDU Chamto was 10 when she lost a sibling and her father.

"He was a lovely father, a caring and dedicated family man before he was taken from us," she says proudly.

It is the same pride she has now for her own children, who just before we talked had won prizes for their readings in English and the local Kinyarwanda language in the school competition.

How could such things have come to pass in Rwanda 20 years ago? How can it be that husband and wife, neighbour and friend turn on each other because of the perversities of politicians who saw their ethnic rivals as nothing more than "cockroaches".

At the Roman Catholic Nyamata Church, 30 minutes drive from Kigali, the scale and barbarity of the genocide hits home. Inside this low, red-brick building, now a genocide memorial site, lie heaps of victims' bloodstained clothing.

Down a steep flight of stairs, along with a rack of skulls lies a coffin containing the remains of another victim.

Mukandoli Annoniata was 26 when she was gang-raped by marauding Hutus and horrifically mutilated before being killed.

So grotesque are the details of her suffering and death, told to me by genocide survivor and memorial guide Leon Pierre Muberuka, that readers most likely would shy away from them in disgust.

Today, Annoniata's coffin sits as testimony to the suffering of the 10,000 people killed around Nyamata church and the 45,308 victims in the district as a whole.

I came to Rwanda not just to try to understand a little more about what happened back in 1994, but what is being done today to support Rwandans, many of them still reeling from the combined impact of genocide and widespread poverty.

A recent survey showed 26% of the Rwandan population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, yet the country lacks the mental health facilities needed to address this issue.

There are other humanitarian needs too. Aid agency Concern Worldwide was in Rwanda in 1994 and has a respected track record in the country.

Such was the unprecedented scale of destruction and displacement of people in 1994 that the organisation launched what was then its largest-ever emergency response, with more than 1000 staff working day and night.

With more than a million people internally displaced, many children were lost. Concern set up centres that cared for 32,000 lost and orphaned children. It is a remarkable testimony to the Irish organisation that out of an estimated 218,000 refugees repatriated to Rwanda in 1997, a total of 11,568 returnees and 10,478 unaccompanied children passed through these Concern-run transit centres.

TODAY, long after the emergency of 1994, the agency and its local and expatriate workers continue to help the most vulnerable in Rwanda irrespective of ethnic identity.

"Rwanda is not only the story of one of the gravest and most inhumane acts in recent history, it is also a story of recovery, resilience and the ability of humanity to overcome extraordinary adversity," says Concern's CEO Dominic MacSorley, who himself worked in Rwanda at the height of the genocide and through the humanitarian emergency thrown up in its wake.

MacSorley says that back then he and other Concern workers could never have foreseen that Rwanda would ever achieve the level of peace, stability and economic recovery it has today.

Yet he is quick to point out that "despite all the advances, huge challenges remain," and warns that 40% of Rwandans still live in extreme poverty.

Right now the agency is continuing to work with Rwandan Government ministries to ensure all children have access to a decent education, that women who are destitute and homeless are given the support to get back on their feet, and that schemes intended to treat severely malnourished children are scaled up to reach all those under five years of age.

While in Rwanda I was to see for myself some of these programmes in action.

Nshutiraguma Glaver is a 59-year old farmer who along with his family fled during the genocide.

He returned to Rwanda some time later to find his home had disappeared, as had his livestock and crops.

Today, with help from Concern, he has had material support in the shape of metal sheeting for the roof of his house, as well as training and micro-enterprise investment that has allowed him rebuild some of his farm and livestock herd.

"Without this help we would be nothing," he tells me, explaining that such small but significant support has enabled him to turn life around for his family.

Though Glaver lost both his parents, sister, brother-in-law and their children during the genocide, he says its time for Rwanda to move on.

"We can't continue with bitterness," he insists, summing up the attitude of so many Rwandans that I had met over the past few weeks.

Back at the Maza Primary School, his sentiments were echoed by the other survivors I encountered.

"Above all we wish that our children will never witness what we had to," says survivor Ramaelho.

He goes on to point out that right now, elsewhere in Africa in the Central ­African Republic (CAR), events are unfolding that have an eerie and worrying similarity to those of Rwanda in 1994 as two communities - in this case Christians and Muslims - face off against each other in the most brutal way.

The CAR is another country where Concern Worldwide is gearing up to provide the same kind of emergency response it did in Rwanda 20 years ago.

During my last day in Rwanda I decided to make a point of visiting the country's main genocide memorial and museum in the capital, Kigali.

Arriving at the gates I was duly told by two guards that it was closed as preparations were under way for the huge commemorative ceremony that will take place there today and over the next few days.

Over the next week, people all over Rwanda will pause and think back to those terrible times.

They will remember the almost one million people who died, often in the most vicious of circumstances and painful of ways. They will remember too how it is all too easy for a nation to slip into the abyss and how difficult it is to surface again from that dark place.

But amidst all the commemoration, Rwanda will also be looking to the future.

Its people have made remarkable strides over the last 20 years and are the first to admit this would not have been possible without the support of others across the world.

In remembering Rwanda's genocide today, we must make a point of ­continuing to provide that support and remind ourselves that hatred can be overcome and peace and understanding can take its place.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

224529