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Rwanda: 20 years after the genocide

The wooden mallet smashed into the front of his skull.

A memorial at Nyamata Church comprising the clothes of those who were massacred there two decades ago this month. Photograph: David Pratt
A memorial at Nyamata Church comprising the clothes of those who were massacred there two decades ago this month. Photograph: David Pratt

Rutikanga Emmanuel recalls slumping to the ground, corpses all around him. Somewhere among the dead, just feet away, were friends, neighbours, his brother-in law and his mother.

In one day 800 or so people were hacked and bludgeoned by axes, hammers, machetes and mace clubs with long nails sticking from their orb-shaped heads.

In the local Kinyarwanda language, the word for this flesh-ripping club meant, "No amount of money will save you."

Nothing did save those 800 people. The mallet-wielding killer, convinced that the gaping head wound he had inflicted on Rutikanga meant certain death, turned away when his work or "Kasi" was done.

Only luck, and the fact that Rutikanga was able to hide beneath the piles of bodies, prevented the then 29-year-old farmer from becoming another victims of Rwanda's genocide.

It is 20 years on from those dark days and we are sitting in Rutikanga's modest stone and tin roofed house in the village of Nyarwumba, where he lives with his wife and children.

"They wore sunglasses to disguise themselves, and said nothing," he recalls of the Hutu "militiamen" killers who set about massacring those ethnic Tutsis who were among the 800 people caught fleeing that afternoon after a month on the run.

"The killers spared no-one, all around me people were dying, those waiting to die were traumatised and hysterical with fear," Rutikanga remembers.

Inyenzi, or "cockroaches" was what the killers had despisingly dubbed Tutsis, and that day they were hell bent on eradicating as many as they could find.

It would be a short time later that one Roman Catholic missionary would be quoted in Time magazine as saying that: "There are no devils left in Hell. They are all in Rwanda."

For weeks up until that moment, Rutikanga had been constantly moving and hiding, hungry and separated from his wife Christine, who herself walked for four days before crossing the border into neighbouring Burundi and life in a refugee camp.

"I could not believe he had survived or would survive," Christine says, casting her mind back to the day Rutikanga was carried into the camp and she caught first sight of his wounds. Even today as we talk, there is a large noticeable concave scar on his head where the bone shattered and the skull caved in.

Listening to this quiet, unassuming husband and wife tell their stories, children playing nearby, I begin to realise just how difficult it is trying to comprehend what happened in Rwanda those short years ago when more than 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were massacred in less than 100 days at the hands of predominately Hutu killers.

Ethnic tension had, of course, existed in Rwanda long before 1994.

The Belgian colonists introduced identity cards in 1916, classifying people according to their ethnicity. The Belgians considered the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus, and for the next 20 years they enjoyed better jobs and educational opportunities than their neighbours. As resentment among Hutus grew it culminated in a series of riots in 1959, when more than 20,000 Tutsis were killed, and many more fled to the neighbouring countries of Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. Then when Belgium relinquished power and granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutus took their place and the Tutsis were portrayed as the scapegoats for every crisis. Such was the case when the genocide was sparked by the death of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. Tutsis were said to be responsible and within hours a campaign of violence spread from the capital, throughout the country, that would last the next 100 days.

As this weekend Rwanda and the world remember that orgy of bloodshed, what now for survivors like Rutikanga and Christine? What does the future hold for their children and a new generation of Hutus and Tutsis living in this beautiful lush land of 12 million souls?

I had been in Rwanda numerous times previously, usually en-route to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country perhaps more readily associated with conflict and killing.

On each of these occasions, I often found myself wondering how it possible that this seemingly benign country, once dubbed the "Switzerland of Africa," could have succumbed to the scarcely believable levels of depravity and barbarism that were the hallmarks of the genocide.

Frankly, much of what I heard while talking to survivors over the past few weeks in Rwanda is so graphic that, should it be narrated here, there is the likely risk of having readers turn away in disgust.

That, in itself, would be a failure, as only by understanding and confronting those past events - as Rwandans now do - can we have any hope of preventing such horrors from reoccurring.

I defy anyone who visits Rwanda for the first time to easily imagine what unfolded during the genocide. With its immaculate streets and paved roads, it is the epitome of order and hospitality and about as far removed from the "final solution" of the genocide that saw Tutsis herded together, having their ankle tendons slit to prevent then running away before being butchered like cattle.

Today's Rwanda sees tourists come, not so much to visit the countless genocide memorial sites - though many do - but to track the famous mountain gorillas brought to worldwide attention by American naturalist Dian Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver in the 1998 film, Gorillas In The Mist.

Even before that time when Rwanda was at the centre of francophone Africa, it was a comparatively sedate place where fresh baguettes were baked each morning and its hills were lush with vegetation that sprung up from its fertile, rain-saturated red soil.

All this of course changed during those 100 days of the genocide, and Rwanda's history gave rise to other movies. Gorillas In The Mist was replaced with films and books like Hotel Rwanda and Shake Hands With The Devil, as the international community came to terms with Rwanda's killing fields.

What the world belatedly woke up to was the scale of the Rwandan atrocity. It began to realise that this was a human tragedy of immense proportions, something that simply cannot be understood alone by cold, hard statistics. Yet, what statistics they are.

It is reckoned that no system of genocide ever devised has been more effective than that in Rwanda. As American journalist Scott Peterson, who took our opening, upsetting photograph, outlines in his powerful book, Me Against My Brother, which deals with the Rwandan atrocity, it is estimated that the daily kill rate was five times that of the Nazi death camps. This daily death rate averaged well over 11,500 for two months, with surges as high as 45,000.

During this peak, one murder was committed every two seconds of every minute, of every hour, for days.

Last week at the Roman Catholic Nyamata Church, just off the town's bustling main street, the industrial scale of the killing was once again brought home to me as I stepped inside what has now become a genocide memorial site.

It is estimated that 10,000 people alone were killed in and around the Nyamata Church grounds from April 14-19, 1994.

"These are the bullet holes and this from grenade explosions," says Leon Pierre Muberuka, my Rwandan guide, pointing to the perforations on the tin roof and pock-marked shrapnel scars on the walls as we near the red brick building.

Above the doorway is a banner in Kinyarwanda that reads: "If you had known me, and you had really known yourself, you would not have killed me."

Leon himself is a genocide survivor. At the height of the killing he escaped into the forest and managed to evade capture, despite being hunted by gangs of Hutus using dogs.

Inside Nyamata Church today, the altar cloth still bears the bloodstains of the victims who met their end in a place they thought would provide sanctuary.

A selection of weapons, including a machete, chisels and bullet casings all used in the executions, lie on a table.

In the church's basement there now stands a permanent catacomb lined with racks of skulls, bones and coffins containing remains of the some 43,000 people massacred in the surrounding area.

Perhaps most eerie of all are the heaps of victims' clothes laid out in benches across the church pews, their reddish tint a mixture of blood and the dust of the Rwandan soil that has accumulated over the past 20 years.

Is it really possible for those who endured such traumas to forgive such things and, if so, how does one go about that healing process?

As far back as the days of the genocide itself humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide was working on the ground in Rwanda. In those early years its workers provided emergency relief for displaced Rwandans. The organisation also set up and ran refugee and transit camps.

Since 1994, as many as 32,000 unaccompanied children have passed through the agency's doors, and at the height of the emergency 20 years ago as many as 1000 exhausted, weak, undernourished and traumatised youngsters could arrive within a 24- hour period.

Of course, today the challenge is a different one but still driven in great part by a response to the lingering legacy of the genocide.

Much of Concern's effort now focuses on helping the process of reconciliation in Rwandan society. It does this by helping some of the poorest and most vulnerable, through livelihood schemes and microfinance projects, that help small-scale farmers like genocide survivor Rutikanga Emmanuel his wife and family.

The measure of how much life has changed as a result of such support was made clear when I spoke with Rutikanga the same day that he told me his remarkable survival story from the days of the genocide.

"Now we live in peace, we have food and we can pay our children's school fees," he says proudly, adding that two of his children are now in secondary school and four in primary.

Rutikanga and Christine are convinced that such support across the ethnic scope of Rwanda has helped contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation.

But, I put it to him, can he really forgive those who murdered his family, friends and who so brutally nearly took his own life that day back in 1994?

"Yes, we forgive those people," he insists. "There are some who have now been released from prison and resettled here, we share food within our communities, our children sometimes now marry their children," Rutikanga explains, saying this is proof of positive change.

A few days after we spoke I was to see yet further evidence of how Rwanda's people have pulled themselves out of the abyss.

Perhaps more than any other factor, education and a willingness to openly discuss the evils of the past at both a family and school level have played a key role in Rwanda's remarkable, if still ongoing, rehabilitation.

At Maza Primary School in Kinazi sector, near the town of Huye, Concern Worldwide provides support for an educational programme.

There, I watched children from across Rwanda's ethnic spectrum play, sing and dance together. At a prize-giving ceremony for a reading competition, parents listened proudly to their children's recitals.

Afterwards, some of the parents, genocide survivors, told me how they now talk to their youngsters of the terrible times two decades ago and of hopes for a better future.

"My wife and I sometimes sit together and talk about the genocide, the children listen, become curious and begin to ask questions, so we tell them how it started, our relationship with our neighbours and how we have now moved on," says Jamibosco Ahowendeye, who was 32 years old when the ethnic killing erupted.

He went on to describe how sometimes his children are shocked and even become afraid, asking if such things could ever happen again.

"All of us as parents 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 every taking root," he says.

Outside in the grounds of Maza Primary School, the children are doing what children the world over do in school playgrounds, scream, laugh and play pranks and games. These are not Hutus or Tutsis, just children.

However, it would be naive to assume that things are now all well in Rwanda. The speed and scale of its genocide makes many other single acts of war pale by comparison. No country can emerge from such collective trauma easily or without nightmares and flashbacks.

That said, what I witnessed recently in Rwanda is a cause for hope, and this in a country where hope was once utterly lost for so many.

Like any recovering patient, Rwanda needs time and help to heal. Its people have a long way to go yet, but the signs are good … perhaps even inspiring. n

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