Spotlight on Africa

Rwanda's challenging road to reconciliation

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A candlelight ceremony is held at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide, 7 April 2019
A candlelight ceremony is held at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide, 7 April 2019 ©RFI/Pierre René-Worms

In the 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, the country has emerged to become one of Africa’s success stories. Its remarkable recovery has stemmed from efforts towards nation-building. But some critics argue this bid for ethnic reconciliation is far from complete. In this week’s Spotlight on Africa, RFI's Christina Okello travels to Kigali to explore how Rwanda has dealt with the trauma of its past.


Tucked away in a courtyard away from the main commercial area in Kigali, is a small memorial site dominated by an imposing building of red bricks and white panels. The building is the Sainte Famille church, the largest Catholic Church in Rwanda. It is also where more than 2,000 people were massacred during the 1994 genocide.

“We still remember those people who was killed, who are called Abatutsi [or Tutsi] people,” recounts 19-year-old Nadine Ouwiduhaye, pointing to the names of the victims engraved on a black marble wall.

When violence broke out on 7 April following the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana, many residents from troubled districts of Kigali fled to Sainte Famille church to seek refuge, only to be handed over to Hutu militias by the priest in charge there.

“I’m just looking at these people; they’re too many. This is something like inhumanity. How can people take something like a knife and put to the neck of others, how they can kill their people, kill their child, how people can kill his mother? Just too many questions,” Ouwiduhaye told RFI.

Is God listening?

Up to one million Tutsis and Hutus were killed in a brutal one-hundred-day massacre that has led some to question whether God exists. In his commemoration speech to mark the 25th anniversary since the killings, President Paul Kagame reiterated the poem of a young girl who once said: “Where was God on those dark nights of genocide?”

“People say he was absent, no he wasn’t,” responds Ouwiduhaye.

“Something bad happened, it doesn’t mean God forgot us. He is trying to teach us how we can treat each other, how we can be together. Before, they didn’t have a unit, they just had something like Tutsi, Hutu, Twa. But right now, we are just Rwandan, all of us we are just Rwandan,” she said.

One Rwanda

Today, ethnic labels in Rwanda have been erased, and most children like Ouwiduhaye have grown up with the idea of “Rwandaness,” inculcated into them in education camps, known as ingando that try to minimize ethnic differences.

“Many people don’t understand how we have made this reconciliation,” comments Rwandan author Jean-Marie Vianney Rurangwa, who was invited to discuss his work in preserving the memory of the genocide.

Author of four books on the topic, including Au Sortir De l’Enfer (Out of Hell), Rurangwa explains how writing about the genocide can “teach the youth about all those atrocities so that they cannot be repeated.”

Roots of Genocide

Explaining the racist ideology that sowed the roots of hatred between Hutus and Tutsis is a start. Traditionally, Hutus were people who farmed crops, while a Tutsi minority made up Rwanda’s cattle-keeping aristocracy. Because cattle were more valuable than crops, the minority Tutsis became the local elite. Gradually, these class divisions became ethnic distinctions, which were later exploited by German and Belgian colonisers. When in 1959, a Hutu elite toppled the Tutsi royal family, the regime that followed took a staunch nationalist turn, forcing thousands of Tutsis to flee.

“The genocide didn’t just start in 1994,” says Rurangwa. “There were episodes of violence even in 1961,” after the Hutu majority won the country’s first elections; and “right up until 1990,” he said.

“Forgetting would be a mistake,” he adds, saying how writing about his experience and the identity battle he’s faced since, has been “cathartic” not just for him but for others. “Sharing pain can be a kind of healing.”

Accusations of genocide denial

Yet officials accuse critics of trying to create an alternative truth. In their crosshairs are people like Hutu opposition leader Victoire Ingabire. The government has long accused her of inciting “divisionist” (i.e. Hutu v Tutsi) rebellion, an allegation she has always denied.

Last September, Ingabire was freed from prison after eight years in detention, following a decision by Kagame to pardon over 2,000 inmates. She continues to campaign for what she believes is the truth.

“I ask for justice for all Rwandans, it does not mean that I minimize the importance of the Tutsi genocide,” she told RFI.

By everyone, Ingabire means the thousands of Hutu civilians who were killed by Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces as they hunted down those who had committed the genocide in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, which later expanded into calamitous regional wars.

“The crimes committed by certain members of the RPF are never mentioned. We are not allowed to discuss it. So how can we talk about reconciliation?”

Together again

Yet everywhere reconciliation and unity are espoused by the state. When speaking at the 25th commemoration of the genocide, Paul Kagame vowed to never allow such large-scale violence to ever happen again.

And indeed, there has been none. Dissent too has been carefully stifled throughout the RPF’s time in power, much to the dismay of rights groups.

Moreover, government indicators such as the Rwanda Reconciliation Barometer, an opinion survey conducted every five years, routinely reports that more than 90 percent of Rwandans believe their communities have fully reconciled.

This reconciliation has been based on a collective memory of the past to construct a post-ethnic national identity.

The aim is to get people to “come out of their traumatic memories and divisive identities and go for nationhood,” explains Eric Ndushabandi, director of the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace.

The political choice is to say “You have been taught this, you have been reading this, but the truth is this,” he told RFI.

Dealing with trauma

Common experiences often allow individuals to cope when memories are particularly traumatic. But some Rwandans want to simply forget.

“There are traumatic wounds, which come back,” comments Ndushabandi, who runs community dialogue sessions between survivors and perpetrators in villages. “People are looking at their scars and traumatic memories and they say, oh, this proximity and inter-relationship; it’s still very problematic.”

The other concern is that promoting one Rwandan identity could provide “an escape route for people who have to take responsibility for their deeds,” reckons Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a research chair on historical trauma and transformation at the Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, who participated in activities during the 25th commemoration of the genocide.

While nation building is “a tremendous idea, that we as South Africans can learn from, the problem is when people immediately replace the idea of being ‘I am one Rwanda’, without taking accountability and acknowledging what they did. I think that’s where the slippage lies,” she told RFI.

Moving On

The trauma of the genocide remains endemic throughout the population and affects the youth in particular, despite many of them being born after the mass killing.

“I cannot say that I was not affected by it [the genocide], because my parents, my grandparents are affected by it,” says Rwanda University student Deborah Chisozo.

“This is a painful time for everyone because they’re telling us stories, about that history, that was a very dark time here in our country,” she told RFI, as the country observes a 100-day mourning period for the 800,000 Tutsis and 30,000 moderate Hutus who were killed.

“I feel bad, some of my friends are having trauma because of that time. But we’re going to pass it and we have hope that we’re going to have a beautiful country.”

There are “encouraging signs,” coming from the youth, says Vincent Sezibera, a professor of psychology at the University of Rwanda.

“Wherever you go, you have clubs of young people,” made up of “children born from survivors and children born from perpetrators, collaborating together,” he told RFI.

The youth were the centerpiece of this year’s tribute. “They send a clear message that a child born from a perpetrator is not necessarily a perpetrator, and they even go on to say that the perpetrator of yesterday is not necessarily a perpetrator of tomorrow,” adds Sezibera.

Such youth clubs have taken on names such as Ikisere, which means hope in Kinyarwanda, the official language. “I’m surprised by their resilience but also the creativity of the young generation. And yes, it gives me hope,” he said.

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