It is a peculiarly Rwandan paradox, that to hear the heart rending, biblically horrifying, individual testimonies of the survivors of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, serves to restore faith in humanity. This impression was reinforced at the Rwanda ministry of Agriculture’s remembrance of the unimaginably cruel murders of some its staff.
When they put their minds to it, Rwandans receive people as well as anybody, anywhere in the world, and perhaps better than most. This was evident in the way kindly ushers, warmly received the invited dignitaries and other guests, as they arrived at the ministry of agriculture and animal husbandry (MINAGRI). Guests were directed to their seats in a large marquee, specially erected in the ministry’s gardens. The attentive hosts created an atmosphere that was at once formal yet relaxed.
Welcoming introductions over, Bishop John Rucyahana, was invited to give the main address. The Bishop is himself a walking paradox. A self-effacing, diminutive, kindly man of gigantic moral authority, who, when addressing an audience, suddenly seems to fill the space of someone twice his own physical stature.
In a sonorous voice heard that will have been heard from pulpits all over Rwanda and beyond, Rucyahana took the audience through a summary of Rwandan history, through to the present. It was a gripping tour de force, by a man who lived through some of the history he was relating.
“Genocide does not strike like lightening” he told his audience, “it is conceived, it is planned, prepared and executed, then it is denied…It had roots, it was taught. Colonialists poisoned Rwandan minds with it, then Rwandans poisoned the minds of their children…”
The Bishop, who, until the recently created Ministry of National Unity and Civic Engagement (MINUBUMWE), chaired the Commission Against Genocide (CNLG), now incorporated into the MINUBUMWE ministry, spares no one in his pursuit of the truth and nothing but.
He reminds Rwandans that the genocide could not have happened without them. Rwandans had to allow themselves to be led away from who and what they were, he said.
“It was the colonialists who conceived the ideology, but we bear our own responsibility for it…The unity of Rwandans had always existed, but it was destroyed, along with everything else that was Rwandan…Rwanda lost itself…”
The planners and perpetrators of the Genocide Against Tutsi lost their humanity, and aimed to deny the humanity of their victims, the Bishop said, adding that the first and most important achievement has been the self worth of Rwandans, their dignity, their human value. It is an achievement he attributes to the RPF/Inkotanyi (Rwanda Patriotic Front), working through what he said was all that was left of Rwanda, the Kinyarwanda language.
It is through language that culture was transmitted, and through that culture and history, that the unity of Rwandans was now being restored.
To commemorate, to remember, he said, is to bear all these truths in mind, and remain alert against attempts to repeat the divisionism of the past.
“We don’t just remember, we remember to understand, to develop awareness of where we were and how we got there, where we are now, to ensure that where we were, never happens again.”
Many of the planners and perpetrators of the Genocide Against Tutsi, have never had a change of heart, he warned. They continue to devise different ways of continuing what they started, in a different way, but continue it nonetheless.
“Genocide ideology has not gone away” he said, “it is still in existence, and it has to be understood, and fought.” He called on the young people, especially to understand who they are as Rwandans, and be wary and aware of the ideology that seeks to divide them.
He reserved a special mention for the RPF/Inkotanyi (Rwanda Patriotic Front) whose young fighters gave their all to end the genocide, and are among the leaders restoring a unified Rwanda. As we remember those we lost, we should also remember the RPA (Rwanda Patriotic Army) who fought to save those who survived, and end the genocide.
With encouraging words for the survivors, he praised their courage, and reminded them of President Kagame’s own words to them, when he talked about forgiveness. In the journey back to a united Rwanda, much had to be asked of the survivors. “It is you who have something to give” the President had said to them, “we can ask nothing of the killers, they have nothing to give…”
It is the defining story of Rwanda, that as the planners and perpetrators of the Genocide Against the Tutsi, intended to wipe away the oneness of Rwandans, with unspeakable inhumanity, the fight against their crime, has been guided by profound humanity.
Rucyahana’s address provided much needed contest for the harrowing testimonies of the survivors, who included the children of the many who did not.
More than 810 employees of the ministry were murdered in 1994. Christiane Twamugize, was intended to have been one of them, but she somehow survived.
So difficult is it to imagine that such inhumanity can be possible, that when listening to survivors’ testimonies, there is a temptation to indulge the notion that it is a retelling of some harrowing nightmare, from which it might be possible to awake any moment.
But the nightmare is never just a dream. The survivors lived it, and as Twamugize, matter of factly relates the hell she barely survived, only occasionally stopping as though to prevent herself from being transported back there, it becomes self evident that many survivors still live with that nightmare.
And as Rucyahana reminded the gathering, Twamugize’s nightmare did not come out of the blue. Her parents had lived through earlier mass murders of Tutsi, in 1959, 1960s and 1970s, and survived with the ever present reminder, that the Tutsi identity cards they were obliged to carry, could at any time, be a mark of unspeakably cruel death. To protect their child, they sought to deny her, association with them, moving heaven and earth to get her a Hutu identity card, which guaranteed not only preferment, but life itself.
Not many were fooled of course. Rwanda’s is a close knit society, where people in the same neighbourhoods not only know each other, but each other’s families. That Rwandan paradox again, where close affinity can be deadly.
But as long as she was officially Hutu, she could at least be assured of continued employment in her chosen career, as a veterinarian. And her husband whose Hutu identity card was more genuine, would offer her some protection. It was precarious, but it was safety of some sort.
All that would however change, as the genocidal government whipped up its anti Tutsi hatred, which they did whenever they needed a distraction from whatever else was happening. The excuse this time, was the pressure exerted by the RPF, to reach a negotiated political settlement.
The first murder within her circle, was on 9th April. Prior to that, it was the usual persecution with which every Tutsi man, woman and child was accustomed. So, when her colleagues began referring to her as Inkotanyi, instead of her own name, she dismissed it as just something else she just had to ignore.
“‘Nkotanyi, it’s you we are calling’” she recalls, “’we hear your people are advancing, soon they’ll be here with you…but don’t get your hopes up, by the time they get here, we will have found a solution for you.’ I thought it was just the usual thing…But I began to see a change in my colleagues. Just looking at me seemed to make them angry”
“One day, the ministry called Umuganda (community service), supervised by a Colonel Gasake. It turned out that it was Umuganda to separate the ministry’s staff, Tutsi from Hutu. They had a list of everyone they had identified as Tutsi.”
“Gasake was joined by members of the Presidential guard, who were just watching, chatting to each other, as though nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. I had been surprised to see all my colleagues carrying guns. Everyone from management, security guards, even cleaners, were armed, and looked angry. But I just accepted it as rising tension.”
“The list of Tutsi was read out. Again, this was done as though it was the most mundane, everyday exercise. Then everyone on the list was told to lie down. By this time, my colleagues had been joined by the Interahamwe (Interahamwe militia), who were armed with all kinds of crude weapons, from cudgels, wooden clubs, and so on.”
“Once everyone on the list was on the floor, the Interahamwe fellow upon them, raining down blows on every part of their body. They kept battering them until all were dead. Not a single bullet was fired on that day, even though everyone had guns. The soldiers just watched. Afterwards, the bodies were thrown into a lorry, and dumped around Rubirizi.”
Before what can be called Umuganda for murder, some had suspected that some harm might befall them, if they went to it, but were reassured by the ministry’s management, who laughed off their fears, and persuaded them to attend. Twamugize’s husband, however, had got wind of the planned murders, and had told her to go and hide in a sorghum plantation, and not to come out until he came for her.
Time stood still for her, and she can only guess at how long she remained in hiding. She does remember the terror however, willing the birds to be silent, in case they drew attention to her. Her husband did not hide only her, and it was not long before her colleagues learned of his actions. He was branded a traitor, and escaped being murdered only after pleas to a senior official.
Twenty-nine years later, MINAGRI, faithfully keeps the memory of its staff, murdered in the 1994 Genocide Against Tutsi, and stays in touch with those who survived, including the children of those who did not.
In his tribute to the victims, the minister of agriculture, Dr Ildephonse Musafiri, praised the contribution they made to agricultural development in Rwanda, up to the moment of their murder. He committed the ministry to the cause of unity of Rwandans, never to allow anyone or anything to once again sow the seeds of division.
“We will never forget their contribution to the ministry of agriculture and animal husbandry, and we will remember that what we achieve today, is built on their work…with help from our partners, we are making much progress in agriculture, and we all of it to everyone single one of our staff, and we must never accept anything that takes us backwards, by attempting to divide us…” he said.
The representative for the survivors, and the children of the many who did not, Esther Mukamurenzi, thanked the ministry, and presented a request on their behalf. Many of them were left agricultural land, which they wanted to exploit, not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of their communities. Would the ministry support them, especially with agricultural expertise? It was a request the minister wholeheartedly undertook to grant.
Perhaps it is the proximity to nature, but there was a palpable feeling of togetherness, at MINAGRI’s remembrance event, so that when at the end, it came as no surprise to hear the announcement, that special buses had been arranged to all four corners of Kigali, to get everyone back home.