KIGALI, April 7—Silence fell over the thousands who gathered on this picturesque hill in Kigali as Karasira Venuste began the simple story of what happened to him and some 5,000 other Tutsi near this exact spot 15 years ago: “Evil people killed many of us in unspeakable conditions.” The hush was punctuated only by the occasionally audible sobs and cries from those in the audience for whom such testimony can never fail to shock.
On the morning of April 7, 1994, Venuste and his neighbors in a nearby village heard the news on the radio that the plane of Rwanda’s Hutu president had been shot down the night before. Thinking of the threats and violence directed at his fellow Tutsi over the past several years, he believed it likely that he and his neighbors would be blamed by the government and their allies for the incident.
“We are done for,” Venuste thought to himself. “We are finished.”
Venuste, who looked to be in his 50s or 60s, with a dignified bearing, proceeded to tell the hushed crowd how his family and neighbors decided to take refuge at the nearby L’Ecole Technique Officielle, thinking that might be a safe refuge because of the small contingent of Belgian United Nations soldiers stationed there. But four days later, to their great shock, the small U.N. force departed, telling those gathered on the school grounds that “gendarmes” would rescue them. The U.N. soldiers ignored their desperate pleas not to leave them at the mercy of a menacing crowd of government soldiers and armed militia that surrounded them outside the gates of the school.
After the departure of the last U.N. soldier, Venuste and some 5,000 others who were gathered on the school grounds were forced to walk a jeering gauntlet of Hutu militiamen, soldiers and civilians wielding machetes, guns and other weapons. Some of those who survived described it as a “death walk.” Venuste lost his right arm, hacked off by one of the tormentors. The walkers came to this unremarkable hill, where they were encircled by a gang of killers and set upon with grenades, machetes and clubs. Within a few hours, Venuste said, “We were lying in pools of blood.”
Of the 5,000 or so who sought refuge from the U.N. near here, roughly 100 survived, according to Venuste. He lived only because he laid still under dead bodies, overlooked by the killers searching the carnage for signs of life. The next day, the survivors were rescued by RPF fighters, the rebel force that ended the genocide and took power in Rwanda.
Venuste’s testimony was among the most emotional moments in a highly emotional day here, devoted to the government’s morning-to-midnight official commemoration of the 1994 genocide that saw some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus murdered by the direction of the radical Hutu government in just three months. My Museum colleagues John Heffernan and Michael Graham and I were privileged to be invited to attend the ceremonies, which included similarly heart-wrenching statements by two young people orphaned by the genocide and a stadium gathering highlighted by the lighting of 10,000 lights to symbolize Rwanda’s recovery from darkness. To some Rwandans, memories of the genocide are still so raw that medical personnel were required to tend to wailing participants whose painful memories were re-awakened by the testimony they witnessed this week.
My colleagues and I have been spending the week meeting with Rwandans, visiting memorial sites and discussing the terrible events of 15 years ago with colleagues gathered from around the world.
As I first-time visitor to Rwanda, it’s hard not to be mystified by the mismatch between the ferocious events of just 15 years ago and apparent calm and prosperity in Rwanda, which aspires to be the hub of an economically vibrant East Africa. As we drove out of town to one of the churches where you can still see the skulls and belongings of murdered Tutsi, we passed by workers digging up ditches on the side of the road to lay down new fiber optic lines. A newcomer thinks: How can this beautiful country, routinely described by Africa hands as one of the better functioning countries on the continent, have experienced such savagery?
As the scholars gathered here this week reminded us, a variety of factors contributed, particularly a long legacy of sowing ethnic discord for political purposes, first by occupying European powers, then by the succeeding Rwandan governments. A complete indifference by the rest of the world to the outbreak of genocidal violence, as exhibited by the behavior of the UN forces stationed near Nyanza, allowed the killing to rage out of control.
This, in fact, is one of the main messages this week from Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who offered a blunt appraisal in his speech to the dignitaries and ordinary citizens gathered on the hill at Nyanza. Responding to criticism of the government’s tactics in recent years, Kagame decried the “cowardice” of the U.N. and the rest of the world. “We are not like those who said, ‘Never again,’—yet they abandoned those they were responsible for,” he said. “They abandoned them even before one shot was fired.”
We were all intrigued to see Kagame first-hand. He is one of the world’s most interesting political leaders; his handling of Rwanda’s economic and political affairs has attracted favorable attention from a diverse lot of world figures, from Tony Blair and Bill Gates to pastor Rick Warren and Bill Clinton. He is also considered by many to be an authoritarian leader whose ruthless anti-insurgency tactics helped fan conflict and misery in the neighboring Congo and brought “suffering and death to many innocent Rwandans,” in the words of former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, in his fascinating account of Rwanda’s rebirth, “A Thousand Hills.”
The task of recovering from the kind of genocide experienced here is immense, and Kagame evinced obvious pride in the steps he says the nation has taken to achieving reconciliation. He has mixed a hard-line against the leaders of the genocide while offering lower-level perpetrators and killers a chance to reenter society if they admit their crimes and repent. He tells his countrymen to remember the past but look to the future. As one of his admirers told us this week, his policy has been to offer his countrymen a chance “to get ahead” through economic development and political reconstruction—not to “get even” with the thousands of fellow Rwandans who participated in the killing.
It’s impossible for us to know how deeply this ethic has taken root and how much reconciliation has penetrated beyond a surface level, so crucial to making “never again” a reality here in Rwanda. But that’s one of many questions we have during this sobering week.
Michael Abramowitz, Director, Committee on Conscience
Posted By: Michael Graham | April 08, 2009 | Comments (3)