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Rwandans take stock 10 years after genocide

Rwandans take stock 10 years after genocide

The UN has declared April 7 as the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. Ten years after the massacres that killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandans and sent millions more fleeing the country, the government in Kigali is trying to reconcile its people amid mixed feelings.
5 April 2004
Veneranda Mukamubano and her children at a transit centre in Rwanda after returning from Uganda on a UNHCR-organised convoy.

GIKONGORO, Rwanda, April 5 (UNHCR) - The first thing you notice about Emmanuel Murangira is the deep bullet hole in his forehead, over his left eye - the striking evidence that he was one of just four people to survive a massacre here in 1994 that left 25,000 of his fellow Tutsis dead.

Still living in the town where his wife and five children perished in the genocide that gripped Rwanda for 100 days 10 years ago, Murangira shows visitors around a grisly memorial intended to send a warning that such events should never be repeated. Outside the memorial, an unfinished high school where Tutsis were herded by authorities and systematically slaughtered over three days, Hutu and Tutsi construction workers now labour side by side in the brilliant sun, apparently untroubled by any of their formerly deadly ethnic divisions.

"Hutus and Tutsis are living side by side," says Murangira, who escaped after his Rwandan attackers left him for dead under a heap of bodies. "Before the genocide we lived together. After the genocide we live together."

As Rwanda and the United Nations observe the 10th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide - 100 days of frenzied killing sparked by the shooting-down of President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane on April 6, 1994 - the African country today is a place where any official acknowledgement of ethnic difference is taboo, but where unease still ferments just below the surface.

"Certainly there was a lot of hate at the time these events were taking place in 1994," says Kalunga Lutato, UNHCR Representative in Kigali. However, "at this point there is a lot of effort being made by the authorities towards reconciliation. Whichever way you turn, that is the song that is being sung."

The UN has declared April 7 as the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda to remember the estimated 800,000 Rwandans (mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus) slaughtered by their fellow Hutu countrymen.

For UNHCR, the aftermath of the 1994 genocide was one of the worst refugee crises the agency has ever faced; by July 1994, half of Rwanda's population had either been killed or had fled abroad. When a new Tutsi government took power, two million Rwandans fled across their country's borders, including many people believed to have participated in the genocide.

Refugee camps in neighbouring countries grew to the size of major cities - 200,000 people at Kibumba (in what was then Zaire and is now eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo) and nearly half a million at a series of camps in western Tanzania.

The events of April to July 1994 "resulted in one of UNHCR's most complex and challenging operations ever undertaken in recent years," UNHCR's former director of the Africa Bureau, Kolude Doherty, wrote in September 2000. "Not only did the refugees have to be safely taken home, but they had to be reintegrated into their places of origin as well."

The process of convincing all Rwandan refugees to come home is still going on. UNHCR and Rwanda have signed tripartite agreements with many African governments on the voluntary return of Rwandan refugees. The refugee agency is planning to help about 30,000 Rwandan refugees come home this year, with the last refugees to straggle home by the end of 2005.

In recent weeks, UNHCR has stepped up the return of refugees from neighbouring Uganda. Veneranda Mukamubano, a 26-year-old Rwandan Hutu woman who married and gave birth to three children while in exile in Uganda, decided it was time to take advantage of the peace and security reigning in her homeland. She doesn't anticipate any ethnic strife.

"There is no doubt about it - Hutus and Tutsis can live together peacefully," she says, sitting on bundles of her family's belongings at a transit centre, shortly after crossing the border into Rwanda on a recent convoy from Uganda.

That's official policy. "The major thing is that there are efforts towards reconciling people," says UNHCR's Lutato, adding that it may be years before the success of the policy can be measured. "It might be a slow process, but it's a conscious process being pushed by the government."

In addition to trials of the major leaders of the genocide at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, Rwanda itself has revived a system of traditional village courts, called gacacas, to hasten the trials of some 110,000 prisoners in Rwanda's jails. Some people, including many former refugees now back in Rwanda, consider the gacaca courts an important step towards reconciliation.

Reconciliation has also taken hold in the hearts of people, maintains a Tutsi man who escaped being killed by fleeing his village and sleeping under banana leaves for five days. "Several years ago we started to forget what happened," says Deocratien Kadeyi, 66, in the settlement of Buremera, where the houses were built by UNHCR for returnees and vulnerable local citizens.

For others, though, the trauma is still quite real. His neighbour, Lorence Mwitende, a 47-year-old mother of five, waves away questions about the past: "If you ask me about the events of 1994 and my life up to now, I'll start crying."

Similarly, François Twagiramungo, a 50-year-old Tutsi tailor in a village where he says 91 out of 321 residents were slaughtered in 1994, finds it impossible to be an optimist.

He fears Rwandans could be incited to kill again, noting that in 1994, the massacres were committed by people who really wanted to kill, and others who were told to kill. He is worried that if massacres erupt in neighbouring countries, like in Congo, they might inspire another genocide in Rwanda. Nevertheless, he has enough faith in the gacaca process that he plans to testify against killers from his village in south-western Rwanda.

Back at the Gikongoro memorial, where the preserved bodies of genocide victims bear mute witness to the horrific ways they died, Emmanuel Murangira haltingly tells the story of how he lost 50 members of his extended family.

There's one question he doesn't want to answer, though - could Rwanda ever experience another genocide? He first demurs, then replies obliquely, then finally expresses a modicum of faith in his countrymen.

"I don't fear another genocide. The genocide was carried out by people. If they understand it's a bad thing, they are not going to repeat it."

By Kitty McKinsey in Rwanda