Letter From - Winter 2010

Rwanda: 'Our Big Mistake'

By Sarah Kenyon Lischer | December 1, 2009


I am standing in a room containing enlarged photographic portraits of about a dozen children, each labeled by name plus other identifying details obviously provided by relatives. One label tells about Francine, age 12. Favorite sport: swimming; favorite food: eggs and chips; best friend, her elder sister Clau­dette; cause of death: hacked by machete. Several displays describe the  final moments of sib­­lings. Killed by a “grenade thrown in their shower” where they were hiding, reads one label. A woman sobs in the next room; there, spotlights direct the eye to display cases containing skulls in rows and leg bones in piles. Over the sound system, a woman murmurs something mournful over and over in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda.

I step out into the sunshine.

Today is my second full day in Rwanda, and I am visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial on a hill overlooking Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. I have come here as part of a research project on postgenocide politics sponsored by the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. During my stay, I will interview representatives of local nongovernmental organizations, international development agencies, human-rights groups, reconciliation specialists, and private citizens. The Kigali memorial features a garden where a flame burns to commemorate the 100 days in 1994 when Hutu killers murdered 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. I had expected something dramatic at the mass graves of the murdered Tutsi. Instead, the graves are unremarkable large slabs of concrete bordered by lush garden plantings of roses, hibiscus, and birds of paradise.

Perhaps 60 Rwandans, all dressed formally, pass by. Some carry small bouquets of roses, some wear purple ribbons on their chests—the official color for genocide commemoration. Most of the women wear elaborate ankle-length, traditional  dresses and head wrappings made from colorful geometric-patterned fabric. I erroneously assume they are part of a tour group. Down a walkway I catch sight of a young man carrying a cross and behind him six other men carrying a coffin draped in a purple cloth. About 25 more people follow the coffin. They are heading down some steps toward a wide dirt field: a mass grave.

While a new American embassy was under construction in Kigali—it opened in February 2008—workers discovered the remains of a dozen or so genocide victims on the site. Those remains, like others still being found in the city and nearby a decade and a half after the mass killings, are brought here for burial. More than 250,000 people are interred at this, the main national memorial.

As you would expect, the memorial landscape is somber, and visitors speak in hushed, respectful tones. Still, I can only manage to view the memorial with a certain feeling of remove. Despite more than 10 years of research into the politics of the genocide, I find it almost impossible to conceive of the horrors of the killings and the hatred that propelled them. Intolerance and hostility in Rwanda date at least from 1918, when Belgium colonialists arrived and accorded the Tutsi favored status, deeming them to be racially superior to the Hutu. Three years before independence in 1962, a Hutu-led revolution dethroned the Tutsi king. Once in power, the oppressive Hutu government engaged in periodic killing campaigns against the Tutsi minority, causing hundreds of thousands to flee the country. In 1990, an army of Tutsi exiles invaded from Uganda and nearly toppled the government. Both parties reluctantly signed a United Nations–brokered peace deal in 1993. During the lull in fighting, Hutu leaders meticulously planned the genocide, launching their mass killing program in April 1994. Today, the Hutu make up 85 percent of the population; the Tutsi just 14 percent. With the exception of genocide survivors, who were all Tutsi, the people I encountered were reticent to identify themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, probably because of laws restricting discussion of ethnicity.

My driver, Mr. Jean, a middle-aged man with an honest face and a strong inclination toward gospel music, asks if I saw the entire memorial. “Yes,” I answer, “and it made me very sad.” “Now you have seen our big mistake, our big mistake,” he says. I am unsure how to take this, and I can’t ask for clarification because I speak little French. We speed along dusty streets thronged with people who are shopping, visiting friends, waiting for a minibus.

Mr. Jean delivers me to my hotel in time for dinner. Alone, I am absorbed in Dostoyevsky. I wonder if the great Russian could have imagined someone reading The Brothers Karamazov in such a place. In his story, the young aspiring monk, Alyosha, fervently claims, “There’s a great deal of love in man­kind, an almost Christ-like love. I know that myself, Ivan.” The embittered older brother responds, “Well, I know nothing of it so far, and can’t understand it, and the mass of mankind are with me there. The question is, whether this lack of ability to love is due to men’s bad qualities or whether it’s inherent in their nature.”

Later in Ivan’s story, the Grand Inquisitor accuses Christ: “But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature. Look round and judge; fifteen centuries have passed, look upon them. . . . I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou has believed him!” (The Anglican Archbishop of Rwanda, Emmanuel Kolini, later echoes the Grand Inquisitor when he tells me that the genocide highlighted the “weakness of mankind.” He laments that during the buildup to the killing, people were “walking away slowly from God.”)

The day after I visit the memorial, I meet with a UN worker and describe what I had witnessed. She says the government strongly encourages families to disinter their loved ones and reinter them in the mass graves, even if the family members would prefer not to. The government also recently adopted the terminology the genocide of the Tutsi rather than Rwandan genocide. What does this say to the families of the politically moderate Hutu who perished? Subsequently, a pastor tells me that the phrase is accurate: The Hutu victims were killed for their perceived collaboration or close relationship with the Tutsi, not because of their Hutu identity. Still, I wonder.


During the genocide, an army of Tutsi exiles swept in from neighboring Uganda, defeated the killers, and took over the government. In the ensuing 15 years, the minority Tutsi government, called the Rwandan Patriotic Front and led by President Paul Kagame, has made strides in improving infrastructure, health, and the economy. Every Rwandan I meet shows great pride in the country—both its natural beauty and its remarkable recovery.

Recovery has come at a cost, however. The Kagame regime has extended its control to every aspect of the country. To discuss ethnicity or to question the official interpretation of the genocide is to risk a prison sentence if the government labels such speech as divisionist. Press freedom barely exists. Many insist that such strict measures are necessary to prevent future atrocities; how can you have a one-person, one-vote democracy when the majority tried to eliminate the minority and nearly succeeded? Others whisper that the country is now gripped with fear, and that resentment seethes beneath the surface. The ostentatious wealth of a tiny minority of government officials and business people makes an ugly, perhaps dangerous, contrast to the poverty of most Rwandans, including Tutsi survivors of the genocide. “No one knows what will happen if Kagame takes his foot off the brake,” a U.S. government official admits to me.


I am sitting on my hotel balcony on Sunday morning three days after my arrival. From a Catholic church somewhere beyond the garden comes the sound of robust, a cappella, harmonic singing. Set to words in Kinyarwanda, the singing has been going on, almost uninterrupted, for four hours, and I wonder what prompts such religious fervor and what it signifies. Is it a cathartic experience? How has it changed since the genocide? Officially, Rwanda is said to be 56 percent Roman Catholic, 26 percent Protestant, 11 percent Adventist, and 5 percent Muslim, but some Protestants insist that Catholics really represent no more than 40 percent.

I ride by the church of the robust singers, and Anatole, my interpreter, tells me that many people perished there. The priest colluded with the killers, Anatole says, and then escaped and is now living in France. I know that Catholics are generally viewed by government partisans as complicit in the genocide.

Despite the political indelicacy, I ask those I meet how someone could hack a neighbor to death with a machete. Everyone at first expresses moral incomprehension. Many Prot­estants elaborate with references to the devil, or the spirit of evil, as a motivation for the genocide. They cope with the horror by isolating the evil spirit from the perpetrator. Archbishop Kolini, with whom I spoke in his office at the Anglican cathedral in Kigali, said that before and during the genocide, “the church opened the door to the devil.” But, he adds, people have a choice about saying no to the spirit of evil; Satan is not an excuse.

Here again, Dostoyevsky has something to contribute. In the novel, Ivan converses with the devil, who has taken the form of an infuriatingly affable and dowdy middle-aged man. In explaining the problem of evil, the devil dryly observes that “Nothing human is beyond the possibility of Satan.”

As a follow-up to my machete question, I ask Rwandans “Who is human?” Some of the answers trouble me. Archbishop Kolini interprets Saint Paul to claim that one must have love to be human and that, through repentance and reconciliation, perpetrators can “become human.” But that implies that there is a category of people who are not human. I receive a more universalist answer from Pastor Antoine, an Anglican priest who survived the genocide. We sit in a churchyard, where he is participating in a reconciliation training session for clergy, and he explains that all people on the planet are fully human and must recognize the humanity in each other, even though it might be more psychologically palatable to describe, for instance, a sadistic rape and murder as inhuman, animalistic, or monstrous.


Reconciliation. I repeatedly encounter the word in Rwanda. Researchers write about it. Politicians expound on it. Religious groups attempt it. What is reconciliation and how do we know it when we see it? The term is overused. From nonprofit organizations and church groups, I hear heartwarming and astonishing stories about mothers of murdered children forgiving the killers, rape victims absolving their attackers, genocide survivors marrying perpetrators. I suspect that these remarkable reconciliations represent a very small proportion of the traumatized population. Widespread reconciliation is not imminent.

Yet my cynicism dissipates when I meet Christians who devote their lives to increasing that minuscule number of healed and reconciled people. Josephine, a gentle, soft-spoken woman who founded an organization that trains church members in trauma healing, is one of them. She tells me she lost many loved ones in the genocide and yet refuses to pass judgment on perpetrators or to build a hierarchy of suffering. In contrast, other Rwandans make disturbing comparisons such as She was raped and her child was killed, whereas this one was only raped. Even if Josephine represents a minority of one, her compassion offers a precious example to Rwandans.


It is my second weekend in Rwanda, and Mr. Jean and I make an excursion to another genocide memorial. This one is a Catholic church in the small town of Ntarama, about 20 miles outside Kigali. Along the road, women carry on their backs sleepy babies, snugly wrapped in bright-patterned cotton. Men, women, and children tote bundles of bananas, large sacks of grain, loads of firewood on their heads. Children in blue school uniforms run and play close—very close—to the road.

Arriving at Ntarama, we read a sign explaining that 5,000 Tutsi perished in the small church and surrounding territory where they had flocked for sanctuary. Inside, daylight filters dimly through small, high windows. As my eyes adjust to the light, I can make out wooden benches, about eight inches off the ground, that had served as pews. Hanging from the walls and rafters are the tattered, bloodstained clothes of the victims; their bones are arranged on shelves. Rows and rows of skulls predominate. Some of the skulls are tiny; a metal shard protrudes from one. Piled against the opposite wall are the possessions the victims had brought with them to their refuge, including mattresses, cooking pots, utensils. Above the bones, a sign in Kinyarwanda reads, “If you knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not kill me.”

I methodically take photos from several angles, sign the guest book, make a donation, and wonder at my own lack of emotion. After about 30 minutes, we leave.

The shock wears off the next day, a Sunday. Again on my balcony, I hear the voices from the neighboring church. The music grows more ardent: drums beat, congregants clap rhythmically, women launch into an African-style descant. I shut my eyes and again see the rows of skulls and the pitiful collection of cooking pots, shoes, and blankets piled in the corner. The fervent churchgoers, both Tutsi and Hutu, have lived through the genocide experience, I realize. Every day, they live with their own particular memories of the horror.

The emotion washes over me at last.


Michel, the director of a Christian reconciliation organization, tells me about still another genocide memorial, at the town of Murambi, a couple of hours south of Kigali. He and all his family lived there in 1994. As the genocide began, the government requested villagers from nearby to come for protection to the Murambi school. Leaders claimed that they couldn’t protect the Tutsi from the killers if they were scattered in the countryside, so people came voluntarily, trusting the government. Michel’s entire family was there.

During the night of April 21, the military, supported by Hutu locals, attacked the school with guns and grenades. All who tried to escape were hacked to death. According to the Rwandan government, 27,000 Tutsi were murdered. The following day, the government brought in bulldozers to pile up the bodies and bury them, a clean-up operation that created a mountain of corpses, most of which were left basically intact. You could still identify individuals. The 800 bodies at the Murambi genocide memorial, located in a vacated school, were preserved with lime, so that the victims stayed in the exact position in which they died—for example, warding off a blow. Michel must have been elsewhere at the time or he would have been killed. I don’t ask.

I will be driving near Murambi, but I won’t visit. Each genocide memorial seems to outdo the other in horror, and I am feeling creepy about the possibility of becoming a genocide tourist. Some human rights groups object to gruesome displays like Murambi, saying they stir up hate toward Hutu residents. Indeed, Hutus, notably children left homeless because their parents are imprisoned, receive no sympathy or assistance. Their shame and poverty is met with indifference. And there are hundreds of thousands of Hutu who experienced the hell of the refugee camps in Zaire and are treated with suspicion. One traumatized former refugee tells me that she lost a year of her life in those violent and disease-ridden camps. Others report being hunted by the Rwandan Patriotic Front and living in the forest without food or even clothes.

Meanwhile, the less visible suffering goes mostly unacknowledged. Tutsi survivors find scant resources to address post-traumatic stress, depression, guilt, or suicidal impulses. People involved in counseling and reconciliation describe a national trait of reserve and unwillingness to show emotion. Many people carry around their internal wounds for years (or perhaps forever) without sharing them. Reconci­liation specialists also explain that listening to someone else’s sorrows does not come naturally to Rwandans. Even tears are rare.


As I prepare to leave Rwanda, I feel the stress that the political culture imposes, even on a visitor. Freedom of speech barely exists, and the stifling effect on me as a political scientist is hard to describe. People are afraid to talk politics; I am circumscribed in the questions I can ask. Some interviewees emphasize that their mildly critical comments are off the record. Others ask me point-blank to put down my pen while they talk. Those are the forthcoming ones. Before I came here I was dubious that I would react as had other researchers who told me that they had to decompress after their visits to Rwanda. I now understand.

Mr. Jean picks me up at the hotel for one last driving assignment. He is suffering from la grippe today, but he didn’t call in a substitute driver. When we get to the airport he heaves my 50-pound suitcase out of the trunk and wheels it into the terminal. Then he faces me, and it’s clear he’s been rehearsing some English words of farewell. He earnestly asks God to bless me and says he will pray for my safe journey and to greet my family for him. He tries to express something else about our days together, but ends up saying that next time I come his English will be much better. I promise to practice my French before my next visit. We shake hands vigorously in a strangely emotional parting.

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