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Personal account of the Rwandan genocide

In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history. From April to July of 1994, Rwanda suffered through a period of government-sanctioned mass murder, which resulted in the deaths of nearly one million Tutsi men, women and children. Most observers point to myriad factors that caused the slaughter, including government corruption, longstanding ethnic antagonism, the legacy of colonialism and competition for scarce farmland. Jean-Damascène Gasanabo, a citizen of Rwanda whose parents and four siblings were killed during the genocide, offers another explanation — greed and jealousy. His account of the Rwandan Genocide appears here

For centuries and even until today after the genocide, the three Rwandan social groups have lived together — on same hills, dales and flatlands. Hutus, Tutsis and Twas live together in every part of the country of thousand hills. The relationship between the three groups was based on everyday life.

It is simplistic and naive to argue that the relationship between the people was perfect and that conflicts arose as a result of colonisation only. No society exists that has avoided social conflicts among its population. From the pre-colonial period to the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has been characterised by internal conflicts. However, the nature of these conflicts was different in each epoch.

Before the colonial period, the conflicts involved different clans such as the Bega and the Banyiginya in which both Hutus and Tutsis were represented. Those conflicts were related to the problems of land or power. The 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda was the culmination of the hate of Hutus towards Tutsis. It poses two main questions: the first on the relationship between the two groups over centuries, and the second concerns the origins of hate that led to the genocide.

Non-Rwandans and many Rwandan citizens ask how the relationship developed between Hutus and Tutsis and how that relationship encouraged the genocide that killed about one million Tutsis. I would argue that for centuries the relationship between Hutus and Tutsis was comparable to a normal relationship between the poor and rich, as in any traditional society or civilised country.

When conflict occurred between groups of families in traditional Rwandan society, it was never related to the so-called “ethnic” groups. The essence of the problem came with the simplification of the complex relationships between Hutus and Tutsis by Europeans who created Bantu and Hamitic theories based on their own now discredited world view.

These theories claim that Tutsi came from Europe and therefore are not Africans while Hutus are typically Africans. Through the example of two neighbouring families — a Hutu family, the Bizimana family, and my Tutsi family, Kagabo family — this article intends to show how the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis came about. I will analyse the evolution of the relationship between these two families from the pre-colonial period until 1994. This example reflects the relationship between Hutus and Tutsis through most of Rwandan history.

The Bizimana Hutu family and the Kagabo Tutsi family lived closely for decades on Gihene Hill in the Kicukiro District, near Kigali, the capital and largest city of Rwanda. Bizimana and my father, Kagabo, were born in the 1930s, being almost the same age. The two men were farmers and primary school teachers. They both cultivated their small farms and both had cows. Their parents and grandparents lived in the same village of Gihene. Bizimana and Kagabo attended the same primary and secondary school, and received certificates that allowed them to teach in primary school.

The two families helped each other resolve problems they faced in their daily lives. Children from both families looked after their parents’ respective cows and went together to fetch water at the spring or firewood in the forest. At that time money was not an issue and collaboration among neighbours was common in order to accomplish substantial work in a short time. That work was called Ubudehe, the tradition of mutual assistance.

Ubudehe brought together members of the community to help each other in their daily lives. The Bizimana and Kagabo families used Ubudehe for activities requiring more effort or time than either family could individually afford. Through Ubudehe, they built houses and cultivated beans or sorghum on much larger acreage than a single family could manage. After the work, the families shared banana wine or sorghum beer. In this way, all houses were built without architects and without money. My family, Bizimana’s family and other neighbours collaborated in building a community.

In the 1980s, Ubudehe was institutionalised at the national level and was now called Umuganda — literally meaning “contribution”. In Rwanda, every last Saturday of the month, from 7am to noon, everyone was expected to participate in Umuganda, a form of unpaid community work. During Umuganda, people cleaned up streets, cleared bushes around roads and waterways, built small bridges, cut grass and maintained public building such as schools. After the genocide Umuganda still continues and it contributes to the sense of community and shared responsibility. It forges unity and reconciliation in the country since it allows all participants to come together for public service.

As a child, with my brothers and sisters, I used to play different games with Bizimana’s children. I did not know that I was Tutsi or that my friends were Hutus. We were just children and friends. While the parents were drinking beer, discussing land or good grazing for cows, we children played together, ate lunch or dinner, using our hands and sharing the same plate. When my father was sick and unable to milk the family cows, Bizimana would come over to our home to help milk the cow because my mother could not milk cows since this was not a common work for women. In the same way, my father would go to milk Bizimana’s cows when for any reason Bizimana was unavailable.

During the 1959 and 1960 mass killings against Tutsis, I was not born yet, but I heard that Bizimana family protected my family, and also provided food and water for sustenance. During the 1973 massacres, I was a young boy and I remember how some Hutus neighbours wanted to kill us, but Bizimana protected my family. We considered them good friends for decades.

I was almost the same age as Bizimana’s son, Rurangwa. We had grown up together in the same village and had become close friends. Rurangwa and I were in the same primary school and we both had his father and my father as our teachers. We both passed the national examination for entering into secondary school, but we did not attend the same boarding school. At that time in Rwanda, many secondary school students attended boarding schools and came home for holidays for two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter and two months for summer holidays in July and August. I attended boarding school while Rurangwa went to school and came back home every day. For this reason, there was no longer much time for us to spend together. After our secondary school graduation in 1988, I left Rwanda to study in Europe. I now realise that my departure sowed the seeds of jealousy and hatred towards my family.

In 1994, I was still in Europe studying when the genocide began in Rwanda. Most of my extended family — my mother, father, two brothers and two sisters were killed in the first week. The Bizimana family did not hesitate — they were the first — to kill my family members, to take our cows, and to steal items in our house. I cannot understand — even today — this turnaround. How could a family who was very close to us suddenly kill us? What was the reason for this sudden atrocity?

In 1996, two years after the genocide, I went back to Rwanda and visited what was left of my family home. Bizimana’s house was 20 metres from ours and I went to see him and ask for news regarding the genocide. Our house was destroyed and I saw its doors and windows lying on the floor of his living room. I asked him why doors and windows of our house were in his house, and he said that he brought them to his house because he wanted to save them for us when the Hutu militia destroyed our house. I was not convinced by his explanations because of the hesitation in his voice. When I asked him who destroyed our house, he replied that people who destroyed our house came from far away and he did not know them.

Still I found his answer hard to believe that truly he didn’t know people who destroyed our house. Throughout the country, Tutsis were killed by their neighbours and their belongings were stolen or destroyed by people they knew. From informal inquiry with other neighbours, I learnt that Bizimana’s son — Rurangwa, who was my close friend as we were growing up — participated in the killing of my father and my mother, but Bizimana refused to confirm it. I asked him where his son was and the answer was that he had died of HIV/Aids.

I spent time making some investigations on how my father, my mother, two brothers and two sisters were killed. I learnt that when they were killed, the bodies were thrown in the bush or in latrines. I also learnt that another neighbour who was living 80 metres from our house killed one of my sisters, Marie-Claire. I went to see the family and asked how my sister died. The lady, without looking at me, confessed that her husband had killed my sister. After hiding some days in the bush, Marie-Claire went to that house around 7pm to ask for water to drink. The man of the family saw her and immediately killed her instead of offering her the much needed water to quench her scorching thirst.

In response to my question as to why he killed her, she said that it was because she was Tutsi, nothing else. She then informed me that her husband died in 1995 in a Hutu refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The story of my family and the Bizimana illustrates how the Rwandan genocide was carried out. Tutsis were killed by their Hutu neighbours, the people with whom they had shared the joys and sorrows of everyday life. The fact that neighbours killed neighbours explains the high number of deaths in a such short period of four months only.

The 1994 genocide against Tutsis was methodically planned and was a success for the perpetrators. However, there were survivors saved by their Hutu friends. Other Tutsis like myself who were outside of Rwanda during the genocide also survived. Neither the Hutu militias nor the roving bands of Hutu farmers and townspeople could exterminate all Tutsis, just as the Nazis could not exterminate all Jews.

Now the time has come to build a new Rwanda where Hutus, Tutsis and Twas must live together in mutual respect. The reconciliation process has started with the Rwandan tradition jurisdictions called “Gacaca”. The habitants from the same village meet to discuss and debate what they saw and heard during the 1994 genocide. The debates bring opportunities to talk, to listen to each other, to hear the killers’ and the victims’ stories during the genocide. The Gacaca help to understand and measure the responsibility of each individual in the village. Thus, the inhabitants in the village have the opportunity to share their griefs, pains, hopes and vision of the future cohabitation.

The main result of the Gacaca jurisdictions is for having given a space to people where they could speak freely and without any pressure. The Gacaca allows some people falsely accused to be released from the prison and others who are guilty to be taken to the court and to the prison. While Gacaca lends justice to both survivors and perpetrators, in some parts of the country some survivors are afraid to testify against perpetrators for the fear of being persecuted or killed. Unfortunately in some cases, those who testify against the perpetrators suffer death at the hand of the accused perpetrators or their families.

We are all Rwandans and Rwanda belongs to all of its citizens, whether Tutsis, Hutus or Twas. This should be the motto of every Rwandan.

Skulls of massacre victims in the courtyard of Genocide Memorial Church, in Kibuye, Rwanda (Photograph by Adam Jones, PhD)

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Published February 11, 2022 at 7:56 am (Updated February 11, 2022 at 7:57 am)

Personal account of the Rwandan genocide

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