The Washington Diplomat / April 2014
By Larry Luxner
Jason Nshimye will never forget the morning of April 16, 1994. Shortly after sunrise, his older brother warned him that their entire family — which had taken refuge inside a church complex in his village — would soon be slaughtered by Hutu tribesmen.
“That morning when he said goodbye, I was speechless. I looked in his face and I knew he was a strong man,” recalled Nshimye, then 15. “A few minutes later, the killers started coming from all directions. It didn’t take long before they started shooting and throwing grenades. That day, thousands of people died. Babies were left crying day and night, lying in the bush next to their dead mothers.”
The young man’s entire family was wiped out in Rwanda’s 100-day explosion of ethnic bloodshed by Hutus against their Tutsi neighbors — many of whom had gone to school together, shared meals and even intermarried among themselves.
Nshimye spoke Feb. 24 to a Washington auditorium packed with diplomats, dignitaries, students and representatives of human rights organizations. At one point, he held up a thick red book, each of whose 1,079 pages are inscribed with the names of Rwandans slaughtered during those three months of madness. All told, the book contains close to 60,000 names — and those are the victims in just one province of Rwanda.
“There are no words to express what happened,” he said. “Six months ago, I went to visit a memorial site, and on my way back to Kigali, I stopped to talk to an old friend. ‘Why did you kill Tutsis?’ I asked him. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. Every day my kids ask me, “Where is grandpa? Where is grandma? I don’t have any answers. There’s nothing I can tell them about why they were killed. And I’ll never have the answer.”
Nshimye is an articulate eyewitness to one of the 20th century’s most horrific genocides. His account was clearly the most moving in a solemn day full of speeches, songs and poetry commemorating the 20th anniversary of that nightmare — and ensuring that history does not repeat itself.
The event was organized by Kwibuka20, in cooperation with the Embassy of Rwanda, the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation and other NGOs.
“Grief is a necessary part of our life,” said Stephen Smith, executive producer of Kwibuka20 and director of the Shoah Foundation. “For those who failed — and that includes me — we have had a time of reckoning. For those who were murdered in cold blood and hatred, for those of you who are survivors, we are here to stand with you to remember them, because memory is a bedrock for us to move forward. What happens to one happens to all of us.”
Directly addressing Nshimye and other survivors of Rwanda’s atrocities, Smith said: “We do not share your pain, because we can’t understand what you lived through. But we can stand with you. In the wake of genocide, there should never be silence.”
Numerically speaking, Rwanda’s genocide pales in comparison to the six million Jews murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust, which lasted from 1933 to 1945. But the carnage in Rwanda spanned only 100 days, and during that short period, an estimated 800,000 people — perhaps up to three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population — were killed, along with thousands of Hutu who opposed the slaughter of their Tutsi brethren.
Some 300,000 women were raped by men who infected many of them with HIV, and at least 75,000 children became orphans. The unprecedented massacre stopped only when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, defeated the Hutu regime and rebel leader Paul Kagame took control. Kagame has been president since 2000.
“Our country endured one of the worst horrors of the 20th century, only 50 years after the Holocaust,” said Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, Mathilde Mukantabana. “People focus on the 100 days beginning April 7, 1994, but for decades before that, our political leaders had been pursuing the policies of dehumanization that laid the groundwork for this genocide.”
Mukantabana, who became Rwanda’s top envoy in Washington last July, blames her own government, the police, the church and even families for instigating the violence that eventually consumed her country.
“Rwandans of Tutsi descent were somehow enemies within, somehow less than human, and to kill them was an act of patriotism,” said the ambassador. “For years, Tutsi children were denied entry into secondary school on the basis of their ethnicity. Quota systems shut their parents out of civil-society jobs. Numerous outbreaks of violence and mass killings in 1959, 1962, 1968 and 1973 drove hundreds of thousands of survivors into exile in neighboring countries.”
But the hatred that boiled over in the 1990s in fact traces its roots to the 1880s, when Belgian colonists — steeped in the “divide and conquer” mentality — enthusiastically exploited existing ethnic rivalries between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen.
Gregory Stanton, president of the nonprofit group Genocide Watch, lived in Rwanda from 1988 to 1989 and saw the dark clouds on Rwanda’s horizon even then.
“I discovered a society that was divided by imagined identities that had been inspired by Belgian identification cards,” he told his audience. “During a meeting with the president of Rwanda, I asked him to remove [ethnicity] from those ID cards, and an icy mask came over his face. He didn’t even answer me. I then told the president that within five years, he’d have a genocide here.”
Sen. Russell Feingold, President Obama’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, called the Rwandan nightmare that arrived five years later “humanity’s darkest hour” — and one that especially pains him as a Jew.
“When I was growing up, my parents worked hard to make sure I understood the devastation and the loss of the Holocaust, which dramatically influences what it means to be a Jew in modern times,” said Wisconsin Democrat. “This is part of my history. But my experience inevitably differed from theirs. My parents imparted to me the challenge to never forget, while never letting it define me. I am Jewish — a member of a group brutally subjected to genocide — but that does not define me.”
Likewise, Feingold said, this year, the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide, should be a turning point for this small Central African nation — “the year Rwanda defines itself not by genocide alone, but by what has yet to come.”
The lawmaker said he was amazed by the “tremendous strides” Rwanda has made since his first visit there in 1999.
“The enormous challenges it faced after the genocide cannot be overstated. Nearly all economic activity came to a standstill. Agriculture was devastated,” Feingold said. “A tragedy of such magnitude could easily define or even cripple a country. But now Rwanda is one of the most stable, secure countries in Africa.”
Other speakers at the Kwibuka20 event included Clotilde Mbaranga Gasarabwe, the UN assistant secretary-general for safety and security, and Amina Ali, the African Union’s ambassador to the United States. A choir consisting of Pastor Emmanuel Mutangana, John Bash, Eliane Angel Gihozo and Rinna Uwase Mamboleo performed the song “I Will Restore Rwanda,” and Uwi Basaninyenzi recited the poem “Tribute to My Beloved” by Natasha Daphine Muhoza.
Finally, Ambassador Mukantabana led her fellow speakers in the “Urumuri Rutazima” ceremony, lighting an eternal flame to kick off Kwibuka20’s two-month-long U.S. campaign of hope, resilience and courage.
“No one knows better the pain of genocide than the survivors as society collapsed around them,” she said. “To top it off, the international community — under the guise of the United Nations — was rendered powerless. This was a genocide that took place in full view of everyone, in the era of global news, and yet no one stopped it. In the aftermath, what they discovered was a nation destroyed. Any observer would be forgiven for thinking Rwanda had become a permanently failed state.”
Yet exactly the opposite has happened.
“We found within ourselves the resilience and courage necessary to reject the politics of hate, and to rebuild from the ashes,” said Mukantabana. She noted that 3.5 million refugees have returned to Rwanda since 1995, and that one million Rwandans have lifted themselves out of poverty between 2006 and 2011.
In addition, her country now enjoys economic growth of 8 percent a year, though per-capita income is still only $500 a year and 90 percent of its people depend on small-scale farming. With 10.4 million inhabitants, Maryland-size Rwanda is already among Africa’s most crowded countries. And if current fertility rates of 5.4 children per woman aren’t brought down soon, Rwandans may see their numbers double to 20 million by 2037, warns the Population Refererence Bureau.
At least part of that increase is thanks to a drop in AIDS-related deaths. Rwanda’s adult HIV infection rate now stands at 2.9 percent, among the lowest in Africa.
“AIDS, once a death sentence, is now a treatable, manageable disease, and mother-to-child transmission has been effectively eradicated,” said the ambassador. “Life expectancy has risen by 20 years in the past two decades, something almost unprecedented in history.”
While Rwanda may have overcome its tragic past, some of its African neighbors remain mired in ethnic strife. The killing continues in nearby Congo — where five million people have died since that country’s civil war began in the 1960s — while Boko Haram extremists continue to slaughter Christians in northern Nigeria. Religious tensions between Christians and Muslims recently exploded into all-out war in the Central African Republic, and Mali is still recovering from last year’s Islamic uprising.
“Today is a timely occasion to remind ourselves of our collective failure to recognize the signs of impending violence, to prevent the deaths of so many people,” said Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on genocide prevention. “Drawing from the lessons of Rwanda, we know that genocide is a process that can be avoided at any stage.”
Dieng added: “No part of the world is immune to atrocities. We recognize the efforts of the Rwandan people, and so many others, who have supported Rwanda on its road to recovery. We should never stand idly by and let this happen again.”