remembering one hundred days and one million in rwanda


There will be no humanity without forgiveness.
There will be no forgiveness without justice.
But justice will be impossible without humanity.

The above quote is from Yolande Mukagasana, a writer who was born in Rwanda in 1954. She was a survivor of the Rwandan genocide but lost her three children, her husband, her brother and her sisters. She was a nurse anesthetist for nineteen years at Kigali hospital and a firsthand witness to the massacre. Yolande’s story is frighteningly common with Rwandan women her age, those who survived the pre-meditated murder of one million Rwandan citizens in years of bloodshed that the locals refer to as the time when “Rwanda was dead.”

So that humanity never forgets this atrocity and [hopefully] learns not to repeat it again, the Kigali Memorial Center was opened on the 10th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, in April 2004. The Center is built on a site where over 250,000 people are buried in mass graves. This is where I spent a few hours and learned the story of the millions affected by this event.

Beginning on April 6, 1994, Hutus began slaughtering the Tutsis in Rwanda. As the brutal killings continued, the UN and the international community did nothing. Lasting 100 days, the Rwanda genocide left approximately one million Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers dead.

When Rwanda was first settled, the people who lived there raised cattle. Soon, those who owned the most cattle were called “Tutsi” and everyone else was called “Hutu.” At this time, a person could easily change categories or status through marriage or the purchase of cattle. It wasn’t until Europeans came to colonize the area that the terms “Tutsi” and “Hutu” took on a more sinister racial role. The Germans were the first to colonize Rwanda in 1894. They looked at the Rwandan people and thought the Tutsi had more European characteristics, such as lighter skin and a taller build. Thus they put Tutsis in roles of responsibility and created a defacto caste system.

When the Germans lost their colonies after World War I, the Belgians took control of Rwanda. In 1933, the Belgians solidified the categories of “Tutsi” and “Hutu” by mandating that every person have an identity card that labeled them either Tutsi or Hutu. Although the Tutsi constituted only about fifteen percent of Rwanda’s population and the Hutu nearly eighty five percent, the Belgians gave the Tutsi all the leadership positions. This understandably upset the Hutu. When Rwanda struggled for independence from Belgium, the Belgians, in a clever attempt at a power play, switched the status of the two groups. Facing a revolution instigated by the Hutu, the Belgians let the Hutus be in charge of the new government. This understandably upset the Tutsi. As the years passed the animosity heightened and the stage was set for conflict.

On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was returning from a summit in Tanzania when a missile shot his plane out of the sky over Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. All on board, including the President of neighboring Burundi, were killed in the crash. From 1973, President Habyarimana, a Hutu, had run a totalitarian regime in Rwanda, which had excluded all Tutsis from participating in government. That changed on August 3, 1993 when Habyarimana signed the Arusha Accords, which weakened the Hutu hold on Rwanda and allowed Tutsis to participate in the government. This greatly upset Hutu extremists.

Although it has never been determined who was responsible for the assassination, Hutu extremists profited the most from Habyarimana’s death. Less than one hour after the crash, road blocks were set up in Kigali. Less than twenty four hours after the crash, Hutu extremists had taken over the government, blamed the Tutsis for the assassination, and began the slaughter.

The killings began in Kigali. The Interahamwe [“those who strike as one”], an anti-Tutsi youth organization established by Hutu extremists, set up the road blocks. They checked identification cards and killed all Tutsis and any Hutu sympathizer they found. Most of the killing was done with machetes, clubs, or knives. Over the ensuing weeks, road blocks were set up around the entire country. Since the government had the names and addresses of nearly all Tutsis living in Rwanda [thanks to the identity cards introduced by the Belgians decades earlier] the killers could go door to door, slaughtering the Tutsis.

The genocide had taken hold.

Since bullets were expensive, most Tutsis were killed by hand weapons, often machetes or clubs. Many were often tortured before being killed. Some of the victims were given the option of paying for a bullet so that they’d have a quicker death.

The Rwanda Genocide ended only when the Rwandan Patriotic Front [RPF] took over the country. The RPF were a trained military group consisting of Tutsis who had been exiled in earlier years, many of whom lived in Uganda. They were able to enter Rwanda and slowly take over the country. By mid July 1994 the RPF had full control of the country and the genocide ended.

Every year a memorial flame is lit for one hundred days so that this atrocity is never forgotten. The Kigali Memorial Center exists as yet another in a long list of reminders of how cruel and violent humanity can be when it focuses its energy on dividing itself.