Fear as thousands of killers come home

As the nation remembers those who died in the genocide 10 years ago, survivors say that forgiving is impossible
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The Independent Online

It is a hill like any other in Rwanda. Curvy-horned cattle ramble along the dirt road. Lush banana groves cling to the slope, nestled between rows of simple, mud-walled dwellings. Some house the survivors of the genocide that blazed across these hills a decade ago. Others hold the killers that carried it out.

It is a hill like any other in Rwanda. Curvy-horned cattle ramble along the dirt road. Lush banana groves cling to the slope, nestled between rows of simple, mud-walled dwellings. Some house the survivors of the genocide that blazed across these hills a decade ago. Others hold the killers that carried it out.

Virginie Mujawayezo, a 25-year-old Tutsi, lost her entire family to machete-wielding Hutus. Now the militiamen are her neighbours again. Two "genocidaires" live further up the hill. They were released from prison after pleading guilty and claiming repentance. Virginie does not believe them. "It's impossible to forgive," she said in her front room, her infant baby suckling at her breast. "It has been 10 years now. They should have asked for forgiveness a long time ago."

Fear and frustration tinge the immense sadness of the genocide commemorations, which take place this Wednesday. Diplomats and a handful of heads of state will join Rwandans for a solemn reflection on the orgy of murder that swept across the tiny central African country, and the West's shameful failure to stop it.

The Tutsi-dominated government preaches ethnic reconciliation. On the surface, the message seems to be taking root. Rwanda has become one of Africa's safest countries, and ethnicity is something of a taboo subject, at least in public. But on hilltops like this one, in the southern province of Gikongoro, the wounds remain raw. "Everything looks good but it's a pretence. There is still a lot of anger and fear. Rwandans are very good at hiding things," said Fr Nicky Hennity, an Irish missionary in the area.

Gikongoro was the scene of some of the genocide's earliest and most brutal massacres. Town officials, soldiers and simple farmers conspired to butcher tens of thousands of Tutsis. Today the victims' remains are on public display, stacked on shelves in the deserted classrooms of Murambi school in a grim memorial to the slaughter. Across the valley more than 3,000 suspected perpetrators are crammed into the local prison, awaiting trials that may never take place in the swamped judicial system.

Last year the government released 28,000 prisoners to relieve the pressure. Among them was Vincent Seruvumba, 54, who returned to his hilltop house above Virginie Mujawayezo. The farmer denied killing anyone. "I saw a baby being killed at a roadblock. They used a hoe. But I didn't take part," he said, eyes darting back and forth as he spoke. And these days his Tutsi neighbours had nothing to be afraid of, he added. "Things are much better. There are no more problems. We can even drink together in the bars."

The survivors are unconvinced. Down the slope Florien Mukarubuga said she feared men like Vincent, and their hoes. A decade ago a Hutu gang cut her husband and three children to pieces. She knows the killers used hoes because when the police forced them to exhume the bodies, they re-enacted the murder, blow by blow.

Many Tutsi survivors feel let down since 1994. Promised compensation has failed to materialise. An estimated 250,000 women were raped, many of whom are struggling to bring up children born through the violence. Seven in 10 are infected with HIV, according to Amnesty International. Some say the millions of dollars the government is spending on genocide commemoration, or on Kigali's new Intercontinental Hotel, could have been used for anti-retroviral drugs.

Justice is painfully slow. Another 30,000 of the 90,000 genocide suspects are due to be released in June. Theoretically they will stand trial in Gacaca, a traditional justice system. But Gacaca has started in just 10 per cent of villages, so most perpetrators will simply return to their homes.

Hutus are burdened with guilt but are also resentful towards the government's authoritarian tendencies. In last year's presidential elections, the main opposition candidate - a Hutu - was harassed, his supporters intimidated and ballot-rigging was rife. Paul Kagame took 95 per cent of the vote, which he claimed was a reflection of his popularity. Critics were concerned it could signal a slide towards autocracy. Also, President Kagame refuses to acknowledge Tutsi reprisals against Hutus - estimated to account for 450,000 deaths in Rwanda and Congo - and has stopped Tutsi officers being called before the war crimes tribunal in Tanzania.

Critical voices are stifled. Last week Robert Sebufirira, editor of one the few independent newspapers, fled Rwanda. He told Western human rights researchers that state security agents had taken him to a forest, tied him to a tree and told him he would die there. Mr Sebufirira is seeking political asylum in Tanzania.

Western donors such as the UK, which prop up the Rwandan economy, usually turn a blind eye to such abuses. They sayMr Kagame is stewarding the country through a necessarily difficult transition to democracy. But some say the stern measures are hindering an open discussion of the past. "People are keeping a lot of anger inside. If it is not managed positively, it could explode in a very destructive way," said Fr Hennity.

The Catholic Church has also been slow to lead, he says. Priests were perpetrators and victims of the genocide. Fr Hennity's predecessor was murdered in 1994, but other clerics have been imprisoned. One priest, who denies any guilt, used to carry an AK-47 gun and a belt of grenades. The commemoration will also be a time of guilty reflection for the West. Arriving this weekend is Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian United Nations commander who sent frantic cables to New York begging for help in April 1994 - assistance that never came. Instead the UN mission was reduced from 2,500 troops to 270.

But on the rural hillsides, the historical arguments count for little. What matters now is piercing the sour veil of silence surrounding the slaughter, in the hope it will never happen again. At Murambi school, a genocide survivor, Emmanuel Murangira, keeps watch over the macabre memorial. "It's very difficult to talk about [the past]," he said. "But now we have to get on with living."

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