Rwanda remembers its genocide 25 years on

Never forget: Photographs of the genocide’s victims are on display at the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. © Getty

This week, Rwanda commemorates the massacres of 1994, in which 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days. The country is now stable, but how does any society recover from such a horror?

Twenty years ago, an unimaginable horror engulfed the African country of Rwanda. In the space of just 100 days, at least 800,000 people — mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus — were killed at the hands of Hutu extremists.

This week, Rwanda enters an official period of mourning and, yesterday, a special wreath-laying ceremony in the capital, Kigali, marked the atrocity.

Tensions had existed between the two ethnic groups for years but, after the president’s plane was shot down in 1994, Hutu extremists embarked on a murderous campaign. The killings only ended when a Tutsi rebel movement, led by the current president Paul Kagame, seized control of the country.

The scale of the genocide defies belief. Over 300 lives were lost every hour. Yet after such dark days, Rwanda has been transformed into a stable and prosperous nation. Infant mortality has more than halved since 1994.

Nearly all children now go to school at seven, where they are taught that they are neither Hutu nor Tutsi, but Rwandans.

It is clear that Rwandans themselves crave peace. After the genocide, over 120,000 alleged perpetrators were crammed into the country’s prisons — too many for the courts to deal with.

A system of community justice, partly under the control of the victims, took up the task and concerned itself with healing and reconciliation as well as punishment for the guilty. Despite some international concerns about its fairness, it has meant that many old enemies now live and work side-by-side.

Other countries torn apart by hatred have also promoted reconciliation. This month marks the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s first post-apartheid election: a reminder of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which played a large part in reconciling black and white South Africans.

But nation-building in the wake of such horrors is a monumental task. How can any country heal such terrible wounds?

Forgiveness or punishment?

Some say that those responsible for horrific crimes must always face justice — and harsh penalties. Even today, Germany still brings Nazi war criminals to court 70 years after the end of the Second World War. They believe that a strong response acts as a powerful deterrent to others in the future, and it is the only way that those affected can move on with their lives.

But others say that criminal justice only breeds revenge. Reconciliation can bring healing for the nation as well as for the victims. People should learn to forgive by supporting peace agreements and through offering amnesties, as demonstrated in post-apartheid South Africa and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Otherwise the cycle of violence will never end.

You Decide

  1. Is the criminal justice system a better way to heal deep divisions than reconciliation?
  2. Are some conflicts so bitter and long-lasting that there is no solution?

Activities

  1. In groups, produce a fact file on Rwanda as it is today, and then design a poster infographic to display the information.
  2. Using Expert Links for inspiration, try and find three recent or ongoing civil conflicts. Write down a set of bullet points making sure you understand the reasons for the fighting.

Some People Say...

“You achieve more through acts of mercy than through acts of retribution.”

Nelson Mandela

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Rwandans have entered a 100-day mourning period, which began on Sunday. Around 2,000 people took part in a flame-lighting ceremony, carrying candles from the Rwandan parliament to the Amahoro National Stadium, which was used by United Nations officials to try to protect Tutsis during the genocide.
What do we not know?
Whether a crime on the scale of the Rwandan genocide could happen again, there or elsewhere. The international community has pledged never to forget the atrocity, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame says that the country is “a family once again”. The permanent International Criminal Court was set up in 1998 as a direct result of the massacre, but it has been accused of being slow and ineffective. Have international institutions learned from the horrors of 1994?

Word Watch

Genocide
A genocide is a violent crime committed against national, racial, religious or ethnic groups with the intent to destroy them. The word did not exist until 1944, when a Polish-Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, coined the term to describe the Nazis’ systematic murder of the Jews. He formed the word by combining geno (from the Greek word for race or tribe) with -cide (derived from the Latin word for killing).
Rwandans
A new law has made it illegal for Rwandans to discuss ethnicity.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a court-like body created in South Africa after the end of apartheid (the country’s system of racial segregation). Anybody who felt they had been a victim of violence could give their evidence in public, and those responsible could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.The hearings made international news and many sessions were broadcast on national television.
Good Friday Agreement
A major political development in the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s. The Agreement acknowledged that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom. It also decommissioned weapons held by paramilitary groups and reduced the British military presence in Northern Ireland. Many on both sides of the conflict serving prison sentences for paramilitary activity were given early releases.