Rwanda: The Art of Remembering and Forgetting

Two decades after the genocide, Rwandans navigate the way forward.

This is the third in a three-part series on the genocide in Rwanda. Read the first part here. Read the second part  here

If you arrive in Rwanda today to witness ceremonies commemorating the genocide that began here 20 years ago, you might expect the country to be a mournful place. Up to a million people were murdered by their neighbors in roughly a hundred days, and you could reasonably expect that tragedy, guilt, shame, and rage continue to weigh heavily on the Rwandan people. The skeletons of genocide victims are still occasionally discovered, stuffed into sewers and under dense bushes. Fragments of bone and teeth still turn up in church parking lots. And by and large the country is still oddly devoid of dogs: During the genocide the animals acquired a taste for human flesh and had to be exterminated.

But today Rwanda bears few obvious scars of its cataclysm. Its rapidly modernizing capital, Kigali, is one of the jewel cities of Africa. A lacework of tree-lined boulevards and greenswards rises and falls over a cradle of verdant hills and valleys. New construction is transforming the city center, with upscale hotels, a grand shopping mall, and a state-of-the-art convention center. The airport bustles with tour operators picking up clients arriving to visit Rwanda's national parks, which hold the nation's famous mountain gorillas. Add to that Rwanda's rising standard of living, steady economic growth, and low incidence of corruption, and you have a country that in many ways is the envy of the continent.

Life here bears no relation to the darkness that descended over the nation beginning on April 7, 1994. To find evidence of that period, you have to look into the hearts of the people where those memories lie buried. During today's official events, Rwanda's leaders will urge its people, if not to forget, to set aside many of their bitterest memories to help sustain the country's impressive progress. (See "In Rwanda, Reconciliation Is Hard Won.")

Remembering is a tricky thing. It can release a river of volatile emotions that can drown you in sorrow or shame, and it can also unleash a torrent of vengeful anger. But forgetting is equally treacherous, lest those who were lost died in vain or the crucial lessons learned are not passed on to future generations. Rwandans of all walks of life navigate this complex riptide of emotion every day, each in his or her own way. It is far more art than science.

The Boy Who Hid From His Friends

"It began when we heard the plane crash," said Gaston Bizimana, a 34-year-old Tutsi who works as an independent tour operator. "I was 14 and my school was just there," he said, pointing a long, slender finger out of the car window toward a spot in the valley below the road. "That is when my journey began," he said.

The plane crash he is referring to killed Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, who was returning from Tanzania, where he had signed a peace accord with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group that had been fighting a guerrilla war with the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government.

For centuries, the ethnic distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi in the African kingdom of Rwanda meant relatively little to the people, who united behind their monarch. But during the late 19th century, European colonizers began using ethnicity as a way to divide and subjugate the people. In 1935, the country's Belgian overlords implemented a national system of identity cards that required Rwandans to declare their ethnicity. And things were never the same. Violent ethnic bloodlettings punctuated the next three decades, sending many Tutsi—outnumbered nearly four to one by Hutu—into exile around the region.

But in April 1994, things seemed on the verge of a major change. The outmanned and outgunned RPF, led by a brilliant young strategist named Paul Kagame, had taken a significant swath of northern Rwanda, forcing President Habyarimana to the negotiating table in Tanzania. A plan for a multiethnic, power-sharing government had been agreed to, and a lightly armed force of 600 RPF fighters had been dispatched to Kigali along with a force of UN peacekeeping troops to help begin implementing the accords.

The sun had slipped below Kigali's hills on April 6 as President Habyarimana's jet, which included eight other passengers, including Burundi's president, also a Hutu, was on final approach to the city's airport. Witnesses later described seeing two surface-to-air missiles streak across the sky. The plane burst into flames and crashed onto the grounds of the presidential palace, exploding on impact.

"My friends and I heard the explosion," said Gaston. "Many people in the city heard it." In the coming days, the army joined with the Interahamwe, militias comprised of Hutu extremists, to set in motion what a UN special inquiry later called "the systematic slaughter of men, women, and children."

"That night I heard grenades exploding and lots of shooting, so I decided to walk to my home village in Kamonyi District," said Gaston, as our car approached a bridge over the Nyabarongo River.

"This was my first challenge," he pointed at the bridge. "There were soldiers checking people's identity cards to cross the bridge. I decided that I would try to cross the river, but I didn't know how to swim and I could see crocodiles." So he opted to face the soldiers, telling them he'd lost his national identity card.

"One of them shouted 'You are Tutsi' and he pushed me on the ground and pointed his rifle at me. 'No,' I said. 'I am Hutu. My parents are living on the other side.' Another soldier came over and said, 'Why are you bothering with this small boy?' And I ran to the other side. I was lucky it was soldiers. If they had been Interahamwe, I would have died right there."

We made the 20-mile (32-kilometer) drive to Kamonyi and parked the car just off the main road. Gaston uncoiled his lanky 6'4" frame from the car. We followed a path that cut through thickets of thorn trees and eucalyptus. "Do you smell that?" he asked, plucking a eucalyptus leaf and holding it to his nose. "That is the smell of my home."

After several minutes of picking our way past small groves of coffee plants and banana trees and carefully tended plots thick with cassava, beans, corn, and sweet potatoes, we emerged from the path at a wide pasture that sloped toward a deep valley. "This is my family's land," Gaston said. "I used to play football [soccer] here. Hutu and Tutsi, we were all together." In the far distance three of Rwanda's majestic volcanoes were visible. He pointed to one. "That is where the gorillas are."

At five o'clock on the morning of April 7, the family awoke to see houses burning across the valley. His parents told his three brothers, two sisters, and him to flee into the bush.

We walked along the edge of the pasture, and Gaston began pointing out thickets where he had hidden. "You could not stay in one place, because the Hutu searched every day. Some of the boys I played football with were helping their fathers look for us. Sometimes they used dogs. When the dog made a noise, they knew you were hiding in that bush. When they found one person, they would cut them here," he pointed to his Achilles, "so they couldn't run. When they found another, they cut him and put him with the first one. When you were five, they killed all of you on that spot." He pantomimed chopping with a machete.

After a month, the Hutu began using loudspeakers to announce that the fighting had ended and that all Tutsi could come out of hiding. A few fell for the ruse and were hacked to death.

By day Gaston lay curled beneath thornbushes. By night he scavenged for cassava leaves, careful not to disturb the plants too much lest he give away his presence.

"There was one Hutu house where I could get water, late at night when there was no moon," he pointed across the valley at a small house with a curl of smoke rising from a chimney. "That is the only family in this whole valley that helped Tutsi."

In mid-June, after nearly a hundred days of hiding, Gaston was rescued by RPF troops who had fought their way down from the north, ultimately driving the army and Interahamwe out of Rwanda into neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). "At first I was afraid to come out, but the RPF had very bad uniforms, so I knew they weren't government soldiers."

Of his family, only he and his father survived. The bodies of his mother, three brothers, and two sisters were never found. Most of the Tutsi homes were not rebuilt, the survivors opting for new, government-provided houses closer to the main road.

"This hillside is so quiet now," Gaston said. It used to be filled with sounds. Women laughing, children singing, men calling to each other across the fields. As he describes it, I can tell he's hearing the sounds.

The Priest in the Prison

Another son of Kamonyi sits outside the warden's office at Kigali's Nyarugenge Prison, nervously folding and unfolding his hands. Father Benoit Sebyiatsi, dressed in the orange jumpsuit of a convicted prisoner, believes God is punishing him for something, but not the same thing the Rwandan government is punishing him for. The barrel-chested, 67-year-old Roman Catholic priest, an ethnic Hutu, is serving 30 years for participating in the genocide. His round spectacles slightly magnify his eyes and are too large for his small face, giving him a perpetual look of wide-eyed astonishment.

"I want to be clear: I did not kill anyone," he says firmly in French. Instead, he says, he was accused of encouraging soldiers and militias to kill Tutsi, and because he was a priest, the government said he should have done more to try to stop the killings.

He says his story is much more complicated. After serving the church for nearly two decades, he found himself in Kabgayi District. “I began to have a relationship with a Tutsi woman named Terese,” he says. “She was very beautiful. I was weak. I am a priest but also a man, and I am guilty of that.” Terese became pregnant, and when the child was born, Benoit decided that it was God’s will, and he should publicly acknowledge both the child and his sin. He baptized the child in the church where he was serving.

The diocese was scandalized, and the monsignor was determined to excommunicate him, but the Vatican refused. “They said, ‘No, you must try to rehabilitate him,’ so I was suspended. The diocese forced him to leave Kabgayi, and he ended up in Kigali and got a job as an accountant for the national social security office. Over the next several years, Benoit read the scriptures and prayed for repentance and balanced ledgers. Eventually, he petitioned Rome to reinstate him. “I was waiting for their response when the president’s plane crashed,” he says.

The next several days were a hellish blur. "I stayed in my house. Of course, in my neighborhood, we heard much fighting, but we all assumed it was a war." Finally after a few days, he went out looking to buy food.

"I was walking down the street and some soldiers had set up a checkpoint. They stopped a man ahead of me who was walking with two young boys. I saw the soldiers shoot all three of them at point-blank range," he says. When he reached the checkpoint, the soldiers told him they were searching for RPF and that the man and two boys were informers. "I thought that such a thing was usual in war—not genocide."

After the fighting ended and the RPF gained control of the country, Benoit returned to his job as an accountant. A few months later, as investigations into the genocide began, some witnesses came forward to say that he had encouraged the soldiers to kill the man and the boys and had heard him urging them to hunt down RPF sympathizers.

He was arrested in Kigali and appeared before a national court. They asked him why, as a priest and a government worker, he had not tried to stop the killing.

"What could I do?" he asks. "I was powerless. It was insanity. They would have killed me."

The case was referred to a gacaca, a special community court created to hold accountable those who participated in the genocide. "I refused to testify. I did nothing wrong," he says. The gacaca tried him in absentia and convicted him of conspiring to participate in the genocide. He has 14 years remaining on his sentence.

I asked about Terese and his son, who would have been half Hutu and half Tutsi.

"When the killing began, she sent the boy to be with my relatives in Kamonyi. He lives in Kigali now," Benoit said, adding that his son is now married with four children. "I heard Terese was killed trying to flee to her family's home in Kibilira," he says, adding, "It was regrettable."

For Benoit, life continues inside the prison surrounded by other genocidaires. He translates religious texts from French into Kinyarwanda and serves as the prison's Roman Catholic priest. He quotes a New Testament passage from the Gospel of Matthew that he says sustains him: "I am with you always, even to the end of the world."

I asked him if as a Hutu he ever felt the need to apologize to Tutsi for what happened. His magnified eyes seemed to widen further behind his large glasses. "For what? I have done nothing wrong."

The Official Rememberer

Leon Muberuka, 31, is annoyed with photographer David Guttenfelder and me. We have arrived a few minutes before five in the afternoon, and he is about to close the genocide memorial at Nyamata Church. "I have been here since seven," he says, checking the time on his phone. He takes a deep breath and says, "Ok, let's go." And for the tenth or eleventh time that day, he begins to recite the grim story of what happened at this rural church about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Kigali on April 10, 1994.

By that date, the killing was spreading across the country. More than 10,000 panicked Tutsi had gathered on the grounds of the modest redbrick church here seeking shelter from the Interahamwe militias, and more than 2,000 locked themselves inside the church. "The first thing you will notice is the doorway to the church," he says, motioning to a mangled steel gate and a large gouge in the cement floor. "The Interahamwe used grenades to blow it open."

We stepped into the sanctuary. Long bench pews were arranged in a wide semicircle, and the floor sloped slightly downward toward the altar. "Once inside, they threw more grenades and fired their guns. You can see the damage on the walls and ceiling." He pointed to pockmarks in the brick walls and a constellation of small holes in the corrugated metal roof. Shafts of late afternoon sun streamed through the bullet holes.

"After the militias fired their guns, they withdrew, and local people came inside with machetes and clubs to kill any survivors," he said, "including many small children who had been hidden by their parents under the pews."

A handful of survivors miraculously emerged from the mass of bodies, which remained in the church until after the area was liberated by the RPF. Eventually the corpses were removed, but their ripped and bloodstained clothes were piled atop the pews as part of the memorial. Looking closely at the tangles, I make out faded cotton sundresses, crocheted shawls, a pair of striped soccer socks, a pink bra.

Leon leads me to the front of the church. The white altar cloth is stained pink from blood. Atop sits a pile of rosary beads and a collection of weapons used in the killings, including a steel cross that had been pulled off the wall and used as a club.

We walk down a set of stairs near the back of the church to a small underground room. Here a large glass case is filled with 216 skulls of various sizes. "You can see by the type of wound how each person was killed," Leon says, pointing out skulls with ruler-straight machete cuts, perfectly round bullet holes, and large jagged fractures made by clubs.

On one skull someone had written the name Patrice. By the time some of the families were able to come and identify the dead, the bodies had completely decomposed. A young boy found this skull, recognized the clothes with it, and wrote his brother's name on it. "He wanted people to know who this was," said Leon.

We walk outside. Leon lets out a deep breath and rolls his shoulders, as if releasing the tension stored up from a day of leading these bleak tours. I ask him how he is able to tell these stories over and over every day.

"It is very difficult to live with this all the time," he says. He too is a survivor from this area. He was only 11 when he fled into the bush and hid, just like Gaston, until the RPF arrived. "I need to forgive and move on," he said.

Could he do it? I ask. "I'm ready," he says. His eyes narrow in an intense stare. "But no one has asked me for my forgiveness. If they would come here and ask me, I am ready."

Two soldiers wearing green camouflage uniforms and carrying automatic rifles walk up the path and nod to Leon. They watch over the memorial at night, he tells me. Would anyone really vandalize this place? I ask.

"In December the police found out about a local plot to throw grenades at the church," he said. "There are people who would like to see this place go away."

The Man Who Built the Stock Market

Celestin Rwabukumba, the 39-year-old CEO of the fledgling Rwanda Stock Exchange, stands at the window of his office in the Kigali City Tower, one of Rwanda’s first bona fide skyscrapers, pointing to the busy city center below. "I was born on that street," he says. "I don't even recognize it anymore." An assistant beckons to him, and he excuses himself briefly to check on the trading floor, where two Rwandan and three East African companies are traded.

When Celestin returns, he launches into a detailed discussion of Rwanda's economy and the role that the nation's nascent capital markets are playing in the country's rebirth. His English bears hints of his time as a student at the University of Buffalo, and his confident, quick intellect betrays his stint as a New York stockbroker.

At 5'7" ("so much for the myth all Tutsi are tall," he jokes), smartly dressed in a tailored black suit, he is a coil of energy and enthusiasm for the economic opportunities that lie within Rwanda's grasp. He ticks off in rapid bullet points the progress the country has made in GDP growth, attracting foreign investment, and reducing reliance on international donors to fund the nation's budget.

He acknowledges that the path that led him to this glass office overlooking the capital began, at least in part, on the darkest day of his country's history. "My brother and I just happened to be near the parliament when the genocide began," he says. "We knew the RPF was staying there, so we took a chance and rushed there."

It was a quick, bold decision that saved both their lives. As the city descended into chaos, the RPF-controlled parliament building became a haven for those who could make it through the roving militias and government troops.

After the genocide, Celestin eventually made his way to Buffalo, where he studied economics, and later moved to Manhattan.

"I was at work on Wall Street on 9/11," he says. "I saw the destruction and felt the fear in New York. I understood in many ways what Americans were feeling in those days. It was a major crisis for the United States, and I remember people discussing what Americans needed in the early aftermath. Because I had the experience of the genocide behind me, I knew exactly what they needed. It was the same things Rwandans needed—resilience. You have to move forward. It's important to remember what happened and to honor the people who died, but the best way to honor them is to build a better country."

The Doctor Who Fought

When Celestin was trying to get to the parliament on April 7, Joseph Karemera was already there, helping coordinate both the defense of the small RPF force, which was under heavy attack by the military, and the rescue of as many Tutsi as possible. He had come four months earlier as part of the RPF contingent sent to help begin implementing the peace accords. They had arrived with 600 troops, armed only with rifles, and had insisted on billeting in the parliament, a fortress-like building with a deep basement that could be defended in the event of attack. It proved to be a prescient decision.

"When we got to Kigali, we could tell something sinister was going on," Karemera says, sitting in the RPF headquarters under a portrait of his old friend and Rwanda's current president, Paul Kagame. "We noticed that Tutsi homes were being marked as if there was a grand plan being put in place."

"There were also odd troop movements by the government forces. The presidential guard, for example, took up a position only 800 meters (875 yards) from us," he says. He and many of his men had grown up in exile and had never been to the capital before. "We took sightseeing trips around Kigali," he says with a smile. "But we were studiously taking note of places that would be of strategic value just in case."

When the killings began and the UN peacekeeping force infamously refused to intervene, Kagame ordered the RPF contingent to rescue as many Tutsi as possible. "It was a nightmare," says Karemera. "We were under heavy attack and trying to defend our position. Small platoons would go out to bring back civilians. Many others were trying to slip through the government and militia lines, and we had to make sure they weren't attackers. We had to keep going like this until reinforcements could fight their way down from the north. It was a desperate fight. But we had no choice."

Trained as a medical doctor in Uganda, Karemera joined the RPF in the mid-1980s as Tutsi exiles, especially students, began discussing possible ways to return to their homeland. "Our goal then was the same as our goal now: building a Rwanda not just for Tutsi but for all Rwandans," he says. "We are trying to return our society to the way it was before outsiders created the notion that Tutsi and Hutu were not one people. We speak the same language, worship the same God, eat the same food; our cultures are the same."

Changing the way Rwandans think is just as crucial a battle as the one he waged 20 years ago, he says. One of the very first things the new government did was get rid of the ethnic designation on national identity cards. He recites a litany of other achievements: The government has implemented universal health care for all Rwandans; infant mortality has plummeted; maternal health is among the best in Africa; all children go to school for 12 years; university slots are given based on academic merit, not quotas; more than 70 percent of the country has access to clean drinking water. All in all, more than a million people have been lifted out of poverty. (Related: "Women in Post-genocide Rwanda Have Helped Heal Their Country.")

But the accomplishment of which he, as a former exile, is most proud is the return of refugees. "We have repatriated millions of Rwandans to their homeland. Only 79,000 remain displaced," he says, noting that many of that number were associated with the genocide.

So many people did not live to see this new Rwanda, he says. "But if I were to die today, I could face them all and tell them that we have not let them down."

The Plane Crash

A few nights ago, Gaston and I drove out to visit the site where President Habyarimana's plane had crashed 20 years ago. Some of the wreckage remains where it fell in the garden of the former presidential palace, which has been converted into a museum.

The sun was setting, and the air was cool and fragrant with the smell of cut grass. We passed through a middle-class neighborhood bustling with people returning home from work. A produce market was crowded with people picking up items for dinner. Children chased each other while their parents chatted. It was a mix of Tutsi and Hutu, Gaston said. "We live together in the same neighborhoods, like we always did."

We arrived at the former palace and followed a brick path through the once elaborate gardens, past its empty fountains and a cement enclosure where the president had kept a pet python. At the far end of the property, we climbed the steps of a small watchtower and peered out over a grassy field where a small collection of mangled and rusting pieces of wreckage remained. I could make out a section of the fuselage and an engine. Part of a wing stuck straight out of the ground like a broken knife blade.

The lights of Kigali were winking on across the hills in the distance. We both stood in silence, pondering the broad impact of the plane crash and the horror that radiated out across the country, across families, across time. Exactly who shot the plane down—RPF fighters or Hutu extremists—remains a hotly debated mystery to this day. What isn't debated is the aftermath.

"OK," said Gaston, cheerfully matter-of-fact. "Now we go." We returned to the car and joined the flow of evening traffic back into the glowing light of Kigali.

When we pulled up to my hotel, Gaston shook my hand and smiled. "The next time you come to Rwanda," he said, "we will go see the gorillas."

Peter Gwin is an editor at National Geographic. A former teacher in Africa, he has reported a range of stories from the continent, including the discovery of Stone Age graveyards in the Sahara, the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa.

David Guttenfelder is chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press, specializing in documentary coverage of conflict and post-conflict societies. He is a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine on issues ranging from the slaughter of songbirds to life in North Korea to the aftermath of nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

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