Land of 1,000 hills: Rwanda genocide thirty years later

Rwandan genocide flame of hope,

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and First Lady Jeanette Kagame light the Rwandan genocide flame of hope, known as the “Kwibuka” (Remembering), to commemorate the 1994 genocide at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, Rwanda on April 7, 2024. 

Photo credit: Courtesy | Reuters

“Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was coming up from the Peiraeus, close to the outer side of the north wall, when he saw some dead bodies lying near the executioner, and he felt a desire to look at them, and at the same time felt disgust at the thought, and tried to turn aside. For some time he fought with himself and put his hand over his eyes, but in the end the desire got the better of him, and opening his eyes wide with his fingers he ran forward to the bodies, saying, ‘There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle,’” so wrote Plato in his famous book, The Republic.

Like Leontius, when it comes to the literature on war and genocide, we struggle with a desire to know what happened and at the same time disgust at the thought.

On Sunday, 7 April 2024, Rwanda marked 30 years since the genocide, which started on 7 April 1994, and lasted a harrowing 100 days till July of 1994.

When the machetes stopped, 800,000 had died, mainly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus.

It’s time to spare a thought for that Rwandan boy or girl who witnessed the death of their father, mother or other loved one 30 years ago.

Even as adults, they would probably be found crying in their farms in the countryside, remembering the taste of their mother’s food or the warmth of their father’s hug.

Or sobbing by the freezer section of a supermarket in Kigali, holding frozen sausages, recalling the time they spent with their mothers, preparing sausages for breakfast — the smell spreading luxuriously.

Or weeping in a lecture hall as one is pursuing a PhD in a faraway land, Rwanda always sticking close, the memories of the genocide always looming close like one’s shadow.


Hundreds of Photographs of victims are displayed inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi- Kigali City, Rwanda. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

One of the most shocking non-fiction books, and therefore factual, is Philip Gourevitch’s, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.

In terrifying, careening prose, Gourevitch conjures a picture of how 800,000 people were hacked, bludgeoned, and shot to death. Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills and spreading mist became a land of fury — of spreading pools of blood as death leapt around like a lunatic.

Gourevitch gets the title of his book from a letter some church members had written to their pastor, “Our dear leader, Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana…We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. We therefore request you to intervene on our behalf and talk with the Mayor…”

This was a message from members of the church of Nyarubuye, when fearful Tutsis asked the Hutu mayor to save them. The mayor suggested that they seek refuge in a church and they did. Gourevitch writes that, “…a few days later the mayor came to kill them. He came at the head of a pack of soldiers, policemen, militiamen, and villagers; he gave out arms and orders to complete the job well”.

Gourevitch’s description of the dead at the church of Nyarubuye is gut-wrenching: “At least fifty mostly decomposed cadavers covered the floor, wadded in clothing, their belongings strewn about and smashed… A woman in a cloth wrap printed with flowers lay near the door… and a child’s skeleton... Her torso was hollowed out. Her ribs and spinal column poked through the rotting cloth. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was open: a strange image — half agony, half repose… it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it. Those dead Rwandans will be with me forever…”

The Rwanda genocide, according to Gourevitch, was not a stroke of random fate — the seeds of the genocide were cultivated over time.

There are several lessons from the Rwanda genocide, the main one being that it doesn’t happen by accident; politicians plant the seeds of hatred (and later genocide).

The first step is that politicians profile the population into an “us versus them” dichotomy.

After profiling the population along certain characteristics (mostly tribe in Africa), the second step is to stereotype those groups where members of a certain tribe are stereotyped as thieves, greedy, lazy, sorcerers or dangerous.

The third step towards genocide is devaluing people so they are not seen as humans. In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s team designated the people they considered inferior as Untermenschen (sub-humans).

In that way, when Hitler’s murder squads like the deadly Einsatzgruppen (Special Groups) started killing them in a genocide later, the dead were seen as sub-humans. In Rwanda, the minority Tutsi population were called “cockroaches” to lay the groundwork for their extermination.

The Rwanda genocide remains a dire warning to the rest of Africa. In January and February 2008, Kenya’s post-election violence took a dangerous turn and the country was tottering on the brink as the violence took on genocidal undertones.

By the time the guns fell silent, over 1,000 Kenyans had died. The warning to us and our politicians is that if we continue beating the drums of war, violence could break out in an unimaginable scale. May the Rwanda genocide always remind us that we should not play with fire. Let’s all embrace peace.

The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]