3:54pm

Mon April 7, 2014
Africa

Rwanda Honors Dead, Celebrates Progress, 20 Years After Genocide

Originally published on Tue April 8, 2014 6:46 am

After a minute of silence at noon, Monday's remembrance of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide began with testimony from a survivor.

The screaming started soon after.

In the crowd of 30,000 gathered in Amahoro stadium in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, first this person then that began to wail and thrash. Men in yellow vests took them to a special room of mattresses in the stadium basement.

In general, Rwandan culture discourages such outward displays of grief. But not during this time of year, when traumatic flashbacks are common.

The Rwandan genocide was a murderous campaign of majority Hutus against minority Tutsis, triggered by the killing of the Hutu president but planned with racist ideology for years before. It began on April 7, 1994, and ended three months later with more than 800,000 people killed, the fastest genocide in history.

Monday's commemoration honored the dead. But it was also a celebration of how far Rwanda has come.

Two decades later, more than half the country's population was born after the fact. Much of Monday's event was educational. A historical re-enactment depicted the arrival of Belgian colonialists in the early 20th century.

The colonialists were played by eight Russian soldiers stationed in Kigali — the only white actors in a cast of 800.

They measure the Africans' noses and impose a racial hierarchy on what had merely been social distinctions: Hutu and Tutsi. And that, says one of the play's narrators, sowed the seeds of genocide.

"Dehumanization started, and humans became objects," the actor said.

When the killing starts, the colonialists trade their safari hats for the blue berets of U.N. peacekeepers and drive off through the fallen and falling bodies. It's a re-enactment of the quite literal abandonment of Rwandans in 1994 by the U.N. Then the Rwandan Tutsi army jogs in.

The crowd cheers these trim young men in camouflage uniforms, who tenderly lift each prostrate body until the soccer field is clear.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the former leader of that army, asked the crowd not only not to forget their abandonment by the U.N., but to imagine what would have happened if the U.N. had given more help.

"It is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up," he told the crowd. "We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood."

He described an archetypal failed state fatally dependent on international goodwill, divided and engulfed in never-ending civil war. "With endless streams of refugees, with our children sick and uneducated," Kagame said. "But we did not end up like this."

Kagame has always relished the role of spoiler to Europe's self-regard. He alluded to the absence of the French foreign minister at the ceremony, who pulled out after Kagame accused France of having a direct role in the genocide. France admits only to providing weapons and training used by the genociders.

But no country is powerful enough to change the facts, Kagame said.

His rejoinder — the Rwandan president's only French phrase of the day — got the biggest applause.

"Les faits sont tetus," he said to huge applause.

Facts are stubborn.

A 27-year-old orphan named Claude stood outside the stadium. He asked that his voice not be recorded.

He shrugged off the diplomatic kerfuffle with France, and said he had spent the remembrance thinking of his parents and brother.

When asked to describe his emotions, he answered: honor — and sadness.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today, Rwandans mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide in their country. It was a murderous campaign of Hutus against Tutsis triggered by the killing of the Hutu president but planned with racist ideology years before. The genocide began on April 7, 1994. It ended three months later with more than 800,000 people killed. It was the fastest genocide in history.

NPR's Gregory Warner was at today's remembrance in the capital Kigali.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: After one minute of silence today at noon, the remembrance began with testimony from a survivor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Soon after, you could hear the screaming from the bleachers. In the crowd of 30,000 people, first this person then that one would commence wailing and thrashing. Men in yellow vests would lead them, bodily sometimes, to a special trauma room in the stadium basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SINGING)

WARNER: Twenty years after the genocide, more than half of this country is too young to have lived through it. And much of today's remembrance was educational, an historical reenactment depicted the arrival of the colonialists in the early 20th century. The colonialists, played by eight Russian soldiers stationed in Kigali, were the only white actors in the cast of 800. They measure the Africans' noses and impose a racial hierarchy on what had merely been social distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi.

That, says one of the play's narrators, sowed the seeds of genocide.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dehumanization started and humans became objects.

WARNER: When the killing starts, the colonialists trade their safari hats for the blue berets of U.N. peacekeepers and they drive off through the fallen and falling bodies. It's a reenactment of the quite literal abandonment of Rwandans in 1994 by the U.N. and then the Rwandan-Tutsi army jogs in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The crowd cheers these trim young men in camouflage uniforms who tenderly lift each prostrate body until the soccer field is clear.

PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME: Fellow Rwandans...

WARNER: President Paul Kagame, the former leader of that army, asked the crowd not to forget their abandonment by the U.N. and then in a change, to imagine what would've happened if the U.N. had given its help.

KAGAME: It is not hard to imagine how we could have ended out. We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood.

WARNER: He describes and archetype of an African failed state fatally dependent on international goodwill, divided and engulfed in never-ending civil war.

KAGAME: With endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated, but we did not end up like that.

WARNER: Kagame has always relished the role of spoiler to Europe's self-regard. He alluded to the absence of the French foreign minister who pulled out after Kagame accused France of having a direct role in the genocide. France only admits to providing weapons and training used by the genociders. Kagame's rejoinder, his only French phrase of the day, got the biggest applause.

KAGAME: After all...

WARNER: After all, no country is powerful enough, he said, to change the facts.

KAGAME: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Facts are stubborn. Outside the stadium, I met a 27-year-old orphan named Claude. He asked that I not record his voice. He shrugged off the diplomatic kerfuffle with France. He said that he had spent the remembrance thinking of his lost parents and elder brother. I asked him to describe his emotions. He said, honor and sadness. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kigali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.