19 YEARS ON BUT THE GENOCIDE REMAINS ONE OF EAST AFRICA’S DARKEST PERIODS
Today, 19 years ago, then Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it came in to land from a crucial meeting in Arusha, where he had reportedly made major concessions in the talks with the RPF. Now known as a fact, no longer disputed but by the most deluded opponents of Rwanda’s current government, the plane was hit by a missile fired by Habyarimana’s internal opponents, hardliners spoiling to roll out a long planned genocide. With Habyarimana was Burundi’s President Cyprien Ntaryamira, who attended the Arusha talks with him and was offered a ‘lift’ back home. His death too was a signal in Burundi, for members of the Tutsi tribe to be hunted down and killed, as propaganda was spread they were responsible for the President’s death.
No sooner had the plane crashed near Kigali’s Kanombe International Airport, did signals go out, were messages sent by hate radio stations and other means, that the time had come to deal with the ‘cockroaches’ as the Tutsi population was regularly referred to by the planners of one of the world’s most gruesome genocides of recent history.
On April 06th in 1994 a mass slaughter of innocent babies, children, women, elderly and men commenced, lasting 100 days until the liberation forces led by now President Paul Kagame pushed the remnants of the killer militias and the former military out of the country and across into Eastern Congo.
In the hundred days, nearly a million were killed, starting with government officials in Kigali, including the then Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana who was mowed down by an army unit sent to carry out her ‘sentence’, alongside her family and her Belgian military escort operating under UN flag. Another Belgian military contingent too was wiped out, as were a number of Europeans married to Tutsis, while the UN and the world community stood by, frozen by inaction and squabbling in the UN Security Council’ airconditioned chambers while the most brutal killing wave East Africa has ever seen unfolded across the thousand hills of Rwanda, under the scorching sun and the pale moonlight, relentlessly, day and night.
Deliberations in New York were agonizingly slow, if not deliberately slowed down by countries like France, and when news and evidence emerged from within Rwanda of the sheer scale of killings, and most urgent appeals by the UN Commander on the ground at the time, Canadian Lieutenant General Dallaire, were ignored to send in more troops and materials to stem the tide of the rising flood of blood, it was too late to change the course of the genocide. Eye witness reports soon made it clear that in the opening two weeks of the genocide several hundred thousand people had already been slaughtered, clubbed, stabbed and hacked to death. Women and even young girls were subjected to mass rape before the machetes finished the job. Priests used their trusted position in society to lure tens of thousands into churches, where the militias then made short work of those locked inside with grenades or simply by setting the churches on fire, leaving the Catholic Church’s image tainted and sullied as many of their clergy played leading roles in the genocide. At that stage it did not take long before the notorious decision came down from the office of one Koffi Annan, to withdraw all UN troops and let the genocide take its course with again the French contingent of troops leaving their supplies, weapons and ammunitions behind to be picked by the killer militias as the French were airlifted away from the atrocities, which took place across the country.
I remember that morning of 06th of April, when the BBC shortwave service broke the news to us in East Africa. I sat up straight when hearing the broadcast, in utter disbelief and the radio, back then the only trusted and serious source of events in our region, stayed on for days at end to stay uptodate with breaking news. I had been in Rwanda in the 80’s, tracking gorillas, and had come to love the country for the scenic sights and the warmth of the people I had encountered. Genocide in Rwanda, it sounded almost impossible to comprehend, were it not for the knowledge acquired since that first visit, of what politics the Habyarimana regime pursued, attempting to suppress by almost any means the Tutsi population. The Parmehutu party established soon after the country’s independence from Belgium laid the ground work for tribal superiority by numbers and Habyarimana, in power since 1973 through a military coup, ruled with an iron fist, never once forgetting his political indoctrination inspite of pushing the Parmehutu party to the fringe.
In Uganda gruesome pictures found their way into the media, of thousands of bodies being washed down the Kagera River into Lake Victoria and ending up on Ugandan shores, bringing the reality home and leaving little to imagination when pictures from within Rwanda emerged of bodies piled up or littering the roadside.
Today, I complete this article as the clock moves beyond 6 a.m. and that was the time, 19 years ago, when I heard the news first. Since then, I have been back many times in Rwanda, first within weeks when going with a relief mission organized by Ugandan Rotarians and well wishers, sending equipment, food and other materials into the liberated areas of Rwanda at the time. Those memories are etched forever in my mind and still cause me sleepless nights. Since then, dozens of visits have kept me in touch, allowed me to see and experience the country and be a living witness that the policies of reconciliation and re-integration have worked. The perpetrators and inciters continue to be hunted down, many have been brought to justice, and those still on the run will no doubt be caught and be given a fair trial, more than their victims came to receive from them. The Gacaca court system, which ended last year, did bring justice to the foot soldiers and within the space of 10 years cleared a trial backlog which the conventional judiciary may have taken 200 years to resolve.
Today, 19 years later, Rwanda has risen like the Phoenix from the ashes and the country presents itself from a regular Sunday best. Economic progress, good governance, ground breaking environmental policies and unparalleled best use of donor funds for projects, not personal enrichment as seen so often in our region, have earned Rwanda high marks in all performance monitoring lists.
Still, the country remains under constant threat by dark forces from the past, hiding across the common border with the Congo DR, where like the proverbial orcs and goblins they linger in caves, ready to pounce at the equally proverbial Elf Kingdom, given even half a chance. Vigilance is high, and no matter what Rwanda’s enemies abroad try to peddle in terms of allegation and lies – notably UN ‘experts’ again at the very heart of it – the truth is known and evident. Rwanda has the right, and their government the duty, taken very seriously by the way, to defend the people of Rwanda, all people of Rwanda, as in today’s New Rwanda there are only Rwandans, no longer members of any a tribe.
Today, 19 years down the line, like every year before and every year afterwards, it is time to say ‘Never Again’, to stand with Rwanda on this day of remembrance and honour those who lost their lives and those who gave theirs to end the evil regime’s hold on the country, in 1994 and ever since.
Today, I will remember this along the thousands of Rwandans I met through my travels, many of them fast friends, many of them in constant contact with me. And tomorrow, more than a million of them is expected to walk across the country in a ‘Walk To Remember’, now in its fifth year and under the motto of ‘Remember, Honour and Rebuild’.
Today, I will not be shy to speak the truth, the way I saw the truth in 1994 and continue to see the truth. Today, I ask you my readers to join me in remembering and honouring and extend your good wishes and prayers for Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills.