TOPICS > Politics

Rwanda Ten Years Later

April 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


LINDSEY HILSUM: They thought God would protect them, so they gathered in his house, and that’s where they were slaughtered. Ten years on, the church at Ntarama is a memorial to those killed here. The Hutu government of the time tried to wipe out the Tutsis. The few who survived are caught between those who killed their families and newcomers to Rwanda. They’re alone, prisoners of memory.

PERPETUA MUDELE (Translated): Only death will make us forget. It’s ten years now. It could be 50; it doesn’t change anything. It’s something that happened. Nothing can make you forget. Twenty years, 30 years, it doesn’t matter. It’s there forever.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Maybe the Bible is as much a habit as a comfort. Perpetua Mudele’s husband and seven of her ten children were killed, so she left her village for the town.

PERPETUA MUDELE ( Translated ): Could I live alone? All by myself? Could I feel happy like that, with no family, no neighbors, no one? Could I live alone amongst the killers? I came here because at least here I can be with others like me.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Many survivors have come to the town of Nyamata, where they feel less isolated and safer. But the government is releasing from prison killers who confess, and some of them have also come to town.

PERPETUA MUDELE (Translated): I never hide from them. When we meet, we greet each other. I can’t say who killed whom exactly. But sometimes we meet in church, sometimes in the market. We meet everywhere. If they don’t feel remorse, that’s their problem. Blood is strong, and the blood they shed will haunt them forever. ( Congregation sings )

LINDSEY HILSUM: They worship together: Hutus, Tutsis, the innocent, the guilty, those who remember every day and those who would wipe away the past. Perpetua says she has lightened her burden by forgiving the people who killed her family and the families of the six orphans she now looks after. But to forgive is not to forget.

No Sunday service at the old church a few yards away; many were slaughtered inside, and 20,000 genocide victims from the area have been buried in the grounds. The old man is keeper of the bones. His companions are the dead. His own wife and children are buried here. His job is to show visitors the church. “This,” he tells me, “is blood.” “The killers slashed the mothers with machetes, then pulled the babies from their backs and dashed them against the walls. They threw grenades which exploded, killing more.”

THARCISSE MUAKAM ( Translated ): In my heart, I want revenge, but there’s nothing I can do. I have to obey the law, as the government says. It’s as if the people had been walking together, but then they slipped off the straight and narrow path. Now the government says they must reconcile.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In the last year, another 150 bodies have been brought to the church. Sometimes when the killers confess, they show where they stuffed bodies down pit latrines. The bones have been exhumed for reburial on April 7, the tenth anniversary of the genocide. A lot has changed in ten years. Superficially, there’s peace, and that in itself is remarkable. But while the government uses words like “reconciliation” and “consensus,” the survivors still fear to live in their own homes.

In the countryside around Nyamata, where for 100 days the Hutus slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors, there are almost no survivors left. They don’t want to revisit the swamps where they hid. Their houses have been destroyed, and the release of killers from prison makes them frightened to go home. In the village of Gahwiji, they gather under the tree for an experiment in traditional justice called Gacaca. Killers who confessed in prison now face judges drawn from the community. The government says this process will enable people to live together again.

FRANCIS NKURUNZIZA: If these people, especially the genocide perpetrators, came from prison, and the genocide victims are now cohabiting, living together, fetching water together, being in the same school, being in the same meeting like this one, without even confrontation, that really shows that there’s some signs of reconciliation.

LINDSEY HILSUM: But they’re not. All but five Tutsis in Gahwiji were killed. I had expected to find survivors confronting killers in the court, but the survivors have fled, so now the killers accuse each other. This man is accused of being in a group of local men armed with machetes and clubs, which killed a man one night. “I was there,” he says, “but I wasn’t a member of the group.” He also denies killing two children. But another man steps forward with a different story.

Furogence Gasana confessed while in prison, and has now been released to implicate others. “I think he is lying,” he says. “He just wants to escape blame for the killing. I know. We were on that patrol together.” Everyone must account for themselves. This woman denies that she checked out a house where a Tutsi family was living and gave the information to a band of killers. But one of the judges says there’s evidence.

She went there twice, and was seen climbing up the wall to look. Another accusation, another denial. “I swear you’re lying,” he says. Those who confess face little punishment unless they are mass murderers or rapists. The collective pressure is to confess, just as ten years ago, the collective pressure was to kill. They say they’re sorry, but the survivors say that’s a lie. We found Florence Gashumba back in Nyamata. She’s one of the survivors from Gahwiji. In ten years, she’s had three children, but that doesn’t stop her mourning her six children who were murdered in front of her by the killers now facing Gacaca.

FLORENCE GASHUMBA ( Translated ): What’s the point of thinking about what should happen to someone who killed a member of your family? Even if he stays in prison or they kill him, no one that he killed will be brought back to life. All I wish is that they would realize that all human beings are the same. We all have the same blood flowing in our veins.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, has become prosperous. It’s developing fast. Tutsis whose families had lived in exile for three decades have returned to the motherland. For them, it’s a land of opportunity, a place to make money. They’re building huge houses with swimming pools and satellite dishes. Times are good. They came after the genocidal government was overthrown in ’94, and seem scarcely aware of what happened. Beatha and Ernestine came to the capital for safety and anonymity. Ernestine’s entire family was wiped out in Nyamata, and she was badly injured. She feels trapped now between the killers being released and the Tutsis who’ve come from exile and just don’t seem to care.

ERNESTINE MUDAHOGORA: (Translated): In daily life, you see, no one is interested. I feel there’s no point in telling them what happened to me because it means nothing to them.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Her injuries have attracted little sympathy.

ERNESTINE MUDAHOGORA ( Translated ): This man from Burundi grabbed me here and asked, “What happened to you? Did you have an accident?”

LINDSEY HILSUM: Beatha is also the only survivor in her family. Aged 14, she was held at a roadblock waiting her turn to be killed before somehow managing to escape. She only realized that her mother was dead when she found a neighbor wearing her clothes.

BEATHA UWAZANINKA: I still hear the voice telling me, “Your mother has been thrown in the river.” Sometimes I think I want to have a job, have a proper school and get over, but I can’t get over. It keeps pulling me back. So for some people, like, from our exile for long, who have been having, who have got chance to get their education, they’re building up; they’re going. But for us, genocide keeps bringing us back.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Ten years on, the dead lie where they were killed. Many of those who murdered them are settling back in their homes, regaining their old lives. The newcomers want to move on. Only the survivors of genocide can find no peace, no end to their grief and pain.