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Rwanda builds new national identity 25 years after genocide

The Rwandan genocide began 25 years ago today. In just 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Benedict Moran and video journalist Jorgen Samso traveled to the east African country to speak with victims and perpetrators and to report on how Rwanda is overcoming ethnic differences and building a new national identity.

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  • Benedict Moran:

    25 years after the Rwandan genocide, bodies are still being unearthed. This mass grave was discovered on the outskirts of Rwanda's capital Kigali. Innocent Gasizigwa lived through the horrors. He shows me some of what was recently dug up. Fragments of bones. A skull. And weapons from the war. Many skeletons have already been removed and prepared for burial. All that remains are these rotted clothes.

  • Innocent Gasizigwa:

    This isn't the place to leave bodies. So removing them makes us happy. Now we can bury them with dignity.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Rwandan officials say they were tipped off to this location by a man who was convicted of participating in the genocide and released last year. They came here and discovered underneath houses and stores, thousands of bodies.

  • Benedict Moran:

    The East African country of Rwanda has been historically dominated by two ethnic groups: a minority Tutsi and a majority Hutu. A group of mostly Tutsi exiles, whose parents had been earlier forced out of the country, formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, known as the RPF. In 1990, the RPF invaded Rwanda with the goal of taking power. As the fighting escalated between 1990 and 1994, the Hutu-dominated Rwandan Government called on people to attack anyone who could be a supporter of the Tutsi rebels. On April 6, 1994, unknown assailants shot down a plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu president. Within days, extremists took control of the government, and responded with mass violence. In just three months, around 800-thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed. The genocide ended when the rebel RPF defeated the government that July. While most foreigners evacuated during the killings, Carl Wilkens, an American missionary and aid worker, remained.

  • Carl Wilkens:

    It's just crazy how much has changed. It's just so beautiful now. These manicured, you know, medians in the middle and palm trees. It's so bizarre. It's amazing.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Wilkens is back in Kigali to commemorate the genocide. Back in his old neighborhood, he told us what he saw 25 years ago.

  • Carl Wilkens:

    I looked at this hillside and in fields and empty plots I saw what looked like garbage. And I got my binoculars and I looked and I saw the whole hillside was covered with bodies.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Wilkens lives in the States now, where he speaks in American schools, teaching students about the genocide. He often returns to Rwanda.

  • Carl Wilkens:

    During the school year I'm visiting schools, telling stories about what it was like during the genocide, but also stories about the recovery and how, you know, people are learning to live together again.

  • Benedict Moran:

    But learning to live together has understandably been hard for Rwandans. Annonciata Nyirabajyiwabo is a Tutsi survivor. Today she lives in Nyumba, a peaceful village in the south of Rwanda. But twenty five years ago, her life was turned upside down. She says one day, soldiers came and took her husband away.

  • Annociata Nyirabajyiwabo:

    They knocked on the door, woke us up, and when my husband opened the door a soldier just slapped him in the face, and took him away. I never saw him again.

  • Benedict Moran:

    As the violence against Tutsi escalated and her neighbors fled, she and her then one-year-old child found shelter in a dog house. At the time, she was eight months pregnant. A month later, while still in hiding, she went into labor.

  • Annociata Nyirabajyiwabo:

    Everyone had fled, it was so quiet, I couldn't even hear the birds sing. That's when I gave birth to my second child. I couldn't even feel the pain. It's like I was a walking dead person.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Nyirabajyiwabo says she and her now two children stayed hidden in the dog house for another month, eating little, and fearing for their lives. 25 years later, she says the killers must be rehabilitated, but she's in no mood to forgive.

  • Annociata Nyirabajyiwabo:

    You can never find a strong enough punishment for someone who killed in the way they killed. If you killed them, you would be relieving them of the pain they feel inside. They should live and see the survivors and what they did.

  • Benedict Moran:

    The trials following the genocide included 400-thousand in which suspected perpetrators were tried by the new government in local courts. Simon Ndahayo was tried and admitted to participating in the killings. Using his fingers, he counted the number of lives he ended.

  • Simon Ndahayo:

    Five.

  • Simon Ndahayo:

    I think about it a lot. Killing five people who didn't do anything to me, it hurts me so much.

  • Benedict Moran:

    While in prison, he says, he asked judicial authorities for forgiveness, and was eventually released. But some 46-thousand Rwandans are still behind bars. He says, many have not yet admitted their responsibility.

  • Simon Ndahayo:

    I'm not ashamed to say this, all the people who admitted their guilt, and asked for forgiveness, they are doing ok. But some people didn't go to prison, and they may be hiding things still.

  • Benedict Moran:

    While some may hide their pasts, none can forget them. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress. A new study in the journal Psychiatry, research suggests that their children, many of whom weren't even born then are more likely than other children to suffer from trauma. And there are other medical problems, some of them life-threatening. An estimated 250-to 500-thousand mostly Tutsi women and girls were raped during the genocide. Many were infected with HIV. Adera: When the killing started, I went to my neighbor to try and seek refuge. I thought he would protect me. But he raped me. And he gave me HIV. I had to choose between death and staying there, I had no way out.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Adera spoke to us on condition of hiding her full identity. Today, she's picking up life-saving antiretroviral drugs from a hospital in Kigali. Her husband and five of her children were killed during the genocide. Her daughter survived, and lived with her mother until she recently married. Now, Adera lives alone.

  • Adera:

    It's not that I'm HIV positive that makes me think of the genocide now. The main thing is the loss of my husband, and children. Now I'm getting older, and I think, if my children hadn't been killed, maybe they'd be taking care of me now.

  • Benedict Moran:

    She's getting help paying for food from Survivors Fund, an international nonprofit that helps vulnerable Tutsi survivors. Samuel Munenerere is the Director of Survivors Fund. He echoes the theme we hear everywhere, that in Rwanda, the past is always present.

  • Samuel Munderere:

    The challenges the survivors faced have changed over time. For some, and I think for many, genocide is still fresh in their mind. And the way the consequences have evolved in 25 years has been a very short time.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Still, the country has moved forward. New buildings dot the skyline in Kigali. Hard numbers are hard to come by, but GDP per capita is reportedly six times what it was in 1995. For the Rwandan government, stitching back together the social fabric means taking a strong-armed approach to promoting a new, national identity. Today it's illegal to ask if someone is Hutu or Tutsi.

  • Dr. Diogène Bideri:

    The lack of Rwandan identity was catastrophic. Before genocide against the Tutsi, what was shown was only ethnic groups. Today, when we think about this cohesion of Rwandans, we think that we need a very strong Rwandan identity, and to be proud of it.

  • Benedict Moran:

    The goal is to create a new, national sense of citizenship, one that's not built on ethnicity. One way they do that is with a program called Umuganda. Umuganda is a mandatory community service program. In Rwandan, it means "coming together for a common purpose." Umuganda requires a day of service each month for all Rwandans between 18 and 65, Hutu and Tutsi.

  • Grace Uwangabire:

    Everyone needs to participate in Umuganda. It's the law.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Villagers here in Kiyeru are clearing a field ahead of the opening of a new school. Often during Umuganda, villagers pick an area to clean, or fix a road. Anyone who doesn't participate can be fined 5-thousand francs, or around $6. That's not a small sum in Rwanda.

  • Grace Uwangabire:

    Afterwards, we have a group meeting, and try and solve any problems we might have. It's an occasion to get together.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Some find the government's approach to nation-building heavy handed. Others maintain it has helped bring relative security to the country. Either way, for many, 25 years ago was only yesterday and the reconciliation process remains ongoing.

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