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Rwanda: 20 years on

REMEMBRANCE: Youths carry a flame of remembrance to a ceremony where villagers from surrounding areas gathered to hear genocide memories, in Kirehe, eastern Rwanda

OVER THE course of 100 days, almost one million Rwandan Tutsis were captured, tortured and brutally killed as the rest of the world looked on.

As Rwanda marks 20 years since the horrific genocide today (Apr 7), the UK will also play host to a series of events to commemorate the anniversary, including exhibitions, vigils and church services.

The devastating massacre was the result of ethnic tension between the majority Hutu population and the minority Tutsi community, spanning over several decades.

Speaking the same language, inhabiting the same areas and following the same traditions and faiths – the two ethnic groups are, to the outside eye, very similar, though the Tutsis are said to be taller and have a lighter skin complexion.

The root of the conflict dates back to the arrival of Belgian colonisers who introduced identity cards which classified people according to their ethnicity in 1933.


Although the Tutsis community made up only about 10 per cent of Rwanda’s population, the Belgians considered the Tutsis to be superior and they were given better jobs and educational opportunities.

Resentment among the Hutus gradually built up and fearing a revolution, Belgium reversed the status of the two groups before granting Rwanda independence in 1962.

On April 6, 1994, the Hutu president of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, was assassinated when his plane was shot down near Kigali International Airport.

This sparked the chillingly well-organised efforts by Hutu militias to exterminate all Tutsis even though responsibility for the plane attack has never been established.

Starting in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali on April 7, the killings went on for three months. In what has been described as one of the “fastest genocides” in history, Hutu military leaders, politicians and ordinary people were encouraged by the government to join the 100 day “killing spree.”


As a result of the frenzied killing, 800,000 people were slaughtered – most of them were Tutsis killed by the Hutu. As bullets were expensive, the Hutu used machetes to “butcher” their victims.

Thousands of Tutsi women and girls were tortured and raped before their death, and many were kept as sex slaves.

Alice, an ambassador for the Survivor Fund said: “I cannot remember how many times I was taken [and] raped. Nor can I remember how many times I wished I could be killed instead of being put through the daily torture of gang rapes and violence.”

The Rwanda Genocide ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front – a trained military group consisting of Tutsis who had been exiled in earlier years – took over the country.

The mass killing has been depicted in a number of films, including the multi-award winning 2004 movie, Hotel Rwanda, staring Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo.


Twenty years on, a significant number of perpetrators of the genocide, including former high-level government officials and other key figures behind the massacres, have been brought to justice.

The majority have been tried in Rwandan courts. Others have gone before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) or domestic courts in Europe and North America.

BONES: A man stands by the rows of human skulls and bones that form a memorial to those who died in the redbrick church – the scene of a massacre during the 1994 genocide

Genocide survivor, Madalena Mukariemeria, 63, told The Guardian last year: “Today we are being asked to live with the people who killed our families. We are told they are sorry, they won’t do it again. Some people believe that. I am not one of them.”

At Liverpool’s Town Hall, a commemoration service will take place on Wednesday, April 24.

Liverpool’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Gary Millar, said: “This is an opportunity to honour all of those who have suffered at the hands of extremists and ensure that their memories live on.”  

He continued: “I believe it is our collective responsibility to educate both the young and old to ensure that such hateful crimes do not take place in the future.”

Over the weekend, The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) is providing prayers, films and other resources to help those parishes and communities who are marking the anniversary at their services. 

CAFOD Director Chris Bain, who worked in refugee camps in the aftermath of the genocide, said: “What happened 20 years ago was not just one of the most horrific crimes in history, but one of the greatest abdications of global leadership.

“Many renowned figures should hang their heads in shame this month. Rwanda burns in the consciousness of the world, but it should burn on the conscience of our governments.”


Bain continued: “For those of us who worked inside Rwanda and the camps on its borders, the passage of time will never erase the de-humanising work we had to do, the horrific sights we had to see, and the terrible stories we had to hear.

“I am lost in admiration for the amazing people - mainly women - who, with the support of CAFOD and other agencies, have rebuilt Rwanda’s communities over the last 20 years, never forgetting their own terrible memories, experiences and losses, but finding the inner strength to forgive and move forward.”

The Rwandan Kwibuka Flame of remembrance was lit in January in the country’s capital, Kigali, ahead of a countrywide lap of honour in the run-up to April 7.

Nsengiyomva Apollinaise, a local government official, told the Rwandan press that the flame ceremony helped remind the country of how far it has come.

Apollinaise, who said his parents and siblings died in the genocide, commented: “This is something that happens every year, an event to help each Rwandan personally remember what happened, and examine the causes, and also to see the path to move forward on.”

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