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Living with genocide
Al Jazeera finds Rwanda's veterans cannot forget the horrors of the past.
Last Modified: 12 Apr 2008 12:48 GMT

 Rwanda is still going through reconciliation over the genocide [Photo: Fadi Elbenny]

As part of its special series on Veterans, Al Jazeera visited Rwanda and found that survivors of the country's brutal genocide are struggling to overcome their experience. 
 
Eugenie is one of the few survivors from the attack. She says she only survived because her body was so badly mutilated her assailants left her for dead.

The majority of the other 10,000 Tutsis gathered on April 11, 1994 in the Catholic church at Nyamata, an hour south of the Rwandan capital Kigali, were not so fortunate when members of the police and the Interahamwe Hutu militia arrived.

"They were in a killing frenzy leaping from body to body, hacking, they seemed to really enjoy themselves," Eugenie says.

"They shot all at once and then the others would cut with their machetes."

For most of the victims the only memorial is a damp crypt next to the church where their skulls are stacked by the thousand - punctured and cracked by the brutality of their murder.

Before 1994, few people outside the region had heard of Rwanda, a small mountainous country in the heart of Africa.

Veterans


Watch Veterans: Rwanda

Remembering the Soviet 'Vietnam'

Find out more on the Veterans series

Today, Rwanda is synonymous with genocide and the legacy of 100 bloody days in which 800,000 men, women and children lost their lives at the hands of their countrymen - the darkest episode in a long and bitter civil war.

Few people remain untouched by the conflict and among the country's veterans are farmers, schoolgirls, schoolboys, students, businessmen, and nurses.

The war set the country's majority Hutu population against the minority Tutsis and for this reason the official government position today does not distinguish between tribes.

Ethnic division

Yet because Rwanda's bloody past is so intertwined with ethnic division and brutality, erasing such distinctions is easier said than done.

Thousands of Tutsis were forced into exile by the new Hutu government following independence from Belgium in 1962. 

Identity cards used by the colonial power to distinguish between tribes were retained.

During three decades of Hutu rule, many exiled Tutsis grew up as second-class citizens and, under pressure from their adopted countries to leave, formed the Rwanada Patriotic Front (RPF) and its military wing the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA).

The RPA crossed into Rwanda in October 1990 with the aim of overthrowing the regime of Juvenal Habyarimana, the president.

Many victims have been denied a
proper memorial [Fadi Elbenny]

The ensuing conflict exacerbated exisiting ethnic divisions.

After the failure of a power-sharing deal agreed in the Tanzanian city of Arusha in 1992, the assasination of Habyarimana by unknown assailants in 1994 saw the civil war evolve into full-scale genocide.

Angelique was only nine years old when the genocide began. Members of the Interahamwe, under instructions from the Hutu nationalist government broadcast on national RTLM radio, began trying to eliminate all Tutsis and moderate Hutus who opposed the killing.

"I and my brother hid under the bed until an Interahamwe came and pulled us out. Some of them were people we knew, our neighbours," she recalls.

"They killed everyone with machetes, they hacked my leg but I ran away to my grandmother's house up the hill. I found everyone was dead there too, except my cousin. He told me that we should be quiet and pretend to sleep so that we wouldn't be killed.

"When darkness came the Interahamwe returned to loot the house. I don't know how they saw that I was still alive but they hacked me on the head and cut off my arm, leaving me for dead."

Deadly orders

Numbering only several thousand members, the Interahamwe could not expect to complete their grisly mission alone. Members of the Rwanda national army and Hutu civilians were forced to take part in the massacre.

"I thought I wouldn't have to fight because we weren't in the war zone but the government said 'no you must kill the enemy spies'," Andre, who was studying at university when the killing started, says.

Angelique was only nine when her arm was cut
off by the Interahamwe [Fadi Elbenny]
"The thing that made us kill like this was because we were given an order. They said that even if it was a newborn baby or an old man or woman we had to kill them all because they were Tutsis."

While Tutsis had previously been forced out of Rwanda the government now closed the borders to ensure that no-one could escape the massacre.

Thousands congregated at churches and halls thinking they would be protected but the gatherings were encouraged by the government as it made people easier to kill. Nyamata was one of the most brutal incidents.

"They cut my head, my left arm and my right leg" Eugenie says. "Now I am crippled but I thank god that I am still alive. I have no siblings, I lost my husband and family so it is only me and my daughter now, the only survivors."

Although the RPA had some localised success in stopping the killing, in most cases it had neither the resources nor the military will to prevent the growing genocide. Its primary aim remained the defeat of the Rwandan army.

That defeat soon followed but not before dead bodies were clogging streets across the country. For RPA soldiers returning home it was a bitter victory.

Janvier had left as a schoolboy four years before and returned to find his family dead and his home destroyed.

Some RPA members sought revenge against their Hutu neighbours but Janvier only wanted to know what had happened to his family.

He says the atmosphere of distrust meant many people would not speak to him for fear of reprisal.

"All I wanted to know was how my parents had died and where they were buried. I still don't know," he says.

Nyoyita, another RPA member, lost both his arms and was partially blinded by an exploding mine but says all the sacrifices were worth it to see his children grow up in a free country.

Reconciliation process

Unity and solidarity have been difficult to achieve in a place where several hundred thousand people were complicit in the murder of their countrymen.

Although 129,000 people were imprisoned in 1994, it is estimated that it would take more than a century to process all the cases.

Local public courts known as Gacaca
were introduced in 2001 [Fadi Elbenny]
The UN set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to try the architects of the genocide but only heard 21 cases.

Ten thousand more were tried in Rwandan courts but it soon became clear that another solution had to be found if the majority of prisoners were not to die in prison.

Gacaca has been Rwanda's answer - grass roots justice where a panel of local judges hear testimony against those accused of involvement in the genocide.

Tens of thousands have been tried since their creation in 2001. Defendants are encouraged to confess their guilt to the community and ask forgiveness with confession bringing leniency and shorter sentences.

"I killed willingly without being forced or influenced. I regret this killing and confessed this before the court, asking for mercy" says one former Interahamwe member.

After being released, the prisoners who serve another sentence of up to seven years in work camps, bring themselves to the camps without the need for police or guards in order to convey a message of national unity.

But for those who lost their families in the war the past is not so easy to put behind them.

"I cannot forget my family," Janvier says. "There are so many reasons why I remember them, in different situations, like at my wedding when no one came."

"I cannot forget about the war because I lost many people I loved."

"We saw with our eyes what war did to Rwanda," Andre, now serving his time in one of the work camps, says.

"If you kill someone they die but both of you bleed, if you get the blood of two people and mix it you can never separate it again."

Watch part one of Veterans: Rwanda on YouTube

Watch part two of Veterans: Rwanda on YouTube


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