‘Music to kill to’: Rwandan genocide survivors remember RTLM

Following the arrest of genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga, survivors reflect on the role of the radio station he funded.

[Kigali Wire/Flickr]
The office from which RTLM was broadcast during the genocide against the Tutsi [Kigali Wire/Flickr]

When Felicien Kabuga, an 84-year-old former businessman from Rwanda, was arrested in France on May 16, the world was reminded of one of the darkest chapters in recent history.

During 100 days in 1994, at least 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. 

Kabuga, once one of the wealthiest men in Rwanda, was the co-founder and funder of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), a station established in 1993 that regularly called Tutsis “cockroaches” and encouraged people to “cut down the tall trees”, in reference to Tutsis. Once the genocide started, the station broadcast the names of people to be killed and information about where they could be found. 

In 1997, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), an international court established by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to judge people responsible for the genocide, indicted Kabuga on seven criminal charges including genocide. 

Here, three survivors share their stories and reflect upon the significance of Kabuga’s arrest.

Rwandan genocide victims
Survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi, (from left to right) Claver Irakoze, Beatrice Uwera and Honore Gatera [Photos courtesy of Claver Irakoze, Beatrice Uwera and Honore Gatera] 

Claver Irakoze: ‘We prayed to die softly’

My family lived in Kabgayi, a town 60km south of the capital Kigali that is well known for its Catholic cathedral, school and hospital. My father was a secondary school teacher and my mother a primary school teacher. I have two brothers and two sisters.

I was 11 years old when the genocide against the Tutsis started in April 1994. But I remember my family and friends being targeted by the government from as early as 1990.

When the multi-party system started in Rwanda in 1991, new parties started to recruit members. 

People from different political parties came to our home and asked: What party do you belong to? The desire to know where each one belonged was so important. But my parents did not join any party. 

As the political turmoil evolved, this recruitment process became an indirect way of mapping the political affiliation of Tutsi families. A response like “I don’t belong to any party” could easily be interpreted as support for the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was fighting the government.

One of my first experiences at school was being asked what ethnic group I belonged to. When some of us said we did not know, our teacher asked us to come back the next day with an answer.

Songs of hate

In July 1993, RTLM was created. It was a turning point.

We had very few radio stations before then. There was Radio Rwanda, the national radio station which was controlled by the government, and a few other radio stations that could be heard by short wave.

There were some radical journalists at Radio Rwanda, but there was still a degree of moderation. RTLM, on the other hand, was directly propagandistic. It had been created for that purpose.

We listened to RTLM. We listened to learn – to know what was developing.

I remember RTLM broadcasting songs conveying hatred and demonising the Tutsi. The songs would openly call for our extermination. Political slogans were translated into song and young people were mobilised into youth movements. These youth movements were key to executing the genocide. 

As a child I was scared. I was scared by what I saw in my parents. They lacked hope. They were defenceless. Now that I have children myself, I realise how difficult it is if you have no hope.

And then the genocide started

Genocide does not come quickly. The dehumanisation of the Tutsis began in the years before 1994. Everything from getting a job to your freedom of movement was linked to your ID, which stated your ethnic group.

As a young boy, my life consisted of school then home and church on Sundays. My last memories from before the genocide are of my family preparing for Easter.

Easter was on April 3. I remember RTLM broadcasting that something big was going to happen and that the National Army should be on standby to protect the country. But we were used to such messages.

Then the genocide started.

On April 6, the plane carrying the president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down killing him and all the others on board. The chaos started immediately. It was like there was a plan. Roadblocks were put in place within minutes of the crash. By the following morning, people were being stopped at them by both the army and armed fighters and asked for their ID. 

Journalists from Radio Rwanda told people to stay at home until given further instructions. 

Rwandan families get food at a Red Cross Centre in Kabgayi on May 27, 1994 [ALEXANDER JOE/AFP]

On April 7, I heard people screaming on the hills that surrounded our area. That evening I could see homes on fire. 

I observed my parents’ fear. For them, it was their second experience of such chaos. They had fled to neighbouring Burundi in 1973 after Habyarimana took over in a coup, and Tutsis were attacked by crowds of Hutus.

For them, it was a reminder of that time. 

After learning about the death of the president, my mum told us: “We are dead.” My parents could no longer contain their fear.

Neighbour against neighbour

Some days after the crash, a Hutu neighbour came to warn us. “I’ve known you for long and I don’t want to kill you,” he said. But he did want to be the first to loot our house.

After the genocide, we learned that our neighbour had not only looted our house, but destroyed it.

Neighbours were pitted against neighbours. This is what a “genocide of proximity” means.

We fled to St Joseph’s College, the school where my dad taught.

Thousands of people were heading to the cathedral, which was next to the school. So we joined the crowd – but just before reaching the cathedral, we turned in the direction of the school instead.

When we first reached it, there were just four or five families there – all relations of people who worked in the school. 

We stayed in the school dormitories because the students were not there. There were priests living in one wing of the school, which made us feel protected.

In the days that followed, many people tried to reach the cathedral because they, too, thought they would be protected. But the killers allowed people to go there because it would make them easier to kill.

Soon, the school was full, every classroom, dormitory, even the playground. There were thousands of people. Kabgayi as a site hosted up to 50,000 Tutsi refugees. 

The soldiers came with lists

In the following days, government soldiers entered the main gate of the school. They came with lists of names. 

They took them far away before killing them. 

Almost every day, they came.

All we could do was pray. We prayed to die softly and to go to heaven. People were negotiating over how they should be killed – that was the level of trauma.

There was an outbreak of cholera and other diseases in the school. You can imagine the lack of hygiene with so many people. 

Hunger also killed many people. The Red Cross occasionally brought us biscuits to eat – two or three biscuits had to last you several days.

One day, my grandfather was brought to the school by someone who had found him hiding in his house. He had been badly wounded by machetes. He died in front of my mother, who could do nothing to help him.

Then, on April 28, the soldiers took my father. 

Hunger and liberation

We were liberated by RPF soldiers on June 2. It was miraculous. Most of those who survived long enough to be rescued were children, the elderly and the sick. 

But locked in the school, we had not realised the extent of the destruction outside. 

Escorted by a few RPF soldiers, we marched from Kabgayi to a place in the south called Ruhango, which had already been captured by the RPF. We saw dead bodies on every street.

My mother, who was extremely sick by the time we were liberated, died two weeks later. 

So when the genocide ended in July, my siblings and I could rejoice at surviving, but had to face a future without our parents. 

We were starving. We had no home to return to. But we tried to be resilient. The love we felt for one another helped us to survive when we had nothing.

The aftermath

I value the fact that the ICTR was put in place. It was a big milestone in fighting injustice. But it completed fewer than 100 cases. How can you tell me that such a tribunal has done enough? 

In particular, I do not think it has done enough to prosecute church people who were involved in the genocide.

We have a huge responsibility to transmit the history of what happened. The book I wrote for children, That child is me, was an attempt to connect to my children and to tell them what happened to me. Not just the pain and the hardship but also the lessons. I feel obliged to spend the rest of my life teaching the younger generation about the past and about the value of life. 

What we endured will never leave us. Once you have experienced genocide it becomes like a permanent marker on you. It is there with you in times of sadness and times of joy. You carry it with you until you die.

Honore Gatera: ‘Music they could dance to as they killed’

I was 13 years old in 1994. 

Only a few wealthy families in the capital, Kigali, had televisions then. So, after the RTLM was created in 1993, everyone listened to it. I had a small, old radio that I listened to it on. 

Demonstrations by the youth wings of the political parties became worse after it started broadcasting. RTLM quickly became more and more propagandistic.

Honore Gatera radio
The radio Gatera would listen to in 1994 [Credit: Honore Gatera]

Famous commentators had programmes on RTLM. The Belgian presenter Georges Ruggiu had a show in French. After the genocide, the ICTR sentenced him to 12 years in prison for incitement to commit genocide.

Before April 1994, RTLM sent messages about how the Hutus must protect themselves against the “snakes” and the “cockroaches”, meaning the Tutsis. There were already some killings taking place. People my family knew in another region of Rwanda were killed. 

We heard about Habyarimana’s death on the 6am news on RTLM. The radio immediately said the “cockroaches” shot down the plane. People felt desperate. They were saying “it’s over”.

I remember the screams, as people broke into homes and burned them down.

All the while, the radio kept broadcasting messages like “search for cockroaches – make sure you find them”. The radio played music the militiamen could dance to as they killed.

Beatrice Uwera: ‘We are still standing’

In 1994, I was 24 years old. My father worked in the Ministry of Agriculture. My mother was a teacher. 

I remember the first day the RTLM broadcast. The mood was scary. Every day, it stirred hatred. 

My parents knew what was to come. They remembered the killings that had taken place in the 1970s. But they also had a feeling that we could not escape. They preferred to just listen and keep quiet, because there was no alternative.

Early in the morning of April 7, at about 5am, I listened to the radio and heard that the president had been killed. I told my parents what happened and for the first time, my father told me: “We are finished. This is the end.”

He knew we were going to be killed.

The genocide started immediately.

Beatrice Uwera in September 1994 [Photo courtesy of Beatrice Uwera]

The army and armed fighters went from house to house with lists. Lists of all the Tutsis.

They were using new machetes, guns, hoes, all kinds of instruments to kill people.

I had four siblings. By the grace of God, four of us survived. Our Hutu neighbours protected us. They moved us from our house to theirs and hid us. Then, they helped us reach Saint Paul Church in Kigali.

My older sister, who did not live with us, was killed with her family.

We reached Saint Paul at the end of April. There were more than 2,000 of us there. The priest at the church was Father Celestin Hakizimana. He was very clever about protecting us; he would give food and money to the militias to stop them from killing us. He tried his best, but sometimes they would still take men and boys to kill.

Because there were so many people at the church, I was not so scared of being killed in a large group. My fear was of being killed alone.

Tomorrow they will kill us, we would think. Each day we waited for them to come.

Then, on June 17, the RPF rescued us. 

Beatrice Uwera’s ID [Photo courtesy of Beatrice Uwera]

Returning home

We found our house still standing. Only the windows and roof had been removed. 

But Kigali was filled with the smell of dead bodies. It was catastrophic. More than 200 people in my own family had been killed. In my mother’s family, there were eight siblings. Only one survived. We had to begin again from zero. The country had to start from scratch.

I always think of those people who were killed. I have four children. I try to explain to them when I can. But sometimes I cannot.

Rwanda tried to recover from the genocide. People are living in peace. We are not scared. You can walk, you can go out, you can live where you want. We are working together.

We are still good friends with the Hutu neighbours who protected us. We visit each other. We help each other. It is a very strong relationship. You cannot describe how strong it is. 

We wish that Kabuga could be tried in Rwanda. It would be good to show him that we are still standing. But we are happy that at least he has been caught.

Source: Al Jazeera