April 7 of this year marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan Genocide, and July 15 marks the end of it. Back in 1994, more than 800,000 ethnic Hutus and Tutsis perished in a 100-day killing spree.
Twenty-five years later, it is still hard to comprehend how something so shocking took place. Twenty-five years later, many of us want to know: Is Rwanda a better country now? What lessons have we learned? What can we do to prevent such a ghastly event from ever happening again?
I recently had an opportunity to ask these questions and more to Christine Uwizera Coleman, a Rwandan genocide survivor and a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives and preaches here as a minister.
How the Genocide Started
The ethnic conflict in Rwanda has a long history. The majority of Rwandans are Hutus. Only less than 15 percent of Rwandans are Tutsis, but they dominate the country’s political and economic landscape. The two sides had engaged in low-level violence against each other for years.
In October 1990, a Tutsi rebel group, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, started a rebellion against the government led by Rwanda President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu. The civil war between the two sides intensified the two groups’ long-standing ethnic conflicts.
On April 6, 1994, Rwanda President Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira, another Hutu, were on their way back from peace talks with the RPF when their plane was shot down, killing both Hutu leaders and everyone else on board. Hell broke loose right after.
To avenge Habyarimana, Hutu militias started a well-organized systematic killing of Tutsis, including setting up road blocks and conducting house-by-house searches and killing. Kagame led RPF to fight back immediately with their own systematic killing of the Hutus.
What Christine Saw During the Genocide
In 1994, Christine was a 22-year-old student at Rwanda University. Her dad was a Hutu and her mom was a Tutsi. They both passed away in the ’80s due to illness. Christine told me she doesn’t identify as either Hutu or Tutsi because she has family on both sides, but in Rwanda, everyone had to carry an ID card that listed one’s tribal information.
Since children inherited the tribal identity of their fathers, Christine and her siblings were identified as Hutus. On April 6, she visited her older sister Francoise and her new baby niece, Bambine, in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Later that day, she bid them goodbye and went to visit her ancestral home in the countryside with one of her brothers. She never saw Francoise and Bambine again.
Christine was told later by other survivors that the killing was the worst in the city. The Tutsi RPF rounded up Hutus, including her sister Francoise’s family and two of their maids, in Remera Stadium. They were starved, tortured, and later killed, including baby Bambine.
It didn’t take long for the organized murders to reach the countryside, where Christine was. The first killings she witnessed took place in a monastery right after Sunday Mass. A group of armed men broke the monastery door and started killing everyone inside indiscriminately.
The 100 days from April 6 to July 15 were a living hell for most Rwandans. In her book, the “Blazing Holy Fire,” Christine recounts that “killing reached every corner, every family; people met death at every turn. Those killings divided people, families, broke marriages and best friends.” Christine made a vow that if God spared her life, she would devote the rest of her life to Him.
At the end of the 100 days, the Tutsi RPF, with support from Uganda’s army, beat the Hutu militias and took control of the entire country. Their leader, Kagame, became the president, and he still holds the office.
To the outside world, the genocide officially ended on July 15, 1994 and Kagame was hailed as a hero who saved the day. But Christine told me that RPF’s organized killing of Hutus, even civilians, continued after July 15. She showed me an unclassified document from the U.S. State Department dated in September 1994 that supports her claim.
Christine joined 2 million Hutu refugees in running to the Democratic Republic of Congo after the RPF took power. She worked as an aide to a United Nations mission in the refugee camps. Eventually, with the help of her American boss, she immigrated to the United States in 1997. She did traveling ministry for several years. In 2004, she became a pastor and founded her own church, the Blazing Holy Fire, in 2008.
Is Rwanda a Better Country Today?
Whether Rwanda is better today depends on who you ask and by what measure. On the surface, the country seems to enjoy order and peace since the genocide. Schoolchildren are discouraged from identifying themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, but rather encouraged to think of themselves as Rwandans. Its economy is one of the fastest-growing in Africa. Still, it has a long way to go. Two-thirds of its population live below the poverty line. Youth unemployment is higher than 40 percent.
Kagame has occupied the office of the presidency since 2000, and has been nationally influential since 1994 as vice president and minister of defense. He “won” three elections and received close to 99 percent of the votes. It looks like he has no plan to leave office any time soon, since Rwandans “voted” for a constitutional change for him to be president for life. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that his overwhelming support is built on fear.
Human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the U.S. State Department all issued damning reports on the Kagame government’s ongoing human rights violations, including arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings; forced disappearance and torture by state security forces; threats to and violence against journalists; and persecution of Christians and censorship.
Coleman told me everyone is being closely monitored in Rwanda. People are afraid that if they dare to speak any criticism of Kagame and his government, they and their family might suffer. When Coleman decided to speak up about the human rights violations in Rwanda, she stopped communicating with her family members there out of fear that her activism would put them in danger.
Has the West Learned the Right Lesson?
After the genocide, many blamed the Western powers such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France for doing too little to stop the genocide. Yet ethnic conflicts are always so complex. Many times it is hard for outsiders to tell the villains from the innocents. And the West, including the United States, has a very mixed record of interventions in the past. Not all lead to success.
It seems that since the Rwandan genocide, the West has been trying to correct its wrongs with money. Not surprisingly, 40 percent of the Rwandan government’s budget depends on foreign aid, with the United States and United Kingdom the two biggest donors. Despite the troubling human rights reports about Rwanda, the money keeps coming. Kagame can often be seen easily mingling with Western politicians and business people, even getting former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair to advise him.
Michela Wrong, a journalist for The Spectator, wrote a piece on Rwanada with an alarming title, “Rwanda is sliding into a new tragedy. And this time we’re funding it.”
I asked Coleman if she thought the West has learned its lesson. She shook her head. In her opinion, Kagame is able to manipulate the international message about Rwanda. “People in the west need to learn the truth about Rwanda,” she says. “The West needs to learn the truth of whom they are dealing with before lending their support. ” Otherwise, all the West is doing is spending taxpayers’ money to prop up one ruthless authoritarian after another.
I asked her if she thought the genocide could happen again. She said yes. The ethnic tension still exists—it’s only being suppressed by a strongman.
This article has been corrected with respect to the date Kagame became president.