After the Genocide: Concern in Rwanda
I knew more about Rwanda than any other country on our route before we left Ireland. Rwanda’s is an ugly story and it was hard to believe what had happened as we drove about on fabulous roads, through that lush landscape, speaking to wonderful people, who seemed full of life and hope. But there is no denying that over eight hundred thousand people were butchered in just six weeks in 1994. There is no forgetting…
The Story of Rwanda Rwanda’a two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi, speak the same language and share many cultural characteristics. But society was split decisively along tribal lines with the arrival of Belgian colonists. Identity cards were introduced in 1932 and anyone with more than ten cows was automatically tutsi. Independence was achieved in 1960 and it was the Hutus (the vast majority) who held power. In 1990, tutsi rebels in Uganda (the RPF) attempted to overthrow the government. Peace talks followed that were to lead to the establishment of a coalition government. It was not to be. In 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed in a plane crash and all hell broke loose.
That evening, Tutsi opposition leaders were targeted and murdered by the presidential guard. This was followed by an attempt to exterminate the entire Tutsi population. In 100 days, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu sympathizers were slaughtered in the cruelest fashion. The machete was the weapon of choice and the extermination was entirely systematic: death lists were used. A 30,000-member militia group, the Interahamwe, led much of the murder spree but goaded by radio propaganda (“the Tutsi cockroach”), ordinary Hutu joined in massacring their Tutsi neighbours. In the Kigali Memorial centre, we read about Father Seromba who invited his Tutsi congregation to the church and then ordered it to be bulldozed. 300,000 children were orphaned, two thirds of the population displaced, half a million women raped (HIV positive men were chosen for this task) and the international community did nothing: the UN withdrew completely. It was the RPF (the Tutsi rebels) who saved the day, sweeping across the country in a fourteen week civil war and seizing power.
Today, Rwanda is trying to move on after that terrible time. The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR) sits in Arusha, Tanzania. Gacacas (pronounced “ga-cha-chas”) have also been established to cope with the backlog. These are based on a traditional, community justice system designed to resolve local disputes and allow the entire population to attend. But how do you recover from something like that? How many who survived that terrible time did not witness some atrocity or other? How many took part? How many have blood on their hands? Who are they? Where are they? How many stood by and did nothing? We did nothing.
Concern did something. In August 1994, Concern arrived into Rwanda. They were faced with a monumental task. They decided to target children who, as is often the case, seemed to be suffering the most. But Concern were not alone. In Butare alone, they worked with local NGOs and placed over 6,000 children in care. In Butare alone, they themselves set up an unaccompanied children centre and helped to trace the families of over 3,000 children. They built 700 new homes and rehabilitated more than 4,000. They set up a fostering program for those whose families were never found and were also involved in primary education, capacity building and community support. And they are still there today, helping to build peace, bringing hope, saving lives. Concern have truly made a difference in Rwanda and continue to do so today.
– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People