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Rwanda: A survivor’s story

Rwanda: A survivor’s story
  • PublishedApril 9, 2014

This is the story of a survivor of Rwanda’s genocide. Angelique Umugwaneza, a Hutu, was 13 at the time it happened in 1994. Her new book about it is a painful yet necessary read. She says: “It is profoundly problematic that the government of Rwanda recognises the crimes and aggressions committed only against one group of the population and forbids the other from speaking of their history and their pain”. Alecia D. McKenzie reports.

Anyone who was around in 1994 will remember the wrenching images of Rwanda’s rivers of blood. Now, 20 years later, comes a poignant book that gives a personal account of the genocide and its aftermath. “Les enfants du Rwanda”  (“The Children of Rwanda”), published this month in France by Gaïa Editions, is a painful yet necessary read. Its author Angelique Umugwaneza was 13 when she witnessed some of the massacres in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, and she says that as a survivor, she needed to speak out.

Most of those murdered were Tutsis, and what makes this book unusual and controversial for some is that Umugwaneza is a Hutu. She shows that everyone suffered in the bloodletting: Tutsis, Hutus and the Twa – a marginalised ethnic group that has not received the same level of attention in international reports. 

However, she has been criticised for not sticking to what she calls the “official story” that only Tutsis were killed. 

“I worry about being accused of not giving the full story of the genocide,” she told New African in an interview. “Some people who have seen the Tutsis being slaughtered have not seen the killing of the Hutus.”

The book was first published in Danish, as Denmark accorded political asylum to Umugwaneza and her sister in 2001, and it is co-authored by Peder Fuglsang, a Danish academic who specialises in the history of developing countries. Fuglsang said his role was to provide the historical context for the very personal story.

It begins with Umugwaneza’s almost idyllic childhood, before the genocide. She lived in a community where Hutus and Tutsis inter-married, went to the same church and sent their children to the same schools. One of her father’s best friends was a Tutsi named Mudenge. In the murderous madness of April 1994, Mudenge was “tortured and killed in the worst of fashions”, she writes.

The spark
The book gives the widely known background to the genocide, but from the point of view of the young Umugwaneza. She remembers hearing news on the radio in October 1990 that the north of Rwanda had been attacked by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), which consisted of Tutsi exiles in Uganda. “I didn’t know there were Rwandans outside of Rwanda,” she writes. She was 10 years old.

Three-and-a-half years later, on 7 April 1994, her father turned on the family transistor radio to listen to the news. But all he could hear were songs of mourning. Later, he found out from his friend Mudenge that President Juvenal Habyarimana had been killed when his plane was shot down as he was returning from a peace conference in Tanzania. The president of Burundi and all the other passengers also died in the attack. Both presidents were Hutus.

From the book, one might initially get the impression that the downing of the plane triggered fear among Hutus, who felt they had to kill to avoid being killed themselves, and that the massacres were not planned. But a historical section at the end and various other accounts indicate that there had been schemes to exterminate the minority Tutsis, with militants stockpiling their weapons well before April. 

In his own book, Interventions, the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, tells of a cable received from Romeo Dallaire, the French commander with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in Kigali. Dallaire had been told by an informant from a militia of the ruling Hutu party that there was a weapons cache and that he suspected it would be used to kill Tutsis.  

The UN did not take the appropriate preventive action, bogged down as it was in other peacekeeping missions, Annan concedes and three months later, “civilians were being killed in the open by government troops, militia groups, and bands of civilians under the direction of local commanders and state officials, mostly with agricultural tools, and at a rate and intensity none of us had ever heard of before”, he writes.

His description is that of an outsider, with official information. Umugwaneza’s description is that of a witness, with the atrocities seen through a child’s eyes. The violence did not spare the young: Tutsi children were murdered while their Hutu schoolmates watched the slaughter. Children of mixed Tutsi-Hutu parentage were also hunted down. “What happened to the children of Rwanda during this time was horrific,” Umugwaneza writes. She clearly remembers the victims, but she does not name the killers, many of whom came from other “hills”, according to the book.

The exodus
The genocide stopped with the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who formed a new government, but Hutus were now the ones fleeing. Many were killed in revenge attacks. Umugwaneza and her family became part of the exodus from Rwanda, and the bulk of the book deals with her experiences. For seven years, she lived as a refugee, moving from camp to camp, living in the forest and seeing unimaginable scenes.

On one long march, she thought she saw a woman lying on the ground feeding her child. As she got closer, she realized that both had died of starvation, with the child still trying to suck at his mother’s breast. 

She herself lost her mother and an older brother as they tried to find refuge in DRCongo and then the Central African Republic. A younger brother and her father – who had been called back to his job as a customs official before they fled – now live in Rwanda. Umugwaneza has not been back since 1994. 

“I have travelled to the border, and I could look in but I did not go in,” she said during a trip to Paris to launch the book. “It used to be my country, but it’s not any more.”

She told New African that she began writing just two weeks after she arrived in Denmark. “Being in a place where I didn’t have to live in fear for the first time in years gave me the energy to write,” she said. “But I had to ask myself: who was I writing for?”

She says she is writing for those who can’t, including a boy who attached himself to her family and who had to be left behind in the pitilessness of the refugee march. With the book now in French and set for a wider readership, she is also sending a message to those who would deny refugees a safe place because of politics and self-interest.

“I think being a refugee is a very nasty thing,” she said. “You hope and hope, and then you start giving up. You stop hoping. But situations can change. It has changed for me.”

Umugwaneza currently works with a non-governmental organisation to provide assistance to refugees in the Central African Republic, where inter-communal violence has caused about one million people to flee their homes. “I wonder if people hostile to refugees would think differently if they knew what it was like to have to leave your home and to live without a day of peace,” she asked.

As for reconciliation in Rwanda, she writes that it is “profoundly problematic that the government of Rwanda recognises the crimes and aggressions committed only against one group of the population and furthermore forbids the other from speaking of their history.

Written By
New African

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