KIGALI, Rwanda — Under the glaring lights of the Amahoro ‘Peace’ Stadium, Emmanuel* hummed along with the genocide song.
“You know this one?” I asked.
“Not really. We heard it already this morning, remember?” he replied. “It’s a good one, good message. I think it will be famous and we will hear it again next year,” he said.
Rwandans marked the anniversary of the genocide on Thursday, April 7, with commemoration events, a day off from work, and some chilly April rain that seemed appropriate for the somber mood. Outside of Rwanda, this particular anniversary – the 17th – didn’t draw the extensive media coverage or string of international dignitaries of years passed. But among Rwandans, it continues to be a dreaded moment, when the deliberate effort throughout the rest of the year to downplay ethnicity and emphasize unity gives way to almost forced reflection. Time can help heal some wounds, but the increasingly politicized nature of the genocide and the difficult circumstances under which survivors continue to live raises the question of whether the country is truly overcoming its past.
Emmanuel was 15 and living in Kigali on April 7, 1994, the first in a 100-day, countrywide killing spree that would leave 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu dead. His is one of the most harrowing survivor stories I’ve ever heard or read, which ends with him living in a forest – sleeping under bushes and scavenging for food – for more than a month, wondering what had become of his family and assuming the worst. Even six months after the genocide ended, Emmanuel couldn’t sleep in a house; after living on the run, he only felt safe sleeping hidden in bushes.
In 17 years, yesterday was the first time Emmanuel took part in the commemoration on his own accord. (He covered one event in 2007 as a journalist.) He usually plans to be out of the country.
The national stadium was packed for the morning event attended by President Kagame, government ministers, and a handful of diplomats, but many Rwandans opt to follow the event quietly at home. Emmanuel and I went to a small restaurant with a television downtown, one of the very few businesses open.
This year’s theme – “Upholding the truth, preserving our dignity” – played out prominently in the remarks of government officials and lyrics sung by famous Rwandan musicians. “If we want peace for our country, let’s call it by its name – genocide. Let’s not give it other names,” sang the artist called Kizito, as Emmanuel translated for me. “We won’t let people change our history.”
In recent years, “genocide denial” has become a common phrase in Rwanda’s political discourse. In 2007 the government relabeled it the “genocide against the Tutsi,” drawing a distinction between those targeted because of ethnicity and others, primarily Hutu, who were killed for trying to protect Tutsi or being seen as too moderate. These changes, and the increasingly defensive rhetoric on the part of the Kagame government, tracks closely with mounting accusations – described perhaps most credibly in the U.N. Mapping Report released last year – that Kagame’s rebel army committed large-scale atrocities against civilians in the wake of the 1994 genocide. But Kagame’s critics do not deny that genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda took place. Rather they hold that there should be acknowledgement, accountability, and reconciliation for the staggering number of retribution deaths carried out systematically against Hutu and some Tutsi in Rwanda and neighboring eastern Congo subsequent to the genocide. For Kagame and some of his top advisors, this position poses an existential threat because the RPF was seen – and has been esteemed as – a disciplined force under Kagame’s skilled military leadership, thus linking him directly to the revenge killings.
In his speech for the commemoration, Kagame shifted into English to directly take on these detractors, striking an unfortunately political tone during a moment intended to honor the lives of those who died and recognize the ongoing suffering of survivors:
For those who don’t accept genocide, some living in rich countries, there is nothing we can do. But in our own country, here in Rwanda, we have something to do. We cannot accept…Forget about the outside world, those who stood by when genocide was taking place. These countries who give us lessons about human rights and justice, and they have these [genocidaires] roaming the streets. We have our business to attend to: giving us our dignity, for ourselves, not for anyone else. We have to fight them with our spirit, with our warrior spirit.
Understanding the speeches and performances thanks to Emmanuel’s near-constant translation, I was struck by how infrequently ‘reconciliation’ and ‘unity’ were mentioned, words that, outside of commemoration time, one hears often in Rwanda. Perhaps the thinking is that during the anniversary, for one time each year, survivors and those who long suffered persecution should be able to mourn for all that was lost, without having to give a nod to notions like forgiveness that remain untenable for many. Certainly people should be able to grieve and bind together with other Rwandans who suffered similar injustices, atrocities, and loss.
But what the remarks and the reactions on this one day reveal is just how far efforts still need to go to achieve the reconciliation that Rwanda strives to publicly portray every other day of the year. And just how entrenched the Kagame regime is in dictating the terms.
Later in the evening, people made their way back to the stadium for a candlelight vigil. Emmanuel and I went too. There were fewer speeches and more musical performances. President Kagame and the mayor of Kigali attended, but the VIP section was empty compared to the morning; this ceremony was meant to be more reflective. As during the morning event, outbursts would echo across the stadium as someone was overcome with emotion. “These people are traumatized,” Emmanuel explained, barely revealing the strong emotions he himself must have been feeling. Part way through the ceremony, the mayor announced that we would watch a short film about the genocide. Shockingly graphic footage from 1994 was projected on the huge stadium screen, setting off shrieking across the stadium. Event organizers dashed around, eventually managing to turn off the film, but the damage was done. Dozens of people had to be carried out of the stadium in hysterics.
My friend’s running translation and commentary subsided and we sat in silence, listening to the wailing until an upbeat-sounding genocide song drowned it out. “It’s all just too much,” Emmanuel said when he spoke again.
*Name has been changed.
Photo: Candlelight vigil in Kigal (Enough/Laura Heaton)