April of 1994 marked a gruesome chapter in the annals of Africa. Rwanda, a country of 9.2 million reverberated with an orgy of bloodletting that wiped out ten per cent of its population in just 100 days. It was a genocide that targeted the Tutsi peoples at the hands of the Hutus; a genocide incomparable in its intensity and raw violence. We Cannot Forget is a scholarly narrative that adopts qualitative research methodologies to chronicle this period when humanity was turned on its head. Samuel Totten and Rafiki Ubaldo interview 11 survivors of varying ages, gender and economic background—skillfully avoiding similitude, duplication and literary ennui. That the 1994 genocide could have been avoided is posited by Totten and Ubaldo. Maybe Rwanda was just another African country, or, as one of the survivors intoned: “People in the US and Europe were watching World Cup, and if they only could have taken a minute and really thought about the fact that Rwandans were being killed, then they could have influenced their governments to take some action.”
We Cannot Forget offers key historical data on the socio-political imbroglio that led to 1994. During the colonial period of the 19th century, Tutsi’s leadership and administrative prowess found favour with the Belgians and Germans. The Hutus became the underclass, shut out from the levers of power and self-determination. It was a balance of power promoted by the Europeans. The Tutsis were called Semites, not Black Africans. They were promoted as cerebral, born leaders. It is a history that haunted the Hutus. By the turn of the 20th century, power shifted—a move supported by Europe and the Catholic Church. And revenge loomed. There were anti-Tutsis pogroms in 1956, 1963 and 1973. Tutsis, Hutus and Twa (Pygmies) were compelled to carry identification cards, leading to widespread discrimination against Tutsis. Tutsis were called inzoka (snake) and inyenzi (cockroach). Radio Rwanda and a private radio network, Radio-television libre des mille collines (RTLM), blared vile anti Tutsi propaganda. In response, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, a Tutsi resistance movement was formed, creating further social fissures. The downing of a plane carrying president Habyarimana, the Hutu president on April 6, 1994, purportedly by Tutsi fighters, set the stage for the perfect storm. The survivors’ accounts are riveting and excruciatingly vivid. Detailed and revolting. Interviewee after interviewee recalls the immeasurable loss of family members.
Emmanuel Murangira put the number at 43, including all five of his children and wife. Another interviewee (anonymous for fear of retribution), lost her father, mother, one sister, and more than 200 relatives. This is a narrative replete with unspeakable horror. There was no place of refuge..... open season, even in churches. Hutus priests and bishops, too, were complicit in the annihilation of defenceless Tutsis. Testimonials ooze blood and destruction. One interviewee painfully remembers: “When the attack began, they (the killers) began to shoot at the windows of the church. They were using SMGs, grenades and pistols... The Interahamwe (youth militia) began to check on the ground to make sure all the people had died.
“One person they found who had not been killed was a woman who was pregnant...and they pulled her clothes off and said they wanted to see how Tutsi children looked when they are in their mother. They took the mother and sliced her open...”
There are accounts of rape perpetrated by individuals who at one time were friendly with their victims. And in one of the most intriguing cases, children of a Tutsi and Hutu union were banished by their Hutu relatives after they sought refuge.
By early July, the guns fell silent. Machetes and impiris (spiked clubs) were tossed. In addition to the 900,000 dead, tens of thousands of orphans, and thousands of women infected with HIV riddled a psychologically traumatised society.
Truth and reconciliation committees called gacaca were formed, and prison sentences were meted out to perpetrators.
Many interviewees remain unhappy with these village courts.
“The government wants to make reconciliation with people, but in some places, there is corruption. Also in some gacaca, there are even judges who are genocidaires…so you have killers ‘judging’ killers. There are many Hutus and few Tutsis in gacaca, and that is bad,” states one interviewee.
We Cannot Forget is wrenchingly compelling, a reminder, no less of our impulse to commit evil when mired in propaganda, phobia and insecurity. Eighteen years after the Rwanda genocide, the editor writes: “We can only hope that we truly understand what it means to be, or, fail to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
No truer words were ever spoken.
We Cannot Forget: Interviews with Survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda
Edited by Samuel Totten and Rafiki Ubaldo
Rutgers, The State University, 2011
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