Dubai: The images of machetes dripping with blood and the screams of mothers pleading for their babies’ lives are memories Grace Mukasekuru can still see when she closes her eyes.
The 37-year-old Dubai resident, who is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, lost her parents and most of her extended family and friends in the 1994 genocide carried out by the Hutus against the Tutsis over a period of 100 days.
For Grace, the struggle today goes beyond the physical scars that sit on the back of her head, as she still battles the loss of her family members who were never found and the nightmares she experienced at just 13 years-old.
Having escaped death so many times during that period, she recalled a night that has been carved into her memories by the sound of thumping bodies and last cries.
Laying still on the bare ground, with the weight of a dead body on top of her, Grace tried to look lifeless among a sea of dead bodies, some being her family’s - hoping to survive one more time.
I pretended I was dead and I laid there all night, all I can remember is the moonlight and the smell of blood.
“I was hit on the back of my head with a bat and I fell on the ground. A young man who worked for us was killed and he fell on top of me.
“I pretended I was dead and I laid there all night, all I can remember is the moonlight and the smell of blood,” she said.
It was on that day that Grace along with a few of her siblings and relatives were accidentally reunited and went into hiding before being ambushed by the Hutu militia.
“They lined us up in the courtyard and started killing everyone with machetes. I can still remember them killing my uncle’s wife who carried her baby on her back,” said Grace.
“She dropped on the ground but her baby was alive. The killers had gone back into her house to steal her things when the baby started crying - so they came back to kill it.”
A childhood smeared by blood
Being the middle child in a family of 11 children, Grace who comes from a Tutsi family described her childhood as a “blessing” full of happy memories in her town of Kimisange in the Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Two of her elder siblings lived abroad, while Grace and her eight siblings lived close to their uncles and cousins in a housing complex they referred to as the “compound”.
She enjoyed regular weekend stays at her grandparents’ home where she mingled with her cousins and relatives and embraced the “big family” life.
During her last family gathering, days before the start of the genocide, Grace said she had “an internal feeling” that something was wrong and asked her uncle to take her home.
She was right. Grace returned home just in time to see her parents one more time.
First day of the Genocide
“The memories I have of that day is the look on my father’s face as he listened to the radio - it was a look of concern. He wasn’t smiling as usual because he understood what was coming - we didn’t,” said Grace.
As Hutu groups began taking over towns, slaying every Tutsi in sight regardless of age and gender, fear and chaos began spreading into every neighbourhood. Lists of wanted people were announced by the Hutus and people were “hunted like animals”, said Grace.
Tutsis were identified solely through their physical features such as height and nose shape, and not through dialect or accent as everyone in Rwanda spoke the same language - Kinyarwanda.
“My father, older brother and uncles left that day to go into hiding - that was the last day I saw my father- how I wish I could see him smile again.”
It was soon after when Grace along with her mother, younger sister and three brothers were forced to spend their days hiding in the bushes, and their nights temporarily back at home.
However, their routine for survival did not last very long, when their home was burned down to the ground.
“You run for your life”
Running from house to house, Grace and her family found refuge in a home by a Hutu family before they were once again forced to run for their lives.
Grace and two of her siblings were separated from her mother and her other siblings during another round of killings by the Hutus.
As children, we were never taught hatred. We could not understand what was happening, and we didn’t realize this was a nationwide genocide.
“When there is chaos, you run for your life.”
“You are unaware of who has been left behind or who has been killed until you get a chance to take a breath,” said Grace as she referred to that day being the last time she saw her mother and two younger brothers.
Continuing her journey with two of her siblings, she hid under banana leaves, water damns, and in pot holes, and lived on raw fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes. “As children, we were never taught hatred. We could not understand what was happening, and we didn’t realize this was a nationwide genocide.”
The “Military Boot”
Days after, Grace was separated from her two siblings and taken in by a Hutu woman who disguised her to keep her safe.
She recalled another imprinted memory of a Hutu man hitting her chin with his military boot, warning her that she will be killed. “I remember him saying, ‘I will kill you and send you back to Ethiopia’,” said Grace.
Returned back to her town by the Hutu woman who had managed to keep her safe for as long as possible, Grace was shortly reunited with her siblings and relatives before the massacre at her uncle’s courtyard took place, scarring her with inerasable memories.
“As I lay there between the dead bodies, I felt a heavy weight on my head where I had been hit. I tried to say a prayer, but I could hear people moaning and groaning as they took their last breaths” said Grace.
They lined us up in the courtyard and started killing everyone with machetes. I can still remember them killing my uncle’s wife who carried her baby on her back.
After the sun came out, Grace shuffled out from underneath the dead body she had been laying under for hours, drenched in blood. She found her sister hiding behind the large housing complex, and her brother badly injured.
The siblings walked to the house of their father’s friend who happened to be a Hutu married to a Tutsi. There, they were rescued by Tutsi soldiers and taken to a camp where they were reunited with their uncle. They were sent to live with another uncle who resided in Kenya before finally immigrating to Canada to join their elder siblings.
Life in Canada
Grace built a life with her four other siblings, learning the language, joining school and adapting to the society.
“Children are resilient, we adapted quickly. To the outside world we’re all doing fine, but looking back, I wish we had gone through counseling.”
“We never talked about it and were thrown into a new life without questions. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time,” said Grace.
After experiencing several breakdowns, Grace realized she has to talk about her past. She decided to visit Rwanda in 2005 for the first time, on her own, and worked two jobs to save enough money for a ticket home.
On landing in Rwanda, Grace was shocked to see the change that has taken place in the city where her family’s blood was once shed.
“I was able to see a different country and create a different memory. But until this day the land where my house once stood and was demolished is empty,” said Grace.
In 2009, Grace made another trip to Rwanda after a system called Gacaca was introduced by the government to identify the victims of the genocide. Hutu members came forward to confess their killings, and Grace was given the chance to bury her father in the memorial site.
“I finally found out how he died - he was running for his life when he fell into a deep hole, and was killed by spears on his back.”
“For many, the genocide against the Tutis lasted 100 days - but for orphans like myself, it was the beginning of a life of anguish,” said Grace.
Where is Grace today?
Today, Grace is living in Dubai with her husband and her five year-old daughter who is named after her mother - “Yohanita”.
She met her husband on a trip to Dubai to celebrate her thirtieth birthday and moved to the UAE to join him in 2011.
Grace is a stay-at-home mother who says her daughter has blessed her with the strength to begin the healing process.
“We can’t change what happened, we can't bring back our loved ones, we can’t erase the horrible memories from our minds, what we can do is stand up to the people who denied the genocide- because they are victimising the victims all over again,” said Grace.
There is no formula to dealing with such an experience, Grace says. Today she is still struggling with forgiveness but does not want revenge.
“Where I am today in my journey, I cannot say I have forgiven. I still don’t know where or how my family died and if any of my younger siblings are still alive- I still don’t have closure.”
What happened in Rwanda 25 years ago?
Rwandans gathered on Sunday to begin a solemn commemoration of the lives of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus murdered during the Rwandan genocide, a three-month-killing spree that began 25 years ago.
The ceremony marks the beginning of a week of events to honour the dead. Rwandan President Paul Kagame laid a wreath at Gisozi genocide memorial site, where over a quarter a million of people are buried. The killings of 1994 lasted until Kagame, then 36, led the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) into Kigali on July 4, ending the slaughter and taking control of the devastated country. Kagame, now 61 and who has been in power ever since, is leading the memorial to the dead.
“Remembering is necessary because it’s only thanks to looking back at what happened [that we can] ensure that it never happens again,” said hairdresser Olive Muhorakeye, 26, who survived the genocide.
Here are some key questions clarified about the genocide:
What happened in 1994?
Between April and June an estimated 800,000 people — 10 per cent of the Rwandan population — were slaughtered in an orgy of killing that lasted for about 100 days. Most of those killed were members of the smaller but traditionally dominant Tutsi ethnic group, while most of those who carried out the murders were from the majority Hutu population. Around 2 million Hutus fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then known as Zaire.
Who are the Tutsis and Hutus?
Both are native to central Africa, mainly Rwanda and Burundi. They have much in common, notably language and many traditions, and inter-marriage between the tribes was common. However, tensions between them increased markedly with colonisation. Germans, who took over the country at the end of the 19th century and were followed by Belgium in 1916, saw the Tutsis as more closely resembling Europeans in appearance, and thus considered them to be an elite. The Belgians formalised this divide with separate identity cards based on ethnicity.
What was the trigger for the killings?
On April 6, 1994, a private jet carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamiram — also a Hutu — was shot down as it prepared to land in the Rwandan capital, Kigale. The perpetrators remain unknown, but the effect was immediate — Habyarimana’s presidential guard began murdering opposition leaders, and the massacre soon spread to Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
What happened then?
Within hours, the violence moved swiftly from the capital to the countryside. Encouraged by anti-Tutsi propaganda, tens of thousands of members of an unofficial militia group, the Interahamwe — meaning “those who stand together” — was mobilised to carry out massacres. The killing soon became systematic, with Hutu civilians encouraged by the army and officials to turn on their Tutsi neighbours. Many people were killed after being stopped at roadblocks, while others were massacred in groups after hiding in churches or other buildings. Most people were hacked with machetes, while others were shot. The mass killing only stopped when the RPF, which launched a new military assault after Habyarimana was killed, captured Kigali and the government collapsed.
What was the international response?
It was minimal. The US, scarred by the killing of its soldiers in Somalia during the Battle of Mogadishu a few months earlier, had no appetite to intervene. Then US President Bill Clinton said years later during a visit to Rwanda: “I don’t think we could have ended the violence, but I think we could have cut it down. And I regret it.”
France has long faced charges that it supported the Hutu leadership even during the massacres. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has called French soldiers “actors” in the genocide, and on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron ordered a two-year government study of France’s role in the Rwandan genocide.
The United Nations, which had a modest force of some 2,500 troops in Rwanda in the days leading up to the killings, was accused of refusing permission for its local commander, Canadian Major General Romeo Dallaire, to raid a Hutu arms cache that had been set aside for use in the atrocities. At the time, Kofi Annan, who later became the secretary-general of the United Nations, was in charge of peacekeeping operations. Years later he said of the killing, “All of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent it.”
What lessons have been learnt from Rwanda?
History suggests that Rwanda’s lessons were an insufficient deterrent. Just a year after the Rwandan genocide, events far away in Europe — in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica — offered another alarming example of the toxic combination of genocidal urges and United Nations caution: 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed despite the presence of Dutch peacekeepers.
Rwanda's genocide weighs heavily on its youth
Every April 7, Rwanda recalls the hundreds of thousands of people who perished in the 1994 genocide - an occasion that for many survivors triggers terrifying memories.
But for the two-thirds of the population born in the aftermath of the slaughter, the trauma is of a different kind.
They face burdens of their own, having grown up in the shadow of unspeakable atrocities while carrying the crushing weight of expectations of a brighter future.
"For us, people who grew up after the events, one would tend to think that it doesn't affect us directly," said Bruce Muringira, aged 24.
"But I would say it does... it takes a toll on us too."
Muringira works for an advertising agency in Rwanda's capital Kigali. He was born a year after the mass killings, in which Hutu extremists and soldiers mainly targeted the Tutsi minority for three months. "It is a painful memory, and for a lot of families, they have found the best way to cope is to try and put it in the past," said Muringira.
"But it's not an easy thing to do. So every April, when it comes, you see people changing. You see people withdrawing into themselves more and more."
Young people feel the absence of those they never even knew; grandparents, even their own parents. The gaps in family are constant reminders of those who were lost.
Trauma lingers in the succeeding generation as well. Youths speak of their responsibility to ensure that the horrors of 1994 will never happen again.
Learning about his family history was painful, said Muringira. "I went through a lot of moments of insecurity, confusion and questioning," he said.
It is a feeling echoed by others.
Jean-Paul Haguma, now 26, was a one-year-old baby when the killing began. He does not want to talk about the details of what happened to his family.
"It is a difficult time," Haguma said. "But it is the history. It happened, it became part of our life."
Many of the young regret that the image of Rwanda abroad today is still all too often only that of the story of the genocide.
Supporters of the government praise the advances Rwanda has made in term of peace and reconciliation, and speak of its economic success.
Young people echo the rhetoric of Rwanda's tough government in supporting development for the small, densely populated nation of hills.
"The youth should support the development... to implement, with all our energy and will, the government programmes," said Diane Mushimiyimana, a 23-year-old student.
Those who grew up after the genocide were taught the core concept of Rwandan unity, and how splits between the different groups paved the way for the massacres of at least 800,000 people.
'Part of our history'
"My dream for Rwanda is, first and foremost, to be able to move past what happened," said Muringira.
"I'm not talking about forgetting it, because when you forget your own history, there's a risk of repeating it...My hope is that we might be able to see ourselves, more than anything, as Rwandans - not as one tribe or another, not as victims or perpetrators."
Emmanuel Habumugisha was born in May 1994, in the middle of the genocide. His father was killed.
From the pain and loss, he hopes there is a lesson for the future. There is a benefit in reading the history of Rwanda's genocide, and of other countries that have seen such suffering, he said.
My dream for Rwanda is, first and foremost, to be able to move past what happened. I'm not talking about forgetting it, because when you forget your own history, there's a risk of repeating it...My hope is that we might be able to see ourselves, more than anything, as Rwandans - not as one tribe or another, not as victims or perpetrators.
"Then they will know the value of a person, know how to relate to each other," Habumugisha said. "Then they will come together to help each other to develop - instead of fighting."
Every person deals with the legacy of genocide in their own way. Some try to remember. Others do everything to forget.
Some, like Muringira, see the act of remembrance as a way to build a more positive future.
"As much as we were not there, it is part of our history too. It is a defining feature of who we are as a country - but also who we are as individuals," Muringira said.
"Those of us who understand that, we are trying our best to make our communities and our country a better place." (AFP)
From bust to boom, Rwanda’s meteoritic raise
In 1994, the last year of Rwanda’s civil war, the country’s per capita GDP was just $146 (Dh536.1). Since then, due a raft of economic initiatives lead by President Paul Kigame, that figure has jumped to a projected $819.65 by the end of 2018. It’s just one of the many figures that shows how well the country has done transforming itself from a war-torn, impoverished nation into one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
Since becoming president in 2000, Kagame has made development a national priority, starting with the establishment of the Vision 2020 that aims to make Rwanda a middle-income country by 2020. The country has also prioritised infrastructure projects to boost FDI. The country has achieved 8 per cent growth annually between 2004 and 2001, thanks to a robust economic sector. Between 2017-2018, the economy grew by 8.9 per cent. The World Bank ranked Rwanda 29th globally in its 2018 Ease Of Doing Business Report and put it second in Africa.
The country has also developed a diversified economy, with manufacturing, mining, agriculture and agro-processing becoming the top sectors. Other prominent sectors include tourism, healthcare, business services and ICT. The economic growth that Rwanda has experienced has lifted at least one million citizens out of poverty between 2005 and 2011, according to the Rwandan Household Living Conditions Survey. The country still has a large percentage of its population living in poverty, however. About 39 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and 16 per cent lives in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as less than $1.25 a day.