Rwanda: A Survivor's Story

By McKenzie, Alecia D. | New African, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Rwanda: A Survivor's Story


McKenzie, Alecia D., New African


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".

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 Gaia 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. …

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