20 years ago today, a massacre began on the other side of the world that would last 100 days. This massacre wiped between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people, consisting of 20% of the population at that time.
All the while the world watched, and waited and turned their heads away.
This is the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where one extremist ethnic group began the extermination of another. I visited Rwanda in February this year, and this dark history captivated me in the most terrible and macabre way.
Many people think that the two ‘tribes’ involved in this conflict were age-old rivals, born in pre-colonial times. However, what is shocking and horrific is that these groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi, were created by their Belgian colonialists in the 20th century.
The Belgians wanted some control over their piece of Africa, and so divided the population into two distinct groups. The Belgians believed that the Tutsi’s migrated from Ethiopia and therefore were descendants of Europeans. This would mean they were racially superior and therefore more capable of assisting in the colonial powers.  From speaking to locals at the time, one idea is that the Belgians chose who were the Tutsi’s based on how many cows they had. If a family had over a certain amount, they were Tutsi, under that amount and they were Hutu. This arbitrary separation of the population, based on no real significant ethnic divisions, set up 70 years worth of discrimination and persecution, culminating in the Genocide of 1994.
The Day it all began:
Many decades had passed and the colonial powers had left. But they had also left their stamp of division on Rwanda. Generations of Hutu/Tutsi rivalry had culminated in the formation of extremist groups within the tribes. From 1993 one of these groups, the Interahamwe, began training and arming their youth, often in conjunction with the French military, who had no idea of their true purpose.
Then on April 6, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated, giving the signal to the militia to begin the genocide. Within a few hours, the massacre began.
Roadblocks were erected to stop people fleeing. Everyone was commanded to begin killing Tutsis, including children and babies. It was chaos, and a chaos that would last another 100 days before anyone did anything to stop it.
Coming to Rwanda now is an amazing experience. Their roads are clean and clear, infrastructure has not only restored but has surpassed many neighbouring African countries. Development, education, health; all impressed me beyond belief. But underneath this new Rwanda lies its dark history, but no one is ignoring it. The people will never let what has happened stay in the past, they remember the devastation and will fight not to repeat it.
When I visited the memorial museum I was fascinated, distressed, and was left in tears. They don’t hide from the reality of the brutality of those 100 days. Never before had I seen a museum that was so graphic and open about the past. Images and video of wounded people, decaying bodies, and even the killings were everywhere. They don’t sugar coat it; there is no hiding from it.
One of the rooms is dedicated to the children who were killed during this horrific time. This room had large portraits of young babies, toddlers and kids who had been massacred in such cold blood. Underneath their portraits is a plaque with their name, age, favourite food or game, and how they died. This memorial doesn’t just show you their pictures; it boldly declares what happened to these children.
One of the pictures was of a little girl who was born in 1989; she was four when she was killed by a machete. This little girl was my age when this happened to her. This destroyed me. Here I am standing as a 24 year old woman, my whole childhood behind me, my whole life ahead of me. And this girl should be standing next to me.
I’m crying as I write this, because it still affects me when I think about it. While these children were ripped from their mother’s arms, beaten and murdered, I was happy in my family home in Melbourne, living as a toddler should.
So Rwanda, you will forever be in my heart. You affected me more than I could say, and I’ll never forget your history and how it has shaped you. But I also will tell people of your kindness, your passion for rebuilding and reconciliation, and will tell people to visit, to take in the beauty for themselves.