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Earlier this week, Rwanda came together as a nation to remember the 1994 genocide, marking the start of 100 days of mourning. Twenty years ago, in one of the darkest episodes of humanity, more than one million Rwandans died as the world stood by and watched. Neighbour turned against neighbour in a politically orchestrated bloodshed of unprecedented scale, as hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Hutus were slaughtered in their homes, schools and churches around Rwanda.

So how does an entire nation even begin to heal itself from such an atrocity? As it turns out, with equal measures of respect, commitment and a dogged determination to succeed.

The ceremonies held across Rwanda on Monday 7th April, the anniversary of the start of the killings, are part of Kwibuka, an annual event to commemorate the genocide. But while Kwibuka – the Kinyarwanda word for remember – is about honoring the victims, it also encompasses so much more. At its heart are three core values: remembrance, unity and renewal.

Performers at the Kwibuka Ceremony in Kigali © Kwibuka 20
Performers at the Kwibuka Ceremony in Kigali © Kwibuka 20

Remembrance is perhaps the most obvious, and arguably important, component – the chance to commemorate those who died and support their survivors. At the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre on Monday, President Kagame lit a flame of mourning which will burn for 100 days – the same time it took for the killings to take place all those years ago. At the Kwibuka ceremony in Amahoro stadium, members of the crowd were reduced to tears as dancers and performers staged powerful pieces of theatre, rekindling old memories.

The theme of unity is about reconciliation through a shared humanity – both amongst the people of Rwanda and within a global context. At a local level within Rwanda, many survivours of the crimes have, incredibly, forgiven those that committed them as part of a national drive towards reconciliation through carefully managed counseling and small ceremonies.

Genocide Memorial Church in Karongi  © Adam Jones
Genocide Memorial Church in Karongi © Adam Jones

Within a wider context, at the ceremony in Kigali the UN secretary Ban Ki-moon referenced the challenge of maintaining unity across the globe, telling the crowd “The world has yet to fully overcome its divisions, its indifference”. He even acknowledged the much-publicised failure of his own organization to intervene in the genocide, telling the emotional crowd on Monday in Kigali, “We must not be left to utter the words ‘Never Again’, again and again”.

Finally, Kwibuka also comprises a strong sense of renewal – the concept of recovery and rebuilding a nation – something which Rwanda is achieving with remarkable speed and tenacity. Financial stability and an ongoing investment in development has been core to its success – life expectancy is up, infant mortality is down, and the economy is booming.

Rwanda has built a successful tourism industry around gorilla tracking © Jane Hoggett - Journeys Discovering Africa
Rwanda has built a successful tourism industry around gorilla tracking © Jane Hoggett – Journeys Discovering Africa

Tourism has been a key contributor to the economic recovery, having eclipsed tea and coffee as the country’s leading foreign exchange earner. The main draw for visitors is the chance to track the country’s mountain gorillas, resident in the Virungas in Volcanoes National Park in the north of Rwanda, but there has been a strong commitment to developing the tourism infrastructure elsewhere in the country – from the canopy walk and primate-filled trails of Nyungwe Forest to the wetlands and savannahs of Akagera National Park.

The country has also not shied away from so-called ‘dark tourism’, and a safari to Rwanda is not complete without poignant visits to some of the genocide memorials placed around the country – from carefully curated Kigali exhibitions on the nature of genocide, to ossuaries in rural churches filled with row upon row of skulls belonging to those that died within their walls.

Visiting the ossuary at Nyamata Genocide Memorial © Griselda Ramirez
Visiting the ossuary at Nyamata Genocide Memorial © Griselda Ramirez

Rather than gloss over the darkest days within its past, Rwanda wants its people and the world to remember, and through this, recover. Kwibuka provides the framework for such achievements: a holistic approach to repairing a country determined to mend itself. Despite attracting criticism for its politics at home and abroad, the progress this small nation has made since the events of 1994 is undeniable. Rwanda has achieved the unthinkable – it has brought together a nation torn apart by violence and made that nation proud and prosperous. As an ideological framework for conflict resolution, Kwibuka could be a shining example to countries across the globe still fighting over differences of faith, race or ethnicity.

The organisers of the annual Kwibuka event produced a short but moving video to commemorate the twenty year anniversary. It is worth a watch just to experience the wisdom of some of the words shared by the survivours interviewed. A young lady called Theodette Bayisenga – who comes from Nyange, where 3 000 people were killed in a gruesome attack as they sheltered in the parish church – says it best: “Remembering is important, because if you don’t remember, you can’t possibly know where you are going”.


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