20 years after the Rwanda genocide: a survivor’s memories


July marks 20 years since the end of the Rwandan genocide. In the summer of 1994 the death of president, Juvenal Habiyaramana sparked brutal violence between the country’s two major ethnic groups. The genocide took place over 100 days but left an estimated one million people dead.

Two decades on,Pod Academy’s Alex Burd went to Manchester to speak to Dr Richard Benda, a Rwandan academic and genocide survivor. Their conversation has been split into three podcasts – of which this is the third (the first was about faith and reconciliation;   the second about ethnicity and democracy).

In this episode he recalls the events of the genocide and begins by explaining what it was like growing up in Rwanda as a half Hutu, half Tutsi…

Richard Benda: It made your life uncomfortable and I think that is a good thing – not to be comfortable in either group because the lack of comfort makes you sick. A better way of dealing with things but once you are told that you are Tutsi 100% or Hutu 100% it is as your life is pre-determined to a go certain way so operating on the margin of both groups it wasn’t easy. As a child you take your father’s identity but you can’t deny your mother’s side of the family.

Alex Burd: Which was which in your family?

RB: So the father was Tutsi and the mother was Hutu. But then even on both sides it wasn’t that clear cut so I’ve never been comfortable calling myself a Tutsi or a Hutu because it really doesn’t register. And you try to convey that idea to people who have a certain stability in their ethnic identity and it’s as if the image is that everyone is… you’re either one or the other. But I think that debates are showing that there are quite a lot of people on the margins. You negotiate the reality as it comes, some days are good, some days are bad. You could escape violence or you could die because of that ambiguity of your identity. But given the choice I would still remain in an ambiguous state and you can open your heart and your mind to accepting more people, to accepting distance because you live a state of contradiction within yourself so you accept that contradictions exist in society as well so I developed that mentality at a younger age anyway. I have cousins in one group, I have cousins in another group, I have uncles in one group. You sleep in one house today, then another house. How do you choose?

AB: How did you then negotiate that, almost a tightrope I guess, during 1994, while you were at university?

RB: It wasn’t a good time to start university. We started university in ’93 and it was a bad, bad time. We started university when the president of Burundi had been assassinated, so that was a Hutu president being assassinated and we had quite a few Burundian students in our midst, so tensions were palpable when we started. The war was still going on so there were tensions within Rwanda and there were endless killing of Hutu politicians.
I had a girlfriend in 1993 at university so I suppose I had an outlet for my feelings – I lost her in ’94, but then… what I’m trying to say is that you had someone to share those difficult times with. We had to escape university because before the genocide started the university was on lockdown and the students were on strike. They don’t know if it was a politically engineered strike so even then it was dangerous for people of certain ethnicity to be on campus and we had to be quiet I suppose, to not make yourself more visible the you wanted to be and certainly my girlfriend what you would call a visible Tutsi person so she was even more of a target so we had to find a way of leaving the campus. Some of the friends we left behind were killed and we left our belongings, and I don’t have anything from prior to ’94 that belongs to me. The only item I have from before ’94 is my secondary school diploma, that’s the only thing I have from 1990. I don’t have a photo, an item of clothing because everything was lost at university.

AB: Universities are a base of learning, of enlightenment but also very strong politics. Everyone is very much set in their ideals. What happens when something like the 1994 genocide happens?

RB: I wish I were on campus, then maybe not, but I wasn’t on campus when it happened. Around the Easter holidays some of us had gone home for the holidays, in fact when it started I was in a prayer retreat because I thought we needed a bit of spiritual help before going back to uni because before we left the university the atmosphere was so toxic it was unreal. So my girlfriend and I decided to go and pray for a couple of days and then go to university because we had exams comings up. As for the question as to what happens to students; the University of Rwanda had a motto to be light and the salvation of the people – lluminio et salus. Populi – but in ’94 the light went out proper. Obviously the students on campus were killed by other students, lecturers got involved in killings or in the genocidaire government.

Even before the genocide student movements are always the earliest target of politicians because they know they are the future of the country and they know they have an influence over other young people. So even in university groups or unions you could see the beginning of splitting and divisions on ethnic lines but also on party lines. So our campus we had a very strong MDR group but you also had a very strong Interhamwe students. They weren’t Interhamwe as such – Interhamwe has taken a different connotation after the genocide but most of the youth belonging to MRND were Interhamwe before Interhamwe became synonymous with killer or genocidaire.

So the university had already been infiltrated, it was inevitable that that was going to happen. Whether reason helped in any way to stem off the ideology of the genocide: I don’t see that.

AB: Coming from a mixed family, what happened to your family during this time?

RB: Some members of the family killed, others were killed, some members of my family killed other members of my family. I think the tragedy of 1994 was the intimacy of the killings because very few people were killed by strangers except in the major cities and towns. Most were killed by those who knew them, so when you have mixed families…

I, because I wasn’t in my district or in my village, I genuinely believed and hoped that because of the mixed nature of the family that they were not going to be affected. I genuinely believed that someone will stand up and shelter their relatives, but no; no.

I think it is the hardest thing to cope with after the genocide. To realise that you will never develop the same relationship with your uncle or your cousin because you know that in 1994 they transgressed sacred alliances and erm… We have a saying in Kinyarwanda which is Kwikura Mu Nda which means to reach down in your guts and wrench them out and it is something you use when talking about killing your own. And I find that genocide itself as a Rwanda phenomenon was that, just friends betraying friends, families betraying families; and in the same way harming themselves so no really survived the genocide unharmed.

AB: Look out for the next parts of my conversation with Richard on the Pod Academy website at www dot pod academy dot org and stay up to date by following us on twitter at Pod Academy. In the other two pods we discuss the process of reconciliation and Rwanda’s charismatic president, Paul Kagame.
This has been Pod Academy. I’ve been Alex Burd. Thanks for listening

The photograph of the Genocide Memorial Church is by Adam Jones PhD

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