Thirty Years After a Genocide in Rwanda, Painful Memories Run Deep

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When the marauding militiamen arrived at her door on that morning in April 1994, Florence Mukantaganda knew there was nowhere to run.

It was only three days into the devastating 100-day genocide in Rwanda, when militiamen rampaged through the streets and people’s homes in a bloodshed that forever upended life in the Central African nation. As the men entered her home, Ms. Mukantaganda said her husband, a preacher, prayed for her and their two small children and furtively told her where he had hidden some money in case she survived.

He then said his final words to her before he was hacked to death with a hoe.

“He told me, ‘When they come for you, you have to be strong, you have to die strong,’” Ms. Mukantaganda, 53, recalled on a recent morning at her home in Kabuga, a small town about 10 miles east of Kigali, the Rwandan capital. “There was nothing we could do but wait for our time to die.”

The agony of those harrowing days will loom large for many on Sunday as Rwanda marks the 30th anniversary of the genocide in which extremists from the country’s ethnic Hutu majority killed some 800,000 people — most of them ethnic Tutsis — using machetes, clubs and guns.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is presiding over the event, which brought together leaders and dignitaries from Africa and around the world.

Those include Bill Clinton, who, as president of the United States at the time of the genocide, previously acknowledged America’s failure to swiftly stop the bloodshed. President Emmanuel Macron of France, who is not attending the event but has in recent years talked of France’s role in the genocide, is set to release a video saying that his country and its Western and African allies lacked the will to halt the slaughter.

The daylong event in Kigali will include the lighting of a remembrance flame, a walk, a night vigil and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is the final resting place for the remains of over 250,000 victims of the slaughter.

For many, the event will be a reminder of the horror that began after a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down. While those responsible for the crash were never identified, the Hutu-led government blamed it on Tutsi rebels and immediately began a campaign of systematic killing. The rebels, led by Mr. Kagame, said the Hutu extremists downed the plane as a pretext for genocide.

In interviews with a dozen survivors across Rwanda in the two days preceding the commemoration on Sunday, many spoke about the paroxysm of violence that gripped this lush, landlocked nation. They spoke about the horrors they endured for over three months as their towns and villages became giant killing fields. Many remembered how they fled their homes and hid in bushes and forests, churches and mosques, in coffins and closets, only to be found and forced to flee again.

One man, Hussein Twagiramungu, spoke about hearing his mother calling out his name as her killers hacked her to death. Velene Kankwanzi said she had survived by lying still, pretending to be dead, among relatives killed by militiamen. She said she had heard the men saying that they should take a break because their “hands are tired” from all of the killing. Rashid Bagabo recalled how his own hands went numb as he and five others buried some 300 people.

Ms. Mukantaganda, the woman whose husband was killed, spoke about how neighbors, friends and family turned against each other.

When the carnage began, she said a close Hutu friend, who was a leader of her church’s choir, suggested locking her and her family in their home so that when the militiamen came, they would think they had left. But, she said, the man went and informed the killers where they were.

“It’s been 30 years and I am still learning how to forgive,” she said, crying on a recent afternoon as she twisted the gold wedding ring on her finger that she said her husband had given her. Ms. Mukantaganda lost eight other family members, including her parents, in the genocide.

The commemoration event in Kigali will also be a testament to the power of Mr. Kagame, whose governing Rwandan Patriotic Front party ended the genocide. Mr. Kagame has led Rwanda since then, and has transformed his nation from a byword for genocidal violence to an African success story.

Since 1994, this hilly nation of about 14 million people has grown economically, significantly reduced maternal mortality and poverty and improved education and health access. Rwanda has also become a major conference and tourist destination, and each year it hosts a star-studded gorilla naming ceremony that has attracted people like Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, and Idris Elba, the British actor.

But even as he pulled his nation back from the brink, Mr. Kagame became increasingly authoritarian, jailing opposition figures, limiting press freedom and targeting critics at home and abroad.

Rwanda has also been accused of backing rebel forces in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and plundering mineral riches in that country’s eastern regions — accusations that Mr. Kagame’s government denies. Mr. Kagame’s forces also killed 25,000 to 45,000 people, mostly Hutu civilians, from April to August 1994, according to disputed U.N. findings.

Mr. Kagame, 66, is up for election this year, and is expected to win another seven-year term.

For some in Rwanda, the solemn commemoration on Sunday also marks a day when humanity triumphed over hate.

This is true for Mariane Mukaneza, a mother of four whose husband was killed in the city of Rubavu, in the west. As she fled, Ms. Mukaneza said she was given shelter by Yussuf Ntamuhanga, an ethnic Hutu, who became well known for hiding Tutsis and helping them cross into Congo.

Mr. Ntamuhanga is also Muslim, who like many in the Rwandan Muslim community did not participate in the bloodshed. At the onset of the genocide, Muslims were socially and economically marginalized in Rwanda, said Salim Hitimana, the mufti of Rwanda. As such, their leaders were not as close to the political establishment and from the outset, they denounced the violence and saved those fleeing in their homes and mosques.

“He is my family and my hope,” Ms. Mukaneza, 68, said of Mr. Ntamuhanga on a recent afternoon as the two sat across from each other during an interview. “He did not care about my religion or where I came from.”

Mr. Ntamuhanga, 65, said he personally helped rescue more than three dozen people. “My father raised me on love and compassion,” he said, “and Islam reinforced that message, too.”

For now, Ms. Mukantaganda, betrayed by a close friend, said she was learning how to heal. But reminders of those bloody days are constant, she said: places around town that trigger memories of killings; the bodies that continue to be exhumed; and even the rain falling on her rooftop on a recent afternoon, reminding her of similar rainy days in April 1994.

“It all feels like it happened yesterday,” she said.

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