And So We Remember

“If you act in the name of conscience, you are stronger than any government in the world.” Rapahel Lemkin

Twenty-one years ago, this week, the Rwandan Genocide began. One shot, two presidents: a ground-to-air missile struck the airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira near Kigali on April 6, 1994 (Power, 2002). Violence ripped across the capital and the country as Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias and gangs, backed by the government, set up roadblocks and actively hunted Tutsi and moderate Hutu, massacring without remorse. These groups were meticulously organized with lists of names and addresses, drained of moral sensibilities from years of vicious propaganda blasted through Rwandan media news sources. The body count from the genocide hovers between 800,000 and a million, massacred in the space of 100 days. The death count from the following years of forced migration, refugee camps, and ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (where a million civilian refugees and the Interahamwe and other militias fled to continue wrecking violence after the Rwandan Patriotic Force took power and ended the slaughter) increases that number even further, even if the deaths of civilian refugees and bystanders are not often included in this official memorial.


Tutsi passbook, on display at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

This week represents the formal mourning period for the nation. Businesses and transportation services operate only in the morning, shuttering their doors around noon to attend community meetings. The mood is quiet, somber, contemplative. Many ex-pats choose to leave during this week, not out of callous disregard for the nation’s pain, but perhaps because we are unable to know how to be, how to act, during this time. I am unequipped to talk to people, to say anything at all. What do you say to a person who has lost their entire family, perhaps before their eyes, or who was forced to flee their country and live in rebel-controlled camps stricken by typhoid and cholera? Violence and disease can negate social or ethnic standing: regardless of status as Tutsi or Hutu, the entire population was ravaged by the genocide and its aftermath.

The genocide is inescapable here. It hovers beneath every conversation, with 1994 the time when Rwandan history was blasted in half. You hear people talk of two time periods, like Before Christ, B.C. (or Before Common Era, B.C.E.) and anno domini, A.D. (or Common Era, C.E.): Before the Genocide, After the Genocide. Our guide at Akagera National Park identified an impala, “Rwanda’s national animal before the genocide” and told us that “after the genocide,” the national animal became the gorilla. Before the genocide, the park was larger, just like Virunga National Park near my home in Musanze. Land was granted to returning refugees, a challenge in a country the size of Maryland with 11 million inhabitants. Before Genocide (B.G.), After Genocide (A.G.).

The word genocide was coined in English, but I can easily see it here, even in a Kinyarwanda sentence. Jenocide. It stands out, stark, clear, crimson. For the word itself, we can thank Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who I first learned about when reading Samantha Power’s excellent book, A Problem from Hell, which was later the foundation for last year’s documentary, Watchers of the Sky.


Check out this movie: Watchers of the Sky, available on iTunes

Lemkin, whose quote begins this post, was a man of conscience. After reading about him, and seeing his story presented again in the documentary, it is clear that he should be better known than he is: we owe him credit for the establishment of genocide as a specific crime under international law. Prior to his work, which engulfed his entire life and person, there existed legal frameworks to prosecute a person for an individual murder, or to prosecute a government for an act of war that resulted in the deaths of others, but not the organized murder of thousands within their own nation as this was considered to be the prerogative of a sovereign nation. The Nuremburg Trials, bringing justice upon those complicit in the Third Reich’s many heinous crimes, presented a challenge for prosecutors. How would these many abominable acts translate to a legal framework? At that time, no laws specifically defining genocide existed, so those who engineered the mass slaughter of Jews were tried for acts of war, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity (leveled due to the massacre of many individuals, separate from genocide which prosecutes based on the massacre of a group). Lemkin’s life was spent in dogged focus on defining and naming this crime, and persuading relevant international bodies to accept it as such, to punish the hatred of a group that manifests itself in attempts to wipe that group from the face of the planet. He believed that governments, and the law, had the power to come together to punish those who committed genocide, just as nations had done in the past with issues like piracy and slavery: “Perpetrators will be watched. They will be accountable in some fashion.”

Lemkin himself escaped the Holocaust by fleeing as a refugee to the United States, but lost nearly his entire family to the death camps. With this foundation, the fight to legally define genocide became his life’s work. He drafted the Genocide Convention, which was later adopted as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide before the newly-minted United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Genocide was then defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”


Photograph of Lemkin from an exhibit at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, visited here 

Laws- those don’t make for as exciting of films, do they? No groups of soldiers swooping down on concentration camps and liberating the survivors. During the Rwandan Genocide, when no rule of law protected the country, genocidaires killed at will and Western nations were aware of the slaughter but hesitant to step in (with American politicians carefully skirting around the word “genocide” since to call it such would require them to act. See: Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s recognition of not “genocide” but “acts of genocide.”). Laws at that time would be of little comfort to those whose parents and children were cut down before their eyes. But, when the massacres ended, international law on genocide presented a framework to actively prosecute those who engineered such acts, like Jean Kambanda who faced international court four years after the Rwandan Genocide.

Early in the film, an image of soft mist settles around the tops of hills fills the screen: Rwanda. There, we meet a man named Emmanuel Uwurukundo, and for once, the image of Rwanda is not the review the horrors of genocide (at least not at that moment in the film), but to show a glimmer of hope. Uwurukundo is shown bidding his family farewell and boarding a UN plane. He joined Lemkin as a survivor of genocide. Overcoming this, the crushing pain of knowing he survived when others died, he is now the UN Refugee Agency Field Director for Chad, where thousands of Darfurian refugees continue to flee from the genocidal violence engineered by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. We see Uwurukundo take his children to the mass grave where his parents are buried. He speaks softly, telling the camera, “No solution has ever been found by retaliating. I don’t think of revenging myself. I’m capable of doing it. … But if I’m perpetuating hatred, it means you are exposing your children. You are exposing the children of your children. It’s kind of spiral killing which is going on and on. I think that at a certain time, we have to stop and say, we stop here. We cannot go on.”

So, on that note, may Rwanda know peace during these hundred days, and for the next hundred years. And may we remember men like Lemkin who fought for justice and became the voice of millions of Jews, Bosnians, Cambodians, Darfurians, and, of course, Rwandans.


Power, S. (2003) A problem from hell: America and the age of genocide. New York: HarperCollins.


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