Last month, in Bugarama, a border town in Rwanda’s deep southwest, a young man told me, “This year’s genocide commemorations will be the same as last year’s and the one before that and the one before that. No one will remember this one. Next year, the 25th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsi — that will be the big one.”
Two stories from this past week show how mistaken he was.
Each commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi carries profound, diverse and evolving meanings for many Rwandans, while also representing an important terrain for negotiation between Rwandan elites and everyday citizens.
On April 10, my wife and I, along with a Rwandan journalist colleague, attended a commemoration ceremony in Ngororero, a town high in the western tea plantations that fringe the Gishwati Forest.
Every year, Ngororero holds its biggest memorial event on April 10 to mark the massacre of Tutsi that occurred on that date in 1994 at the headquarters of the ruling National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) party.
Ngororero also witnessed the systematic killing of Tutsi in early 1993 — during “rehearsal massacres” that foreshadowed the nationwide violence the following year.
Meanwhile, 20km north lies Kabaya, where senior MRND figure Léon Mugesera delivered his infamous November 1992 speech, imploring the local Hutu to send the Tutsi back to Ethiopia via the Nyaborongo River — a speech that in 2016 led the Rwandan High Court to find Mr Mugesera guilty of incitement to genocide, and to sentence him to life in prison.
All of these events were recounted by speakers before a crowd of around 2,000 people in Ngororero.
A young man sang two powerful songs, the first based on a letter written by a young woman in the district, addressed to her relatives who were killed at the MRND headquarters.
The second song lamented the plight of young Rwandans who have nothing to give their dead parents except flowers and, because their remains have never been recovered, they do not even know where to lay the bouquets.
While the commemorations represent a crucial collective moment, they are also deeply personal, interpreted differently depending on people’s experiences of 1994.
Some people were visibly distressed during the ceremony, some so traumatised they were led away by green-uniformed counsellors provided by the district. Some people appeared bored, fiddling with their phones. Many sat stoically throughout, betraying little emotion. On the fringes, many people were consoling tearful loved ones.
Afterwards one man said he came from Kigali every year to attend the commemoration at Ngororero because his entire family was killed at the party headquarters.
Over time, the importance of holding such ceremonies at the local level — where crimes were committed and where the people affected still live — has become especially apparent.
As a result, the Rwandan government holds fewer spectacular ceremonies in the national stadium — which were viewed either as impersonal or highly traumatising — in favour of smaller, quieter events in local communities.
This shows an important responsiveness by the government to citizens’ needs. But this will be tested during the 25th anniversary commemorations next year, with some officials already talking again of a focus on large stadium events?
Within half an hour of the ceremony in Ngororero ending, the main street of the town was abuzz. People were getting on with life.
Last month, some Rwandan senators proposed closing all businesses nationwide for the entire commemoration week — as the government did in the years immediately after the genocide. They argued that businesses staying open was one reason some communities were experiencing low turnouts at commemoration events.
Business leaders and civil society organisations opposed the senators’ move, stressing the losses businesses would incur and the need for the population to experience some normality and release amid the emotional toil of the events.
The government agreed to a compromise whereby businesses would close only during officially organised commemorations, which were limited to three hours each day.
Much of this negotiation concerns balancing the need to remember with the need for people to get on with their daily existence.
Wider debates are also underway concerning reparations for survivors and whether these should be paid by the government, convicted perpetrators or international actors such as the UN, Belgium and France because of their failures and complicity in the genocide.
The second story from the week involved a friend, Jean Claude, whose parents were killed in 1994 when he was two-years-old. He and his sister, aged six at the time, survived by hiding in bushes on the outskirts of their village near Musanze in northern Rwanda.
On April 7 and 8 this year, Jean Claude and his sister visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial at Gisozi to lay flowers in the public graveyard, where 250,000 victims are interred. Each year since they were old enough, they have done this at Gisozi rather than in their home community because the remains of their parents had never been recovered.
On the evening of April 8, soon after Jean Claude returned from Gisozi, I found him weeping. His sister had called to tell him that late that afternoon their mother’s remains had been found in a mass grave in their home village. Finally Jean Claude and his sister could return home to bury their mother with dignity. They could now lay flowers on their mother’s grave.
National memorials like Gisozi are vital for recognising the genocide as a nationwide atrocity. For survivors like Jean Claude and his sister, though, it is also essential to acknowledge individual victims in the locations where they were killed. For them, this year was not just any commemoration. This was the most important one.
Phil Clark is a Reader in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS, University of London, and author of the forthcoming book, Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics.