Every year on April 7, Rwanda enters a 100-day commemoration period of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi where about a million men, women and children were killed in three months.
Commonly known as Kwibuka, or remembrance, the period has always been marked by public gatherings until the Covid-19 pandemic hit two years ago and pushed events online.
This year, Kwibuka 28 will be marked with in-person events as Covid-19 infections drop to negligible rates. For 25 years, Kwibuka season set off with a “Walk to Remember,” the lighting of the Light of Hope by the president and First Lady and national commemoration events. These events attracted thousands of Rwandans and people from all walks of life from across the world.
But the pandemic in 2020 saw the cancellation of physical commemoration events. Only the lighting of the Light of Hope by President Paul Kagame was retained. Commemoration talks and other events were shifted to national and private broadcasting publications and YouTube.
Covid-19 travel bans prohibited survivors from visiting memorial sites and burial places of their loved ones. Public gatherings were banned for two years until March this year when the government lifted precautionary measures and the curfew.
This year, the commemoration period kicked off with events held physically at village level. The national event was held simultaneously on April 7 at Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali.
''Remember-Unite-Renew” is still a recurring theme, five years now. This year’s discussions will revolve around reconciliation and educating young people, all under 30 years old, about Rwanda’s history.
“We now have young people who were born after the genocide and have little knowledge of the Genocide against the Tutsi. The focus of this year’s commemoration talks will focus on educating this part of history to them,” said Jean Damascene Bizimana, Minister of National Unity and Reconciliation, on a national broadcaster on April 3.
Mr Bizimana added that large gatherings such as the “Walk to Remember” and night vigil will not be held this year. On the evening of April 7, the public followed the commemoration night on national television and radio.
Back to supporting survivors
Visiting and supporting the genocide survivors has been one of the major activities during the commemoration period. But Covid put a stop to this with survivors being among the most vulnerable and affected groups by the pandemic.
“Trauma cases in our members skyrocketed during last year's Kwibuka and the year before.
For them, the period is about remembering, visiting their loved ones, and coming together to emotionally support each other. But they were stranded at home. Most were overwhelmed by the memories and sometimes were lonely and none to talk with. It was hard,” said Godelieve Mukasarasi, founder of SEVOTA, an organisation that supports genocide widows and children born out of rape.
Starting with the week of commemoration, SEVOTA plans to provide financial support to some of its members and visit burial sites of their loved ones. The organisation has over 2, 000 beneficiaries across 10 districts.
AERG, an association of students survivors of the genocide, has similarly been impacted by Covid-19 restrictions. For the past 26 years, it has supported survivors and orphans by donating cows, money, food, health insurance, and offered emotional support.
“We had families that we helped consistently for the past few years. They relied on our support on many occasions. But with Covid-19 it was impossible to visit them; the effects were not just materialistic. Most of them just needed someone to talk to during commemoration time. It means a lot this year that we are returning to normal,” said Emmanuel Muneza, co-ordinator of AERG.
The upside of digital commemoration will remain to leverage digital platforms to reach more people through podcasts, YouTube videos, digital books, and documents on the Genocide against the Tutsi and the history of Rwanda.
Commemoration events that used to only gather local citizens and officials can now be followed or attended by anyone from across the world. Egide Nkuranga, Acting President of Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of the groups that aid survivors of the genocide, says this is a positive effect of the pandemic.