Farah Stockman

Rwandans Struggle to Come to Terms With Murderous Past

KIGALI RWANDA -- This is the only nation in the world to commemorate a "Genocide Day."The celebration is as macabre as the name.On Wednesday, February 7, under a hot sun, the nation's leaders filed past the mummified remains of hundreds of ethnic Tutsis murdered in a rural church five years ago. Some of the withered corpses still clasp the rosary beads they counted just before militiamen stormed the church and murdered thousands."They didn't mind that it was a church," Batiste Ntetisyeyo, a survivor of the massacre, announced through a megaphone. "The aim was to kill."Flags are flown at half-staff all week and all discos are closed. At the national ceremony, where President Pasteur Bizimingu talked of bringing unity to Rwanda's divided population, survivors held up hand-made signs reading "justice before reconciliation."But justice is not always easy in a country where so many ordinary people were forced or encouraged by their leaders to commit unspeakable acts. It is estimated that as many people were involved in committing the genocide as died in it. Today over 120,000 prisoners await trial on genocide charges.Abbey Mazimpaka, a local prosecutor, says more than fifty suspects confessed to him. "They were regretting what they did. They were saying that they were told by the leaders to do it -- the bourgmestre [town mayor] came with weapons, forcing people to kill."The story goes the same across the country, as a mostly peasant population explain why many of them tried to murder every member of their neighbor's household, down to the smallest child. Five years after the unimaginable happened in Rwanda, people are still sorting out who is responsible, who to forgive and what to forget.Almost everyone agrees that evil politics, not ethnic hatred, prompted the blood bath. Historians now talk of extremist politicians unwilling to share power who incited genocide in an attempt to unite the Hutu masses. Playing on popular resentment of Tutsis, Rwanda's traditional "elite" group, leaders used genocide to kill off their political opposition. Some say these extremists engineered the fatal plane crash of their own president -- the event which sparked the massacres -- just months after he signed a power-sharing agreement with Tutsis.But if hate didn't spark the genocide, its heavy history certainly lies just below the surface. At a bar just a mile from the graveyard where thousands of Tutsis seeking refuge in a school are now buried, survivors drink beer with Hutu neighbors.Issa Radjabali, 60, who taught mechanics at the school, survived because the gates were closed before he could enter. He says the country is moving toward reconciliation and that recent local elections were a success."We can't say everything is good, but many things are," he said. "Those who killed my people -- if they come here, we will live with them. But they don't want to ask forgiveness. If a person asks for forgiveness, you can listen. But you can't tell them you forgive them if they don't ask."Many say that the ethnic hatreds are being set aside to build a new society. But many of those most determined to see a new Rwanda -- including the new government -- are new to the country themselves. After extermination wiped out at least half of all Tutsis in Rwanda, those living in exile flooded back, replacing the dead nearly one to one.Downtown, the children of refugees have put fresh coats of paint on buildings where their relatives were murdered. Street corners where soldiers once erected roadblocks to separate out citizens with Tutsi identity cards now sport neon advertisements for "select market" fast food.It will take some time before the returnees integrate into society, but in many ways they are the most optimistic about chances for peace. After years of life in exile, Rwanda is their home for better or for worse.Mafutamingi Gahunde, administrator at an oil company, says "The genocidier, the refugee, the survivor, they are all here together to build Rwanda."You see the problem? There is no solution. There are survivors whose families have been killed. Then there are people in jail who are wrongly accused, because of bad motives. Don't you see it's a problem?"Smiling, Mr. Gahunde disagreed with a religious friend's prediction that ten years of good leadership could erase the Hutu-Tutsi problem."It takes time. Fifty years, maybe. Slowly, slow," he said, making the motion of a teetering toddler learning to walk. "Everything is a slow struggle."Farah Stockman, a journalist who works with Internews, reports from Kigali.

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