Writing Genocide: Poetry and Prose from Rwanda

Genocide is a specific type of crime, determined not only by the actions of the killers but also by their goal. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide emphasizes that the crime is characterized by the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."  In many cases, killers try to eliminate any trace that the victims ever existed, destroying family photographs, burning belongings, and burying the remains of their victims in anonymous mass graves.  In the face of such horror and destruction, literature and testimony about genocide makes a gesture of reparation, attempting to restore a faint trace of all that has been destroyed.

But how to write about such violence, and about the difficulties of living in its aftermath?  What words may survivors find to express what happened to them and their family members, and how may outsiders accurately represent survivors' experiences? 

The writings gathered here focus on the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath.  Almost twenty years ago, between April and July 1994, Hutu militias, citizens, and the national army killed at least 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda.  Since 1959, and in the years leading up to the killings, the extremist Hutu government had persecuted the minority Tutsi people, systematically excluding them from meaningful participation in public life, targeting them for harassment and physical violence, and dehumanizing them in propaganda campaigns that represented Tutsi as cockroaches or snakes, pests that had to be exterminated for the good of the nation.  The extremist Hutu Power government had plotted the genocide for years, training the army and militias, stocking up on weapons like machetes and clubs, and indoctrinating the Hutu population with genocidal ideology. Once the killings started, large numbers of ordinary people participated, murdering their neighbors, friends, and even family members.

There is no single story of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, and the excerpts published here cannot begin to represent the voices and experiences of all Rwandans.   Our selection marks a chronological progression, and also provides three different perspectives on the genocide: a Chadian novelist who came to the country in 1998 to try to understand and represent the events, a genocide survivor who wrote in 2006 about the difficult process of coexistence in Rwanda, and a young Rwandan writer who was born outside the country to parents living in exile, and who, like many others born and raised in the diaspora, came to her home nation only after the genocide.  Their words, all originally written in French, testify not only to the multiplicity of perspectives on the genocide, but also the variety of approaches to writing about it.

Chadian novelist and playwright Koulsy Lamko came to Rwanda in 1998 as part of a project entitled "Writing by Duty of Memory," which brought a dozen African writers to Rwanda and provided each with a commission to write a text.  The authors interviewed survivors, met with perpetrators, and visited many memorial sites.  Most of these sites were churches where Tutsi had fled, hoping to find protection and refuge. During the genocide in 1994, however, there were no sacred places.  Four years after the genocide, Lamko and his fellow writers visited the church of Nyamata, where, on April 14, 1994, killers had murdered three thousand Tutsi.  When Lamko visited, the bodies of the dead were still on display, due to a controversial decision by the Rwandan government that victims' remains would bear silent witness to the crimes committed against them.  Lamko's novel, The Butterfly of the Hills, attempts to give voice to one of the victims, Thérèse Mukandori, who was brutally raped and murdered.  To commemorate her suffering and death, Lamko chose an image of resurrection: A butterfly reborn from the corpse who takes revenge on those who would exploit her memory.  This butterfly narrates The Butterfly of the Hills, and her angry words remind readers of the unacceptable injustice done to victims. 

The second text portrays the thorny issues of justice and reconciliation in postgenocide Rwanda.  How to adjudicate the thousands of cases of those accused of killing?  How do survivors manage to face those who killed their families in court, and, furthermore, how do survivors and perpetrators co-exist once the latter are released from prison?  To address some of these issues, the government instituted gacaca, local courts that were based on precolonial systems of justice.  In these open-air community trials, survivors accused perpetrators, and perpetrators had the opportunity to confess for a reduction of their sentences.  In "A Coward Repentance," from Stephanie’s Flower: Rwanda Between Reconciliation and Denial, genocide survivor Esther Mujawayo worked with journalist Souâd Belhaddad to describe the courage and resilience that it takes for survivors to face perpetrators in these trials.  In a narrative that intentionally preserves the oral style of spoken testimony, Mujawayo conveys the travails of living in Rwanda today, where a survivor is faced not only with perpetrators but also with those who were bystanders during the genocide, and who did not do all that they could have done to save their friends and neighbors.

The final contribution consists of two poems by Michaella Rugwizangoga, whose family fled during the pogroms leading up to the genocide.  When her family moved back to Rwanda when Rugwizangoga was young, she was confronted with a country that she had only heard about in stories from her parents.  Like many Rwandans living in exile, she returned to a homeland that had been ravaged, and where many of her relatives had been murdered.  In her writing, Rugwizangoga works to make sense of her loss and also of her relationship with Rwandan culture and language.  She represents a generation of young Rwandans who work to rebuild their country, keeping an eye on the past even as they look toward the future.

© 2013 by Elizabeth Applegate. All rights reserved.