Pictures of people killed in the genocide donated by survivors, installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali (Photo: REUTERS/Radu Sigheti)
Today marks 20 years since the start of the Rwandan Genocide. Over the course of a harrowing 100-day period, the Central African conflict led to the deaths of an estimated 800,000 people in 1994.
After an airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down on April 6, 1994, longstanding tensions between members of the majority Hutu ethnic group and the minority Tutsi population escalated into genocide (defined by the United Nations as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group"). The mass slaughter of Tutsis (along with large numbers of moderate Hutus who favoured reconciliation) was organized and carried out by supremacist militias, as well as government and military forces loyal to the Hutu majority.
When the genocide ended three months later, with a Tutsi-led rebellion bringing down the government and declaring a ceasefire, an estimated two million Hutu refugees fled the country for Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) fearing retribution.
The international community has been criticized for its initial response to the crisis. The UN withdrew the majority of its peacekeeping forces several weeks into the conflict, and international officials initially avoided using the word "genocide" to describe the conflict.
One of the key figures working to protect human life within Rwanda and bringing international attention to what he considered clear examples of genocide was Canadian Senator Roméo Dallaire, then Force Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations-led peacekeeping force tasked with stabilizing the region.
Dallaire talked about his experiences in his Governor General's Award-winning memoir Shake Hands with the Devil, which he discusses in this segment from The National:
Dallaire's is one of a number of incredible stories of courage during the Rwandan crisis. In the leadup to the 20th anniversary, BBC published a remarkable mulltimedia profile of Captain Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese United Nations observer who performed unsanctioned civilian rescue missions throughout the conflict.
In 1999, the Rwandan government formed the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission to help address some of the lingering injustices from the conflict, with a focus on non-discrimination, social justice, and the reproductive and health effects of sexual violence. The UN estimates that between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three-month-long genocide.
Twenty years later, several important initiatives are working to repair relationships and bridge cultural divides that remain in the region. Prison Fellowship Rwanda established six “reconciliation villages” in rural areas across the country, allowing impoverished Tutsis and Hutus to live and work together in collaborative communities.
A new exhibit at King’s College in London gives the world a glimpse into the work of several Rwandan photographers. Rwanda In Photographs: Death Then, Life Now is the product of a workshop in which prominent African photographers talked about how Rwanda is visually portrayed internationally. The event highlighted a need to allow Rwandan photographers to capture their own surroundings.