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Rwandan Genocide Survivor Shares His Story of Tragedy, Forgiveness

Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, a playwright and peace activist who witnessed the horrors of genocide firsthand as a 7-year-old in southwestern Rwanda, spoke at Boston College on Thursday night. In his talk, Ntigurirwa mixed his own story in with a history of the conflict.

Ntigurirwa is currently the artist in residence at Arts Connect International, an organization committed to promoting social justice and cultural awareness through artists and their work. He is an advocate for reconciliation and forgiveness in Rwanda, and seeks to promote peace through his life and work. The talk was sponsored by the AHANA Leadership Council, the African and African Diaspora Studies Program, and the Center for Human Rights and International Justice.

The genocide in Rwanda was perpetrated by the ethnic majority Hutus against the smaller minority of Tutsis. Ntigurirwa is against calling them ‘ethnic groups,’ however.

“These are racist and polluted identities,” he said.

In precolonial Rwanda, ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ were determined by the number of cows a person owned, which allowed people to fluctuate between the two groups.

“Forgiving was not just as easy as I’m saying … and it’s never easy to forgive, but I forgave these people because I want to show peace is possible.”

—Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, a playwright and peace activist

This original definition was distorted by Belgian colonists, who were given control of Rwanda from Germany after their defeat in World War I. The Belgians sought to divide the population to rule them more easily.

“They started hypothesizing these identities,” Ntigurirwa said. “They started defining Hutus and Tutsis as they wanted.”

The Belgians defined the Tutsis as a more “white-like” group that migrated from North Africa, and Hutus as Rwanda’s ancestral population. Height and the length of the nose were often used to determine one’s placement, and Belgians gave the Tutsis special privileges in return for help ruling the country.

In the 1950s, well-educated Tutsis began to question Belgian rule. In response to this, the Belgians began to speak poorly of the Tutsis.

“‘You see these people have been oppressing you. You need to take of your country, because these people are aliens. … You need to take control of your country. Look at what they have been doing,’” Ntigurirwa said, imitating the Belgians speaking to the Tusis.

In 1959, Hutu-Tutsi violence began, and with independence in 1962 a Hutu government highly discriminatory toward the Tutsi was set up, causing many to leave the country. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group composed of Tutsi exiles, invaded the country and initiated the Rwandan Civil War in 1990. Anti-Tutsi sentiment greatly increased. Many Hutus began preparing for a conflict, and Ntigurirwa described young people learning to kill with machetes on the banana plantations.

In 1993, a peace agreement was signed in Tanzania. A military chief of staff in Rwanda, however, didn’t agree. He went back to Rwanda to prepare the Tutsis for “apocalypse.”

On April 6, 1994, the president of Rwanda was killed.

“I clearly remember when it happened .… That evening when the President’s plane was shot down, genocide started happening the same night,” Ntigurirwa said.

Ntigurirwa then described the next morning, when a neighbor searched for his family to kill them, marking the beginning of a long struggle of hiding and surviving.

“You can’t really think of what happened at the age of 7, spending nights by myself, knowing that if I speak I will die,” he said.

His own father was killed near where he was hidden. He shared the story of how, at one point, he and his brother hid feet away from men reading their names out loud from a list of Tutsis to be killed. Ntigurirwa was forced to drink water polluted with blood from bodies to avoid dying of dehydration, and had to hide in the mass graves to avoid discovery.

“You do anything, but you also can’t do enough to survive,” he said.

Ntigurirwa spoke of the toll on the country during the roughly 100-day genocide, a death figure no one will ever know for sure.

“The numbers matter, but what happened matters more than numbers,” Ntigurirwa said. “More than [a] million people died from the government of Rwanda’s statistics … The whole country was like a mass grave.”

He spoke about his disappointment with the rest of the world for not trying to stop the genocide.

“Rwanda has [a] unique story of tragedy. Genocide was horrible. But, it has also [a] unique story that we can learn from, that we can change, that we can make the world a better place.”

—Hyppolite Ntigurirwa, a playwright and peace activist

“The chiefs of powerful countries, presidents, ministers, U.N. officials, instead of saying, ‘Let’s do something,’ they were discussing if they can call or if they can let [the] media use the word genocide as something that is happening in Rwanda,” Ntigurirwa said.

The genocide finally ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front captured Kigali, causing Hutus to flee to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to form their own rebel group. Still, Ntigurirwa and other Rwandans endured attacks for years after the genocide was over. A new government was set up, led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Courts were created to sentence the perpetrators of the genocide, as well as to provide opportunities for them to confess and ask forgiveness of their victims’ families. Ntigurirwa and his family choose to forgive the people who had killed his father, uncles, and cousins.

“Forgiving was not just as easy as I’m saying … and it’s never easy to forgive, but I forgave these people because I want to show peace is possible,” he said.

Years later, Ntigurirwa studied sociology, which helped him better understand what had happened to him. He came to realize that ethnicity was not the cause of the killings. Rather, it was the hate that people had learned all of their lives.

“Rwanda has [a] unique story of tragedy,” he said. “Genocide was horrible. But, it has also [a] unique story that we can learn from, that we can change, that we can make the world a better place.”

Correction: The article originally stated that Uganda’s president was killed in 1994. The  article now correctly states that the Rwandan president was killed.

Featured Image by Kristin Saleski / Heights Staff

November 6, 2016