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RUBAVU, Feb 23 — Innocent Kabanda remembers only too well the day when the extremist Hutu Interahamwe rolled in, on April 7, 1994, when the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsis had just begun. “The people came and they told my father that they’d take us to the town centre. They also took away my big brother. I never saw them again,” said Kabanda, now 33, speaking at a commemorative event ahead of the 20th anniversary of the genocide.
The Interahamwe — fired up on Hutu Power ideology and determined to crush the Tutsi “inyenzi”, or cockroaches, as they were branded — had promised to bring Kabanda’s family and others to the safety of the municipal buildings in the small town of Rubavu.
Instead, entire families were taken to the western town’s cemetery, murdered by machete, gun or grenade and tossed into a mass grave — among the first victims of 100 days of carnage that left at least 800,000 people dead across the small central African country, the overwhelming majority of them Tutsis.
Today Rubavu’s cemetery is a memorial known as the “red commune”, so named because of the amount of blood that was shed there. In all, some 5,000 victims are buried there.
This week Kabanda, now a local representative of Ibuka, the association of genocide survivors, was among those who opened up their trauma as a flame of remembrance passed through the area as part of a nationwide tour marking the anniversary of the genocide.
For more than two hours, survivors told their stories to onlookers, as did some of those who took part in the killings.
“I came from a mixed family, my father was Hutu and my mother Tutsi,” said Ibrahim Ndayambaje.
“The Interahamwe told me that I had Tutsi blood in me, and to be spared I had to go with them and kill.”
Ndayambaje was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 1995, and was pardoned by President Paul Kagame in 2001.
“I saw everything that happened during the genocide, the massacre of the Tutsis,” he told the crowd. “Coming here and telling my story is my contribution to rebuilding our nation.”
Organisers of the commemorations are hoping that such events, far from reopening old wounds, will instead serve as a sign of “the resilience and courage of Rwandans over the past 20 years”.
In Rubavu, the passage of the flame brought out large numbers of locals and officials, and the shops were closed.
Carried by a young man and woman who were born the year of the killings and were dressed in white and grey robes, the flame was placed next to Rubavu’s memorial.
“Local people are very interested,” said Irene Niyitanga, one of the organisers. He said that authorities had tried to “mobilise” people to attend, but insisted nobody was forced to.
The ceremony is “important because it educates young people not to make the same errors as their forefathers”, said Theogene Dusabirema, one of the people attending the commemorations.
“To see the flames also helps me pay my respects to the people who were killed,” said the 34-year-old, who says he lost his entire family in the genocide.
“It has been hard to rebuild. I didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said, adding that the passing of time had helped him reconcile with the families who killed his loved ones.
“The flame is a sign of hope,” said Patrice, 65. “It shows us that those who planned the genocide won’t be able to come back and trick us again, and that Rwandans are visibly getting along better.”
The flame will continue to tour the country’s 30 districts before returning to the capital, Kigali, on April 7, from when the country will enter into a period of national mourning. — AFP