Rwanda’s Younger Generation Still Deals With the Legacy of Genocide

The country’s past deeply affects those who have come to adulthood with no memory of the events of 30 years ago

Rwanda’s Younger Generation Still Deals With the Legacy of Genocide
Young Rwandans take part in a candlelight vigil on the 30th anniversary of the country’s genocide. (Luke Dray/Getty Images)

Kanyoni was only 7 years old when he saved a woman’s life. But once he found out who she was, he regretted it.

Kanyoni — an alias because of the sensitivity of the story — and a friend had been hurrying back to school after lunch in the Kicukiro district of southeastern Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. It was 2007, and he was in the second grade. As the boys made their way along the quiet road, a motorcycle taxi whizzed past and hit a bump. The heavy-set passenger was thrown off the back of the motorcycle, landing in the middle of the street in front of them.

“She hit her head on the ground,” Kanyoni, now 25, recalled to me in early January. “She started bleeding from her nose and ears. She wasn’t moving.” The boys ran to the house of a man who had a car, knocking at the gate until it opened. “We shouted that someone was dying outside and he came running,” Kanyoni said. The man recognized the woman and called the village leader; soon she was rushed to the hospital.

News of the accident spread quickly throughout the community, along with accolades for the boys’ efforts. When Kanyoni’s mother heard the news, she sat him down for a talk. “I heard you helped this lady; you did something good,” he recalls her saying. But she didn’t stop there. She asked him if he knew the woman he had helped. He did not. She then said, “Her family is the family that made your father go to prison.”

Although Kanyoni was not even born yet when in 1994 the country’s Hutu military rulers coordinated the slaughter over three horrific months of an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis but also their supporters, he does live with the aftermath. Kanyoni’s father was considered a genocidaire — someone who participated in the violence.

“Genocidaire” was a word that meant very little to a 7-year-old boy. When his mother told him whom he had helped, he blamed himself for being disloyal to his father and for helping a woman who caused his family so much pain.

“It just stayed in my mind,” he said. “Why did I save her?” At that point, Kanyoni’s struggle over his actions had more to do with his father’s incarceration than with his participation in the genocide.

In the eyes of many, the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda represented not just the almost unimaginable consequences of social polarization but also the shameful inaction of the international community. However, after the new government of President Paul Kagame in 2001 put in place community justice and reconciliation programs, which included community trials (through the revived tradition of “gacaca” courts) and a youth civic education program (known as “Itorero”), the world saw Rwanda as a model for its remarkable recovery and progressive policy. The Rwandan government now enforces monthly community volunteer days, car-free mornings and a policy to reduce the use of plastic bags while supporting progressive social, economic and public health initiatives.

Despite these accomplishments, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, have criticized Kagame. These critics claim that Kagame is capitalizing on the international community’s guilt from its inaction to stop the genocide and using that guilt to make powerful countries turn a blind eye to his more oppressive actions. The trade-off for the country’s current peace, they claim, includes the suppression of political opposition, a censored press and the waging of war beyond Rwanda’s borders.

As Rwanda marks the 30th anniversary of its darkest moment, more than two-thirds of the population is too young to remember the devastation. But the youth have inherited their parents’ traumas and stories, and while some have misgivings, others see the approach of the country’s current leadership as the only way to move forward and continue to heal.

The violence between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda began some three decades before the 1994 genocide, just before Rwanda’s independence. But the divisions in the country were already in place. The Belgians, the colonial power working with the Tutsi Rwandan king since the end of World War I, had anticipated a democratic shift in the country’s politics and they propagated a new narrative in the 1950s to build an alliance with the majority and retain influence in the country: the Hutus as oppressed and the Tutsis as oppressors. When the country gained independence in 1962, the Hutu majority took power with a leader, Gregoire Kayibanda, who was eager for revenge against the Tutsi oppressors. Tutsi Rwandans fled en masse, seeking refuge in neighboring Burundi and Uganda.

Over the decades that followed, exiled Tutsis periodically attacked from the borders, instilling fear in the increasingly extremist Hutu government, which encouraged retribution killings of Tutsis. In the 1980s, a young group of Tutsi refugees who lived in Uganda started training with Yoweri Museveni, a military leader who was then vying to overthrow Milton Obote, the Ugandan dictator. When Museveni took power in Uganda in 1986, the young Tutsi refugee fighters formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and continued to train in Uganda and plan their return to Rwanda.

In 1990, the RPF invaded from the north and managed to hold their ground. The Hutu government intensified its messaging to the Rwandan population that the Tutsis were the enemy and asked allied countries to help protect the borders. France stepped in to train a youth militia force and provide weaponry. The increasing instability prompted the United Nations to intervene to negotiate a peace accord and install a transitional government.

When Rwanda’s presidential plane was shot down on the night of April 6, 1994, the question of who was to blame was quickly made irrelevant. Machetes had been distributed, a youth militia was ready, and community leaders had the addresses of the Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The hard-line Hutu radio station Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines told the population to “go to work.”

The radio announcers used names like “cockroaches” and “tall trees” to dehumanize the Tutsis while incessantly broadcasting where they were hiding, how best to kill them and what might happen if the slaughter didn’t occur. After three months, the genocide ended on July 4, when the RPF succeeded in taking over Rwanda. Almost 1 million people had been murdered, and almost 1 million more, fearing retaliation, fled into the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire).

I met Kanyoni at the Kigali Golf Club in January 2024. The club is in one of Kigali’s wealthiest neighborhoods, nestled in the lush valley of the Gasabo district. A long athletics track with turquoise artificial grass encircles the 18-hole golf course. That night, a steady flow of Rwandans clad in athletic attire paced the track, jogging or walking.

Kanyoni smiled politely when I arrived. He was leaning on his mountain bike in full cycling wear. He had just finished biking up and down the city’s steep hills to meet clients and walk their dogs, which he does for a living. He kicked out the bike stand, and we crossed the street together.

He didn’t lock the bike. “Why would I?” he asked. “Who would steal it?”

Sitting on a bench facing the golf course, he told me about his childhood.

“Everyone had a mom, but no one had a dad,” he said. “We didn’t know that wasn’t normal.”

Kanyoni’s father, like many others, fled to the Congo after the genocide, leaving his wife and children behind to fend for themselves. He returned in 1998, after which Kanyoni and his younger brother were born. In 2002, Kanyoni’s father was sentenced to prison after a gacaca (community) trial.

The architects of the genocide — at least those who were caught — were tried in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. But the sheer volume of community participation in the genocide overwhelmed the local and national legal structures. The government reinstalled the precolonial gacaca courts in 2001. Locals were elected by their communities and trained by law students and local magistrates to conduct informal trials nationwide. The accused would listen to testimonies of survivors, ask forgiveness and then receive their sentence from a panel of nine judges.

Over 1 million suspects had been tried in over 12,000 courts by their close in 2012, and official government records indicate that the courts had a final conviction rate of 86%. The trials were efficient, but they were also criticized for their informalities. There was no legal representation for the accused. Some survivors retaliated against their abusers. Some perpetrators killed witnesses. Other survivors simply could not bear to face the trial. Human Rights Watch released a study in 2011 that criticized the gacaca courts for their corruption and bias, as well as for the omission of crimes committed by the RPF.

“That is one way to look at it … but they’re measuring it against things it didn’t set out to do,” said Samantha Lakin, a senior fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts who has spent six years in Rwanda studying the reconciliation process. She highlighted that though the trials failed when seen from a Western frame of justice, those weren’t the promises made at the outset. What mattered was the effect on actual Rwandans on a social and human level.

It was through gacaca courts that prisoners were either sentenced or released and many bodies, including mass graves, were discovered. Many families found solace in finally burying their dead.

Kanyoni learned about the genocide when he was in the sixth grade, three years after he helped the woman on the motorcycle. In class, they taught him about the country’s history, its colonial past and the divisions that led to the genocide. That is when he realized his mother wasn’t telling him what to think but allowing him to come to his own conclusions. He said he returned home and asked his mother for details on their family’s past.

“He didn’t kill anyone but participated,” Kanyoni explained.

Kanyoni’s understanding is that his father escorted the same woman whom Kanyoni later rescued to a roadblock, where the local militia then raped her. The gacaca judges convicted Kanyoni’s father of rape and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Kanyoni said that his family was not given records of the trial proceedings.

The family suffered after the actions of the father, at the hands of both the perpetrators during the genocide and the survivors afterward. His father was called a coward by fellow genocidaires for not actually killing anyone, and his mother paid the price.

“[She] had to hide also and move from the house with her children — my sister and three brothers — so they wouldn’t be killed,” he said.

After the genocide, his mother had to support the children and worked at a U.N. craft cooperative. Kanyoni said she was a community leader there and received some emotional support. He said that she was respected in her work and by the community, but the neighbors would say to Kanyoni and his older siblings that their father was a killer.

“We would say he isn’t — he wasn’t accused of this in gacaca — but when we defended him, they would hit my siblings,” he said.

Still, he added, “People cope in different ways, and I can’t judge anyone. I know it wasn’t easy for them.”

After learning about the genocide and hearing about his father’s role, Kanyoni’s view of having saved the woman on the motorcycle changed.

“I realized it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Recognizing a need for national unity, the government mandated that Rwandan history be included in the education system, including the genocide and its causes, with increasing detail through the elementary and high school curriculum.

Much like Kanyoni, other children returned home curious about their families’ involvement. However, unlike Kanyoni’s mother, many were not ready to speak about the roles of family members in the genocide. This has led to confusion among the children about their own family stories and difficulty with integration.

The Itorero civic education program was reintroduced from precolonial Rwandan tradition in 2007. It was a recommended program to create an identity as “umunyarwanda” (which translates as “I am Rwandan”) for young people graduating from high school. It was not focused on the history of division but instead on rebuilding the country, working toward reconciliation and building patriotism.

The students learn of a decentralized system of kingships that dates back 3,000 years. In the Middle Ages, the monarchy developed judicia, education and caste systems; the Tutsis were the elite who owned cows and knew the traditional ways, the Hutus were newly conquered and required indoctrination, and the Twa were considered the poorest, living off the forests. The Rwanda historians claim the system was designed to encourage social and economic mobility. For instance, a Hutu could become a Tutsi simply by gaining more cows, and the Tutsis were required to give cows away when they had more than 10.

It wasn’t until just after the Berlin Conference of 1892 that colonial powers first arrived at the newly drawn borders of Rwanda. The Germans reported that the country had a fierce and organized military that they could not overpower. The Belgians faced the same problem when they arrived after World War I. So the Belgians tried a new strategy: dividing Rwandan society. They started by building a relationship with the king and the inner circle of the Tutsi elite.

In 1932, the same year that Hitler was gaining popularity in Germany, the Belgians encouraged the king’s administration to distribute “ethnic” identity cards. At first they tried to distinguish ethnicity by physical features, but in the end they issued national identification using the number of cows owned by each family. From then on, the identities were passed down paternally.

Annie Uwase, now 31, said her Itorero program in 2012 was a positive experience. We met in Rwanda in early January. She fondly remembers the early morning exercise and the soldiers teaching them to sing in a circle: “Learn to live in a small country in peace and harmony!”

“That marked me since that camp — We were all mixed together. No one’s saying that you are [Hutu or Tutsi],” she said. After the camp, she volunteered at the Ubumwe community center in Gisenyi, on the northwestern border, working with people with disabilities.

As Rwanda’s first female tourism guide who is also a driver, Uwase said she likes the direction the country is going. A decade earlier, she said she would hear people discussing her ethnic identity while she was guiding clients. She didn’t feel safe. “But now I can go wherever I want, and I know that whoever is around me is Rwandan. I can ask anyone for help,” she said. She is currently raising her 5-year-old daughter with her husband in Kigali.

Uwase loves it when tourists she is guiding ask her about Rwanda. “They ask me so many funny questions from Wikipedia,” she said.

When someone asks whether she is Hutu or Tutsi, for example, she said, “I take it as someone who wants to learn,” she likes explaining that she isn’t either, she is Rwandan.

They also ask her if her president is a dictator. “You know where Rwanda was then and where Rwanda is now. If you ask me if it’s a dictatorship, I will be like, ‘no,'” she said, laughing, “But if it is [a dictatorship], then it’s a positive one. I’m really loving it.”

The program has been criticized as one of the country’s “top-down” approaches to social transformation. Andrea Purdekova, author of “Making Ubumwe: Power, State and Camps in Rwanda’s Unity-Building Project,” wrote in an article published on the Democracy in Africa website in 2014: “It is certainly no easy task to build unity and new citizenship in a society recovering from mass violence. But [this] strategy of unity building has its limitations.”

Purdekova highlighted in her article that “Political opening might provide a more genuine basis for citizenship, one based on trust and conviction, rather than prescription or proscription.”

Kanyoni participated in Itorero in 2018 and recalled enjoying his time in the community, visiting the elderly and building toilets. But for him the camp felt more like military training than building unity.

Regardless of their education, Kanyoni and the rest of those living in Rwanda are not about to forget the genocide. One can’t drive more than an hour on Rwanda’s main arteries without passing a local, district or national genocide memorial. When the estimated death toll is averaged across the country (which is slightly larger than the state of Maryland), you end up with approximately 80 bodies per square mile. The sites include churches, schools and other community buildings, where people flocked for shelter only to be slaughtered by militias, local officials and the military. Many of these sites are now empty buildings containing marble graves and tombs maintained by local survivors.

There are four national memorials recently recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Since 2022, I have toured each. I saw the memorial to children at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum, the bags of bloodied clothing and the grenade-blasted walls of Nyamata church. I hiked up the hill at the Bisesero Genocide Memorial, dedicated to those who offered resistance to the genocidaires, where the narrowing path is intended to symbolize their dwindling numbers as the onslaught progressed.

Where other genocide memorials scattered throughout the country have bones, tombs and caskets to mark those killed, nothing prepared me for the saccharine, slightly citrus smell of unexpected preservation when you walk into the dormitories at the Murambi Genocide Memorial Museum, where over 1,000 bodies lie on display.

After government forces and militias hastily buried 50,000 bodies at this technical school three hours south of Kigali, the heat performed a mummification process. Instead of decomposing, thousands of bodies were preserved — with skin, hair and clothing more or less intact. They were frozen in contorted final poses, forever holding their last moments of terror, covered in chalky lime dust that coated them like papier-mache.

A small body curls in a protective fetal position, and another’s head tilts back in what appears to be an agonizing scream. Another body lies with knees wide and toes curled. Some are missing their legs, some are missing their arms and others are missing parts of their skulls.

There is no barrier, no glass to separate visitors from the victim’s last moments. No one is watching, stopping tourists from touching or seeing if they are being respectful — the bodies seem to demand it on their own. The memorial manager sits outside, scrolling on his phone. No one should get used to this.

At the end of each corridor of dormitory rooms lies a grassy field with a view of the surrounding hills and villages. In the distance, a string trimmer buzzes in competition with the crickets. On a corkboard at the museum’s exit, Post-it notes in languages from around the world thank the memorial for its education and say, “Never again.” In the distance, a church assembly breaks into song and praise. It is a reminder that everyone wants to move on.

“Kwibuka” (remembering ceremonies) were developed by the Ministry of Civic Unity and Reconciliation to unite Rwandans and create a space for national mourning, memory and storytelling on the anniversary of the genocide. From April 7 to 13 each year, the entire country stops. There is no music and no recreation. Districts hold commemorative events and listen to survivors while youth performance groups reenact history, including the genocide. After the first week, each day is marked with a parallel timeline of what happened in 1994.

In the past, the events were marred by uncontrollable ululations and expressions of grief from those who were still suffering from the memory. Emmy Musinguzi, manager of the Bisesero Genocide Memorial site, said that the genocide memorials hire psychologists and counselors, run reconciliation seminars and invite perpetrators and survivors back to their communities to tell the stories and try to see the world through one another’s eyes.

On the 10th anniversary, the focus was security. For the 20th anniversary, the focus was politics and building the central bank. For the 30th anniversary, the commemorations are focusing on further building national unity and the next generation.

The golf club security guards stand quietly beside the track, watching the joggers to ensure pedestrians carrying bananas and large loads of market goods stay off. Groups of runners occasionally pass, singing in step with their cadence and interrupting our interview.

Kanyoni said his siblings and mother occasionally visit his father in prison, but he had only been once and refused to speak to him. Nowadays, Kanyoni spends a lot of his time caring for his mother. “I can put myself in her shoes and cannot bear what happened,” he said. Then how does she keep going? “Maybe it’s us. That’s how she copes.”

Kanyoni’s siblings each have their problems to contend with, but his older siblings, with direct memory of the genocide and the precarious few years that followed, have it worse.

“They don’t have confidence,” he said. “They think that nothing can happen no matter what they do — that they will always stay down.”

When speaking about his own mental health, Kanyoni said, “For now, I’m free, but before, I wasn’t.” He said that the nongovernmental organization that funded his elementary education cut his tuition in high school and he could not qualify for scholarships to attend university.

“I was really suffering,” he said. “You know, there is this thing that when you have nothing to do, you start thinking in the wrong way. I thought maybe I was not going to university because I didn’t get high enough grades, but my neighbor who had worse grades made it to university.”

Kanyoni said that families like his, with parents convicted of participating in the genocide, tend to be the ones who deny the state-led history and mindset and feel left behind. But he feels lucky because his mother always told him the truth. “I’m not saying this because of my own experience, but it’s what I have seen — some people feel they are getting ignored,” he said, as lightning struck in the distance through the thick indigo sky, which was becoming darker by the minute. “Survivors are getting help, but our family, no. We just find our way.”

Paul Rukesha, the director of communications at the Ministry of National Unity and Civic Engagement, said there are efforts to stop divisions from affecting who gets support and who doesn’t. Although the government and NGOs are making efforts to make support available to survivors, who often don’t have family members, the identity of Hutu or Tutsi shouldn’t matter. He brought up the specific example of someone asking for additional support simply because they were Tutsi and the response from the president. “The president said OK — keep your Tutsiness, but don’t use it to get more than others,” he said.

Kanyoni thinks that for reconciliation and unity to work, more consideration needs to be given to the families of perpetrators. “That’s what can be focused on next,” he said.

But amid the reconciliation difficulties, Rwandans are grappling with other troubling issues.

According to the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, the unemployment rate averaged over 16% from 2001 until 2023, reaching an all-time high of just over 24% in the fourth quarter of 2022. Jonathan Beloff, a researcher who focuses on the foreign, regional and internal politics of Rwanda, said in an interview in February that this is one of the major concerns that Rwanda faces right now.

“There’s a ton of motor drivers in Kigali who have college degrees,” said Beloff, adding that the country is trying to create new city centers outside the capital. “It’s the socioeconomic divide, the urban versus rural, which is something that a lot of nations experience. Will social services like health care and education continue to develop? They so far have, but next it’s the economic opportunities — the employment,” he said.

Kanyoni counts himself lucky to have found work with dogs. “Now my work keeps me busy,” he said. A love of animals has led him to commit to veganism (which is not easy in Rwanda), and he aims to open a dog boarding business. He hopes that, over time, he can employ his siblings and eventually earn a degree in veterinary medicine.

During a pause in our conversation, an overwhelming chorus of crickets fills the air, punctuated by the comical scream of birds — the hadada ibis. Mosquitoes appear, clocking in at dusk like the industrious breed they are.

“We don’t get enough support, but … we can make it,” said Kanyoni, chuckling as he shrugged.

Some young Rwandans who were not comfortable being interviewed on the record mentioned that without the current leadership and its focus on security, they are convinced the country would revert to violence. They spoke of continued whispers through communities, threats and retribution killings. Kanyoni, Uwase and others I spoke to said that these fears are still perpetuated by the generations who reached adulthood before the genocide.

“If you ask my grandmother, who started living with the consequences of the division since 1959, up to 1994,” said Uwase, “and you tell her to move on, in just 30 years, it can’t really work. The older people, elderly ones, they still have a way to go.” She added that she thinks there is still hope for them to fully reconcile in time.

“We are conscious that some parents will never recover and get back on the right track,” said Rukesha, adding that they are looking to the youth for the next steps of reconciliation.

“I expect the youth to be involved more,” he said, “to uphold the small gains that we have achieved.” He also said his organization has tried to unify the diaspora by welcoming the children back into the country to take the Itorero programs.

Kanyoni also thinks that among the diaspora, even the children of perpetrators should return. “They should come to Rwanda and see with their own eyes,” he said, “because they’ve been fed a lie for so long, and they started to take it as reality. I think the way of solving that issue is for them to visit their motherland and learn from here because no one knows it like a Rwandan.”

In the next five years, almost all those convicted for acts of genocide, including Kanyoni’s father, will be released into a Rwanda they have never experienced. I asked Kanyoni if he plans to build a relationship with his father, but he said he wouldn’t know where to start.

“Buhoro, burhoro inyoni yubaka icyari” — Kanyoni taught me this. It is a proverb that Rwandan grandparents might say. It means “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.”

“There is hope for us, the next generation,” said Kanyoni as the light faded under a blanket of rumbling dark clouds. “We are doing everything we can to keep us together.”

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