Return to Rwanda (Page 1 of 2)
A Canadian immigrant and 1994 genocide survivor returns to Rwanda 20 years later
By Will Ferguson
| Jean-Claude Munyezamu at the Akagera River. (Photo: Will Ferguson)
THIS IS WHERE THE REST OF MY LIFE BEGAN.”
This is where one life ended and another was launched. We have
reached the end of Rwanda and are looking across the Akagera River to
Tanzania on the far side.
Jean-Claude Munyezamu and I walk out to the middle of the bridge,
a single span that shudders and bounces with every transport truck that
rumbles past us in the heat. Below the bridge, the river narrows into the
rapids of Rusumo Falls, wet with mist.
Rwanda, “Land of a Thousand Hills,” lies in the crosshairs of the
continent. This is the true heart of Africa, the last region to be reached
by Europeans, located deep along the watersheds of the Congo and Nile
rivers. It was at these falls, in 1894, that a German count first crossed
into the Kingdom of Rwanda. And it was across these falls, across this
bridge, that a 19-year-old Jean-Claude Munyezamu escaped.
He has never seen the bridge before, though he remembers the bouncing
of it. When he crossed 20 years ago, it was in the middle of the night
and he was hiding under sacks of coffee beans in the back of a truck.
“What would have happened,” I ask, “if they had caught you?”
“Oh,” he smiles. “They would have killed me.” He says this without
rancour or melodrama, but as a simple statement of fact. If they’d caught
me, they would have killed me.
I FIRST MET JEAN-CLAUDE on a summery soccer pitch in
Calgary several years earlier. Our children were on the same
under-eight community soccer team (“Go Tigers!”) and Jean-
Claude was one of the volunteer coaches.
He later set up Soccer Without Boundaries, a local program
that integrates immigrant and refugee children into their
communities through sports, and which includes boys and
girls from Syria, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan, the Philippines
We became friends, our wives became friends, our children
did as well. Jean-Claude is a sociable and engaging
person, and endlessly optimistic. Which seemed at odds with
“Rwanda is beautiful,” he would tell me. “You have to
visit. We’ll go together. We’ll bring soccer equipment to
donate to schools.”
I agreed, though with some hesitation — not for concerns
of safety, but sadness.
Through Jean-Claude, I’d gotten to know Calgary’s Rwandan
community, and through them I gained a glimpse into the
darkness of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, when — over the
course of 100 horrific days — nearly one million men, women
and children were butchered under the ideological banner of
I remember one young Rwandan Canadian woman,
softly spoken, telling me how she had survived the carnage
as a little girl by climbing under the “buddies.” But
no — not buddies. In her lovely accent, so rounded and
rich, she was referring not to buddies, but bodies.
IN MANY WAYS, the genocide began with that first
German count pushing across Rusumo Falls, filling
in that last part of the map.
In the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the First
World War, Rwanda was handed over to Belgium.
Rwanda was — and still is — one of the most culturally
homogenous nations in Africa: everyone spoke
the same language, shared the same religion and
surnames, under the same mwami, or king. Society
was divided into two main castes: the minority Tutsis,
largely cattle owners from whom Rwanda’s royal
lineage was drawn, and the Hutu, who were mainly
farmers. (A small number of Batwa pygmies also
lived, marginalized, as hunters in the forests.)
In the colonial era, Europe was obsessed with race,
and the Belgians decided that the taller, lighterskinned,
longer-nosed Tutsis were a separate, superior
“race.” (For Rwandans, the categories were
actually more fluid than that; if a Hutu farmer owned
enough cattle, for example, he became a Tutsi.)
Nonetheless, the Belgians went about measuring
noses and craniums as they enshrined a social class as a distinct
race, issuing identity cards that were marked either TUTSI
or HUTU. These identity cards would later become death warrants
for the Tutsis.
The Belgians favoured the Tutsis until the eve of independence
in 1960, when the Hutu majority took power — with a
vengeance. Tutsis were now relegated to second-class citizens; their travel, employment and education were restricted.
Systematically dehumanized, portrayed as subhuman and
scapegoated under the ideology of Hutu Power, Rwanda’s treatment
of its Tutsi population would eventually reach its logical
extreme: complete eradication of the inyenzi, or “cockroaches”
as the Tutsis were called.
Meanwhile, across the border in Uganda, a band of exiled
Rwandans, predominantly Tutsi, had formed the Rwandan
Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda in 1990 with the stated
aim of toppling the government and ending the politics of
When Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was
shot down in April 1994 — most likely by extremists within
his own Hutu Power base — the killing of Tutsis and any
moderate Hutu who might oppose the genocide began
instantly. Roadblocks went up and ID cards were demanded
(a lack of a card was taken as evidence of guilt) as machetewielding
militias roamed the streets hooting for blood.
Neighbours killed neighbours, coworkers hunted down former
friends. No Tutsi was exempt from the slaughter: infants, the
elderly, male, female. Rwanda became an abattoir as UN troops
under Canadian General Romeo Dallaire looked on in horror,
lacking the mandate to intervene.
The genocide ended, as all genocides do, not through peace
negotiations or UN finger wagging, but with armed intervention.
The RPF captured the capital Kigali, pushing the génocidaires
of the old regime westward into the Congo.
To the victors came not the spoils but the wreckage of
a failed state. The RPF had taken control of a ruined city.
A ruined nation. Bloated corpses clotted the rivers and roads.
The infrastructure was gone, the nation’s treasury looted.