Every year in April the raining season starts.
And every year, every day in April…
The haunting emptiness descends over our hearts.
Every year in April, I remember how quickly life ends.
Every year, I remember how lucky I should feel to be alive.
Sometimes in April
April 6 marks the anniversary of the beginning of 100 days of genocide during which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana and the Burundian President was shot down near Kigali Airport. The killings begin that night.
The tensions had built over a number of years. Their beginning is often traced to 1916, when the Belgians took control of Rwanda and they produced identity cards classifying people according to their ethnicity.
The Belgians considered the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus. Not surprisingly, the Tutsis welcomed this idea, and for the next 20 years they enjoyed better jobs and educational opportunities than their neighbours.
Resentment among the Hutus gradually built up, culminating in a series of riots in 1959. More than 20,000 Tutsis were killed, and many more fled to the neighbouring countries of Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda.
When Belgium relinquished power and granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutus took their place. Over subsequent decades, the Tutsis were portrayed as the scapegoats for every crisis.
Building up to genocide
This was still the case in the years before the genocide. The economic situation worsened and the incumbent president, Juvenal Habyarimana, began losing popularity At the same time, Tutsi refugees in Uganda – supported by some moderate Hutus – were forming the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Mr Kagame. Their aim was to overthrow Habyarimana and secure their right to return to their homeland.
Habyarimana chose to exploit this threat as a way to bring dissident Hutus back to his side, and Tutsis inside Rwanda were accused of being RPF collaborators.
In August 1993, after several attacks and months of negotiation, a peace accord was signed between Habyarimana and the RPF, but it did little to stop the continued unrest.
The international community knew of the unrest – knew of the potential for violence. Peace talks held in August 1993 in Arusha, Tanzania resulted in the creation of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda). The UNAMIR commander Major General Roméo Dallaire of Canada learned from an informant of Hutu plans being made to exterminate Tutsis; to provoke and kill Belgian troops to guarantee Belgium’s withdrawal from Rwanda; and the location of Interahamwe arm caches.
In January, 1994, General Dallaire cabled the UN asking for protection for the informant and permission to seize the arms caches. His superiors denied his request. Other warnings were also ignored.
April 1994 followed.
I chose to mark this anniversary today – on Good Friday – by watching three movies about Rwanda.
First – Sometimes in April. This film tells the story through the lens of two Hutu brothers – Honoré who worked for the radio station that inflamed the violence and Augustin who served in the Rwandan army. Augustin had married a Tutsi woman Jeanne, and had three children with her: Anne-Marie, Yves-André, and Marcus. As the plot line jumps back and forth in time and space, the brothers bear witness to the events that led to the genocide as well as the genocide and its aftermath in different ways.
The film begins with an overview of the roots of the genocide. It makes it clear that it did not just begin that one day in April.
The film deals with the failure of the world to respond. It includes a clip of the famous question: “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide.”
It deals with the failure of the church to protect the people and shows a mass killing at a school for girls. When ordered to divide themselves between Hutus and Tutsis, the girls refuse. All are shot. Their affirmation of a common humanity contrasts with the horror of their murder.
It deals with guilt. For all else that he has done, Honoré agrees to lead Augustin’s family to safety. He tries. But fails.
Ultimately Honoré is captured and brought before the tribunal prosecuting crimes committed during the genocide. His crime is inciting the people. Not all those who bear responsibility put their hand to a machete. There is also a bitter, heart-wrenching (at least my heart) irony in seeing those who failed to intervene to stop the slaughter now addressing it in a court room. Of course prosecution is needed. But what about prevention?
Augustin goes to the tribunal. Through the hotel wall, he talks with a woman who will later testify about the use of rape in the genocide.
The brothers meet. The story of Honoré’s failure and the murder of Jeanne and two of Augustin’s children is told. Both brothers weep. The scene between the brothers ends with rain. God’s tears? Healing, cleansing water? No words – no summary. It works well to leave the situation unresolved and to leave us wondering if forgiveness took place on any level.
The film touches briefly on Rwandan efforts to work for reconciliation. It shows a gacaca court at work. Through the history of Rwanda, neighbors have settled disputes by adjourning to the gacaca (“on the grass”) to sit, discuss and mediate personal and community problems. Is it working? Time will tell for sure, but in many ways it appears to be doing so. Another film and book explore that story: As We Forgive. That’s a film for another day.
A well acted film, Sometimes in April explores many dimensions of a horrific experience and provides no easy answers. Therein lies much of its power.
Beyond the Gates (originally titled Shooting Dogs) is next. Hotel Rwanda follows.
See you along the Trail.