Rwanda: Today there is hope – 20 years after genocide

It is, without doubt, the most appalling scene I have witnessed in 25 years of foreign reporting.

Sprawled grotesquely across the wooden pews of a small church set among the trees were the decaying bodies of scores of women and children, their brightly coloured clothing concealing, at first, the horror of it all. But only at first.

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We had been prepared for it. We had been warned and directed there by the few remaining villagers who had survived the machete wielding Hutu militiamen in Ntarama, a hamlet barely forty minutes drive from the capital Kigali.

And yet, in truth, you could never be prepared for the smell and the sight of the Rwandan genocide. It was supposed to be a sanctuary for Tutsi families. In the event it became a slaughterhouse .

Mark Austin in Rwanda 20 years ago. Credit: ITV News

Twenty years on I have returned to Ntarama church and in some ways it is every bit as shocking now as it was then.

Inside, set out neatly on shelves are the skulls and other bones of those who died. Tiny skulls, cracked skulls, skulls with rusty nails and spear tips in them. And the clothes are still there, and the discarded shoes and the damage to bloodied walls and windows.

A child is left injured after the attacks in Rwanda. Credit: ITV News

With me is 55-year-old Immaculate Mukanyaraya, for whom the visit to the memorial is a traumatic experience. She lost her husband, five brothers, four sisters and nine cousins in the massacre.

She tells me how the attackers, many of whom she recognised as neighbours, first threw crude grenades and then came in slashing everyone with machetes and scythes. Eight months pregnant, she managed to squeeze through a window and flee with three of her children. They eventually hid in a nearby swamp for three weeks where she gave birth to her daughter.

But I was there less to hear the story of then, than the story of now. Because what is underway in Rwanda is an unprecedented experiment in reconciliation involving the entire country. When 800,000 people are killed in 100 days, few families are untouched by the genocide.

Mark Austin heard powerful stories of survival on his return to Rwanda. Credit: ITV News

Stage one of the process was around 150,000 perpetrators confessing their crimes and pleading for mercy at special village courts, or Gacacas. Only the ringleaders or most prolific killers were dealt with by the normal criminal justice system.

Stage two is perhaps the most remarkable and involves the survivors accepting those who murdered their families home from prison and back as neighbours. All over the country killer and survivor are once again living side by side, this time with the government’s encouragement or even, in some cases, at its insistence.

Another child is treated for wounds in Rwanda. Credit: ITV News

It is too early to say if it will work, but it is not an exaggeration to say the President, Paul Kagame, is staking his country’s future on the project.

Among those I spoke to there is a will to see it succeed, but you only have to scratch beneath the surface to realise Rwanda remains a country of suspicion and fear. How could it be otherwise?

President Kagame remains popular within Rwanda but faces criticism from outside that he’s using the legacy of the genocide to impose a Tutsi dominated authoritarian regime on the country. His retort is to say he will take no lessons on human rights from western countries who failed to intervene to stop the killing in 1994.

Mark Austin has returned to Rwanda 20 years on from the genocide. Credit: ITV News

It seems to me the best hope for Rwanda lies with the two-thirds of the population under 25. In schools they are now encouraged to reject the categorisation of Hutu and Tutsi and instead find common cause in building a new Rwanda .

Economic empowerment will help and over the last few years the economy has grown by an average of around 8% and a million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty.

Despite all that happened to her Immaculate Mukanyaraya is part of the process. Working in a soap-making cooperative with the wives of convicted killers, she says she can forgive but will never forget. She calls the men who did it “animals” but says remembering the genocide with memorials and ceremonies is the best way to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Rwanda is a beautiful country scarred by atrocity and, at its moment of greatest need, abandoned by the world. The very least it deserves is a future.

This article first appeared in the Radio Times