Whispers in the Hall


Anastase Gahunga, beside National University of Rwanda arboretum (David Kattenburg)

Shadows in the Forest

By David Kattenburg

Little Rwanda will soon commemorate the twenty-second anniversary of the 1994 genocide. Between April 6 and early July 1994, an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and some tens of thousands of Hutus perished (the latter figure very uncertain). Listen here:


It would take two weeks for genocide to reach the lovely university town of Butare, in the mountainous southern end of Rwanda. Butare was a mixed community. Hutus and minority Tutsis lived harmoniously side by side. When the genocide began — following the shooting down of a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, on the evening of April 6 — Butare resisted the call for violence. On April 19, extremists moved in. Butare’s prefect was murdered, and the genocide began.

Some of the most brutal violence occurred on the campus of the National University of Rwanda. Tutsi students and faculty were betrayed or hunted down by former colleagues and extremist militias from throughout the region. Many sought refuge in the tranquil arboretum on the edge of campus. Few survived.

Twenty years after the Butare genocide, Rwanda’s southern capital grows by leaps and bounds. Economic development is everywhere to be seen. New buildings pop up like mushrooms — a university town on the move. As elsewhere in Rwanda, reconciliation and harmony seem to have triumphed.

Is it so, or merely harmony by diktat? Rwandan president Paul Kagame can banish the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” from public discourse — we’re all Rwandans, he wants everyone to believe (easy for him and his Tutsi confreres to say) — but others are less certain. Few talk openly about ethnicity in Rwanda today. Suggestions that one group is favoured over the other are definitely verboten. “Genocide ideology,” such talk is called.

The bottom line: Butare is a fabulously friendly community — its people warm and welcoming. Hats off to their struggle for reconciliation and development. This story was first produced in 2011.

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