Remembering the Rwanda genocide

By RON FANFAIR

Rwanda has made remarkable progress in the last decade despite the deep scars and pain that many of its citizens still bear after the genocide 15 years ago that claimed the lives of over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in the bloody 100-day ethnic war, says the country’s ambassador to Canada.

Edda Mukabagwiza was one of the participants at a week-long event at the University of Toronto last week to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the genocide which is considered one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. It’s estimated that close to 8,000 Rwandans were murdered each day after a plane carrying then president, Juvenal Habayarimana, was shot down over Kigali.

The United Nations has designated April 7 the International Day of Reflection for Rwanda and events were held around the world last week, including here in Canada, to mark the anniversary.

“Fifteen years ago, there seemed to be no hope for Rwanda which seemed to be only known for the genocide,” said Mukabagwiza at last Saturday’s closing ceremony. “But things have changed with the strengthening of the rule of law and development in the information technology sector. There is also a stable government in place and the country is free of corruption, making it stand out not only in our neighbourhood but also in sub-Saharan Africa as a remarkably safe place that is open for business and keen to attract foreign investment, including Diaspora investment.”

Mukabagwiza, Rwanda’s former justice minister, said the system that was overwhelmed following the genocide is slowly recovering through a combination of classical forms of justice with a traditional, community-based “Gacaca court’ structure using respected elders elected by their communities.

Tens of thousands of suspects were arrested after the genocide and, by the end of 1996, nearly 120,000 were in the prison system that could only accommodate up to 18,000 inmates. It’s estimated it would have taken almost 100 years to prosecute the prisoners.

“The genocide had overwhelming and far-reaching consequences on the country,” said Mukabagwiza. “The post-genocide period was characterized by a justice system that was ravaged as most of the members of the legal community were either killed during the genocide or they fled into exile. The challenge, therefore, was to restore and put in place the necessary instruments and mechanisms, not only to rebuild the justice sector and re-establish the rule of law, but also to address the legal problems presented by the genocide’s aftermath.

“We initiated a law reform process to help decongest the system, accelerate trials, facilitate access to justice and establish a civil environment for business development and investment promotion.”

Mukabagwiza said last week’s commemoration provided an opportunity for the government to reach out to survivors in Rwanda and the rest of the world.

“In the name of my government and my own name, I would like to express my deepest sympathy,” she told survivors at the event, including Sharangabo Ntare, who survived the genocide after being wounded and left for dead in a mass grave. He came to Canada as a convention refugee in 1999 and completed high school before enrolling in the University of Toronto’s Transitional Year Program. Three years ago, he was presented with a New Pioneer award that recognizes the contributions of newcomers to Canada.

“It’s very encouraging to see a government take responsibility for what a previous government did,” he said.

Toronto’s Rwandan community, U of T alumni and genocide survivors organized the event supported by New College and the university’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.

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