25 years after the genocide in Rwanda: Mr. Zozo smiles again


25 years after genocide in Rwanda

Rwanda is no longer the country it was before the genocide. But it remains a place of very tight social control.

Two men are standing in front of a wall with photos

The memorial site in Kigali has photos of people murdered during the genocide Photo: dpa

It was September 1994. The Tutsi genocide in Rwanda was just a few months ago, and the rebels of the “Rwandan Patriotic Front” (RPF), who were chasing away the genocidal regime, had arrived in Kigali only two months ago. Rwanda's capital provided a picture of sadness and devastation.

In the office buildings barely a window pane was still intact. There was no electricity. From time to time rifle fire could be heard everywhere, day and night: the street dogs, which had become dangerous after months of eating human flesh, were shot dead. Foul corpse hung over the neighborhoods, rising from the latrines where the dead had been thrown in during the massacres. At the entrance to the city, RPF soldiers searched the few cars for weapons.

1,074,017 deaths from the genocide in April 1994 later counted Rwanda's new government, 934,218 of which identified by name. More than two million people had fled to neighboring countries in July 1994 as refugees, carried away by the perpetrators of the genocide and the former government and army fleeing from the RPF. They gathered in troubled refugee camps right on the border. In the country itself, the worst was still to come in September 1994: to treat the invisible wounds of widows and orphans.

25 years later, Kigali is unrecognizable. From a drowsy provincial town has become a bustling capital, full of skyscrapers and ultramodern malls. The “Diplomates” hotel, the official residence of the genocide government in 1994, before it fled, has become the five-star palace “Serena”, not far from which rises the brand-new “Marriott” with a lobby the size of an airport hall. The ultra-modern Kigali Convention Center with the Radisson Blu in the Government District serves as an international conference venue.

In the Kiyovu district, “in the city”, as has been said earlier, tourists swim in the pool of the famous Hotel Mille Collines, once the most important of the city and today almost homey compared to the newly created luxury palaces, and do not know the pool in 1994 served as a drinking water storage for Tutsi fled from the Hutu militia.

Traces of the past as good as invisible

Monsieur Zozo, the former chief page of Mille Collines, he called himself “the ambassador” of the hotel and has found a new life. Two years before the genocide, he crept frightened into the hotel room and reported in a low voice and the fear of being discovered by the fear and the terror outside, which was already felt.

It was the time when the death squads of President Juvénal Habyarimana's brother-in-law and Prefect of Ruhengeri Province, Protais Zigiranyirazo, spread terror and all called him “Monsieur Z” because his name was already scary. In the genocide Zozo finally lost his wife. Today, still perfectly dressed in a suit and tie, he shines about the late reunion all over his face and says: He is now retired, has a new family and his own travel agency. “Zozo Travels”.

It's a new era, and the vestiges of the past are as good as invisible. Previously, the churches were among Kigali's most distinctive buildings. Today it is the luxury hotels. The notorious Catholic church Saint-Famille in the city center, once an imposing red brick building, today appears almost puny in comparison.

There are a few traces of 1994 in Kigali, quite apart from the genocide memorials. The Camp Kigali military base continues to testify to the murder of ten Belgian UN soldiers at the beginning of the massacres with its bullet holes, leading to the widespread withdrawal of the UN from Rwanda in the midst of genocide. But the Parliament building, once destroyed by bullets and long a visible memorial on the road to the airport, has disappeared behind modern buildings.

Previously, the churches were among Kigali's most distinctive buildings. Today it is the luxury hotels

Kigali has grown from 300,000 to 745,000 inhabitants, dominated by the new bunker-like Defense Department on a hilltop. Miles of new residential areas stretch out over the hills for miles, a series of rural exodus and the mass return of the refugees – of the once two million Hutu refugees from 1994, only 100,000 are outside the country. New residential and office buildings and industrial sites were built, many of the former residents with their mud huts with corrugated iron roofs displaced to the outskirts.

The human landscape is no longer the same. Earlier, until 1994, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa were said to be ethnic identities, enshrined in ID cards, which made the systematic hunt for Tutsi during the genocide easy. These terms were officially abolished under the new RPF government.

Colloquially, new categories arrived: “Sopecya”, the Tutsi survivors; “Dubai”, the Tutsi exiles returned from the Diaspora; “Tingi Tingi”, the Hutu refugees returning from Congo. That, too, has long since become obsolete. Almost 60 percent of Rwanda's population today was born after the genocide.

To call oneself Hutu or Tutsi, that is not gladly seen among the boys. It has taken time – only since 2010 has the police witnessed a significant drop in Hutu's frequent attacks on Tutsi survivors, even among schoolchildren – but it is the reality today.

Number of genocide prisoners shrinking

Neither the buildings nor the people make it easy in Kigali to find their way around. What became of Savimbi, the taxi driver of the Mille Collines, who was addressed for his beard with the name of the then Angolan rebel leader? Is he lying in a mass grave? Is he in detention? Is he living in Congo? Nobody knows. Not even his old colleague Silas, one of the Hutu refugees from 1994 and long ago returned.

Silas struggles to find his way among the many new hotels in Kigali. The old people drive cabs, the boys drive rather motorcycle taxis and have their own landmarks, such as the headquarters of the telephone company MTN. For them, the genocide, in which there were no cell phones in Rwanda, today already old prehistory. They jog on the streets where machete and assault rifles ruled in 1994 and one could no longer be sure of his life.

Many things have disappeared in this new Kigali that shaped the cityscape for years after the genocide. The “Maibobo” (street children), who gathered like packs at the corners, slept on cardboard boxes in the deserted streets at night, sniffing glue and surviving stealing, have not been seen for years.

Nor did the inmates in flamingo uniforms, for involvement in the genocide in custody, and again and again divided into community work to charitable work, especially on the construction. The number of genocide detainees is shrinking every year.

Only a few dare to speak openly in public, for fear of possible consequences

The famous central prison of Kigali, with its year of origin under Belgian rule “1930” above the gate, is now used only as a museum, as is Habyarimana 's old presidential palace, where tourists can take pictures of the wreckage of his plane April 1994 when Kigali was launched – the starting signal for the genocide.

These are the few memories of a time that no one likes to think back to: the era of the Habyarimana one-party state until 1990, when criticism of the regime was banned and at most expressed in a quiet dialogue, since throughout the system “Nyumba Kumi” (Ten Houses) someone observed all activities and reported to the national security.

And today? Rwanda is changing rapidly, its economy is growing and the country is regarded as an anchor of stability in the region. And for many Rwandans, the time has come when RPF leader and head of state Paul Kagame could relax the reins a little, allowing a bit more diversity of opinion. But criticism of the harsh hand of the regime is only expressed if no third party listens. Only a few dare to speak openly in public, for fear of possible consequences.

Rwanda is no longer the country of 25 years ago, but it remains a land of very tight social control – also because freedom of speech could bring freedom for the demons of the past.

Translated from French by Dominic Johnson,

Rwanda (t) Genocide (t) Hutu (t) Tutsi (t) Genocide in Rwanda (t) Africa (t) Politics (t) Focus (t) taz (t) daily newspaper


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