Grim memories of Rwanda genocide come alive

Marguerite Sabamahoro, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, remembers the moment she was woken at her home in Kigali on April 7 1994 by the sound of gunfire and bombing as if it were yesterday.

“My mother hid all of us kids under her bed where we stayed the whole day. The next day, we had to jump the fence to hide in our neighbour’s toilet,” the 25-year-old says, as she recalls the first hours of a 100-day killing spree in her homeland.

“I lost aunts, uncles, cousins and friends to the genocide ... I saw many dead bodies and others being hacked with machetes,” Sabamahoro tells visitors to a new genocide exhibition at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

“At that time I was only 11 years old ... When you are a child, those images are imprinted in your memory for the rest of your life.”

The genocide exhibition, which also features a section on the Nazi Holocaust, is being shown in a venue built as a monument to victims of racial prejudice.

But while South Africans recall April 1994 as the month that they drew the line under the apartheid era of whites-only rule with the first multiracial elections, the period coincided with Rwanda’s descent into darkness.

An estimated 800 000 Rwandans, mainly ethnic Tutsis, were slaughtered between April and July 1994 in the tiny Central African nation at a time when many correspondents were busy reporting on a rather more upbeat story from the southern tip of the continent.

“You had one country going into darkness and the other one emerging from it,” said Sudeshan Reddy, a spokesperson for the United Nations, which has organised the exhibition.

George Bizos, lawyer to Nelson Mandela and a member of the Apartheid Museum’s board, said clear parallels could be drawn between the suffering of the two countries as well as Nazi Germany.

“Fundamentally, the similarities are overwhelming. In each of the cases, you’ve got to be denied your humanity ... face torture, murder and kidnap. The sense of denial was justification for crimes against humanity,” he said.

Speaking prior to the Rwandan genocide, Mandela once described apartheid as the second-worst crime of the 20th century after the Nazi Holocaust in which an estimated six million Jews lost their lives.

Don Krausz, a Polish-born Jew who moved to South Africa in 1946 after spending part of his childhood in the Auschwitz death camp, said similar lessons could be learnt from each of the crimes against humanity.

“I was sent to a concentration camp at the age of 13 with my mother where we went through all forms of dehumanisation. It was hell let loose,” he said at the launch of the exhibition earlier this week.

“The lesson learnt is that we have to sow the seed of tolerance around us,” added Krausz, president of South Africa’s Holocaust Survivors’ Association.

His evocation of a living hell was echoed in a recorded interview with Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of a UN mission in Rwanda in April 1994 that lacked the authority to intervene militarily to halt the pogrom.

Three months before the genocide began, Dallaire said he had alerted his bosses at UN headquarters that extremist ethnic Hutu militia had stockpiled weapons in preparation for mass slaughter, but he says his warnings were ignored.

“The world turned its back on Rwanda,” said Dallaire. “Are all humans human? Or are some humans more human than others?”

The exhibition on Rwanda, which has already been on display at UN headquarters in New York, is due to transfer later this year to the Rwandan capital, Kigali.—Sapa-AFP

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