Friday, 28 February 2014


PARIS – In 1994 the world watched horrified as news of widespread massacres emerged from Rwanda. Now, nearly 20 years later, comes a poignant book in French that gives a personal account of the genocide and the effects on those who became refugees.

The front cover of Les enfants du Rwanda
Les enfants du Rwanda (The Children of Rwanda), published this month in France by Gaïa Editions, is a painful book to read, but a necessary testimony of what happened in the east-central African country. Its author Angelique Umugwaneza was 13 when she witnessed some of the massacres in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, and she said that as a survivor, she needed  to speak out.

Most of those murdered were Tutsi, with the Hutu as main perpetrators, and what makes this book unusual and controversial for some is that Umugwaneza is Hutu. She shows that everyone suffered in the bloodletting: Tutsi, Hutu and the Twa - a marginalized community that has not received the same level of international attention. But she has been criticized by at least one reviewer for not sticking to what she calls the “official story” that only members of one ethnic group were killed.

“I worry about being accused of not giving the full story of the genocide,” she said in an interview. “Some people who have seen the Tutsi being slaughtered have not seen the killing of the Hutu.”

The book was first published in Danish, as Denmark accorded political asylum to Umugwaneza and her sister in 2001, and it’s co-authored by Peder Fuglsang, a Danish academician who specializes in the history of developing countries. Fuglsang said his role was to provide the historical context for the very personal story.

The book begins with Umugwaneza’s almost idyllic childhood, before the genocide. She lived in a community where Hutu and Tutsi inter-married, went to the same church and sent their children to the same schools. One of her father’s best friends was a Tutsi named Mudenge. In the murderous madness of April 1994, Mudenge was “tortured and killed in the worst of fashions”, she writes.

Umugwaneza gives the now widely known background to the genocide but from the point of view of her younger self. She recalls the moment when her father turned on the family transistor to listen to the news on April 7, 1994, but could only hear “chants de complainte” (songs of mourning). Later, he found out from Mudenge that President Juvénal Habyarimana had been killed when his plane was shot down as he was returning from a peace conference in Tanzania. The president of Burundi (and all other passengers) also died in the attack. Both presidents were Hutu.

From the first part of Les enfants du Rwanda, one could get the impression that the downing of the plane triggered fear among Hutus, who felt they had to kill to avoid being killed themselves, and that the massacres were not planned. But official reports, and a history section at the end of the book, indicate that there had been schemes to exterminate the minority Tutsi people, with militants stockpiling weapons before April.

Angelique Umugwaneza (photo: SWAN)
The young Umugwaneza would not have known this, however, and so the atrocities are seen through a child’s eyes. The violence did not spare young people: Tutsi children were murdered while some of their Hutu schoolmates had to watch the slaughter. Children of mixed Tutsi-Hutu parentage were also hunted down.

“What happened to the children of Rwanda during this time was horrific,” Umugwaneza writes.

The genocide stopped with the victory of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (Tutsi), who formed a new government, but Hutus were now the ones fleeing. Many were killed in revenge attacks. Umugwaneza and her family became part of the exodus from Rwanda, and the bulk of the book deals with her experiences. For seven years, she lived as a refugee, moving from camp to camp, living in the forest and seeing unimaginable scenes.

She lost her mother and an older brother as they tried to find refuge in Zaire and then the Central African Rupublic. Her father had stayed in Rwanda as he had been called back to a distant job before the exodus, and a younger brother was eventually able to return, but Umugwaneza has not been back since 1994.

“I’ve traveled to the border, and I could look in but I did not go in,” she said during a trip to Paris to launch her book. “It used to be my country, but it’s not anymore.”

She said that she began writing just two weeks after she arrived in Denmark. “Being in a place where I didn’t have to live in fear for the first time in years gave me the energy to write,” she said. “But I had to ask myself: who was I writing for?”

She says she is writing for those who can’t, including a boy who attached himself to her family and who had to be left behind in the pitilessness of the refugee march. With the book now in French and set for a wider readership, she is also sending a message to those who would deny refugees a safe place because of politics and self-interest.

“I think being a refugee is a very nasty thing,” she said. “You hope and hope, and then you start giving up. You stop hoping. But situations can change. It has changed for me.”

After launching the book in Paris, she was scheduled to fly to the Central African Republic where she is working with a non-govermental organization to help refugees. An estimated one million people have fled their homes in the country, which is torn by inter-communal violence, like Rwanda 20 years ago. - A.M.