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Column: Rwanda ... 20 years on, has the unforgettable country been forgotten?

Nearly one million people died in 100 days during the Rwandan genocide – an atrocity on a scale that horrified the world. But, asks John Fitzsimons, what have we really learned?

John Fitzsimons

IN 1999 WHEN I packed my bags for Tanzania to embark on two years volunteering, many people asked me why. It is a question I struggled with. Aside from the magnetic lure of the Dark Continent, the truth is that there were many reasons. One of which was the indelible mark that was left on me as a 19-year-old watching the horror unfold in Rwanda. I still remember the BBC and Ireland’s Fergal Keane reporting from Nyarubuye Church where thousands were massacred.

Nearly one million people died in 100 days. Most killed violently from machetes and clubs as the perpetrators responded to the incitement of violence over the airwaves. It was an atrocity on a scale which, until that point, I had only read about in history books. I have since consumed books, documentaries and articles to try to understand how this could happen. It was the low tech approach and speed of execution that made it so horrific. However, most shocking was the fact that the developed world let this horror unfold under its nose. It would have been stopped elsewhere in the world. The only logical conclusion I can make is that a lower value was placed on an African life.

Pain, however, is universal.

Lingering pain and loss

At the end of my two years in Tanzania, I got to fulfil a dream and visit Rwanda. Ironically it is a beautiful country with one thousand rolling green hills not dissimilar to our own isle. On the bus coming over the border from Uganda, I was sitting by a guy quite clearly in his early 20s but dressed in school uniform. This was not uncommon at the time; there were lost years in Rwanda during the mid-nineties. We got talking and he opened up about 1994. He had hidden in a remote part of the countryside living off whatever he could scavenge, too scared to come out. Most of his family, he explained, are no longer around. Despite his smile, you could see in his eyes the lingering pain and loss.

It was something I witnessed all too often during my visit. There are some things that no child should ever see. After some time in Rwanda, I crossed back over the Tanzanian border and got to visit Benaco Refugee Camp. Our local guide was quite proud to announce that it was famous for been the largest refugee camp in the world. At its peak it ‘housed’ over a quarter of a million people from both the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in makeshift tents. Seven years after the genocide, there were still thousands there with nowhere else to go. Lives ruined.

We must never forget

Twenty years on, thankfully, Rwanda, like most of Africa, has made significant progress. President and former freedom fighter Paul Kagame, who is not without his critics for this authoritative style, has led the transformation. Most importantly, Tutsis and Hutus are not born – Rwandans are. Life expectancy has grown over ten years to 64 in the last decade. UNESCO recently highlighted Rwanda as one of the top three countries globally for progress on access to education; 97 per cent primary school attendance is the best in Africa however, like most of its neighbours, secondary school enrolment is stubbornly low at 32 per cent. Quality of education also remains a significant challenge. Camara and other organisations are contributing to this, in part working hard to absolve the west’s guilty conscious for an atrocity that should never have happened.

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One wonders in this era of technology and social media whether a similar atrocity could ever happen again. The instigators of the Rwandan genocide co-opted and exploited the uneducated masses. The importance of education can never be understated and this is another reminder. In addition, we must value all life equally and we must not forget. We must never forget.

John Fitzsimons is Chief Executive of Camara Education, a social enterprise and charity who work in countries such as Rwanda supporting the introduction of ICT into Education; improving the quality and helping people lift themselves from poverty.

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Read: Former Rwandan government minister found guilty of war crimes

Read: Rwandan army chief given 30 years’ jail over genocide

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John Fitzsimons

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