Leo Kabalisa tells the story of how 25 years ago he survived the Rwandan genocide. He was part of the launch of a book and a photo exhibition called And I Live On at the University of Toronto’s Hart House. Photo by Michael Swan

The Rwandan genocide: Twenty-five years later

By 
  • April 5, 2019

Just 25 years after Leo Kabalisa lost his parents, his brothers, his uncles, his aunts and most of his friends in 100 days of frenzied killing in Rwanda, he is seeing a rising tide of Rwandan genocide denial, justification, equivocation and outright amnesia.

“This worries me,” Kabalisa told The Catholic Register.

On social media and in certain circles of the expatriate Rwandan community, Kabalisa keeps coming across distortions and denials of the 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis along with those Hutus who dared to protect and defend their Tutsi friends and family — people the genocidaires labelled traitors. In some cases, he sees a revival of the Hutu Power doctrine that prepared the way for genocide.

“There’s a new narrative from people who are denying it. At the time (just after the genocide), they were shy of saying anything,” Kabalisa said.

Aghast and in near disbelief, he outlined this pattern of forgetting and denial to over 100 people who came out for an April 1 book launch and photo exhibit marking the 25th anniversary of the genocide that began April 7, 1994.

“We have people denying it only 25 years after we were watching it on TV,” he told them.

Kabalisa tried to explain what it’s like to live on in the wake of a genocide.

“I’m not here as a hero. I’m just here as one of the few people who were lucky to escape,” he told people on April 1 at the launch of And I Live On, a joint project of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law human rights program and Human Rights Watch.

The book and photo exhibit present pictures and stories of genocide survivors, with a focus on the 250,000 to 500,000 women who were raped in a deliberate campaign of sexual humiliation that formed part of the genocide strategy in 1994. Many of these women were raped publicly in the streets, with crowds cheering and egging on their rapists. The women were also deliberately infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

The exhibit, which will be on display in Hart House until the end of May, is an important witness to the strength of women survivors of the genocide, Kabalisa said.

“It would be wrong to talk about a hierarchy of suffering, but women suffered twice,” Kabalisa said. Today, Rwanda’s legislature is 67 per cent female.

“Women are the people who are contributing the most to the Rwanda of today,” said Kabalisa, who visits his homeland regularly.

“It’s a sign of how women are so powerful — they know how to forgive and not to forget.”

The idea that genocide survivors should forgive and forget is simply sentimental cliché running roughshod over reality, said genocide survivor and Dominican Fr. Gustave Ineza.

“You don’t forget because you can’t forget,” he said. “You don’t live in denial.”

If forgetting would dishonour the dead, then forgiveness and reconciliation that does not deny those memories is a duty the living owe to the dead, according to Ineza.

“We ask for forgiveness for our religious leaders who stood by silent, or got involved in the genocide,” Ineza prayed as he opened the book launch. “As long as we live, we will not cease to pray for Rwanda.”

Ineza was 11 years old during the genocide. The son of a Hutu father and a mixed-heritage Tutsi and Hutu mother, Ineza was recovering from malaria at the time. The weight loss gave him the appearance of a Tutsi, who are generally thought to be taller and leaner than Hutu. Soldiers and machetearmed gangs accused Ineza’s family of sheltering a Tutsi boy. He’s still not sure how he survived.

Kabalisa owes his survival to an encounter with a Canadian teacher, who is also the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Despite a paranoid atmosphere and spies reporting on the words and activities of Tutsis, Kabalisa decided to risk an honest conversation with Shyrna Gilbert, who was in Rwanda to run a workshop for teachers. Kabalisa was at the time an official of the Catholic teachers’ association of Rwanda.

Gilbert recognized the very real danger of genocide looming on Rwanda’s horizon and urged Kabalisa to remain in touch. After she returned to Toronto, a coded postcard from Kabalisa prompted her to action. She arranged for Kabalisa’s travel from Uganda to Canada. Today they are both teachers with the York Region District School Board and cofounders of Hope for Rwanda’s Children Fund.

The Rwanda that emerged from the genocide is not a democracy. President Paul Kagame has ruled without interruption since 1994. Freedom House rates Rwanda’s press as “not free” and its society in general as “partly free.”

“There’s a hope that the society will change. In terms of democracy, it can be done,” said Kabalisa. “But coming out of the genocide, if you give everybody the same rights like in Canada in terms of freedom of speech — speech in Rwanda was used to antagonize the society and to propagate killing each other.”


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I find those Tutsis are a suffering nation... General Romeo Dallaire was a witness to their pain, who tried to do something about it.
The 13 Humboldt Broncos who didn’t die fortunately had so much support and still do but they were lucky...

I find those Tutsis are a suffering nation... General Romeo Dallaire was a witness to their pain, who tried to do something about it.
The 13 Humboldt Broncos who didn’t die fortunately had so much support and still do but they were lucky compared to those poor Tutsis.

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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.