Esther Mujawayo: Surviving the Genocide in Rwanda

‘Genocide in Africa has not received the same attention that genocide in Europe or genocide in Turkey or genocide in other parts of the world. There is still this kind of basic discrimination against the African people and the African problems’.

¬Boutros Boutros-Ghali


The Rwandese Genocide which took place in 1994 between April and July was one of the most horrendous crimes after WW II where an estimated 700 000 – 1 000 000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu[1] have been slaughtered either by military governmental groups like e.g. the Interahamwe or militia of the Impuzamugambi[2] but also by the Presidential Guard, Rwandese Government Forces (RGF), National Police and most remarkably by parts of the Hutu civil society.


Although it seemed as if the pogroms, mass killings and slaughters happened spontaneous and unorganized, triggered by the shoot down of the plane with the president Juvénal Habyarimana and other prominent figures on board – including the then president of Burundi - on April 6th 1994, the genocide, which started just hours later, was the result of a conscious decision of a modern elite, which tried to preserve its power through the dissemination of hate and fear. They spurred the majority against the minority in order to regain control over the increasing opposition within the Rwandese army (cp. Des Forges: 16). The Hutu population, which had already been prepared and armed the months before, have been addressed by local officials, blaming that the RPF[3] killed the president. This initiated the genocide.


Mrs. Esther Mujawayo is one of the survivors of this genocide in which her husband as well as more than 200 relatives have been killed. On November 23rd 2015 she told students at the Vienna University about her past, what had happened to her and her family but also how she and her three daughters survived and how her life has been going on after what had happened to her and her family and friends.

Mrs. Mujawayo explains that massacres against the Tutsi population have a long history in the post-colonial Rwanda since the colonial rulers strengthened distinctions between the groups of Hutu and Tutsi, favouring the less numerous group of Tutsis because of their tallness and relative whiteness and their social status in society[4]. Her family has already been victim of arson and cattle theft in 1959 – three years before independence - and again later in 1973. Esther tells that those attacks did not result in any form of prosecution of the perpetrators at all. This time, she tells, has been one of silence and impunity along with Tutsi-hostile propaganda. Even she herself grew up singing e.g. a very popular song, which with regard to its content, meant nothing else than “Let us eradicate them, let us eradicate them…” (cp. Mujawayo 2007:24).


Mrs. Mujawayo emphasizes the important role of political speeches, mass media and especially of popular private radio channels, which directly supported the radicalisation and which used widespread hate propaganda aiming at de-humanizing the Tutsi population by calling them “cockroaches” and blaming them to plot against the Hutu population. This already started two years earlier in 1992 and ultimately led 1994 to the genocide, killing nearly one million people within three months only. The violence which swept into the country did not have any limits. An estimated 75% of the Tutsi population living in Rwanda have been murdered – along with moderate Hutus - , leaving also a very bitter taste of the role of the international community, which soon after the start of the killings was eager to evacuate foreign citizens, but did not intervene accurately, although experts did warn their embassies and organisations already since 1992 due to information they had about training camps of militia, armament as well as circulating lists about Tutsi and other oppositional politicians. The political will to intervene was clearly missing and Europe was busy with the war in Yugoslavia[5].


After the genocide – the RPF reached Kigali on the 17th of July – the country was soaked with blood and the surviving Tutsi (but also many Hutu) had to live with the losses of their families, friends and children leaving thousands of traumatised people. Although the UN Security Council created the ad hoc tribunal for Rwanda (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTR) in November 1994[6], located in Arusha, Tanzania, most of the survivors still had to live next to the murderers of their family and friends.

Mrs. Mujawayo says that she has always been very sceptical on the concept of forgiveness and pardoning the perpetrators because it has such a huge moral and religious connotation, which might not be useful for oneself. When dealing with the past, Esther tells us, she thinks it is very important to reconcile with oneself. Many Tutsi felt very guilty for not being able to save their beloved ones, so reconciliation is very important for the survivors and their own well-being. To overcome her ghosts of the past, Esther wrote two books in which she deals with her own story. She was also a co-founder of the organisation AVEVA (Association des veuves du génocide d’Avril) where ca. 35 000 widows of the genocide receive medical and psychosocial support and are accompanied in judicial procedures. Besides, AVEVA is also engaged in policy lobbying and it is and especially has been shortly after the genocide, a forum where survivors could meet and talk about their horrible experiences. The association therefore tried to de-stigmatise the many raped women by giving a voice to them and assuring them that they are not alone. As a trauma-therapist Mrs. Mujawayo knows that you are able to overcome the trauma, but that the events will never vanish from your personal history.


21 years after the genocide in Rwanda the world is still not a safe place. Xenophobic and racist offenses against refugees or shelters which host refugees have been increasing dramatically in middle Europe in 2015. Right wing politicians and populists are on the rise in many European states and the rhetoric with regard to refugeesworsened radically. The 'West' is not taking into account any complicity in creating events which ultimately led to the refugee crisis in Syria but also in large parts of Africa, already long before 2015. It might not be useful to talk about who is to blame but it is inevitable to reconsider the concept of a national state which puts the maintenance of its power or the power of its elites into its centre and which tries to encapsulate itself with higher and better fences without re-examining the possibilities the whole world would have when there would be an actual effort to solve global problems globally and commonly. These days you hear many voices claiming that they alone cannot take in all the refugees, which is true, but where are the voices affirming that they do not have to take care alone? In the preparations of the genocide the Rwandan population was brainwashed telling them that there is no space for the Tutsi refugees to come back to Rwanda leading ultimately to the idea of eradicating them all. “Never again!” was the slogan after WWII, but it did happen again in Rwanda, in Burundi, in Indonesia, in Nicaragua, in Argentina, in Srebrenica et al. and as long as the international community, which is constituted by all national states, is not willing to put every possible effort to prevent those atrocities, the future and safety of the people of North-East Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali, and many more is very uncertain - and so is ours.

 Stephanie Fenkart


[1] The differentiation between the groups of Hutu and Tutsi goes far beyond the German and then Belgian colonialization and was mainly defined through the social status which means that the Tutsi have mostly been herdmen owning cows and the Hutu were merely tillers. However, they shared the same language, tradition and culture.

[2] The Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi have both been armed Hutu groups. While the Interahamwe – by far the most numerous group - was recruiting its members from the governing party of the Mouvement Républicain National pour la Démocratie et le Développement (MRND) which was in power from 1975-1994 – although they were formally independent from the MRND - the Impuzamugambi was the paramilitary wing of the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR), a far-right party which was following the ideology of Hutu power and which was allied with the MRND.

[3]Since the ethnic purges in 1959 a lot of Tutsi fled Rwanda. In the beginning of the 90s an estimated 600 000 Tutsi refugees were living in neighbouring countries. In 1987 these refugees created the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which invaded Rwanda since the early 90s resulting in the Arusha accords in 1993, which was intended to create a power-sharing government. In this context the plane of the president has been shot down in April 1994 although it is highly doubtful that the RPF had something to do with this attack, they have been accused and the genocide started already the next day.

[4] Besides Hutu and Tutsi, there are also the Twa and the so called Naturalisé; until 1994 the IDs in Rwanda showed those four notions, where the three not applicable have been eliminated.

[5] “In such countries, genocide is not too important…”

Words attributed to French President Francois Mitterand, reported by Philip Gourevitch in Reversing the Reversals of War, The New Yorker, 26 April 1999

[6] Until today, the 24th of November, the ICTR delivered 93 verdicts against persons responsible for committing genocide. The ICTR was also the first institution to recognise rape as a means of perpetrating genocide. For more information please see



Philip Gourevitch (1999) Reversing the Reversals of War, The New Yorker, 26 April 1999

Alison Des Forges (2002) Kein Zeuge darf überleben, Der Genozid in Ruanda, Hamburg, S. 16.

Esther Mujawayo, Souad Belhaddad (2006) Auf der Suche nach Stéphanie, Ruanda zwischen Versöhnung und Verweigerung, Paris