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30 years on, legacy of genocide haunts Rwandans

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today in Rwanda, there will be no music in bars and restaurants, no kids playing in the fields. That is by law as the country marks the 30th anniversary of a genocide that killed nearly 1 million people. My co-host Juana Summers and a team from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED has been reporting in Rwanda, and she's here now to talk about it. Hey, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

DETROW: What made you and the team decide to make this trip?

SUMMERS: Well, I mean, we've only been 30 years removed from this genocide where nearly 1 million people were killed. And I have to say, it's rather remarkable the idea that people who perpetuated the genocide and people who survived it can now live together. And we really wanted to see firsthand what that looked like and to understand how it could happen, and as it turns out, this is something that is both personal and political.

Reconciliation is a clear aim of the Rwandan government led by Paul Kagame, the president. His record is mixed, though. There's been a lot of progress in the country, but he's also been accused of human rights abuses and silencing political opposition. And the stories we encountered throughout this trip, they're so powerful, but they're also just so complex. And to try to better understand all of this, we drove to Gahanga Catholic Church in Rwanda's capital.

As we pull up to the church, there's a wide stretch of barren, red dirt nearby, and young children in bright blue and white uniforms are running across a school field. Seraphine Nyrangabahayo sits waiting for the priest. She hopes to get her 2-month-old twins baptized on Easter Sunday. She's already chosen holy names for them.

SERAPHINE NYRANGABAHAYO: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: Eucharie and Acharie.

We're in Gahanga to meet Patrick Hakizimana. He's 52 years old, and he grew up nearby.

PATRICK HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) This is my place. I knew I - I grew up coming here.

SUMMERS: We walk into the church. Inside, there's an altar draped in white, rows of simple wooden pews. We sit in the back of the sanctuary in plastic chairs, and Hakizimana begins to tell me what happened here during the first week of the 1994 genocide as he remembers it. He was a soldier in the Rwandan army, and on April 6, he was home on leave. That day, the Rwandan president's plane was shot down over the capital. And he says soon after, every soldier was told to report to the nearest barracks.

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) Our bosses give us instruction to help to chase away cockroach.

SUMMERS: Chase away the inyenzi, the cockroaches. That's what Hutus involved in the Rwandan genocide called Tutsis. When Hakizimana went to the barracks, he was given a gun, and he was told to come here to this church. He arrived on April 10.

HAKIZIMANA: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: Hakizimana says he was told that there were rebels on the hill behind the church. And he was told, you need to kill the people gathered here before the rebels arrive. He and others fired into the crowd of people.

We were told that people came to churches like this one because they were places they thought they might be safe. But as you're saying, it turns out that was not the case. Thousands of people were killed in churches like this.

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) Since long time, if anything happened, people were coming on churches, thinking that they would be protected by the church. But it was not the case because they knew that people will come and kill them, to kill them as easily.

SUMMERS: Hakizimana says that he was one of 35 to 40 soldiers there at the church that day, plus another 300 Interahamwe. That's the militia that led the killing of Tutsis in the country. It is believed that more than 7,000 people were killed at this church. Hakizimana served more than 10 years in prison.

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) When I was in the prison, first of all, I was asking myself why I was involved in the genocide. Second, if by any chance I get out of the prison, I will never, never do the same thing.

SUMMERS: He said he was released because he admitted guilt and cooperated with the Rwandan justice system.

What is it like being here today, coming back to this place?

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) It's not easy to explain, but it's like fighting with my mind, asking myself why I'd done that. It's like fighting with my mind, and maybe people would forgive me.

SUMMERS: What is it like to talk to victims or families of victims who were killed here? What is that like for you?

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) To talk to them, for me, it's like a gift because they are supposed to revenge. But they don't revenge. They're happy to talk to me again. So for me, it's like a gift I receive from them.

SUMMERS: You said earlier that it feels like you're fighting with your mind, asking yourself the question, why have I done that all these years ago? How do you answer that question today, the question of why you killed people here?

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) I kill people because of the bad leadership. Because since I was young, they were telling us that Tutsis was bad, so I'd grown up with that kind of ideology. And when it happened, I was, like, protecting myself and my country.

SUMMERS: He says he was protecting himself and his country. As we get ready to leave, Hakizimana tells me one specific memory from the day that he and other soldiers and militia killed the Tutsis hiding inside this church.

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) What I keep in me all the time, it's when I came here with my gun, shooting on people. People were shouting, asking me, Patrick, are you coming to kill us as well?

SUMMERS: So the people here that were killed, that you killed, they weren't strangers to you.

HAKIZIMANA: (Through interpreter) They were people from around here. I know all of them. I can say that I knew, like, 50% of people here. They were calling me in my name, which means that they knows (ph) me.

DETROW: That's reporting from my co-host Juana Summers. And Juana, he's talking about how he knew the people that he killed. And years later, he's living among people who also knew the people that he killed and know that he was a part of the killing, and that's just remarkable.

SUMMERS: Yeah. It's one of the things that really stuck with me from what happened in Rwanda 30 years ago is that this violence was both brutal and intimate. We're talking about neighbors attacking neighbors, even interfamily violence. And all of these roles, whether people were victims, survivors, perpetrators, bystanders, they're all really complicated.

DETROW: We'll be hearing stories from this reporting trip all week. What's next?

SUMMERS: Tomorrow, we'll bring you a story from a woman who survived the genocide and a man who lives not far from her who perpetrated it.

DETROW: That was my co-host, Juana Summers. You can hear more reporting from her and our team in Rwanda all week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, as well as online at npr.org. Thank you so much.

SUMMERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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