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Rwandan Genocide: Fifteen Years Ago

Monday is the 15th anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide. On April 6th, 1994, the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on its approach to Kigali airport, killing all on board. The incident triggered about 100 days of violence, which killed more than a half million Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

Commemorations and vigils are being held this week to mark the occasion; and in Kigali, a three-day conference on the genocide comes to an end Monday. Some of those responsible for the genocide have been tried before the international tribunal for Rwanda. Others have gone before a traditional system of justice, called gacaca.

Rakiya Omaar is one of human rights activists heavily involved in the aftermath of the genocide. Omaar, the head of the group African Rights, talks to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about her reflections of the past 15 years.

"For me, engaging and interacting so much with the survivors of the genocide for the last 15 years, the most difficult development to believe is that now we are at the threshold of the commemoration of 15 years. It's impossible to believe that 15 years has passed," she says.

As for the survivors of the genocide, Omaar says, "Time has stood still. Their whole lives, I think, really are still so much anchored in the grief and losses of 1994. For me, the recollection that is most poignant and at the same time painful is realizing how little has improved for the survivors," she says.

Asked why she's seen little improvement, she says, "For a lot of survivors there was the hope that they may link up with relatives, but that hope dissipated fairly soon after the genocide. I would say things have not improved particularly with regard to justice, but I think also with regards to trauma. With the passing of the years, even for those survivors whose material conditions have improved, I think each year the realization that the genocide happened, that it's going to overshadow all their lives and the lives even of their children, becomes more and more clear."

The trauma is worse, she says, as well. "The trauma is deeper. It's become part of the day-to-day fabric of their lives."

Omaar has been a strong advocate of bringing those responsible for the genocide to justice. But how successful has the effort to prosecute them been? She says, "In the grand scheme of things when you look at the extraordinary participation in the genocide in 1994, which was unprecedented in the world in terms of the level of popular participation, the successes have been minimal. But at the same time, there was never any expectation that everyone who participated would be held accountable."

The International Tribunal on Rwanda was established after the genocide. She says, "(It) has tried some of the masterminds of the genocide. But what I think is even more significant in terms of its contribution to justice is that it has established, both jurisprudentially and also morally, that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 is without any dispute a genocide."

She says that "revisionists" have attempted to re-write history and say it was really an ethnic conflict and not a "well-orchestrated genocide."

Rwanda also used its local justice system, gacaca, to handle many of the genocide cases, along with its standard court system.

"There I would say, particularly with results to gacaca, one of the successes has been that partial truth has come to be known, as ordinary Hutus in their villages speak about what happened, not always fully of course of course.… But they have shed light on how the genocide was organized, who was responsible. And in that respect, what has been particularly significant is the fact that they have named many well-educated people, who are abroad, but even people who are in Rwanda, including people who have had high positions in Rwanda."