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Decade After Genocide, Trauma Continues for Rwanda's Tutsis - 2004-03-29


Nearly 10 years ago, ethnic Hutu extremists in the tiny east African country of Rwanda went on a 100-day rampage, slaughtering an estimated 800,000 ethnic rival Tutsis and moderate Hutus who refused to participate in the killings. A decade has done little to ease the suffering and lingering suspicions of many who survived the genocide.

Perched atop a hill, overlooking kilometers of lush, green terraced farmland that surround the village of Bisesero, a simple tin hut stands as a memorial to one of the worst atrocities ever committed in modern history.

Inside the hut, 30-year-old Antoine Sebiroro stares mournfully at the bleached skull of one of his 25 dead relatives, whose remains now lie in rest here. The skull sits alongside the skulls and bones of more than 50,000 other Tutsis, slaughtered in the Bisesero area by ethnic Hutu extremists during a three and a half month-long killing spree nearly 10 years ago.

His voice cracking with emotion, Mr. Sebiroro says even after a decade, the memory of those horror-filled months is still fresh in his mind.

No words can really describe how I feel, Mr. Sebiroro said. He said the sadness he feels whenever he looks at the skulls of the people he once knew and loved is simply overwhelming. Mr. Sebiroro was one of some 10,000 Tutsis living in Bisesero village when Rwanda's long-simmering ethnic tension between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis exploded in horrific violence on April 7, 1994.

A day before, a plane carrying the president of Rwanda's ethnic Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down near the capital, Kigali. Hutu extremists in government blamed the attack on Tutsi rebels opposed to Mr. Habyarimana's regime and called on its followers to kill all Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.

In Bisesero village, about 160 kilometers southwest of Kigali, alarmed Tutsis began forming a resistance group. Other Tutsis in the region began pouring into Bisesero to seek refuge and to join the resistance. The influx swelled the Tutsi population in the village to nearly 50,000 by early May.

Armed with little more than spears and stones, the ragtag Tutsi resistance group managed to defend against numerous attacks by Hutu extremist militiamen for more than a month. But the group was ultimately no match for the machete and gun-wielding Hutus and by the end of June, only an estimated 1,500 Tutsis were left alive in Bisesero.

Anastase Kalisa, 31, who survived by hiding and outrunning his attackers, says he witnessed hundreds of people, including his parents, being shot, hacked and burned alive. He says he still has nightmares that he fears will never go away.

Mr. Kalisa says he often dreams that he is with his father, being chased by Hutu militiamen swinging their machetes. Mr. Kalisa says the dreams always end with him screaming himself awake.

Tutsi survivors are not the only people in Rwanda still traumatized by the genocide. Many Hutus say they, too, have had their share of enormous suffering.

In one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kigali, 55-year-old ethnic Hutu, Thadeo Harerimana, opens a corrugated metal gate and proudly shows off his small, dilapidated house.

He says the house may look rundown, but to him, it is a palace compared to the filthy, cramped prison cell he shared for nine years with dozens of other men accused of participating in the genocide.

Mr. Harerimana says he was arrested in early 1995, several months after the Tutsi rebel army, led by current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, defeated the Hutu extremists and took power in Rwanda. Mr. Harerimana says officials in the new government accused him of having connections to the previous Hutu regime and owning a handgun that may have been used to kill Tutsis.

Mr. Harerimana languished in jail, waiting to be tried in court for his alleged crimes, along with nearly 100,000 other genocide suspects. But the sheer number of suspects began to severely bog down Rwanda's legal system.

Desperate to ease prison congestion and speed up national reconciliation, the Rwandan government recently adopted an amnesty program that encouraged Hutus, who may have played a minor role in the genocide, to confess in return for freedom. Last year, about 25,000 prisoners were freed under the program.

Mr. Harerimana confessed and was released last Saturday. Like many released prisoners, he will be now be required to face his peers in a traditional village court. The so-called gacaca courts offer the accused a chance to ask for forgiveness and rejoin society.

But Mr. Harerimana says he knows of thousands of innocent Hutus in jails accused of far more serious crimes than what he faced, unable to qualify for amnesty because they refuse to confess to crimes they did not commit but are unable to prove their innocence.

He says he hopes all of the innocent people will soon be replaced by the guilty in Rwanda's prisons. Mr. Harerimana says there are many killers who escaped after the genocide ended and are living freely in Rwandan towns and villages. Back in Bisesero village, Antoine Sebiroro says that although he cannot prove it, there are several Hutu men now living in his community he believes are guilty of participating in the genocide. He says he has no choice but to live side by side with them because the government has forbidden Rwandan Tutsis to take revenge or to segregate themselves along ethnic lines.

Mr. Sebiroro says that no matter how peacefully the two sides may appear to get along now, he believes most Tutsis who survived the genocide will always remain wary of their Hutu neighbors.

Mr. Sebiroro notes that many Hutu extremists have yet to show remorse for the crimes they committed and their lack of regret has hampered reconciliation efforts. You cannot forgive people who don't ask for forgiveness, he says.