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A Snapshot in Time: Rwandan Children Remember the Genocide

December 18, 2009
Keep the memory
Of all our trials
Of all the victims
Of all these crimes

Youth, let us unite
Let us not wear masks
For our mother land
That was deeply hurt

Grand Séminaire de Nyakabanda

In the summer of 2004, the young smiles on the bright stage in Kigali belied the waiting words behind them.  The girls living in the city proudly wore their school uniforms.  Others came from the Rwandan countryside, their first visit to the capital, despite having travelled across national borders and back again. All were singing about their past and their future—a future without genocide.

This is the impact of art: the empowering capability of creativity, its capacity to unite visions into a future. The art competition was held in August of 2004, ten years after the Rwandan genocide had devastated the country, leaving 800,000 people massacred after only three months.  Never Again International, a non-profit organization connecting young people world-wide to promote peace and overcome prejudice, dehumanization, and apathy, sponsored the nation-wide  competition for young people. Rwandan children and students were encouraged to write an essay, poem, or song on the history of Rwanda, the tragedy of the genocide, and what young people can to do stop future genocide.  The competitions were initially local, with an ultimate prize of an all-expenses paid trip to Kigali to compete against other children, and finally to perform on stage, enacting their visions of a future without genocide in Rwanda.  The audience included, among others, the head of the Rwandan Ministry of Youth, Culture, and Sports, members from international non-profits such as CARE Rwanda, and me, working for the summer at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

What I saw was a need for expression and that expression as its own fulfillment.  At the time, President Kagame’s government controlled media outlets, limiting many voices and dictating national, and nationalistic, messages.  People were strongly encouraged to identify first, and only, as Rwandan.  Despite the longstanding ethnic identities that grew in Rwanda internally, and later were encouraged by colonialist outsiders, no reference could be made to these identities that were seen as divisions after the genocide.  And for good cause—the animosity that grew between Tutsis and Hutus was one underlying cause of the genocide, or at least a surface explanation, to simplify the deeper causes of poverty and land loss among Rwandans, and political extremism.   When the Hutu president’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, mass killings of Tutsis began, and the 100 days of genocide.  Now any discussion of ethnicity and preferential treatment based on ethnicity is forbidden.  In 2004, the wounds of the genocide had already scabbed over and the survivors were reluctant to relive what happened, to reassess the harm.  Many wanted simply to move on with their lives as they already carried scars deep within them- rampant rates of HIV, families lost, and more orphans than fathers.

And yet, these children expressed joy and ideas for a future of working together, a future of hope.  The competition was a safe space to express memories of the genocide, without confrontation or criticism.  The youngest of these children were only babies when the genocide irreparably altered Rwanda; the oldest were at most an unassuming eight years old.  This was the beginning of the next generation: a generation that lived through the genocide, but for many of whom it was a faint memory.  They carried the experience with them, permanent if indistinct, as their lives unfolded after its pain and destruction.

These students believed they could create a different future because, to my shock, they recognized the pivotal role the youth of Rwanda played in perpetuating the genocide.  Through the songs and poems came a strong acknowledgment that youth were involved in the genocidal massacres.  Whether they were pawns, manipulated by their leaders, was not the point.  Instead, these students, by actively acknowledging the power of a young generation to commit mass murder, likewise felt the capacity to harness that power for change, for a different future, to build instead of destroy.

Let me live in Rwanda in security
Let me remember those who were the youth
Who were used as tools of the evil regime
Through unceasing meetings
Through provocative songs.

Through distracting dances
They had the same objective
They trained here and there
Those youth full of strength
Who are training to devour each other.

While waiting in ambush
While waiting for the signal
To massacre that enemy
The boys hunted down those who were their own
The girls were applauding.


Five years later, I wonder about the girls on that stage.  The competition arose from Rwandan traditions of oral story-telling, yet it was simultaneously a break from the  past.   The children transformed proverbs of their history and used that language to envision a new future—a new language that includes the word genocide, but also hope, awareness, and, perhaps the most painful—remembrance.

And there is reason for hope.  Girls now grow up in a country where 55% of the parliament is women.  Rwanda’s parliament is the first in the world to be majority women.  Women can now own property, and inherit property.  Tragically, most survivors of the genocide were women, forced to take on new work roles while adopting orphans and supporting widows.  As noted by Women for Women International, the women of Rwanda began to unite across cultural divides to face common ongoing struggles in the aftermath of the genocide.  Their efforts after the devastation of their country are now providing opportunities for all Rwandan children.

For these girls, the songs they wrote for the competition opened a pathway.  Through the  songs they expressed pain and hardship, but they were also free to dream with others.  People who sing together, interestingly, trust each other more; research shows that singing in groups releases oxytocin in the brain, leading to feelings of trust, openness.  In this space of trust, the girls were able to express their fears and relate what they and their families had experienced during the genocide.  Furthermore, the music was both a vehicle to engage with these experiences as well as a lens, a separation that allowed them to touch it, to share it, but not necessarily embody it.  They were able to communicate without fear of reproach, without having to take a political position.  And they were able to dream with others, to trust others.  This is the power of art, the power of reflection and self-realization, and the ultimate power of art to transform one person and with her the world entire.

Valena Beety worked at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Summer of 2004, where she focused specifically on sexual violence in the genocide.  Since then, she has written on sexual violence and asylum law in the U.S., and spoken at college campuses about gendered violence.

  1. Don permalink
    December 18, 2009 11:27 pm

    That’s very interesting that women now hold the majority of the seats in the parliament in such a male dominated area. I know it is now written in their Constitution that women will hold at least 30% of the seats at the very minimum which is a good thing. But for women to hold 55% of the seats now is even better. It’s not only good for women but it is also good for men and the country as a whole. The women there lost faith in the men because they just were not doing a good job of leading the country. So obviously the women knew they had to take over the leadership for the good of the country. And of course it is working out great for the women. The women have done away with so many of the patriarchal laws that were in place. As a man, it has to bruise the ego at first to see women take over the leadership roles but at the same time the men have to know that it is for the good of the country. After all, women are alot better at making decisions. They think things through alot more before making a decision. Plus, women are alot better at multi-tasking and at handling stressful situations. So, in my opinion, it is better for everyone when women are in the top level leadership positions.


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