The Rwandan genocide began 20 years ago this month. More than 1 million people were killed in the course of 100 days. We asked four of our Rwandan colleagues to reflect on the genocide and discuss how their country has evolved in the past two decades. Below, Rwanda Program Officer Emmanuel Kamanzi shares his experience. We ask you to stand in solidarity with Rwandans everywhere this month as they commemorate the past and continue to heal. Learn more about PIH/IMB’s work in Rwanda.
My dad left Rwanda in 1956 after being denied the right to further his studies, even though he had fulfilled all the academic requirements. He wasn’t part of the favored group in the country then, and he moved to Uganda. He was later joined by my grandparents in 1959, when there was massive violence in Rwanda against the Tutsi group. My family stayed in the refugee camp for more than three years in Uganda.
I was born in Uganda in 1981. My family and I returned to Rwanda in 1995, right after the genocide, when I was 14 years old. The beauty of the country my parents narrated to me while in exile in Uganda was not what I found when we returned. The ground was full of human skulls. Most if not all schools, roads, hospitals, and commercial centers were totally destroyed. Thousands of Tutsis tried to escape the slaughter by hiding in churches, hospitals, schools, and government offices. These places, which historically have been places of refuge, were turned into sites of mass murder. Rwinkwavu Hospital in southern Kayonza District—the first Partners In Health-supported site in Rwanda—was among those where many people were killed. Nyarubuye Roman Catholic Church, located in Kirehe District, was one of the churches where people were massacred. Now the church is one of many genocide memorial sites in the country.
The 1994 Rwandan genocide is one of the most tragic and horrible events in history. More than 1 million people were massacred in 100 days. In addition to the killings, the country’s infrastructure was totally destroyed. Many people in Rwanda’s health care work force were either killed or fled the country.
“Tutsi,” “Hutu,” and “Twa” are man-made divisions that were created and imposed by European colonialists in the 1890s. Although the genocide started April 7, 1994, Tutsis had been killed and tortured from the 1950s onward. While the genocide targeted total elimination of the Tutsi group, Hutus who did not believe in the perpetrators’ ideology also lost their lives.
When my family and I returned to Rwanda, I continued focusing on my education.
When my family and I returned to Rwanda, I continued focusing on my education. I attended primary and secondary school, and then later joined the University of Rwanda. Unlike the days before the genocide, I now enjoyed the privilege of equality and could go to school like any other Rwandan citizen. The qualifications to go to university were now based on merit rather than what group one belonged to.
After completing my undergraduate studies, I was looking for a job where I would be in the position to help my country, especially the most poor and vulnerable citizens. I left the University of Rwanda where I was employed as a tutorial assistant right after I completed my studies and took a job in a very rural part of the country. It’s very uncommon in Rwanda for someone to leave a job at a national university and take a job to serve the residents in rural Rwanda. When my friends saw me packing my stuff to go to Kirehe Hospital, they thought something was wrong with me. But I was completely sure in my decision.
Working at PIH for the last five years has been life-changing. I started as the human resource manager while at Kirehe Hospital, which was built by PIH in collaboration with the government of Rwanda. After 10 months, I transitioned to Kayonza District as the district project director, responsible for managing PIH’s district programs. From there I moved to Burera District in the northern part of Rwanda to do similar work. In 2013, I moved to PIH’s Boston office to take on the role of Rwanda program officer, working closely with our Boston-based staff and the Rwanda program staff in the field.
We should all push to be social justice activists, fight inequalities, advocate for the poor, and build partnerships.
In all my roles, I have been thrilled by the lifesaving work of the PIH Rwanda team and our partners at the Rwanda Ministry of Health. The future is bright. Kirehe hospital is now in its third phase of construction and will continue to support a growing number of health centers. Rwinkwavu hospital in Kayonza is a hub for medical education in Rwanda. And last but not least, Burera District is home to Butaro Hospital and the Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence, the first cancer center in rural Rwanda.
It is encouraging and rewarding to be part of this work that touches, changes, and saves the lives of the most poor and vulnerable. We should all push to be social justice activists, fight inequalities, advocate for the poor, and build partnerships to serve vulnerable communities around the world.
It is remarkable to see Rwanda today. It is hard to believe the incredible strides it has made since the genocide. Maternal and under-5 mortality rates have dropped significantly. More than 90 percent of the population is enrolled in the public health care plan. Life expectancy has nearly doubled from 28 in the year of the genocide to 56 in 2012. More than 1 million Rwandans escaped poverty between 2005 and 2010. The formerly disunited Rwandan community is now restored, united, and dedicated to living and working together to build their nation. All of these gains are due to strong and decentralized leadership that treats every Rwandan equally.
As Rwandans commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide, there is relief in reflecting on these strides. It is up to us to carry the spirit of hope into the future.