Thousands fell silent last week at a hillside memorial here in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, as Karasira Venuste told the story of how the world community, as represented by blue-helmuted U.N. peacekeepers, abandoned him and 5,000 other Tutsi near this exact spot 15 years ago.
On the morning of April 7, 1994, Venuste and his neighbors in a nearby village heard the news on the radio that the plane of Rwanda's Hutu president had been shot down the night before. Thinking of the threats and violence directed at his fellow Tutsi over the past several years, he believed it likely that he and his neighbors would be blamed by the government and its allies for the assassination.
"We are done for," Venuste thought to himself. "We are finished."
Venuste, who has a regal bearing and flecks of white in his hair, told the crowd how his family and neighbors decided to take refuge at the nearby L'Ecole Technique Officielle, believing that might be safe because of the small contingent of Belgian United Nations soldiers stationed there. But the Belgians were on their way out of Rwanda even as violence gripped this tiny East African nation: When 10 of their fellow countrymen were brutally murdered on the first day of the genocide, the Brussels government ordered the rest of the contingent home, just as the genocidaires had calculated.
So four days later, to Venuste's great shock, the group of soldiers he thought would protect him and his neighbors departed, promising only that unidentified "gendarmes" would soon rescue them. As the last blue helmet left, a menacing crowd of government soldiers and armed gangs had gathered outside the gates of the school. Soon the frenzied militia stormed through the gates. Venuste and some 5,000 others gathered on the school grounds were forced to walk a jeering gauntlet of Hutu militiamen, soldiers and civilians wielding machetes, guns and other weapons. Some of the survivors described it as a "death walk"; Venuste lost his right arm, which was hacked off by one of the tormentors. The walkers were led to a nearby hill, then encircled by a gang of killers and murdered with grenades, guns, knives and clubs. Within a few hours, Venuste said, "We were lying in pools of blood."
Out of 5,000, roughly 100 survived, according to Venuste. He lived only because he was buried under dead bodies, overlooked by the killers searching the carnage for signs of life. The next day, the survivors were rescued by RPF fighters, the Tutsi-led rebel force that ended the genocide and took power in Rwanda.
It was no accident that the Rwandan government chose this particular survivor to deliver the main testimony for the official government commemoration of the 1994 genocide. Venuste’s message—that the international community abandoned Rwanda—is exactly what Rwanda president Paul Kagame is eager to underscore today. Facing criticism from human rights groups that his regime employs authoritarian tactics and is still meddling in neighboring Congo, Kagame clearly wanted to turn the focus outward. After Venuste spoke, Kagame took the podium to address the thousands of Rwandans and foreign dignitaries assembled on the hill where the massacre took place, decrying the "cowardice" of the U.N. and the rest of the world. "We are not like those who said, 'Never again,'—yet they abandoned those they were responsible for," he said. "They abandoned them even before one shot was fired."
Rwanda has made impressive strides in climbing back from the genocide, especially in its remarkable willingness to forgive lower-level perpetrators in the name of national reconciliation. Yet the remarks from Venuste and Kagame showed how raw the feeling remain for Rwandans at all levels. On this pleasant spring day in one of Africa’s best-functioning cities, dozens of onlookers required medical assistance after the testimony awakened such painful memories that they collapsed in wailing and sobbing. As the rest of the crowd dispersed in silence, traveling past giant tombs holding the remains of thousands of unidentified victims and out onto the path of the "death walk," it felt like it will be generations before this tiny country is fully healed.