On Monday 7th April, Rwanda paid tribute to the most extreme genocide in history – 800,000 deaths in less than one hundred days – and one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century. A mere 20 years ago: the Rwandan Tutsi genocide.
Numerous heads of state, as well as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, gathered in Kigali to attend commemorative ceremonies. In light of this, and after formally opening the event by lighting a flame which will burn for one hundred days in memory of the victims, Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, delivered a speech to his people on the theme of unity and revival. Emotions in the crowd ran high; accounts of the brutal occurrences brought back many painful memories, so much so that some spectators had to be taken out of the stadium where the event was being held.
The programme for the last International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH), which took place in Geneva last March, featured an hour-long documentary aptly dedicated to the Rwandan genocide. 7 days in Kigali, a film by Mehdi Ba and Jérôme Frey, released in 2014, called for a “remembrance obligation”. On this occasion, the film received the Youth Jury award for Best Creative Documentary. Testimonies were given by witnesses, victims and persecutors, and even when the film showed gruesome images, it left viewers speechless, filling them with incredulity. How did it get to this stage? How could we let it happen?
To better understand this tragedy, the film transports you back through the colonial past of this small land of a thousand hills and Great Lake region. Settlers, first German, then Belgian, formed two social groups. On one side were the Tutsis – originally livestock ranchers – and on the other, the Hutus – farmers. From that moment on, various alliances would be formed, flitting from one camp to another, and a growing rivalry would be established.
In 1959, the Hutus waged a “social revolution” against the Tutsi minority, which led to the exile of tens of thousands of Tutsis. The Republic was formed in 1961, followed by independence in 1962. After these events, the exiled Tutsis were considered a constant threat by the Hutus who lived in fear of their attempting to return to power. Amongst several other factors adding to the anti-Tutsi ideology were their repeated attempts throughout the 1990s to join forces with the government and determined efforts to operate within its institutions, which provoked mounting tension. Gradually, the rivalry became a mutual hatred.
On 6th April 1994, when the plane carrying Hutu President, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot down just before landing in Kigali, the decision was made: it was time to “eliminate the Tutsis”.
The attack, which today still sparks controversy in terms of the identities of its alleged perpetrators, was the final straw that triggered the genocide.
Tutsis were killed in a methodical fashion, with machetes, clubs, grenades or shotguns, their countless bodies piled up. Less extreme Hutus, believed to be allies of the Tutsis, were also amongst the victims. All over the town, lists were put together detailing the ethnicity of every Rwandan.
The aftermath is outlined chronologically, with the film returning to the first seven days of the conflict, and the testimonies from individuals that we meet throughout the story narrating what happened. During this, we are shown aerial images of the town and “news flash” clips.
We are introduced to people like Valérie Bemeriki (former presenter on the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines Rwandan radio station, now imprisoned for inciting hatred) who outlines the key role played by RTLM in encouraging widespread support of the perpetrators and broadcasting hateful messages to the masses. The Tutsis were compared to “cockroaches” on air, and it was stated [on the radio] that “they must be wiped out”, otherwise it will be them who will wipe out the Hutus. We also meet Frenchman Pierre Galinier, who tells of how he did everything to save Yvonne Mutimura, his Tutsi fiancée who then describes how a mother and child were brutally bludgeoned to death and stamped on by soldiers in spiked boots, right in front of her eyes. Then we hear of Immaculée Mukandoli’s family, saved by her Hutu neighbour who agreed to hide them in his house. He had made the decision to “remain humane whilst others had become monsters”.
The film gradually reveals how the genocide was a premeditated act, planned in advance; how the international community did nothing even when faced with the warning signs and sight of the massacres, and how it should have been able to – if it had so desired – to put an end to the carnage. At a time where, in Rwanda, there are desperate attempts to reconcile an entire nation, 7 Days in Kigali can above all be described as the story of a whole population, remarkably defined by the heritage of its own history, yet whose destiny has been ripped apart by the paradox of human nature.