In Rwanda, in the space of 100 days during 1994, between 800,000 and one million people – mainly from the Tutsi minority group but also several thousand moderate Hutus – were killed by Hutu militias.
The Rwanda genocide was a calculated act, fuelled and perpetrated by Hutu extremists in the then ruling government. Numbers and percentages are often difficult to get right, but up to one in five of the population were horrifically massacred.
What is not disputed is that the genocide against the Tutsis was one of Africa’s defining moments, and one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the late 20th century, sending a shockwave across the world that still echoes today.
Elizabeth’s children were slaughtered before her eyes
Elizabeth, who ActionAid supports, has an all too typical story to tell. Her husband and two children aged two and nine months were slaughtered, her children before her eyes.
She said: “My children were brutally murdered. They smashed their heads, breaking their skulls and their brains gushed out.”
Elizabeth herself was repeatedly raped and suffered dreadfully from both the trauma and from subsequent medical problems for years afterwards.
This atrocity was committed by neighbours, one of whom was Elizabeth’s own cousin.
It is therefore not surprising that twenty years on, the genocide continues to dominate Rwandan and regional politics and also the Rwandan people’s psyche.
Rwanda was brought to its knees; the entire socio-economic and political fabric was virtually destroyed, with women and children in particular left to bear the burden of a devastated society.
It is important to look to the future
Despite everything, it is important to look to the future, to look at what has been achieved in the wake of such tragedy, as well as what still needs to be done.
Elizabeth, now 45, has remarried and has six children.
Whilst her heartbreak is still apparent, Elizabeth is a member of a women’s cooperative funded by ActionAid. She successfully farms her land, which she reclaimed, with our legal support, from the people who took it.
And like Elizabeth, Rwanda too has seen success in the last few years. Poverty reduction has been matched by strong economic growth.
With the help of overseas aid, there has been impressive progress on the provision of basic services such as healthcare and education, as well as agricultural support and infrastructure development.
Rwanda has a young population – the average age is 19 with nearly two in three of the population under 25 – so the country’s future depends on the next generation getting the support they need to protect their rights and work their way out of poverty.
Meeting people’s rights
As a matter of principle, ActionAid is committed to meeting people’s rights by helping them to demand their basic needs. We see this as a key part of the route out of poverty and injustice.
For despite progress, Rwanda is still a very poor country. It has no natural resources and has a predominantly rural economy.
In what is Africa’s most densely populated country, nine in ten Rwandans earn their living from the land – farming just enough to feed themselves and their families – and nearly half live in extreme poverty.
That is why we focus our work on the rural poor and women-headed households in particular. ActionAid makes no distinction, ethnic or otherwise, between the people we help.
With neighbour destroying neighbour twenty years ago, and virtually every family affected, Rwandans today understand that restitution must lie within the justice system that has been put in place and also with a commitment to a united Rwanda.
No-one within Rwanda wants the killings to return. As Elizabeth, her friends and the government of Rwanda know, there is too much to lose.