21st April 1994 – the most efficient day of genocidal massacres


An interview with Hon. Mugesera Antoine, former Senator, scholar and a Genocide survivor

While the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is believed to be the most “efficient” genocidal killing spree of the 20th century, taking the lives of over one million people within 100 days; Karama in Huye District (former Runyinya Commune) is considered the deadliest site of massacres of the genocide against the Tutsi.

Nicole Kiberinka’s uncles, aunts and numerous cousins and members of her extended family were killed at Karama on 21st April 1994. Both her maternal grandparents (Ntete Deogratias and Kampirwa Florida) survived the first day of the massacres. However, less than 24 hours later, the killers found them where they were hiding and burnt them alive.

Nicole, a granddaughter of a genocide victim, shared her family’s grief on Twitter on 21st April 2020. Unsurprisingly, she is not alone in this regard; many young people in Rwanda have grown up with the same tragic legacy of the genocide against the Tutsi.

On 21st April 2020, on the 26th commemoration of the genocide at Karama, the Pan African Review (PAR) called Hon. Mugesera Antoine, former Senator, scholar and a Genocide survivor, native of the former Runyinya Commune to get insights on the infamous Karama massacres.

PAR: What makes the genocidal massacres at Karama unique?

Mugesera Antoine (MA): It is the planning involved, the coordination of a huge number of killers coming from Runyinya and the neighbouring communes, the lightning speed at which the slaughtering took place, as well as the big number of victims.

More than 75,000 Tutsi were killed in 48 hours at Karama (the former Runyinya Commune has been split between Huye and Nyaruguru Districts: Editor’s note).

PAR: Could you say the big number of Tutsis killed at Karama reflected the distinctiveness of the area?

MA: In a revisionist effort to justify the genocide against the Tutsi, there are some people, Westerners as well as Rwandans, who have argued that the seeds of the genocide took root in a classic tribal hatred between the Hutu and the Tutsi in pre-colonial Rwanda. If that theory was defended out of ignorance, it would necessitate systematic work to demonstrate that before the colonialists’ arrival, Rwandans of all categories were united, with a sense of national identity and deep-seated patriotism.

Karama, which is in the former Runyinya Commune, is part of the Nyaruguru region; the name of Nyaruguru originated from an outstanding military unit called “Inyaruguru” that had the mission of defending the south-western border with the Burundi Kingdom. Nyaruguru was populated by the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa who were distributed in the 18 clans of Rwanda. The Inyaruguru was comprised of warriors from the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa cultural/ethnic groups. Given the importance of the assignment of Inyaruguru to defend the border with Rwanda’s rival, there was a Royal Palace at a place called Ngeri near Kibeho in Nyaruguru. The people of Nyaruguru (i.e., the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa) were, therefore, familiar with the monarchy. It was customary that anyone who wanted could meet the King.

Colonisation and the genocide ideology did exactly challenge these social and political bonds and affected the cultural relationships and social cohesion of Rwandans.

The inhabitants of Nyaruguru, who had co-existed peacefully and interdependently for centuries, could not withstand the divisions manufactured by the colonizers and exploited by the post-independence regimes. This led to the persecution of Tutsi and the violent killings since 1959, which are rightly considered as the forerunners of the 1994 devastation.

PAR: How did the big number of Tutsis gather at Karama?

The big number of genocide victims at Karama relates to the distinctiveness of Nyaruguru in general and the Runyinya Commune in particular. The area had a high proportion of the Tutsi population. Although the number of Tutsi people in the population census and government reports was under-reported, in 1994 the proportion of the Tutsi in the population in Runyinya Commune was estimated to be more than 40% of the total population. This figure should even be higher were we to consider the number of Tutsi people who, in order to avoid discrimination, registered as Hutu.

In addition to that big number of Tutsi from Runyinya who sought refuge at Karama, there were also other Tutsi from other 8 communes: Rwamiko, Mubuga, Kivu and Kinyamakara of Gikongoro and Nyakizu, Huye, Ngoma, Gishamvu of Butare.

PAR: Were there other factors that made Karama the site of the deadliest carnage of the genocide against the Tutsi?

The Prefect or Governor of Butare at the time, the late Habyarimana Jean Baptiste, was a Tutsi from Runyinya. That had two effects: the Tutsi from Gikongoro congregated in Butare town and Karama which is near Butare town with the hope that the Prefect will provide them protection. It also meant that authorities were slower than elsewhere to launch the large-scale phase of the genocide against the Tutsi, but after the removal of Habyarimana coupled with the instructions from President Sindikubwabo in person on 19th April 1994, it was as if they had to hurry to catch up in meeting the goals set by the genocidal government.

Like in many other places, in Runyinya there was the phase of a systematic campaign of small assaults, burning, and pillage to drive the Tutsi to Karama, before launching the large-scale massacres.

My own father, Gakwaya Godfrey, who was 92 years old, was killed during the preliminary violent campaign to drive the Tutsi to Karama. He sustained severe injuries from the first attack on his home. They abandoned him believing he was dead; the following day, he picked himself up and as he faintly tried to walk to Karama, a neighbour met him on the way and murdered him at a place called Rucyamu, and his body was dumped into a ditch by the road. We exhumed him and offered him a proper burial at Karama Genocide Memorial on 14th August 2005.

So, on the one hand, some Tutsi started gathering at Karama on their own initiative a few days after the start of the genocide, but the communal authorities pushed more Tutsi to go there to prepare them for the planned mass slaughter.

The mayor of Ngoma also sought to move people from the outskirts of Butare town to Karama. In the days leading to 21st April 1994, more Tutsi kept moving to Karama, mostly those who survived the massacres at Kibeho, some survivors from Cyahinda and from other places in Butare and Gikongoro.

Thousands of displaced persons were gathered at the Church of Karama than at any other site in Butare. According to one count made three days before the massacre on 18th April 1994, some 75,405 people were present at Karama, but thousands more kept coming in till the morning of 21st April 1994. A more realistic estimate should be close to 100,00 displaced people at Karama.

Additionally, given the limitations on the numbers of soldiers and militias at the disposal of Runyinya authorities, they mobilized the local populations and Burundian refugees and made it a priority to massacre the Tutsi who attempted to cross the Akanyaru River into Burundi.

PAR: Do you think that the Tutsi saw it coming?

With the chilling testimonies of survivors of Cyahinda and Kibeho massacres, as well as communal authorities organizing the starvation of the Tutsi at Karama (they poisoned the main source of water and posted armed militias to kill those who ventured to go fetch water: editor’s note), there is no doubt they feared what was coming, but there is no way they could have imagined its magnitude.

PAR: The apocalyptic massacres at Karama were launched on April 21st, 1994…

Soldiers first launched targeted attacks in Butare town after the security meeting presided by the interim president, Théodore Sindikubwabo in Gikongoro, on April 17th, 1994. Then two days later on 19th April 1994 after his inflammatory speech calling on the Hutu in Butare Prefecture to perpetuate the genocide, the soldiers together with the militia and ordinary Hutu villagers launched a widespread slaughter of the Tutsi in different parts of Butare Prefecture.

In the week between 18th and 25th, April 1994, Butare military and political authorities accelerated and intensified the large-scale slaughter. The military, administrative and political leaders enthusiastically brought Butare into full compliance with the national programme of the genocide against the Tutsi.

In Nyakizu Commune, neighbouring Runyinya, the first largest number of Tutsi (more than 30,000) were killed in the shortest time at Cyahinda. The National Police (gendarmerie) helped the Mayor of Nyakizu to get the soldiers he needed to finish the massacre at Cyahinda from 18th to 19th April 1994.

After they were done with Cyahinda and many other places in Butare and Gikongoro, the army provided the soldiers for the massacre at Karama. Prior to the fateful date of 21st April 1994, the defenceless Tutsi at Karama were literally enveloped, besieged and starving.

To signal the beginning of the killings, a gendarme (para-military police) shot in the air and then soldiers and militiamen went on a rampage. Déogratias Hategekimana, the Mayor of Runyinya, was reportedly present immediately before the massacres and thus lent his authority to the killings. He also directed his subordinates, including ordinary villagers, to join in the slaughter.

PAR: For a number of years you have been recording testimonies of Karama survivors… what is the one thing you can’t forget?

Everything. I remember all the details. On 21st April 1994, it was a ruthless butchery that started around 10 am until 3 pm when the killers were out of ammunition. Then the Tutsi resistance decided to focus on the southern front in order to find an exit that could lead to Burundi. There were many fronts as they were surrounded, and they could see that they wouldn’t defeat the heavily armed killers. Around 5 pm they called on all those who were still alive to run to Burundi, and of course, they were chased, and many died on the way. Others reached Burundi.

After they had just crossed into Burundi, the mayor of Runyinya who had chased them asked the Burundian border officials to send back the survivors as “they were fleeing famine”, he said. The Burundians asked him if the famine in Rwanda was hacking people with machetes.

On 24th April 1994, when the last Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) expatriate volunteers left Butare for Burundi, Dr Rony Zachariah reported that on the road to the border with Burundi after leaving Butare “the whole landscape was littered with bodies”, and in the space of five minutes he counted 30 corpses of men, women and children floating down the Akanyaru river on the border with Burundi.

Unfortunately, when some Tutsi decided to flee to Burundi, there were many elderly men and women, children and injured people who stayed behind locked in the compound of some priests and surrounding buildings. Killers came back for them; they first started firing at them; then they brought fuel and set some of the compounds on fire where many burnt alive; those who tried to get out were hacked with machetes. Only a few Tutsi survived.

In the end, Karama was a slaughter field. The church was marked by the traces of bombs and grenade explosions, the bodies scattered inside and outside what used to be a sanctuary.

It was the deadliest massacre of the genocide against the Tutsi. According to African Rights, “more people perished at the Parish of Karama than in any of the other massacres of the genocide against the Tutsi investigated by African Rights”.

PAR: To murder such a big number of people in 24 hours involved an equally big number of killers, right?

Administrative officials from the prefecture down to the cell, assisted by local figures, fed the hatred and panic already generated by genocide propaganda. They encouraged people to believe that the Tutsi posed a threat to the safety of the Hutu and thus should be eliminated.

The radio broadcast warnings about the risk of a southern front being opened, with either RPF or Burundian troops crossing the border to link up with the Tutsi who gathered in Butare communes. The genocide propagandists used such fears to motivate civilians to kill their neighbours.

Popular participation was crucial in order to ensure that all Tutsi were totally exterminated.

PAR: The story of the extermination of the Tutsi would be incomplete without a mention of the resistance of the Tutsi …

That is right. In virtually all the sites where the Tutsi gathered together during the genocide, they did their best to defend themselves and their families. The resistance lasted longer in places where there were large numbers of Tutsi people. . But in Karama, the killers were heavily armed and mentally well prepared following the successful massacres in Kibeho, Cyahinda, Butare town and other places before Karama.

However, the Tutsi still tried to defend themselves using stones and other traditional weapons or domestic tools to the extent that some managed to escape and fought their way to Burundi.

PAR: We are grateful for the time. We just want to come back to one last question, about the preservation of memory and resilience of survivors.

Well, while survivors of Karama among other things advocate for elevating the Genocide Memorial of Karama to a higher status, the grief of survivors and their relatives has gone nowhere.

Like other annual commemorations of the genocide against the Tutsi, the 26th commemoration is a period to honour the memory of those we lost, and to reflect on the difficult journey of healing as survivors, but also as a nation, as we renew our firm commitment to “Never Again”.

Editor’s Note:

In a 1996 study of massacre sites of the genocide against the Tutsi, findings suggested that more than 40,000 persons were killed at Karama and that some 8,000 survivors fled to Burundi. Others have estimated that as many as 50,000 were killed at Karama in a matter of 2 days.



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