What does the discovery of mass graves in Rwanda mean for reconciliation?

On Sunday, 22nd April, four mass graves holding victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide were found in the Gasabo District, near the capital of Kigali. Excavations have resulted in the recovery of around 200 bodies so far, with workers continuing their efforts and searching for a fifth site. It is believed that around 3,000 victims from the local area, whose disappearances remained unaccounted for over the last 24 years, could be found in these very graves. This painful discovery provided an opportunity for many to gain much-needed closure, with many survivors and family members visiting the graves to try and identify their loved ones. A photo album found in the depths of the graves was studied carefully, as was the torn clothing on the bodies. However, the excavation of these graves has also brought to light many unsettling questions, many of which threaten to undermine the progress Rwanda has made in the last 24 years towards reconciliation. The principal question on everyone’s lips is this: why are these graves only just being discovered? It is believed by many that locals and genocide convicts in the area, many of whom have been living side by side for the last two decades, purposefully withheld information about the fact that there were mass graves in the area. For many survivors, the values of reconciliation and unity may seem difficult to uphold upon learning that their neighbours may have known about the graves all along. That’s not to mention their loved ones being deprived of a proper burial, tossed into mass graves, with no regard for honour or dignity. One survivor remarked: "Those who participated in the killing of our relatives don't want to tell us where they buried them. How can you reconcile with such people?"

The genocide of 1994 saw an unprecedented level of violence and killing which devastated the country. Ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis had been brewing for some time, but the catalyst for the genocide came with the assassination of Hutu president Habyarimana, when his plane was shot down on 6th April 1994. Although the identity of those responsible for the killing is still unknown to this day, the blame was pinned at the time on the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi rebel group led by current President Paul Kagame. In a matter of hours, a campaign of mass violence mobilised against the Tutsi population, with militias and paramilitary groups emerging and enacting a wave of mass murder. The resulting violence saw the deaths of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans in a period of just 100 days. With almost every single citizen being implicated in the violence in some way, it is difficult to imagine the sheer pain, devastation and anger felt by those who survived.

Rwanda has come a long way in the last 24 years. When the RPF captured Kigali in July 1994, the newly-installed President Paul Kagame embarked on a programme of reconciliation and national unity. Events are now held annually to commemorate the genocide, including the symbolic Walk to Remember, which took place this year on 7th April. The walk saw thousands of Rwandans marching from the Parliament building to the Amahoro National Stadium, where they joined their compatriots in a moving vigil remembering the victims of the genocide. The Walk has its roots in a student-led movement which began in 2009, aiming to raise awareness about the genocide amongst the nation’s ever-growing younger-generation, the majority of whom were born after the events.

Although commemoration, unity and reconciliation may be at the forefront of the nation’s minds this month, it is difficult to say whether the unearthing of these four mass graves will re-open old wounds.


This post was written by Ananya Sriram; she is a Communications Task Force member of STAND France and studies French and International Relations at the University of Leeds.