Current Challenges


Over 125,000 people are currently being held in prisons in Rwanda. The prison at Cyangugu is typical: designed to hold 2,000 inmates, it currently houses 6,200. Dressed in pink cotton shorts and short-sleeve shirts, guarded by two or three soldiers, you see them walking on the side of the road on their way to and from their work of making bricks or building homes. The interahamwe attacked a prison in Gisenyi last summer and freed the inmates. However, the inmates returned within a few days. “They have nowhere to go,” my friend Benoit tells me, “they would be killed. Everyone knows them.”

Yet there are still many, many people who were leaders in the genocide effort who remain free. Those with money and connections are making new lives for themselves in Europe, Canada and America. Many others are living well in Nairobi or Kinshasa. And many live in their home villages, next door to those whose families they killed. In an effort to minimize baseless accusations, the government has a policy of requiring 4-5 witnesses for any accusation of killing in the genocide. The more effectively one eliminated witnesses, the more likely one is to be free now.

The International Tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania, was created to prosecute the main engineers behind the Rwandan genocide. Unfortunately, the combination of United Nations bureaucracy, legal processes and international disinterest has made this body both very slow and somewhat ineffective. Within Rwanda the task is even more daunting. Few lawyers or judges survived the genocide and remained in the country. Even with assistance from international organizations, extremely speedy trials and clear-cut verdicts, it will take decades to try every prisoner currently held.

As the Rwandan Patriotic Front advanced inward and eventually took control of Kigali and the country, finally putting an end to the genocide, the ringleaders and interahamwe fled to Zaire and took most of the population with them. The UN and numerous non-governmental organizations created camps and feeding programs which retained the existing power structure, fed the genocidal killers and gave them something (food) they could trade for weapons. After a couple of years during which time these international agencies were unable to separate the militias from civilians, thereby giving them a chance to go home, a group of Zairean rebels, backed by RPF and other African troops, attacked the camps and freed the refugees trapped there by the interahamwe. The civilians fled back to their homes in Rwanda and the interahamwe fled into the jungles of eastern Zaire. When Laurent Kabila emerged as the leader of the rebels and was put in place at the head of a new government in Kinshasa in the summer of 1997, Rwanda thought they had a solid ally who would continue to help them to eliminate the remnants of the genocidal killers roaming along the border. A year later, it became clear that this alliance was not serving Rwanda’s national security and they, along with Uganda, whose rebels were also being sheltered in what was now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, joined a new rebellion aimed at deposing Kabila.

By and large, the people who imagined, engineered and implemented one of the worst genocides in world history are still alive and most of them are living freely and plotting the final extermination of the Tutsis.

One of the greatest challenges facing all organizations within Rwanda is that often the best-qualified person for a job, and sometimes the only qualified person, is a Tutsi “returnee” who was educated outside of Rwanda. This has left the government open to criticisms that it is Tutsi-led and is a government of “foreigners.” In addition, there are divisions in economic class that run along “Hutu/Tutsi” lines which are particularly obvious and visible in Kigali.


The top leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches in Rwanda during the genocide have all been heavily implicated, if not directly accused of participation in the killings. In addition, well-known district leaders of these and other denominations (such as Seventh-Day Adventists) were direct participants, either through acts of commission or omission. For the most part, those guilty fled the country once the RPF had taken control. This left churches with very few leaders, buildings, treasuries and congregations destroyed and traumatized by what had happened, and very little help from the outside. It took the Anglican Church, for instance, 3 years to elect a new archbishop and fill abandoned bishop posts. Now they face a dearth of trained parish priests. Many experienced priests and ministers are themselves severely traumatized. Many new priests have no more than a 6th grade education, and it is difficult to have them leave their parishes to attend seminary for two to three years. Even in the United States, clergy often feel ill-equipped to deal with the variety of human suffering they encounter in the life of a parish. In Rwanda, the challenges would be enormous if one was only caring for a homogenous congregation and their trauma in the aftermath of the genocide. But most parishes are a mixture of surviving Tutsis, Hutus who fled at the end of the genocide and have recently returned, long-term refugees who left in 1959 or 1961, etc. and returned after the genocide. Each have very different experiences, pains, fears and perspectives.

Many clergy who fled their posts at the end of the genocide have begun to demand to be returned to their positions. As is also true of the interahamwe, the military and the political leaders of the genocide, few of these clergy show any remorse, regret or repentance for what they did in the Spring of 1994. They believe the stories they manufactured about how the Tutsis were out to get them and rebuild a society based on the exploitation of the Hutu. In their eyes, they simply failed in their goal to “kill them before they kill us.”


As is true in most African societies, Rwandans feel a very strong attachment to the land, and specifically, to the land of their ancestors. Even those born in exile speak of their “home” area and say they finally feel “at home” now that they have returned to Rwanda. Living as a refugee is difficult and most Rwandans who grew up in Uganda or Burundi or Tanzania or Zaire were subject to discrimination, rejection, barriers to education and other opportunities and prejudice. The Habyarimana government’s refusal to allow the repatriation of refugees (on the pretext that Rwanda was “too small” and there was “no room” for them) was the instigation for the attacks by the rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. But deeper than the discrimination they experienced in other countries, was the yearning to be “home,” the yearning for the land, even for a land they had never seen.

When the RPF gained control of the country, the leaders of the genocide realized their days were numbered and they quickly fled the country. The most powerful fled to Europe, Canada and the United States where they were welcomed with open arms as “those poor refugees from Rwanda.” Those with less means fled to Tanzania and Zaire and huddled in the largest refugee camps the world had ever seen. They brought with them over 1 million people who were convinced that the “Tutsi invaders” would seek revenge on them for what had happened and would, as some of them had done, kill them by virtue of the name “Hutu” on their identity card, regardless of their actual actions, true guilt or innocence, or motivations. In the camps, the same tightly hierarchical structure that existed on the hillsides in Rwanda was replicated. And so the prefets and bourgmestres who had led the genocide were in charge of food distribution and “security” in the camps. International aid workers, although they knew that rumors of reprisals in Rwanda were largely false, had no means to counteract the propaganda of the existing leadership. In addition to threats of cholera, malnutrition, exposure and more common diseases, the distribution system was almost entirely corrupt. Soldiers and interahamwe ate first and ate as much as they wanted while women and children went unfed. When all of these refugees came flooding back into Rwanda in 1997, they found that their homes had been taken over by “returnees” (those who fled in the 60’s and 70’s and returned in 1994-95).

For those who survived the genocide and remained in the country, there was certainly a mixture of relief and suspicion upon the victory of the RPF. Their victory did, finally, stop the genocide. But even many Tutsis believed these people to be foreigners. Having already been betrayed by those they knew, loved, and lived with, they had little reason to trust these new people, many of whom spoke English not French, many of whom had more money and more education than those who remained in Rwanda. In turn, the returnees viewed the survivors with suspicion. “How did you survive? Were you a collaborator?” Their houses and farms destroyed, their families murdered, their leaders gone, the survivors had to simultaneously rebuild their lives, find (if they could) and bury their dead, grieve, find parents for orphaned children, plant, harvest, control their urge to seek revenge, and heal from horrifying injuries.

Four years later, in the summer of 1998, you could feel the tension in the air. The suspicion was palpable. Each person looking at one from another group and thinking, “you do not understand what I have been through; you could never understand what I have been through.” Everyone you look at, you wonder, “were they here during? How did they participate? Did they lose family? Did they kill? Did they save someone?”


Widows, orphans, single parents—families have been torn apart. The Episcopal Church in Byumba announced that they wanted to form a widows support group. Three hundred women of all faiths and ethnicities showed up.

A young couple I spent time with in Butare, Viateur and Anonciata, married against the violent objections of their families for he is a Hutu and she a Tutsi. They both work for the Diocese of Butare and are provided with housing and so have some small means. Married three years when I met them, they had one child of their own and seven others they had adopted. One girl, Jeanne (“the middle” they call her because they have three girls named Jeanne) survived because she was mistaken for dead and then hid in a latrine until she was finally rescued. Her mother, though still alive, is unable to care for her. The militia came to their house; Jeanne was outside holding her baby sister; they shot the baby’s head off and Jeanne ran. Then they slowly murdered each remaining child in front of Jeanne’s mother and, when she begged to be killed also, they laughed with glee at how they tortured her.

Many families have one or more members in prison. In addition to losing, usually, the main provider of income for the family, the family is responsible to feed their members in prison. Many women spend their days cooking, travelling to the prison, feeding their husbands or sons, returning home to clean and cook some more, only to return again to the prison.

Most students at every level lost at least a year, if not two, in their education. Now, although many schools are open, many were destroyed and there are not nearly enough schools for all the children. And those who do attend often perform poorly due to stress and the trauma that has not yet fully healed. The schools were powerful tools for brainwashing prior to the genocide. Tutsi children were singled out and often threatened. A woman I met from Gahini told me that when they taught the children math, they would use the example:

If you have 5 Tutsis and you kill 3, how many do you have left?

Returnee children stand out obviously because, although they speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, it is not the same Kinyarwanda that those who stayed in Rwanda speak. In fact, it is easy to tell whether someone came from Uganda or Tanzania or the Congo because the way of speaking is quite distinct. There is an acute awareness of differences. Although the government preaches that “we are all Rwandans,” it is difficult for people to embody this understanding because they have been trained for so long to see “them” as “different.”

Many families are suffering economically. Rwanda is a very small country (about the size of Rhode Island) and is home to 7½ million people, the vast majority of whom make their living through farming. Many families have barely enough land to feed themselves and from that they need to make a profit so they can buy what they cannot grow, pay for school fees, etc. There is considerable environmental degradation in many places where clear-cutting trees on hillsides has caused erosion or over-farming has simply depleted the soil.

Rwandan women, as is true of most African women, have no standing, and few legal protections or rights, unless they are married. Most widows have no land (a husband’s land reverts back to his family upon his death) and therefore little or no means of support. It can be very difficult for a widow, even with skills, to make a living and many of these women are caring for not only their own children, but often grandchildren, nieces and nephews and others who have lost their parents.

In addition, many families now consist of a 12-16 year old child caring for younger siblings or groups of children who have banded together to create a family. One parish in Kigali has 48 families headed by children.