Lucie Niyigena’s seven-year-old mind was a jumble of panic and confusion as she stepped over the brutalized, bleeding corpse of her grandfather and fled through the back door of her town’s Catholic church. But, as Lucie remembers the terror nearly two decades later, she was driven by a single overwhelming urge – not to be separated from her mother in death.
“All I could think of was to be with my mother whatever happened,” she says. “Even today, even though I want to get out of this place where so many terrible things happened, where there are still people who want them to happen again, where we can see the killers walking on the streets every day, I can never leave my mother.”
Lucie was back at the church in Kibuye last month, gently washing the skulls of a few of the thousands of Tutsis killed there on a single day at the height of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. By some miracle – actually the decency of a few Hutu policemen, neighbors and a bank clerk who bravely if silently resisted the killing – she and her mother, Madalena Mukariemeria, stayed alive in an area of Rwanda where fewer than one in 30 Tutsis survived the genocide; in total, 800,000 Tutsis were lost to the killings led by a Hutu extremist government.
But survival demands a price. The mass killings have shaped Lucie’s life, even though she was only a young child when the tide of death swamped Kibuye, a town of about 48,000 people on the edge of Lake Kivu at Rwanda’s western border.
The trauma and fear that permeated her home in the early years are now mixed with flickers of hope, suspicion and resentment as the government – led by the former rebel leader, Paul Kagame, who put a stop to the genocide – seeks to construct a new Rwanda where the ideology of hatred is buried with the corpses of its victims.
Lucie is bound up in an unprecedented experiment in which an entire country has been pressed to atone, forgive and reconcile but never forget. That has meant the killers confessing and seeking mercy, and the survivors accepting those who murdered their families back from prison as neighbours. Meanwhile a new generation is being taught to reject the labels of Hutu and Tutsi, and find a common purpose in reconstructing Rwanda.
Read more: Guardian.co.uk