SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty years ago, Edouard Kayihura and Chantal Mudahogora were living their normal lives in their native Rwanda. They did not know each other at the time but one fateful day in April 1994, their lives changed forever in one of the most horrific ways imaginable. Today they are both survivors of the same tragedy that will link them forever.
Both spoke Sunday at an event held at Congregation Kol Ami in observance of the 20th commemoration of the genocide that occurred in 1994 against the Tutsi population in Rwanda. In 100 days, nearly 1 million Rwandan Tutsis — and Hutu who were opposed to the ideology of killing Tutsi — were slaughtered.
The mass killings were among the worst during the last century. Many survivors fled the country, including many who sought refuge in the U.S. and Canada.
Kayihura, a survivor of the Hotel Rwanda experience, recalled having to take cover at the home of a neighbor.
“At night, I was hiding in the trees surrounding his property, until he helped me get to (a safe haven) where I survived the genocide,” he said. “My whole family was living in the countryside and they all perished.”
Eventually, he was able to get assistance from United Nations peacekeepers who took him out of the country. As a result of his experience, Kayihura became a genocide crimes prosecutor and human rights activist. He is today a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
Mudahogora was married at the time and was also the mother of a 2-year-old son. When the genocide started, she tried to seek assistance from people she knew from her work with the International Red Cross, but was mortified to find that no one would help.
“I was told that the government had warned them not to intervene,” she explained. “I sought refuge at a (Hutu) friend’s house, but they refused to take us in.”
She then went to an uncle’s home, but extremists came to the house and killed her uncle as he tried to flee in his car, setting the vehicle on fire as he sat behind the wheel.
“They burned him alive and killed everyone who was in that compound,” she said. The killers used guns, grenades and swords to murder anyone they found, she said.
Fortunately, she was able to hide with her son until the next day when they made it to U.N. peacekeepers as well. No other family members survived.
According to Mudahogora, Rwanda’s population of approximately seven million people was composed of three ethnic groups, Hutu (85 percent), Tutsi (14 percent) and Twa (1 percent). In the early 1990s, Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the entire Tutsi minority for the nation’s increasing social, economic, and political challenges.
Tutsi civilians were also accused of supporting a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, according to the United Human Rights Council. Through the use of propaganda and political maneuvering, Juvénal Habyarimana — a Hutu, who was the president at the time and his supporters increased divisions between Hutu and Tutsi.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down. Violence ensued, launching a bloody civil conflict in which Hutu extremists unleashed their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi population, beginning with high profile opposition political leaders.
Ethnic Tutsi and those suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and at roadblocks set up across the country, as they tried to flee. Entire families were decimated, while women were systematically and brutally raped, according to the United Human Rights Council website.
An estimated 200,000 people are believed to have participated in the commission of the Rwandan genocide, the council stated.
In the following weeks, 800,000 men, women and children perished in the mass killings — as many as three quarters of the entire Tutsi population. In addition, thousands of Hutu were also murdered because they opposed the genocide campaign and the forces behind it.
Both Kayihura and Mudahogora said policies must be developed internationally to recognize the signs of potential genocide. Preventing the next ethnic extermination should be of paramount importance globally, they said.
Event organizer Patrick Lee with the Never Again Association said the commemoration was intended to make people aware of the Utah Rwandan refugee community that can benefit from public support and solidarity in recognizing the effects of this human tragedy.
“How do we create and promote unity — even amongst all the diversity that we have in our communities,” he queried.
He said the goals of the commemoration were to remember the victims of the Rwandan genocide, increase awareness of the issues facing survivors, educate the public about the atrocity of genocide against the Tutsi people and to encourage individuals and organizations to renew their personal commitment to preventing genocide anywhere else.
“We need to produce the political will to prevent genocide, to prevent violence altogether,” Lee said. “We can learn a lot from what has happened in other places (like Rwanda).”
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