Twenty-five years have now passed since the Rwandan genocide. On the evening of April 6th, 1994, the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana served as a final trigger for violence after decades of propaganda, animosity, and killing. Within 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis were dead, as were numerous Hutu political opponents of the genocidal state.
Many Rwandans and foreigners have sought to capture this moment through media coverage, memoirs, film, and documentaries. Images of the killings and of refugee processions, of machetes and of bullet holes, are familiar across the world. But for those who grew up in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, the pain of this violence is far more immediate than these decades-old snapshots have the capacity to show.
For many young Rwandans, the genocide continues to have a regular presence in daily life. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, I study this generational trauma, or the social effects of conflict that are experienced by the descendants of those who experience violence. I speak with Rwandans in their early twenties about the effects of past violence on their lives. The genocide separated families, destroyed communities, and left young children to make sense of this loss. As one interviewee poignantly put it, “Parenting when you are 28, 29 – you were never a kid. And you never knew how to do this, because you had no parents to teach you.”
For Rwandans born after 1994, this trauma manifests differently for each individual. I’ve met with young men and women who lost most, or all, of their family members during the genocide. As one such woman succinctly reflected, “You feel that gap that you have, always.” These young adults have had to navigate the past twenty-five years while carrying their loss, depending on peers or remaining family members as they find their way. Many young adults who lost loved ones seek to remember through annual commemorations or visits to memorial spaces – for others, the pain is too much to participate.
Some have sought out those responsible for the death of family members, seeking answers or closure. One young man who did so shared, “I [had] to go there and know what was in his mind.” Many children of perpetrators have too struggled in the aftermath of the genocide, with incarceration sometimes leaving responsibility for the household on the shoulders of young boys and girls. The genocide was communally-based and wide-reaching; most Rwandans are personally affected in some way, and they must seek to make sense of this past while they move forward with their lives.
While this trauma has marred the trajectory of so many young adults, our conversations don’t solely dwell in tragedy. Interspersed in our conversations about memory are their goals, joys, and desires for the future. Many hope to be involved with tourism, showcasing Rwanda’s beauty to visitors. Some seek to thrive in the nation’s bustling business sectors, while others seek to create art that captures their journey. And more than anything else, interviewees express a hope for happy families and for peace. As one woman expressed, “What you’re looking is a better country, a better life, a better future.” As we remember the 1994 Rwandan genocide on its 25th anniversary, those depictions of the genocide, snapshots of the violence and suffering, again come to the fore. And the memory of those lost is essential. But we should also reflect on these next generations of Rwandans, those who live with these scars as they strive for their futures. And we must also reflect that no country is wholly defined by violence. In the Global North, many know Rwanda solely for the 1994 genocide. But these young adults are among Rwandans who are advocating for a future shaped, but not defined, by the country’s past.
Brooke Chambers is a PhD student in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Sociology. Her research interests include collective memory, cultural trauma, political sociology, genocide, and mass violence. Her current work examines generational trauma in contemporary Rwanda, with a focus on the commemorative process. She is the 2019-2020 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.