In 2014 Photojournalist Benjamin Hiller visited Rwanda where the peace is still holding up 20 years after the Genocide. But it is a peace enforced by the state. The healing process is hampered by tabooing a public discourse over the horrific crimes committed in 1994.

The night emerges early in Kigali – at around 6pm. The darkness is strengthened by the lack of streetlights in many parts of the city. And sometimes in these streets an atmosphere emerges which gives a glimpse into the horrors of the past: You can see an anonymous looking group of men standing around a car next to one of the few opened stores. One of them brings several large bottles of beer and the men start to drink them, in utter silence, while their eyes are focused inwards. At the same time several meters away two members of the local home guard (called Irondo) greet each other: One of them wears a military looking uniform; the second one has covered his face with his hoodie, his pants pouched into his worn-out combat boots while behind his back he swings a large iron rod from one side to the other. It is a ghostly scene in one of the better city districts of Kigali but shows how the group dynamics of the past are still in place and how militarized the whole society still is. Besides the ever-present Irondo – chosen and paid by the local districts and often consisting of former military members – you have the regular police forces and the official military. The latter emerge often shortly before the nightfall at strategic crossroads or the more poverty-stricken districts, silently watching over every movement while they almost disappear due to their camouflage in the tree lines they are standing.

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If you speak to the average Rwandan person you often hear that “everything is fine”. To speak openly about the past, especially if neighbors are around, or even to use the terms “Hutu” and “Tutsi” is seen as a taboo and a threat to the community peace. This is reinforced in many ways: Every last Saturday of a month the Umuganda (charity) takes place. No cars are driving and every single person of society is persuaded to clean up his village, rebuild destroyed houses or help their neighbors. Military checkpoints can be found everywhere to reinforce the driving ban as well as to show that the state is watching. At midday the people come together for a local community meeting, speeches and dances are held. It was planned to be a way to solve problems on the local level and thus help the state to find out what is going wrong. But critics see it as a way to clap down on dissent and help the state to stay informed in a troubling way. Normally it is suggested that family feuds or land disputes are discussed at the community meeting. But as the whole village will decide anonymously for one of the two parties – and their community will shun the loosing party – such disputes take seldom place. The Umuganda reinforces the sense of a “healthy, united community” and that no real problems exist – and that every kind of dissent or poking around in the past is a direct attack on the peace and thus punishable.

But there are still people who speak openly about the past, the complexity of the genocide and the collapse of society. Viateur Munderere, 30, is one of them. He had to witness the killing of almost his entire family while he survived hiding under the dead body of his mother. Later on a neighbor convinced the Genocidaires to let him alive as the “last Tutsi” to show feature generation how a “Tutsi” looks like. “It was the time when evil was ruling here” he tries to explain his experience of the Genocide. “The one thing afterwards was that when you saw another kid you where thinking yourself that everything is fine, but of course I was not. This was growing into a Trauma step by step.” Viateur was one of the many people, from both sides of the conflict, who had to cope with anger outbursts and violence. “Because of the culture of not talking about it it was not easy for me to find a way to express myself. And you know how that can grow inside yourself.” Nowadays Viateur works in multiple ways to transport his own lessons of Trauma and Violence. He is an actor, producer and most importantly an Art Therapist: “I am promoting clay therapy because it helped me. For many survivors it is still a problem to talk about it all. They go to the hospital as they have headaches but they give them only pills, but the headaches and feelings of course do not disappear. So a far better way is the clay therapy as you start exploring your body, find out where you pain is located and get this pain out with your hands forming the clay.”

This kind of trauma work is still far to seldom applied in Rwanda and so Viateur takes an important role to break up the silence surrounding the individual genocide experience. But to find real closure it often needs the burial of the beloved ones – and here the state sponsored idea of remembering clashes with the Individual.

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Murambi is the main genocide memorial in Rwanda. It is a roughly three hours drive to the site from Kigali and at the first glance it seems to be similar to the private memorial site in Kigali. But the horror awaits the visitor behind the main building. In several old barracks 1.000 mummified bodies, unearthed from mass-graves one year after the genocide, are displayed in dozens of small rooms. Each room, barley lightened up, bears its own message: In one room you can find bodies of people thrown into the mass-graves alive, their facial expression keeping this moment of horror frozen for eternity. In the next room killed children and babies are laid out, three of them on a small table where a plastic flower is standing in the middle of them. Besides the harrowing smell of decay and death this “presentation” of the bodies raises serious questions on ethics and closure for the families. Mostly it was not possible to identify the bodies due to lack of resources or material evidence. But there are other cases that seriously challenge the state approach of remembering.

There are two churches where massacres took place during the genocide. At one church all the remains of the killed are still lying on the floor and presented to the viewers. Mugwaneza (name changed) survived as a young woman the genocide. She knew that her mother was killed in one of the churches and visited them. There she was shocked and re-traumatized after she recognized that the women hanging from a cross (she was crucified by the Genocidaires) was her mother. She could not cope with the idea that thousands of visitors would walk past her, taking photos and see her in such an agonizing state. A legal battle ensued where Mugwaneza tried to convince the state that she gets the allowance to bury her mother. But the only action the state took was to take the body down from the cross and lay it between the other bodies. It seems like the state line of remembering must be kept by all means necessary. That this can affect also the work of journalists was shown during the work on this reportage: BBC2 aired some weeks beforehand the controversial documentary “Rwanda`s Untold Story” which directly challenges the current perception of the genocide and the role the current president, Paul Kagame. The documentary was seen as a direct attack on the peace in Rwanda as well as at the president himself. State sponsored protests flared up and the state-run media slammed foreign journalists as Genocidaires supporters. Especially in the rural areas where the Radio is still the main source for news this was picked up and led to anger and outrage. Every person I wanted to interview asked me first if I work for the BBC and was hesitant to even answer general questions. And the state upped the struggle to get permissions to visit the memorials or refugee camps. I had to run from one Ministry to the next, piling up papers and stamps and even had to get a letter of intent by the German Embassy. In the end it was not possible to visit the refugee camps at the Congolese border but at least the Murambi Memorial site. Reporters without Borders strongly condemned the smear campaigns following the BBC2 documentary that affected the work of Journalists in the country and threatens the slow opening of the news sector since 2013. Still Rwanda is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the 2014 report from Reporters Without Borders.

Back in Murambi the head of the memorial explained that in the future most of the bodies would be buried properly, though a real time estimate was not given. Additionally 60 bodies will be preserved “for eternity” and displayed for future generations.


One often-overlooked part of the Genocide is the role the Catholic Church and religion had in it. At some of the local churches the worst atrocities, often supported by their priests, where committed. This led to a large shift in society as many survivors are now leaning towards the Evangelical interpretation of the bible and shunned away from the Catholic faith. And especially younger people often find their faith now in the Rastafarian movement, even if one essential part – smoking weed – is prohibited. And the Muslim minority, roughly 10% of the population, further questions the simple “Hutu vs. Tutsi” explanation of the genocide. During 1994 the Muslim population was almost entirely kept outside of the mass-killings, even though they “officially” also belonged to one of the two social classes. Muslims even sheltered thousands of people from both sides from the conflict in their Mosques and private homes.

Sheikh Abdul Rahman-Said from Kigali tries to explain the position of the Muslims during the genocide. He himself is a Muslim preacher since 1989 and works now as the den for Islamic Culture and Arabic Languages at the Masjid Quduis Mosque: “Before the Genocide all Rwandans were living peacefully without hatred, especially Muslims. That’s why during the Tutsi Genocide, the Muslims didn’t participate in that unbearable action that Islam hates and is against. On the contrary, they were helping others in trouble so they weren’t killed, not caring about their religion, only that they are humans.” But why where Muslims not dragged into the Genocide by the outside forces surrounding them? Sheikh Rahman-Said stresses again the Quran: “Islam doesn’t care about your ethnicity, your origin, or whatever you may be. Islam just sees that you’re a human. And human rights must be respected.” There may have been other reasons too why Muslims got spared the horrors. Some experts suggest that the government in that time feared that by persecuting Muslims they could enrage the international Muslim community and thus spark a direct intervention or a call to arms by Muslim radicals. Nowadays Muslims and Christian still live peacefully side by side though some problems and restrictions are challenging this fact: It is still a taboo to marry from a Christian family into a Muslim one and vice versa. Additionally Muslims often can`t visit the state schools as the Christian faith is a core principle in their teaching. Turkish investors started to counter this imbalance by building state of the art schools where Muslims and Christians can learn together. But the recent events in countries like the Central African Republic and Sudan have heightened the fear that one day the peace could get disrupted violently. Especially as the new Evangelical movement sees it as their duty to convert as many Muslims as possible – and in return the local Muslims seems themselves embedded in the Umma first.

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While the Rwandan government develops more and more authoritarian tendencies and the peace seems often enforced by fear and silence towards the past the challenges for the country grow. Rwanda still is dependent on agriculture and the Industrialization is just barley starting. The population keeps growing while the usable land is limited. Also the disputes with the Democratic Republic of Congo are still fresh and there are signs of a new military confrontation in 2015 between the Rwandan Army and the different factions in the North Kivu province of Congo – especially as the current ruling class of Rwanda sees the area as a part of their old kingdom and thus the natural resources as their own. But people like Viateur try to counter these tendencies with a fresh perspective on the past as well as an unbroken optimism for the future: “The hard part is not to make peace but to keep it” as he points out rightly.

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Further reading:

Rwanda – Congo Relations: U.N. Report Says Rwandans Recruited to Fight in Congo (NYT, 28.05.2012, Josh Kron)

Genocide History: Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter (BBC, 07.04.2014)