Rwanda: A Look At Genocide in Rwandan Literature Over Past 30 Years

The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda stands as one of the darkest chapters in human history, claiming over a million innocent lives in just 100 days.

Three decades later, the reverberations of this tragedy persist in Rwandan literature, particularly in books. Both the young and old generations, whether within the country or in the diaspora, grapple with its enduring impact.

From memoirs and autobiographies to historical accounts and books for children, Rwandan authors continue to offer authentic voices and perspectives on the complexities of memory, trauma, and resilience, ensuring that the voices of the Genocide victims are never forgotten.

Among these authors is Rwandan-American Immaculée Ilibagiza, whose New York Times bestselling memoir ‘Left to Tell’ released in 2006 played a pivotal role in bringing the Genocide stories to a global audience.

The book chronicles her 91 days of survival in a church bathroom with seven other women during the Genocide, offering a first-hand account of resilience and survival.

ALSO READ: Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

Much like Ilibagiza’s book, Yolande Mukagasana’s ‘Not My Time to Die’ also offers harrowing first-hand accounts of survival and loss during the Genocide, providing a testament to the brutality of the atrocity while also affirming the resilience of the human spirit.

Originally published in French as “La mort ne veut pas de moi” in 1997, this book is said to be the first survivor testimony published about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The memoir follows Mukagasana, a nurse living a normal life in Kigali with her family, until the onset of the Genocide. As a successful woman and Tutsi, she becomes a target and is forced to flee for her life. The author recounts her experiences of betrayal, unexpected assistance, and her hope of finding her children amidst the chaos.

ALSO READ: Meet Mukagasana, an author inspired by her Genocide scars

In the spirit of sharing, more books followed, including ‘Life and Death in Nyamata’ by Omar Ndizeye who was 10 years old during the Genocide. The book features how he witnessed the brutal murder of his loved ones at a time when making it to the next day was almost unimaginable, and how he sought refuge in a church located in Bugesera District in the south of Rwanda.

The memoir articulates the Genocide from Ndizeye’s perspective which was written with a sense of gratitude, despite the atrocious and traumatic experiences he went through.

Themes of despair, acceptance, and closure are also explored in Denise Uwimana’s ‘From Red Earth’, which tells a story of how the author lost several loved ones, including her husband, during the Genocide, which was around the time she gave birth to her third son. To her surprise, Uwimana’s life and that of her children were spared by a Hutu (from an ethnic group that was not being targeted).

ALSO READ: Uwimana’s journey through hell

Frida Umuhoza, the author of ‘Frida: Chosen to Die: Destined to Live’ also recounted her story during the Genocide where she witnessed the brutal murder of her entire family, received a blow to the head, and was buried alongside 15 family members, only to regain consciousness and find refuge with someone unexpected. The memoir explores themes such as trauma, healing, and how to rebuild one’s life after tragedy.

ALSO READ: To be shot, you had to pay Rwf5000, survivor Umuhoza testifies at UN

The depiction of childhoods shadowed by tragedy recurs in several Genocide memoirs, echoing the ordeals endured by survivors who faced such horrors at a young age.

The book ‘Survived to Forgive’, recounts Josiane Umulinga’s childhood in Rwanda before the Genocide, characterised by a joyful atmosphere surrounded by family and friends. However, the atrocity abruptly shatters her world, claiming her mother and five siblings.

The author recounts the harrowing experiences of survival, moving from place to place with her remaining family members. Despite the immense loss and challenges she faced, Umulinga chooses to forgive those who perpetrated the atrocities, finding solace in prayer and understanding that forgiveness frees the wronged rather than the wrongdoer.

Albert Nsengimana who was seven years old during the Genocide also wrote shocking testimonies depicting how Genocide was prepared and executed with extreme cruelty–where a mother kills her own child pitilessly.

In his memoir, ‘Ma mère m’a tué’ translated as “My Mother Killed Me,” he recounts the story of his horrendous experiences where his mother took part in the death of his siblings and attempted to also kill him. He paints a vivid picture of how his mother would take her children to Interahamwe militiamen, including his uncle, to be killed.

‘Moi, le dernier Tutsi’ translated as ‘Me, the last Tutsi’ written by Charles Habonimana in collaboration with French national Daniel Le Scornet, also reflects the bitter history Habonimana went through during the Genocide, where he lost both parents, relatives and siblings.

ALSO READ: The Genocide through the eyes of a 12-year-old

Habonimana, who was 12 years old at the time, saw Interahamwe militia killing relatives with his own eyes but lived with and accompanied them during different attacks to kill Tutsis. The memoir shows how Genocide unfolded in Habonimana parents’ village in the former Mayunzwe Sector, Commune Tambwe of Gitarama Prefecture in the current Ruhango District of Southern Province, among other details.

Another notable Genocide memoir ‘Do Not Accept to Die’ by Dimitri Sissi Mukanyiligira was released in 2022. It features stories about the author’s near-death experiences during the Genocide and a contrast of her life before and after the tragedy. Themes of resilience and hope, as well as distress and fear, are explored, as a journey of healing comes into play.

Crafting illustrated books has also become essential in conveying the narrative of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi to young audiences.

Books like ‘That Child is Me’ by Claver Irakoze are gently written whilst, at the same time, capturing the pain and heartache of the author’s journey during the Genocide. The words are accompanied by eye-catching illustrations by Mika Hirwa, which help bring to life Irakoze’s story for a young audience. The book includes discussion questions that aim to contribute to the important dialogue between parents and their children.

The contributions of post-Genocide authors

In recent times, there has been a noticeable shift in Rwanda’s literary scene, with some young authors, aged under 30, stepping up to tackle significant topics like the Genocide against the Tutsi.

As the culture of writing and reading gains momentum, and young writers find inspiration in their role models, the narrative landscape is transforming.

Some of the notable contributors include Dominique Alonga, whose novella ‘Tracing Cracks: A Rwandan Story’ paints a vivid picture of contemporary life in Kigali. Through the eyes of a young woman from the post-Genocide generation, Alonga takes readers on a journey of personal and communal grief and resilience.