28 Jun 2014

Rwanda rebuilds after 1994 genocide

10:21 am on 28 June 2014

The Rwandan High Commissioner has told Saturday Morning how his country has become reconciled to the 1994 genocide. Charles Murigande said it was working because it has to work.

Charles Murigande during a visit to New Zealand.

Charles Murigande during a visit to New Zealand. Photo: Robert Hanson

How events unfolded

On 6 April, twenty years ago, a plane carrying the presidents of the African states of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down above Kigali airport in Rwanda.

Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was a member of the ruling Hutu majority, who have a tense relationship with the Tutsi minority, going back to Belgian colonisation in 1916, and the riots in 1959 that led to ongoing conflict.

The president's death sparked a genocide. Over the next hundred days, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, around 20 percent of the country's population. Most of the killers were Hutu, and most of their victims were Tutsi.

A Rwandan hillside.

A Rwandan hillside. Photo: CIA Factbook

Charles Murigande, now Rwandan High Commissioner to New Zealand and Australia, was teaching in the United States at that time.

"My first reaction was that the Tutsis are going to be exterminated," he told Saturday Morning.

"I knew that (the Hutus) had been looking for an excuse to exterminate the Tutsis. They had trained militia… they had deployed them in every corner of the country… they had radio that had been preaching hatred."

Mr Murigande, 56, whose family fled Rwanda to Burundi in 1959, became the key point of contact for Rwandans in the United States to rally for UN Security Council action.

At that time, New Zealand held a non-permanent place on the Security Council, and Mr Murigande's work brought him into contact with Colin Keating, then New Zealand's Permanent Representative at the UN.

Map of Africa showing Rwanda.

Map of Africa showing Rwanda. Photo: CIA Factbook

Rwanda hasn't forgotten NZ's support

New Zealand was one of the few countries to attempt to persuade the Security Council to intervene in the Rwandan government's genocide against Tutsi and moderate Hutus, but the stand was unsuccessful.

Rwanda has never forgotten New Zealand's support, and is currently backing the country's current bid to join the Security Council.

After a scientific and academic career in Burundi and the United States, where he was spokesperson for the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Mr Murigande returned from exile to his home country in 1994, to contribute to the post-genocide reconstruction.

Over the next 17 years, he served in the government as minister of transport, communications, education, foreign affairs, regional cooperation, and governmental affairs. He also was elected Secretary General of the Rwandan Patriotic Front for two terms.

Based in Tokyo, Mr Murigande has been the Rwandan ambassador to Japan since 2011, as well as his High Commissioner role in Australasia.

Map of Rwanda.

Map of Rwanda. Photo: CIA Factbook

Mr Murigande and Mr Keating kept in touch over the years, and this week they both spoke at a seminar chaired by Saturday Morning host Kim Hill in Wellington, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide.

The anniversary is being marked this year by Rwanda in a more significant way than in the previous 19 years, as it is perceived that enough time has passed for the populations to be able to reflect properly on the events.

Mr Murigande told Saturday Morning about how Rwanda has recovered from the genocide, and the extraordinary process of conciliation and restoration.

"It is working, because it has to work. We don't have the luxury of a Rwanda for Hutu and a different Rwanda for Tutsi. Reconciliation and living together is better than revenge… that would ultimately put an end to this country we call Rwanda."