This Pesach will you help families in Ukraine deal with the trauma of war?

Donate Now
Skip Main Navigation
April 5, 2024

Past, Present and Future in Rwanda: 30 Years On


Rwandan child looking into the distance

By Rosa Mutchnick, Community Education and International Programmes Officer

This Sunday represents a solemn day for many of us in the Jewish Community – it marks half a year since the horrific terror attacks by Hamas on Israel and the beginnings of the ongoing war which continues to rage in the Middle East. In those six months, we have seen unprecedented waves of antisemitism and hate-based crimes against Jews as well as rising islamophobia against Muslims in our community. Hamas still hold more than 130 hostages in captivity and we, alongside the entire community, anxiously await their swift release. But this Sunday also marks another tragedy, the 30th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda.  

The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis was a horrific period in Rwanda’s history. For years preceding the slaughter, the German and Belgian colonial powers had artificially created immutable and artificial “racial” divisions between the Hutu and Tutsis, and increased tensions by initially favouring the Tutsis, a minority socio-ethnic group that had long had more economic and political power in Rwandan history. With Rwandan independence and a majority Hutu government post-1959, fear and hatred of Tutsis continued to be deliberately stoked by those in power, leading to years of sporadic acts of violence against them (much like the anti-Jewish pogroms in the years leading up to WW2) and resulting in large groups of Tutsi fleeing to neighbouring countries.  

On April 7, 1994, following the shooting down of a plane containing the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi, the Hutu leaders began their plan of systematic brutal violence against Tutsis still living in the country. Over 100 days, an estimated 1,000,000 men, women, and children were killed, often by people close to them in their communities through brutal and close-contact methods.   

Stoked by fear and irrational hatred, doctors killing patients and teachers killing students, neighbour turned against neighbour to slaughter innocent Tutsis and the courageous Hutus that stood up for them.  

In the 30 years since that horrific 100 days, Rwanda has worked tirelessly to learn and grow from their tragedy. They brought perpetrators to justice using locally formed gacaca courts, trying almost two million people over around 14 years at both a national and community level.  Perhaps even more importantly, Rwanda’s government and peoples have tried deliberately to forge a new national identity without race or ethnic identification. The identification cards which proscribed so many fates under the colonial rule were abolished.  

Instead, Rwanda follows the motto “Ndi Umunyarwanda” which, loosely translated, means “I am Rwandan”. National identity has superseded previous divides. Beyond that, there have been concerted nationwide movements towards restorative justice, including reintegration of all but the worst genocidaires who are slowly but surely finishing their sentences. Among these rebuilders are SACCA and UNM, both partners of World Jewish Relief for over a decade.  

These organisations embody the best of Rwanda. Our agricultural livelihoods programmes, vocational schools, and mental health groups that empower participants to gain tools for better lives, World Jewish Relief is able to help change lives for the better, and for the long-term. Through our ENABLE vocational training programme, we work with SACCA to develop life and employment skills for vulnerable young people, who otherwise would not have the means or opportunity to enter the labour force. With an over 90% employment rate following graduation for our vocational participants, these Rwandans, majority young women, not only find hope for themselves, but an opportunity to give back. Many of our own graduates go on to create their own businesses and employ others.  

Women smiling in Rwanda

Perhaps most importantly in a country where over 25% of those over the age of 34 still grapple with PTSD, all of World Jewish Relief’s work in Rwanda contains a component of mental health support, from group sessions where farmers learn how to navigate interpersonal conflicts in their cooperatives, to art and family therapy to help family structures become more positive and stable.  

In December, World Jewish Relief and the Office of the Chief Rabbi led a trip for 12 British Jewish youth to Rwanda to learn how Jewish values translate to international development work. One of the most common observations from the participants was how positive and focused Rwandans are. Despite the horrors of the past, they have worked to tackle these challenges to ensure the events which unfolded should never be allowed to happen again. Every year, they remember the genocide through a period of mourning called Kwibuka. This involves village sessions to grieve and commemorate together, and the national government spread messages intended to “remember, unite and renew”.  

On what can be a challenging period of time for many in Rwanda, we commemorate the loss of one million lives, and support our partners, participants and graduates as they build a brighter future for all in Rwanda.