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Book Review: We Cannot Forget - Africa's worst genocide relived

History is living, breathing, and has always been played out in the present. The daily atrocities in Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are reminders of past human depravities – none as haunting as the1994 holocaust in Rwanda – arguably the most gruesome chapter in African history. In a mere one hundred days, Rwanda, a small landlocked country of 9.2 million, reverberated with an orgy of bloodletting that eviscerated ten percent of its population. It was a genocide that targeted the Tutsi peoples at the hands of the Hutus; a genocide incomparable in its intensity and raw violence.

We Cannot Forget is a scholarly narrative that adopts qualitative research methodologies to chronicle a period when humanity was turned on its head. Samuel Totten and Rafiki Ubaldo interview eleven survivors of varying ages, gender, and economic background – skillfully avoiding similitude, duplication and literary ennui.

That the 1994 genocide could have been avoided is posited by Totten and Ubaldo. May be Rwanda was just another African country, or, as one survivor intoned: "People in the US and Europe were watching World Cup, and if they only could have taken a minute and really thought about the fact that Rwandans were being killed, then they could have influenced their governments to take some action."

We Cannot Forget offers key historical data on the socio-political imbroglio that led to 1994. During the colonial period of the 19th century, Tutsi's leadership and administrative prowess were lauded by the Belgians and Germans. The Hutus were the underclass, disempowered. The Tutsis were called Semites, not Black Africans – if only for their lighter complexion and aquiline features. They were promoted as cerebral, born leaders.

By the turn of the 20th century, power shifted. It was a move supported by Europe and the Catholic Church. And revenge loomed. There were anti-Tutsis pogroms in 1956, 1963 and 1973. Tutsis were ordered to carry identification cards, reminiscent of Nazi policy against the Jews before the campaign of extermination. Tutsis were called inzoka (snake) and inyenzi (cockroach). Radio Rwanda and a private radio network - Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), blared vile anti-Tutsi propaganda. 
In response, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, a Tutsi resistance movement was formed. The downing of a plane carrying president Habyarimana, the Hutu president on April 6,1994, supposedly by Tutsi fighters, set the stage for the perfect storm.

And this is where the crux of We Cannot Forget begins. The survivors' accounts are riveting and excruciatingly vivid. Detailed and revolting. Interviewee after interviewee recalls the immeasurable loss of family members. Emmanuel Murangira puts his personal loss at forty three, including all five of his children and wife. Another interviewee (Anonymous for fear of retribution), lost her father, mother, one sister, and more than two hundred relatives. There was no place of refuge, not even churches. Hutus priests and bishops were also complicit in the annihilation of defenseless Tutsis. Testimonials ooze blood and destruction.

One interviewee painfully remembers:"When the attack began, they (the killers) began to shoot at the windows of the church. They were using SMGs, grenades, and pistols... The Interahamwe (youth militia) began to check on the ground to make sure all the people had died. One person they found who had not been killed was a woman who was pregnant...and they pulled her clothes off and said they wanted to see how Tutsi children looked when they are in their mother. They took the mother and sliced her open..."

There are accounts of rape perpetrated by individuals against acquaintances. And in one of the most intriguing cases, children of a Tutsi and Hutu inter-marriage were refused shelter by Hutu relatives.

By early July, the guns fell silent, and machetes and impiris (spiked clubs) were tossed. There were tens of thousands of orphans, thousands of women infected with the HIV virus, and a society riddled with the psychological trauma of a living hell.

Truth and reconciliation committees were formed, and prison sentences were meted out to perpetrators.

Of these village courts, one interviewee states: "In some gacaca, there are even judges who are genocidaires…so you have killers “judging” killers. There are many Hutus and few Tutsis in gacaca, and that is bad,” states one interviewee.


We Cannot Forget is wrenchingly compelling - a lesson in humankind’s murderous potential when mired in phobia, distrust, and insecurity. Eighteen years after the Rwanda genocide, the editor writes: "We can only hope that we truly understand what it means to be, or, fail to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers." With daily atrocities in various parts of the world, such noble words may have regrettably fallen on deaf ears.

We Cannot Forget: Interviews with Survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Edited by Samuel Totten and Rafiki Ubaldo

Rutgers, The State University, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-8135-4969-9

Available: Barnes and Noble.com/Amazon.com

Ratings: ****: Highly Recommended