On June 7, 1994, the central African country of Rwanda exploded in an orgy of violence that in over 16 weeks left more than one million dead, most of whom were members of the Tutsi minority. Unlike the Holocaust, in the case of Rwanda, there were no religious differences between Tutsis and the majority Hutus. They was hardly a difference in terms of ethnicity.
“Before colonialism came to Rwanda (and its southern neighbour, Burundi), notes Rwandan genocide survivor Dr. Regine King, the Tutsis, who were herders, dominated the more populous Hutus who were farmers. The major physical difference between the two groups was that the Tutsis were generally taller.
Colonialism exacerbated the differences between the two groups because the French colonial administrators favoured the Tutsis at the expense of the Hutus. Since independence in 1960 however, the Hutu majority have dominated.
By 1994, 86% of the Rwandan population was Hutu and just 14% Tutsi. When asked how to tell the difference between Hutu and Tutsi, King replies that the two groups are virtually indistinguishable. “The only way to tell who was Hutu and who Tutsi was by looking at a person’s identity card,” she says. “Our ethnic group was based largely on our family trees.”
In 1994, Regine Uwibereyeho was a student attending university in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. On the evening of June 6, she was visiting her family in her home community. She was supposed to be going back to Kigali on the 6th but, she says, Kigali wasn’t safe for women after 6:00 P.M. So she decided to stay“with her family overnight.
On the morning of June 7, she awoke with her family to news reports that the Hutu president of Rwanda had been killed in a plane crash. The report was that his plane had been shot down.
And the killing began.
“The government began sending out orders on the radio about who to kill and where to attack,” she recalls. “It started with neighbours attacking neighbours with machetes. Many of our friends overnight became our enemies. We, Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches and snakes. Moderate Hutus - Hutus who declined to do their duty and kill Tutsis - were also killed. Many took the opportunity of the genocide to settle scores or take neighbours’ property without facing any consequences.”
King’s family fled to the bush. “An uncle who lived next door and two of my brothers in Kigali were murdered,” she says. “The rest of our family (five siblings and her mother) went into hiding. We had no food, nothing. Thankfully, there were a few people who were willing to help us, bring us food, even at the risk of their own lives. We managed to find an abandoned house to hide in for 15 weeks. Friendly Hutus kept us informed about what was happening outside.”
She notes that the family whom she was living with in Kigali was among the dead. “I took it as a huge sign that I was meant to live because I wasn’t in Kigali at“that time,” she says. “When you are in the midst of a genocide, all you are thinking about is staying alive. Every day, you are grateful that you are still breathing.” King points out that she never became a refugee. When the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Liberation Army took over the country and put an end to the killing, King and her family were still in their home area. She finished her university degree and became involved in reconciliation work. In 2000, she came to Canada and the University of Manitoba where she is currently an assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Work.