France’s role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis was evoked on Wednesday at the commemoration of over 50,000 Tutsis who perished at the former ETO Murambi in Nyamagabe District.
When the Genocide began, Tutsis in Gikongoro Prefecture were told by the authorities to take refuge at ETO Murambi, a technical school under construction, for easier protection.
In reality, it was to make it easier to kill them. Over a period of two weeks, Tutsis were sent or taken to Murambi until an estimated 50,000 were gathered at the school. The site filled up because even Tutsis who had survived attacks in neighbouring communes fled to Gikongoro; they assumed it would be safer.
Local officials and then government soldiers set up roadblocks to control the movement of Tutsis. Many were murdered or raped before they had reached the school.
At the commemoration, Simeon Mutangana, one of the few survivors of the massacres in Murambi, remembered the circumstances in which thousands of Tutsi were killed in the region.
“When we arrived here, genocidaires cut off the water at the school and deprived us of water and food. In the following days, many succumbed to starvation,” he said.
On 18 April 1994, the interim President of Rwanda during the Genocide Theodore Sindikubwabo held a meeting with administrative leaders and military officials in Gikongoro. The following night, the first attack on Murambi took place.
“We defended ourselves using stones and bricks. We repelled the first attack,” Mutangana recalled, adding that another attack the next day was also stopped.
Yet on 21 April 1994, the main assault began. A substantial force had been assembled, enabling the militia and then government soldiers to encircle the school to prevent escape. Armed with guns and grenades, they started the attack in the early morning.
ETO Murambi is located on a hill, and surrounded by the killers, the Tutsis at the school were unable to defend themselves or escape.
“The attackers approached the school in a tight circle from adjacent hills. They could see and kill anybody trying to escape down the hill. We were outnumbered. Tutsis were killed in the main school building, in the classrooms and outside where they had been hiding,” said Mutangana who is one of the only 34 survivors of the Murambi massacres in which some 50,000 people were killed.
In June 1994, when ‘Operation Turquoise’ started, French armed forces established their headquarters at Murambi. After the victims of ETO were buried in mass graves, French soldiers created a volleyball court on top of them.
After the massacres at the school, Murambi became a refugee camp, and French soldiers who controlled it allowed government soldiers and Interahamwe into the camp full of Tutsi survivors, giving them the opportunity to continue the killings.
Addressing thousands of mourners at the commemoration, Prime Minister Anastase Murekezi comforted Genocide survivors and called on Rwandans across the country to join in the fight against genocide ideology.
“Visiting memorial sites and getting first-hand information on what happened can play a significant role in fighting genocide ideology, denial, and ensuring that genocide never happens again in Rwanda or elsewhere,” Murekezi said.
The Premier added that Genocide memorials preserve the country’s history, prove that it happened, and provide information on the role of external players – the French government in particular – in Rwanda’s tragic history.
Established in 1995, Murambi is one of the National Genocide Memorial sites and serves as the final resting place for approximately 50,000 victims of the Genocide. Its classrooms contain 848 preserved corpses.