SALT LAKE CITY — In a period spanning about 100 days from April through June 1994, it’s believed as many as 1 million people living in Rwanda — mostly a minority group inside the country — were slaughtered. It was one of the worst genocides in global history.
But what happened 25 years ago matters just as much as it does now, said Jean Claude Kamali, who coordinated a ceremony in downtown Salt Lake City Saturday afternoon to remember those killed. It’s an annual memorial that has happened in Utah since 2011, event organizers said.
“It’s very important to remember this event because what happened to Rwanda, what happened to us. It’s an atrocity,” he said. However, he added it was also time to "fight genocide ideology and also (so it) doesn’t happen again not only in Rwanda but everywhere in the world."
"We need love in this world. There’s no place for hate in this world,” Kamali said.
The genocide happened in 1994, but it was the tragic result of years of division between two groups, the Hutus and Tutsis. The Tutsis had control for years under a monarchy system. This existed until the Hutus, who were predominantly farmers, began an uprising in 1959, according to worldvision.org. Three years later, Hutus took charge and hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighboring countries.
By the early 1990s, Hutus accounted for about 85% of the country. They controlled the government, the military and media, and pushed forward a division of the two sides, explained John Love, who identified himself as a former organizer of the memorial event.
Then chaos broke out. On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed after the plane he was traveling in was shot down. Within hours, Hutu militia groups began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus — such as Hutu Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana — in response of the assassination, though it wasn’t clear who carried out the attack, according to History.com.
During Saturday’s event, Emmanuel Habimana, a filmmaker, activist and survivor of the genocide, said the treatment of Tutsi people was already terrible before the attacks began.
Militia groups killed scores of people daily for the next 100 days or so. It’s estimated about three-fourths of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was killed during this spree and took an international intervention to put a stop to the killings. Habimana was 9 years old at the time and described how he had to pretend to be a Hutu and somehow survived. His parents and four of his eight siblings were killed.
In 2014, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared June 8 as “Utah’s Day of Remembrance of the Rwandan Genocide.” At the time, it was just the third state to declare a day to reflect on the tragedy.
The events Saturday started with a reflection walk from the Utah Capitol to an event downtown. Many participants of the walk donned black t-shirts with “remember, unite, renew” printed on the back. About 200 people, including multiple survivors of the genocide, attended a remembrance ceremony that followed. It had several speakers, a moment of silence and a candlelight vigil.
Habimana, Mathilde Mukantabana, the ambassador of The Republic of Rwanda to the U.S., Utah Rep. Angela Romero, as well as Dr. Daniel Wilderson, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, were among those who spoke at the event. Those who spoke didn’t just remember what happened, they said it was a reminder what can hate can lead to. They also spoke about what can be done to prevent a similar atrocity from happening again.
“We need to have those different voices and make sure all our voices are heard and that we don’t repeat injustices here in the United States that many of you experienced in your homeland,” Romero said. “We must have intentional dialogues that posture relationships (and) cultivate a better tomorrow because if we don’t talk about the past and how it ties into the future and how we can repeat it in the present, we’ll continue to make those mistakes.”
While there were survivors in the crowd, there were several people in attendance that were born before the genocide, too. Kamali hoped the younger attendees learned from Saturday’s remembrance ceremony.
“We want our next generation to know what happened in our home country, so they can be the spirits of this world to fight against hate and crimes,” he said. “We want people to know we want people to love each other because what happened to our country is a shame for the international community.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to state the correct spelling of Jean Claude Kamali.