Leah Chishugi on the Rwandan Genocide

The French colonialists dubbed the central African nation of Rwanda ‘the country of a thousand hills’. At around 6pm on 6 April, 1994, on a day she describes as a perfect day, Leah Chishugi, working at the time as a model, was at Kigali airport with her son working on a photo shoot, when the then Rwandan president’s plane was shot out of the sky.

The Interahamwe, a Hutu rebel group, seized power and launched one of the most gruesome slaughters in human history, where some 800,000 Tsutsis were killed in the space of a few weeks, most of them hacked to death with machetes. As Philip Gourevitch’s book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, details, killing a human with a machete is no easy feat: it requires considerable labour, and can at times be a drawn-out process. This factoid alone gives us a glimpse into the horror of the Rwandan genocide.

“I saw husbands killing their wives,” remembered Chishugi in a recent interview on ABC Radio in Newcastle, “I saw people forcing husbands to kill their wives because they were Tsutsis … I saw some horrific power taking over. I mean, I describe in my book that if God exists then he was not in Rwanda at that time because there was not a good spirit in Rwanda that day, there was just nothing but evil.”

The lack of media coverage and the inaccessibility of central Africa mean that testimonies like Gourevitch’s are few and far between. Leah Chishugi, who’s just appeared at the Brisbane Writers Festival and who’ll be appearing at the Wheeler Centre this Saturday, survived the slaughter by walking to neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo with her son. She’s resettled in the UK and now works as a nurse. In her book, A Long Way from Paradise, she describes her experiences.

ABC journalist Jill Emberson asked Chishugi if she had managed to forgive the people who’d murdered her family. Chishugi replied, “‘Forgive’ is a very big word, but I’m just trying to comprehend, because it’s beyond my imagination. I’m just trying to comprehend what kind of spirits take those people to do whatever it is that they did… But ‘forgive’ is a bit confusing … because I believe if I forgive I’ll stop being angry about it. ‘Forgive’ is very powerful because I lost almost every member of my family in that horrible year, that horrible month … And it makes me doubt inside me if I have that pattern of forgiveness.”

Watch an interview with Leah Chishugi on SBS Television.