Skip to main content

April 6 marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana – the spark that lit the Rwandan Genocide, which saw up to one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered by their government and fellow citizens over 100 days. Ethnic strife between minority Tutsis and majority Hutus originated in the country’s past as a Belgian colony. Since before Rwandan independence in 1962, resentment from colonial policy set off a cascade of conflict across Africa’s Great Lakes region, including wars, forced displacements, refugee crises and coups d’état spilling across borders into neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Congo and Tanzania. This history culminated in genocide and reverberated throughout the region long after. Here, Globe Books recommends five books essential for a deeper understanding of the region.

To understand how the international community let this happen

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003) by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire with Major Brent Beardsley; Vintage Canada, 592 pages, $24.95

Likely the best-known book in Canada about the genocide is Canadian Lieutenant-General (Ret.) Roméo Dallaire’s account of the failed United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), which he organized and led as force commander. Dallaire’s is a portrait of UN member states, including Canada, blinded by national self-interest and distracted by other missions. Tiny, landlocked Rwanda, a country rich in many ways but poor in the resources that make global superpowers care, didn’t stand a chance. More than 15 years since it was first published, Shake Hands with the Devil still shames the world.

Bonus Book: UNAMIR was one of several UN missions in the early 1990s that marked a shift toward active combat and increased mental-health challenges for returning peacekeepers. Lieutenant-Colonel Stéphane Grenier served under Dallaire in Rwanda and returned home haunted by the atrocities he witnessed there. Grenier’s memoirs After the War (University of Regina Press, 275 pages, $27.95) tells his story of confronting both his post-traumatic stress disorder and the Canadian military establishment’s approach to mental health.

To learn from fellow Canadians’ stories of survival, resilience and forgiveness

The Hope that Remains: Canadian Survivors of the Rwandan Genocide (2019) by Christine Magill; Véhicule Press, 212 pages, $19.95

Two decades ago, Philip Gourevitch published a book on the genocide carrying the forthright title We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which asked how a country of perpetrators and victims could move forward. For readers who have not been through genocide – who do not know the most vicious betrayal by best friends, neighbours, their very country – the depth of survivors’ grief seems unfathomable. And so the facts of how a person carries on after witnessing such an event also seems unimaginable. Yet, The Hope that Remains, Christine Magill’s book collecting survivors’ stories, shows lives filled with purpose. These 10 Rwandan-Canadians share their difficult experiences to warn of the dangers of ethnic conflict, give solace to those similarly affected, and speak of the freedom in forgiveness. We owe it to them to heed these lessons.

To remember and honour who and what was lost

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump (Archipelago Books, 152 pages, $16)

Books about the genocide can be harrowing reading, but it was the first few pages of Scholastique Mukasonga’s memoir of life before – a book with relatively few depictions of violence – that hit me full-force in the sternum. “I never did cover my mother’s body. … No one was there to cover her,” Mukasonga writes. This book is a memorial to that woman, Stefania, in place of a shroud. Mukasonga was born in 1956, four years before the Rwandan government displaced her family, along with thousands of other Tutsis, from the hills that formed Tutsi culture. Despite the humiliations of exile and government harassment, Stefania is the proud keeper of tradition. These pages are tinted by the knowledge of what is to come, yet there are also moments of pure joy. Readers will share this daughter’s admiration.

To hope for Rwanda’s future

Rwandan Women Rising by Swanee Hunt (Duke University Press, 448 pages, $45.95)

Current Rwandan President Paul Kagame should not be given a free pass for the fact that his Rwandan Patriotic Front forces put an end to the genocide. At the same time, Rwanda must be given credit for the transformation it has undergone in 25 years to become the world leader in women holding elected office. In Rwandan Women Rising, Swanee Hunt traces this history through interviews with over 80 of the Rwandan activists whose work made this possible, addressing such issues as sexual violence, equality in marriage and girls’ education. Accompanied by full-colour photographs, Hunt’s interlocutors make a strong case: A woman’s place is in the peace process.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe