Roses placed at the genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. (Gioia Forster/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

Twenty-five years ago this month, extremists from the Hutu ethnic group in Rwanda mounted a genocide that killed 800,000 people in 100 days, tearing the country apart.

Rwanda’s leader has spun the story of the genocide as a sort of national origin myth: The Hutu were the killers and the Tutsi were the victims, but now Rwandans are united, and ethnic division is a thing of the past. 

But written out of that story entirely is Rwanda’s third and smallest ethnic group, the Twa, who were killed in even greater proportion than the Tutsi during the genocide, and who cannot commemorate their dead because they fear being arrested for “ethnic divisionism.” 

That fear is rooted in how the genocide ended. By mid-1994, a Uganda-backed Tutsi army had violently put an end to the genocide; the head of that army, Paul Kagame, has led Rwanda ever since. Kagame’s push for reconciliation, often lauded as a model, has been founded on the erasure of ethnic labels, and using them is now considered a serious crime that can warrant jail time. 

The lack of even one mention of the Twa in public commemorations over the past quarter-
century underlines Kagame’s strict enforcement of a narrow version of the genocide. This weekend, Rwandans as well as dignitaries from around the world will gather for one of the biggest remembrances yet, but many Twa people doubt that their suffering will be acknowledged now, if ever.

“When we commemorate the genocide, we only commemorate the Tutsi,” said Amani Ndahimana, 52, who lost most of his family in the genocide. “But why can I not speak in public about my own family? Why should I go to jail for mourning my own family?”

The Twa are Rwanda’s indigenous people and make up about 1 percent of its population, but roughly a third of the community — at least 10,000 people — were killed during the genocide, and another third became refugees, according to Jerome Lewis, an anthropologist who conducted censuses of the Twa before and after the genocide.

“All that was left of the Twa after the genocide were orphans and old ladies,” Lewis said. “In proportion, they suffered more than any other group, and yet there’s not a single memorial.”


A view of the hills of Rwanda's Northern Province, where Musanze District is located. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

The role of the Twa in the genocide is complicated. Many lived in majority-Tutsi villages and were simply killed along with their neighbors. Others fought alongside Kagame’s army, drawing Hutu ire. And others were forcibly conscripted by the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that carried out most of the killings. 

The group has historically been Rwanda’s poorest. Only a generation ago, the Twa were hunter-gatherers who subsisted off meat and honey from Rwanda’s rain forests. After the opening of national parks, all of them were evicted from their ancestral hunting grounds, and Twa activists say that more than 90 percent of the community is now landless. Even though Rwanda’s economy is one of Africa’s fastest-growing, most Twa live in abject poverty.

In Musanze District, amid rich farmland at the foot of Rwanda’s famous volcanoes where their forebears once hunted, the Twa community lives in single-room houses built by the Red Cross and subsists by picking up whatever corn and potatoes their Hutu neighbors accidentally drop in their fields. Some find work as porters for tourists, some do traditional dances for tips at trekkers’ lodges, and others make pottery, though not much of it sells.


The Twa community in Musanze District lives in single-room houses built by the Red Cross. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

Prejudice against the Twa is rife, and in some parts of Rwanda, a sort of untouchability is practiced, where Twa are not allowed to use the same utensils or sit in the same areas as others. The prejudice was used to justify their being killed during the genocide, survivors say, and to deny them compensation afterward.

The government established a fund in 1998 to provide education, health care and jobs for genocide survivors. The Twa say they are not able to access the money.

“When we tried to get money from the fund for survivors, we were told that our families must have been killed by accident because the genocide only targeted the Tutsi,” said Shaban Munyarukundo, a member of a Twa advocacy group called the Rwandese Community of Potters. “They say that Rwanda is united now, but many Rwandans don’t even see us as human beings.”

Because ethnic terminology is banned in Rwanda, the Twa are officially referred to as HMPs, or historically marginalized people. The Rwandese Community of Potters was forced to change its name from the Community of Indigenous Rwandese because the government found it to be too ethnic in nature. 

Laws against “ethnic divisionism” and “genocide ideology” have been used to jail Kagame’s political opponents as well. Over the past year, two major opposition figures, Victoire Ingabire and Diane Rwigara, were released from prison after being convicted of genocide ideology for, among other things, pointing out that many Hutu were also killed by the Interahamwe during the genocide.

Kagame warned the released opposition leaders to watch their words.

“If you are not careful you can find yourself back in prison or back abroad on the streets. This Rwanda as it is now, we have learnt a lot from its history. If you are wise, you better be humble and work together with others in cooperation,” he said.


Dativa Mukeshimana, a member of the Twa ethnic minority, splits wood in Musanze District, in Rwanda's Northern Province, on April 3. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

Starting on Sunday and lasting 100 days, the Rwandan government will host its annual commemoration, known as “Kwibuka,” which means “to remember” in Kinyarwanda, the national language. In the past, the first day of the event has been marked by solemn ceremonies and outpourings of public grief, culminating in a nighttime vigil. 

The post-ethnic unity that Kagame has prescribed for Rwanda isn’t totally off-putting to some Twa. With their hunting grounds and ability to publicly self-identify as Twa taken away, some Twa in Musanze are hoping that the Rwandan government will take steps to integrate them into the larger society and do away altogether with a Twa identity that comes with so much prejudice. 

“It would be better if the government took our children away, put them in boarding school, and let the last generation of us that knew the old ways die here,” said Dativa Mukeshimana, 44, talking as she split firewood. “Back then, our culture was to teach our children to hunt and gather honey. Are we supposed to teach them to beg now?”