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Theater Group Gets Generations Talking About Rwandan Genocide


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

Twenty years ago, a genocide was carried out in Rwanda. Almost a million people were murdered, mostly members of the minority Tutsi population. We've been looking, this week, at how that country has changed since then. Today, more than half of Rwanda's population is under the age of 20. They have no memory of that searing event. So this period of remembrance is offering a chance for a generation that endured the trauma to speak to a generation that has only heard about.

NPR's Gregory Warner has more.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Hyppolite Ntigurirwa was 7 years old when he watched his father killed in front of him in the genocide of 1994. In primary school, he took up theater to find a new family in the close-knit community of the acting troupe. Here, he's leading young actors in a vocal warm-up.


WARNER: Hyppolite has returned to his alma mater, the University of Rwanda in Butare, to direct the theater club in a play he's written for the post-genocide generation.

HYPPOLITE NTIGURIRWA: I wanted the new generation to keep in their minds that what happened would never happen again.

WARNER: His play concerns a baby girl who's adopted by neighbors after her parents are murdered. Twenty years later, she discovers that her parents' killer was the man she calls father. She was adopted because Rwandan property law gives a girl's adoptive parents de facto ownership over her family's land. Hyppolite says as much as ethnic hatred, simple greed was also a motive for genocide.

NTIGURIRWA: Those who were killers, most of them had something from neighbors killed. That's what you want to tell to young generation, not to be greedy for anything because it can lead to genocide.

WARNER: The lead actress is 22-year-old Assoumpta Byukusenge, a student of business management with fine features and a wide smile. Just like the character she plays, she lost both parents in the genocide yet has no memory of the event of her own. She was only two. She knows the story from her older brothers, who were ages six and nine.

ASSOUMPTA BYUKUSENGE: I didn't see anything. I don't remember anything about the genocide. What I know is what they told me.

WARNER: Her stance toward the genocide is different from her brothers. Because her brothers experienced it firsthand, she says, they can forgive what happened, to them.

BYUKUSENGE: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: She can't forgive what she can't even comprehend.

The generation who witnessed the genocide as children are today a powerful cohort in this country; disproportionately the leaders of organizations or filling the office hallways of Rwanda's State House where the hiring policy would appear to be steered by that old slogan: Don't trust anyone over 40.

Louise Ingabire, a 28-year-old business manager in Butare, says that her generation was old enough to have seen the genocide, but too young to be implicated by it. After the genocide, perpetrators under age 14 were spared prison.

LOUISE INGABIRE: (Through translator) Now that they're older, they're the ones to change things. I think they can lead others well.

WARNER: You can also read Hyppolite's play on a symbolic level. The family is modern Rwanda, where killers and survivors must try and live together. At the climax, when the young woman discovers the truth about her adoptive father, the actors freeze.

NTIGURIRWA: And the lady asks the audience: What would you do if you were in the position where I am right now?

WARNER: Some emotional theatre-goers forget the fourth wall and grab chairs as weapons.

NTIGURIRWA: And say they're going to kill them, and we stop the play. And the others say: No, I don't think I will act in same way.

WARNER: They'd stay in the family to correct the father's tribalist thinking. I ask Assoumpta, the actress, what she would do. She takes a long time before answering.

BYUKUSENGE: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: She'd leave the family while Hyppolite - the playwright, five years older - is more considered. If he were that 20-year-old daughter, he says, he'd first finish university and get on his feet. And then he'd write a letter to his adoptive parents.

NTIGURIRWA: I would like write them a letter, say thank you for what you have done. And I will make sure they would not see me again.

WARNER: Gregory Warner, NPR News, Kigali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.

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