The Mosques of Rwanda

by Geoff Wisner

Kinyarwanda, a drama about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath, has won awards from film festivals, collected glowing quotes from reviewers, and succeeded in breaking out of the art-house ghetto and being shown in mainstream theaters. 

Kinyarwanda puts a human face on an almost unimaginable nightmare. Equally important, it highlights the brave and generous conduct of Rwandan Muslims during that nightmare. 

At the time of the genocide, Time magazine splashed a quote from a missionary across its cover: “There are no devils left in Hell. They are all in Rwanda.” There was a bitter irony in this. In 1994, some of the “devils” belonged to the Christian church itself. When Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled to churches for safety, some of the priests and ministers they counted on for protection opened the gates to the killers. Some could even be found among those calling for blood. 

One group was different, though few writers and journalists bothered to mention it. The tiny Muslim community of Rwanda protected Muslim Tutsis from the genocide. More than that, they protected thousands of non-Muslims. Few mosques were attacked, at least in part because of a fear of Islamic magic. When the génocidaires assaulted one mosque in Kigali, the capital, they needed machine guns to overcome the resistance of the defenders.

Written and directed by the Jamaican-born Alrick Brown, Kinyarwanda was filmed over 16 days in Kigali. Based on a story and research by executive producer Ishmael Ntihabose, the film deftly handles half a dozen interlocking stories, in the manner of Crash or Pulp Fiction

As the film begins, some teenagers are dancing in a living room with the curtains drawn. When a cassette tape comes to the end and a boy removes it from the boom box, we hear the gloating voice of a radio announcer calling for the death of the Tutsi “cockroaches.” No one says a word. The boy turns the cassette, the music resumes, and the dance continues. 

One plot line follows Jeanne (Hadidja Zaninka), a soft-spoken round-faced young woman, whom we first see at the dance. Her father is a Hutu and her mother Tutsi, leaving her in the dangerous middle ground of the ethnic conflict. Two young Hutu men desire her: her boyfriend Patrique (Marc Gwamaka) and the family’s glowering houseboy Emmanuel (Edouard Bamporiki).

Another narrative follows Father Pierre (Kennedy Mpazimpaka), a Tutsi priest at a Catholic church where other Tutsis have gathered for protection. The senior priest yields to demands that he let in the killers, but before he does, he allows Father Pierre to slip away. Father Pierre is captured, then rescued in an unexpected way and led to a nearby mosque.

There Father Pierre meets a canny, world-weary imam (Abdallah Uwimana). The unnamed imam stubbornly maintains his sanctuary, though food and water are rapidly running out. The scenes in which he and the guilt-ridden Tutsi priest take each other’s measure are among the best in the film. The imam sees the priest as a good man who suffered a moment of weakness, and gradually helps him regain his faith and his self-respect. 

Kinyarwanda prides itself on its authenticity, and the credits testify that the filmmakers involved an extraordinary number of Rwandans in its production. Ntihabose, the executive producer, served as an assistant on three earlier films about the Rwandan genocide: Sometimes in April, Shooting Dogs, and Shake Hands with the Devil. 

The cast, as producer Tommy Oliver confirmed by e-mail, includes not only victims but participants in the 1994 genocide: not surprising for a country where so many were swept up in the violence. We see Rwandan men confessing to crimes in a reeducation camp, but whether they include the actual killers we do not know. The filmmakers did not question their actors about their involvement.  

Kinyarwanda has its flaws. Like Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda, it seeks to make a holocaust bearable to watch by focusing on the few people who risked their lives to save others, and by toning down the violence. In its effort to keep the emphasis on forgiveness and humanity, Kinyarwanda is perhaps too nice. The killings by club and axe and machete are never shown. No bodies are visible, and very little blood. In the scenes that take place a decade after the massacre, we see no amputees, no one with terrible scars, no one driven mad by the experience. 

Two soldiers, members of the rebel force that overthrew the government after the genocide, are each played by Americans. Kena Anae, born in the Bronx to Nigerian parents, makes a believable Rwandan rebel. Florida-born Cassandra Freeman — probably the best-known cast member, having appeared with Denzel Washington in Inside Man — projects the necessary toughness but never masters her accent. 

Still, Kinyarwanda is not only a milestone in Rwanda’s ability to come to terms with its history, but it does a great service in shedding light on the remarkable story of the Rwandan Muslims. Until now this story has been easy to miss. In his well-known book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Gourevitch mentions the Muslims only in passing, quoting a Christian leader who says they “apparently behaved quite well” and were generally “not active in the genocide, even seeking to save Tutsi Muslims.”

The Rwandans themselves have recognized Islam in the most concrete way possible — by converting to Islam and filling the mosques. In the three years following the genocide, the percentage of Muslims rose dramatically, and by 2002 Muslims made up 14% of the country’s population, twice as many as before.