Remember Rwanda

A memorial to the Rwandan Genocide - skulls of some of those murdered. The memorial resides at a Catholic church where the massacre took place.

Remember today and the next day and the day after what began 17 years ago yesterday. On April 6, 1994 the plane carrying President Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down.  What had been planned for some time before was put into action: the rapid, methodical, and brutal killing of Rwandan Tutsis by Rwandan Hutus.  The Rwandan Genocide.  For the next 100 days at least 800,000 (mostly) Rwandan Tutsis were killed.  The Rwandan government says that victims of the genocide number over 1 million.  That’s an alarming rate of death.  Much of the killing was done by machete.  Other weapons of brutality were rape and rifle.  It was an up close and personal extermination campaign, mostly by the Interahamwe (a Hutu militia group) but also by coerced Rwandans.  The Rwandan Genocide happened in full view of the world but nothing was done.  The “West” and much of Africa stood by…not helpless or powerless but unwilling.  Not until mid-July 1994 did the killing end, not in small part due to the efforts of the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by current Rwandan President Paul Kagame.  O the UN and various European and African countries and the U.S. by that time finally got moving too.  But this is not a post to examine intentionally deaf ears and blind eyes.

Tutsi and Hutu groups in Rwanda existed for years before; there is also the Twa group.  The groups still exist.  Like the histories of most countries the differences that existed between these groups cannot be easily explained so what follows is very condensed and superficial.

What is now Rwanda had been settled by various populations since the last ice age and by the 1700s there were 8 kingdoms.  The Tutsi monarchy dates back to this time.  The tensions that bubbled up and over into the Rwandan are the product of colonization by the Germans and Belgians, a little dabbling by the French, abuse by the Tutsi monarchy of the Hutus, favored treatment of the Hutus that led to access to jobs and positions of high social standing, and abuse by the Hutus of the Tutsis.  In particular after WWI the Belgians were put in charge and exacerbated long-standing social tensions by requiring  identity cards and treating each of the three groups as distinct races.  Belgium favoured the Tutsis.  After WWII, as with much of the colonized world, independence was granted and the now formalized distinctions between the groups became a real problem.  Now the race was on to consolidate power as and before the Belgians moved on.  Burundi split off and became its own country by 1962.  In Rwanda the Tutsis managed to hold on to some control but their monarchy was ended, and there was now distinct resentment between them and the Hutus.  And by now the Hutus had the full support of the Belgium.

Map showing Rwanda's location in east Africa.

There were periods of violence with the now marginalized Tutsis – many of whom had been exiled or driven to neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – launching attacks on Rwanda.  In a 1979 coup d’état Habyarimana – a Hutu – became President; the population grew quickly, violence against Tutsis lessened but didn’t disappear, and Hutus were favoured.  By 1990, however, there was civil war led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).  France stepped in – somehow – to help the Rwandan government suppress the RPF.  But the RPF was not defeated.  A stalemate developed and by 1993 a cease fire and peace settlement were signed in Arusha, Tanzania.  All this time though tensions between the two groups continued to bubble and many officials now say that there were open discussions in Parliament about exterminating Rwandan Tutsis.  There is evidence to show that as early as 1992 that a massive propaganda campaign was begun; it was meant to demonize Rwandan Tutsis and ramp up to violence.  Tutsi as inyenzi (cockraoch): meant to be crushed.  Events in Burundi were apparently also sensationalized to pit Hutu against Tutsi (the main event being assassination of Burundi’s Hutu president).  Then in April 1994 the plane was shot down.  All hell broke loose.  (More on the events leading up to the genocide can be found here.)

The death toll of the Rwandan Genocide is really unfathomable.  Eight hundred thousand to a million people.  The number of women (and sometimes men) raped numbers in the hundreds of the thousands.  So too does the number of children born of rape.  So too does the number of people physically, emotionally, mentally, and psychologically affected by the genocide.  The humanitarian crisis was huge with refugee camps springing up in neighbouring countries. Interestingly, because of the Tutsi and Hutu links to other countries, there have been reports that Rwanda officially or through remnants of the revolutionary RFP have been involved in conflicts in neighbouring countries, principally the DR Congo (if ever a country was poorly named, DR Congo is it!). There are also claims that current Rwandan President Kagame was involved in the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane.   There have also been accusations that the Tutsis engaged in their own campaign of genocide against Hutus.  Some claim that no genocide took place at all.  Yet hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of people are dead.

A gacaca court in session. Talk about truth and reconciliation.

Despite this horrific tragedy Rwanda has been one of the most stable countries in Africa over the past 17 years.  Recently the New York Times wrote about their health care system while this country struggled to understand the concept of coverage for all.  The system is sophisticated and addresses Rwanda’s needs despite its poverty.  A tribunal was set up in Tanzania to oversee the trials of high level officials accused of participation in the genocide.  Lower level participants are being tried in Rwanda; some of those who were convicted were publicly executed.  The number was so great, however, that Rwanda turned to its history and tradition to address some of the accusation by using the gacaca system.  In gacaca courts, some of those accused of participation in the genocide are tried in their communities by their neighbours.  It’s a form of community justice.  For the most part it’s worked but there was some worry about retaliation against survivors for giving  evidence.  After mid-July 1994 Rwandans displayed a remarkable commitment to moving forward. It’s a World Bank darling (which may or may not be a good thing…) and has a budding economy – tourism, minerals, coffee – but much of the country is rural so agriculture employs many.

Some concern about President Kagame lingers though – his alleged involvement in the DR Congo – as well as a “whiff of repression” such as stamping out opposition.  Is he just ensuring that Rwanda gets the time it needs to heal and move forward on solid footing or is he consolidating his power for the sake of it?  Perhaps this 2010 column in the Financial Times – “Rwanda’s democracy is still the model for Africa” – gives a clue.  Kagame is a respected leader in Africa.  In 2009 again in the Financial Times (“Africa must find its own way“) he argued that while

We [Africans] appreciate support from the outside, but it should be support for what we intend to achieve ourselves. No one should pretend that they care about our nations more than we do; or assume that they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves. They should, in fact, respect us for wanting to decide our own fate.

He points to the DR Congo where he claims that the UN with a large peacekeeping force only “treats the symptoms rather than addressing the issues of capacity, self-determination and dignity.”  I must admit he has a point.  I’m glad that he’s speaking up in this way and I hope that when his term is up in 2017 he doesn’t try a Bloomberg or worse become a Mugabe.

Remember Rwanda.  After the Holocaust there chants and promises of “Never Again’ but by 1994 it seems as if we forgot.  When I first read Philip Gourevitch’s “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” I nearly destroyed my dorm room in anger.  It is not an underestimation for me to say that that book changed my life.  I still retained my dry and often rude sense of humor  and love of leisure, fun, and laughten…but that book (and the African history class in which I read it) sharpened my view of the world.  A lot got put into perspective. Anyway, remember Rwanda.  We almost forgot Yugoslavia.  We don’t even think about the DR Congo…?  Sudan? Maybe Chad? There is Holocaust Remembrance Day (this year: May 2, 2011) and we rightly remember and share the grief of the Holocaust. Unfortunately genocide did not stop with the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945 so why should our attention and action?

3 Responses to “Remember Rwanda”
  1. shumpynella says:

    When I watched Hotel Rwanda, the shock was great – that’s what first motivated me to read about Rwanda and the genocide. What I learned was appalling and saddening. Once again, just as I wrote on your Ms. Myrie post in response to the man from Barbados, if we only read and understood what perpetuates self-hate (and his comments and this situation both have elements of that), we would advance as a people…the link to BBC was very informative

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] wrote a blog last week, Remember Rwanda, asking that we never forget how the Rwandan people raped, shot, stabbed, and hacked themselves to […]

  2. […] Remember Rwanda (April) – Learning about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide changed my life.  I never forget its “anniversary.” […]

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