Reflections on Rwanda – 20 Years After the Genocide (Part II)

As noted in Part I of this posting, beautiful appearances can also be deceiving.  In reflection, the author probably spoke mainly to those who had formerly been known as Tutsi (since these terms are no longer supposed to be used in Rwanda).  Although it is impossible to gain much accuracy over a week, most Tutsi are likely supportive of their staunchly pro-Tutsi government, presided over by President Paul Kagame.  (There would be some notable exceptions, however, of those who have fallen out of favor with the government, and have fled, or worse; it is clear that the government has little tolerance of opposition.)  Because one is not supposed to ask about ethnicity (as citizens “are all Rwandans now”), it would be fascinating (but somewhat difficult) to ask about the views of Hutus in Rwanda; one might anticipate that a fair number of them would not necessarily share such a rosy assessment.

As an outsider to Rwanda, the author found herself not asking any of the hard questions – certainly not to government officials – out of concerns that it is difficult to know how close one can come to sensitive issues without crossing the line.  At the same time, the author felt somewhat guilty at not having asked hard questions, as that is a form of self-censorship.  Thus, having travelled all the way to Rwanda and back, the author, came home with some of the same nagging questions she had upon starting out.

Some of the most indelible impressions came from visits to key genocide memorials.  These include Murambi (a challenging memorial to visit, the site of a former school, with classrooms full of bodies preserved in lime); the churches of Nyamata and Ntarama (sites of horrific mass slaughter for Tutsis who mistakenly thought they would receive sanctuary), as well as the main genocide memorial in Kigali.  At each of these, tens of thousands are buried.  (There are an estimated 50,000 bodies at Murambi – a number so large it is scarcely possible to imagine).  These memorials help ensure that no one will forget the genocide.  Nor should they.

Yet, the author noticed that despite the fact that, during the genocide, crimes were perpetrated against both the Tutsi as well as moderate Hutu, in Rwanda, the official description at the memorials is “the genocide against the Tutsi.”  One cannot help but wonder whether this simplified narrative results in stereotyping of Tutsi as heroic survivors and Hutu as perpetrators.  One has to ask whether, 20 years later, the country should not use a more accurate and inclusive narrative, one that also acknowledges some of the suffering that occurred on the other side – it is not nearly of the same magnitude, but nonetheless not insignificant.

Admittedly, recognizing the suffering of “the other” is perhaps easier said than done.  Recently, the author read of a monument in the U.K. erected to R.A.F. pilots lost in WWII and their victims.  While many countries erect monuments to the losses on their side (for example, virtually all of the memorials in the former Yugoslavia do this), it takes a mature sense of memorialization, and history, to recognize suffering on the other side.  (One also does not see this in the former Yugoslavia, with the notable exception of the Potocari Memorial outside Srebrenica, which the international community mandated, despite it being in the solidly Serb territory of Republica Srpska).  Of course, we are more than a half century after WWII, and perhaps mature forms of memorialization, as well as historical narratives, take time to recognize that, in any conflict, one group is not wholly good, and the other is not wholly evil.

Rwanda has also switched its narrative that citizens should not be known by ethnic identity as Hutu or Tutsi, but “as Rwandans.”  This is a fascinating attempt at social engineering.  But will it work?  That is a huge question.  Perhaps the younger generations can be schooled to think that way, but surely the adult population knows which group they belong or belonged to, and, to some extent, undoubtedly still associate with that identity.  It is curious that the government itself seems not to follow its own prescription when, at national genocide memorials, it consistently memorializes “the genocide against the Tutsi.”

While the Hutu are also beneficiaries of Rwanda’s rebuilding, it appears that much of the governing class are Tutsi.  Will there be enough successful economic growth for all citizens that the country simply successfully moves on from the genocide?  Or will there remain lingering resentment, with the two groups still cognizant of differences, and, the Hutu, potentially feeling marginalized by the pro-Tutsi leadership, and potentially even demonized?  The chilling problem is that the 1994 genocide was not the first genocide in Rwanda; there have been repeated waves of genocide.  Clearly, the stakes are high if the Kagame regime calculates this wrongly.

Another potential source of resentment could stem from the one-sided justice after the genocide – essentially, victor’s justice.  Génocidaires were tried through three different justice mechanisms:  the ICTR, set up by the international community in Arusha, Tanzania; domestic courts in Rwanda; and, after it proved impossible to handle the cases of all the imprisoned génocidaires through the domestic courts, use of indigenous “Gacaca” trials, that very roughly adjudicated nearly 2 million cases.

Justice for the genocide was imperative.  Genocide is a crime that must be prosecuted, so choosing to have a truth commission (as was used in South Africa) would not have sufficed.  And, 20 years later, the cases (except for a handful of transfer cases and génocidaires recently sent back from Europe), are largely concluded.  However, crimes were committed against Hutus as well, and these were basically excluded from these three levels of trial mechanisms.  Will such one-sided justice leave a legacy of resentment?  It has that potential.

So, while Rwanda appears stable, and prosperous, and is a beautiful country, only time will tell whether it in fact is in fact a success story.  Will the 80% Hutu population see itself as sufficiently benefiting from the country’s remarkable economic recovery?  Clearly, Rwanda’s approach to rebuilding has not been cost free, while donor countries (who perceive mainly a success story in Rwanda), remain largely uncritical of the government.  Ultimately, one has to wonder, 20 years after the genocide, whether in the face of such remarkable success, the government still needs to rule with such an intolerant “top down” approach.  Can it not afford, at this point, to allow a more honest dialogue about the past to develop?  Can suppression of dissent and ethnic identity lead to a healthy outcome?  Only time will tell, but it is possible that ruling with a less stringent hand might permit the development of a more healthy and, ultimately, more stable society.

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