Stories that never ran: Rwanda at risk of repeating the past

A scene of normal life in Rwanda. UmbertoBattista/Pixabay

Over the years, I’ve been hired to write stories for various organizations which for internal reasons (change in focus, change in editor, outside pressure, etc.) never were published. It hasn’t happened often, but sometimes interesting stories have wound up not seeing the light of day. This is one of them — in its unedited form.

Rwanda: Looking back and fearing for the future

By Nick Patterson

To understand Rwanda today, it may be helpful to realize that it is against government policy to discuss ethnicity in public.

That the government in Kigali fears or seeks to suppress such distinctions clearly arises from what happened in 1994, when the Hutu majority slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors with machetes and guns. From April 6, 1994 and for the hundred days to follow, 800,000 Rwandans were murdered by their fellow Rwandans strictly on the basis of ethnicity. In recent years, the death toll has been ultimately placed at around 1 million people – in a genocide that still shocks, even as it promotes both research, and intellectual handwringing not likely to cease anytime soon.

Twenty-three years ago, putting an end to the genocide, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front swept into power, and has since instituted reforms and a nationwide effort to reconcile victims and perpetrators. At the same time the RPF government has sought – with some success to provide economic growth for this African nation of 12 million, the most densely populated on the continent. But to do so, the government of Paul Kagame has, among other things, ruled, by many accounts with an iron fist.

“You have a government that is really hell-bent on economic development but is doing so in a  top-down, centralized and oppressive way,” said Susan Thomson of Colgate University, author of dozens of articles and several books about Rwanda, including Whispering Truth to Power: Everyday Resistance to Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Since being banned from the country in 2006 for her research, she has continued to collect data about the state of Rwanda from colleagues who can still travel there.

“Yes, definitely, there has been economic growth and there definitely is cause for excitement and success in Rwanda,” she said. “One good example is healthcare. They have produced universal healthcare. But the system is creaking. I think we’re so keen to have an African success story that we overlook the bad in favor of the good… The economic successes are actually built on the backs of people who are oppressed and have no freedom. And the gains of the government are accruing to a very small group of elites. It’s not things which are being shared throughout society.”

Rwanda is not simple. It is not simple for people who live there, every day in the shadow of a government-enforced reconciliation,  or mandated agricultural programs which, Thomson said, force the largely peasant population to grow what will sell in the market instead of what their families need to eat. It is not simple to an international community which cheers the Kigali government’s economic successes, but shudders at evidence that the RPF-led government supports the unrest fomented by rebels fighting in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is not made more simple when journalists and political dissidents are muzzled. For instance, “The leadership of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights has been ousted because of its independent stance,” Human Rights Watch wrote in August 2013. “People believed to be favorable to the government have taken over the organization in what has become a typical state tactic to silence human rights defenders…. Rwanda’s domestic human rights movement has been almost destroyed by a combination of state intimidation, threats, manipulation, infiltration, and administrative obstacles. Most leading human rights activists have fled the country. The government’s actions to silence human rights groups are part of a broader pattern of intolerance of criticism, which extends to independent journalists and opposition parties.”

Rwanda also is not simple when seen through the lens of history. But it’s the nation’s complex history that puts the unimaginable genocide into context.

By all accounts, the Belgian colonists who arrived in 1918 accorded the minority Tutsi favored status, viewing them as racially superior to their Hutu countrymen. That would have far-reaching import, said Dr. Moses Tesi, a professor of Political Science and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His work focuses on African Politics, International Relations and Political Economy.

“The Rwandan genocide was the result of long-standing animosity between two ethnic groups resulting from Belgian colonial policy of promoting and imposing the over-lordship of the minority Tutsi who are lighter in complexion over the darker Hutus who constitute the majority,” Tesi said.

The societal inequalities fed the hatred, said Dr. Kofi Nsia-Pepra, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ohio Northern University, who served with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Rwanda. “Pre-colonial institutionalized discrimination and structural inequalities by the Tutsis, reinforced by the Belgian colonizers, culminated in radicalized animosity and ‘moral exclusion’ of the Tutsis by the Hutus in the post-independence era and eventual genocide in 1994,” he said.

In the 1950s, the Belgian colonists withdrew support for the Tutsi king, and from 1959 through 1962, the period when Rwanda became an independent nation, “Tutsi royalists fled the country, fearing reprisal attacks and hoping to regroup in exile,” wrote Sarah Lischer, an associate professor of political science who has written extensively on Rwanda. “Between 1959 and 1967,” she wrote, “at least 200,000 Tutsi fled to Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire [now the DRC], reducing by half the Tutsi population in Rwanda.” The Hutu came to control the country.

But in exile, the children of Tutsis who originally fled the country formed the Rwandan (or Rwandese) Patriotic Front, a revolutionary group which invaded Rwanda in October 1990. “The civil war that followed brought Rwanda to a standstill both economically and politically,” said Dr. Allan Cooper, a professor of history and political science at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

During the civil war, there were massacres committed against both ethnic groups. And elements in the Hutu led government planned a concerted effort to wipe out the Tutsi. “The genocide itself was a strategy to eliminate challengers to the regime – both Tutsi and moderate Hutu – and unify the Hutu population in an effort to exterminate the Tutsi minority,” said Timothy Longman, director of the African Studies Center and associate professor of political science at Boston University.

The plans for genocide were in large measure, right out in the open, in the media. “The pre-genocide propaganda campaign was prolific, well planned and specifically designed to incite hatred against all Tutsi (not solely the RPF),” said Dr. Michelle Martin of Dominican University’s Graduate School of Social Work, who recently competed a three-year study comparing the anti-government propaganda used in Rwanda before and after the genocide. “The propaganda did not consist solely of inciting ethnic hatred, but of overt manipulation of the population and intentionality, meaning that the former regime knew precisely what it was doing, and there did not appear to be any aspect of the campaign and ensuing violence that was spontaneous.”

She said that “By creating fear in the Hutu population that if they did not strike first, they were destined to become slaves of the Tutsi once again, the government successfully mobilized an entire country of civilians to perceive all Tutsi as the enemy and not ‘real’ Rwandans (i.e., as foreign invaders).”

Even as the country’s Hutu president, Jouvenel Habyarimana, sought to negotiate a cease fire with the RPF, hardliners from his own ethnic group opposed the peace. The president’s plane was shot out of the sky on April 6, 1994, by many accounts by Hutu extremists who merely blamed the RPF. In the aftermath, those extremist elements took to the airwaves and called on Hutu to massacre Tutsi.

To explain the unexplainable – how neighbor could rise up against neighbor so ruthlessly to commit murder, rape, theft, and then to justify doing so — survivors, researchers, and others have attributed the genocide to the evil of man, to the devil, to the complicity of the churches. But for many experts it has its roots in the unrelenting campaign of Hutu officials. “The genocide was an official policy that was systematically expanded from one region to the next across the country,” Longman said.

“While a small group of extremists hated the Tutsi, particularly government officials who felt themselves challenged, most Hutu participated in genocide out of fear – fear from not knowing what was happening as the RPF advanced across the country, fear of what might happen to them and their families if they refused to participate. Some of those who participated because they felt they were obliged to do so were at the same time protecting Tutsi friends and family in their own homes.”

Having lived in Rwanda prior to the genocide, Longman is convinced: “The vast majority of people were opposed to the spreading violence and would not have engaged in genocide left to their own devices. But bad leadership pushed the country down a path of violence.”

Meanwhile, as the horror continued to unfold, the international community did little to stop it. The “international community‘s  response  to the Rwandan genocide was pallid, tepid, divided and slow and has revealed to the global community that geo-strategic interests override altruistic criteria in interventionist decisions to protect civilians from atrocities,” Nsia-Pepra said.

“At the time of the genocide,” said Hanna Garry, clinical associate professor of law, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the USC Gould School of Law, “a large portion of the international community was either ignorant or indifferent to what was happening in Rwanda. Most did not know of the decades of violence preceding the genocide in Rwanda, particularly following decolonization, or had ever heard of the two rivaling groups…

“For some, even finding Rwanda on a world map was a problem. For those who did know, and who had received warning signs well in advance, the response was one of abandonment. Other world crises at the time, including the war in the Balkans, took precedence. Rwanda was a sideline issue, if given any attention at all,” Garry said. “Further, the U.S.’ experience with peacekeeping intervention in Somalia in 1993 and the shooting down of two of its Black Hawk helicopters, that led to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers, led to a reticence to get involved in any African conflict at the time, where a certain level of violence was often tolerated.”

As the genocide began, the United Nations pulled 4,000 foreigners out of Rwanda. But the humanitarian crisis left its marks on many. Susan Thomson was doing doctoral research in April 1994. “I was out with UN development workers looking at women’s cooperative projects in a town southwest of Kigali called Gitarama, so we had come back around 6 p.m. that evening,” Thomson recalled.

“Later that night the president’s plane went down. We heard the boom. We then heard that the plane had gone down, so we were already in the UN compound when all these things happened. We learned through the street rumor, what they call ‘the bush telegraph’ what was going on outside. So the UN compound was also adjacent to the prime minister’s home and she had been murdered the night the genocide started along with her Belgian peacekeepers. So we had trickles of news in the UN compound.”

Five days later, Thomson’s compound was evacuated. “I didn’t see that much per se because we were hiding in the UN building,” Thomson said. “But we certainly heard violence, we heard the ominous tones from the radio which were translated for us by Rwandan friends. And we definitely, when we left the compound, saw the results of massacres. There were bodies in ditches and on roadsides and people were armed. Military men had machetes. Some young men had machetes. A lot of men with weapons. Very few civilians walking around.”

She had to leave friends and colleagues behind because they were native to Rwanda. Yet, like Thomson – who freely admits to being obsessed by Rwanda — many touched by the still incomprehensible events of that year, can never truly leave Rwanda completely. Many remain intensely concerned – worried, even – about the country and its people.

While acknowledging the economic growth, some see signs that the ethnic hatreds, or political enmities now suppressed by a government striving to avoid repeating history, will one day boil to the surface. “I can say from colleagues who were in Rwandan just last month that people seem more angry than they’ve ever seen them in the arc of their research,” Thomson said. “These are people that have been researching for 15 and 20 years. There’s a level of frustration and anger that …there’s no outlet to channel it.”

Just as there are those to persist in denying the holocaust, there are some who now deny the genocide, Michelle Martin found. “One of the most profound findings in my research was the vast amount of genocide denial and historical revisionism disseminated through such social media sites as Facebook and Twitter, online blogs, online ‘newspapers,’” she said.

Some note, that while tribunals were set up to bring those who committed genocide to justice, those who were allied with the Tutsi RPF – which also, by most accounts committed acts of genocide against Hutus – were not punished in the aftermath. For some the truth of what happened in Rwanda is far from simple. The conflicts that led to the genocide – “our big mistake” as one Rwandan, quoted by Lischer, called it – seem to still be simmering even as the government hopes for reconciliation. “The repressive political development since the genocide,” she said, “leads many observers to expect future violence as long as underlying tensions remain unaddressed.”

Thomson sees the same potential. “The people that I consulted considered reconciliation to be imposed, rather than sincere,” Thomson said. “And they don’t have less fear in their lives. They have more, because it’s now illegal to talk about certain aspects of the genocide. People know that Hutu killed Hutu because many of them were forced into doing so by the previous regime. They know the current regime also committed acts of genocide during and immediately after,” she said.

Observers fear that in a Rwanda where an elite, authoritarian minority rules over an impoverished majority, where even the ruling powers are starting to factionalize into rival movements, where dissent is repressed, the division of resources leaves most people struggling for necessities, and ethnic and regional conflict is always just over the border, the troubles may not be over.

“What is missing is the clear spark that could prompt the RPF into a civil war,” Thomson said. “There wouldn’t be mass political violence unless there’s that clear spark. What we saw in the genocide was the RPF invaded Rwanda in October of 1990 and in the context of civil war, Hutu extremists made a plan for genocide. We don’t see that happening at the moment. But are the preconditions in place? Absolutely – which is why we would like the international community and others to take notice. Rwanda is at risk of repeating history.”

Rwandan rice fields. Pixabay

Sidebar: Justice after Rwanda

After the atrocities in Rwanda, the United Nations set up a tribunal to hear changes against those accused of participating in and directing the genocide. Even as the tribunal reached its end in 2014, 20 years after the nation became a slaughterhouse of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, many believe that the path to justice is incomplete.

One reason: many of those who carried out the genocide fled the country afterward and are living abroad free of prosecution,. A January 2014 New York Times story focused on Alain and Dafroza Gauthier, a couple from Rwanda, then living in France who have collected evidence for more than a decade against 24 people French residents who they believe were behind the genocide.

“The suspects are members of the Hutu ethnic group who now lead comfortable lives in France and deny any involvement in the slaughter of more than 800,000 people — most of them Tutsi — in just 100 days,” the Times article said. The writer quoted Dafroza Gauthier as saying that, “Here, the fugitives live in denial… They’ve always denied, they have created another story, they have completely erased that part of their lives. They were obliged to do so, otherwise you end up in a mental institution. You can’t live with a crime like that.”

“Some of the original architects of the genocide were flown out during the first days of the genocide, including the former president’s wife, Agathe Habyarimana, who was evacuated courtesy of the French government and lives there today,” said Sara Brown, the Stern Family Fellow and the first comparative genocide doctoral candidate at Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

“Millions fled the country en masse in order to avoid prosecution for their crimes. They evaded justice due in part to France’s Operation Turquoise, a feigned humanitarian corridor established in Rwanda that ushered many perpetrators to refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Still, Brown points to the success of special courts set up in 2006 in Rwanda, which have moved more than a million genocide suspects through a system attempting both justice for the perpetrators and reconciliation in the devastated nation. Called Gacaca Courts, the “innovative hybrid model for justice and reconciliation” relieved the burden then facing Rwanda’s national courts which otherwise would have needed more than a century to try all of those accused in the genocide, Brown said. “Was it perfect? Perhaps not. It is difficult to deliver justice when so many people committed crimes and when the genocide affected so many. But I would argue that they have blazed a new path for post-genocide justice and reconciliation.”


Author: nickpattersonfreelance

I'm a professional reporter, writer, editor, teacher, storyteller. A former travel and features editor for Southern Living, I started Velleity because people keep offering me travel stuff and you may as well benefit from it.

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