Rwanda: Twenty years after the genocide

Issues of community reconciliation and international accountability remain unresolved in Rwanda.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, it is important to have a more nuanced debate over what happened, writes Verhoeven [AFP/Getty Images]

On April 16, 1994, thousands of citizens congregated on the hilltop of Murambi, in the southwest of Rwanda. They followed the instructions of local authorities who had warned the Tutsi population of Gikongoro prefecture that they would not be able to protect them in their villages. President Juvenal Habyarimana, had been assassinated – a crime that was followed by the liquidation of almost all moderate members of Rwandas political elite and the start of the genocide of Tutsis and their presumed Hutu accomplices.

The Tutsis of Gikongoro were petrified when the extermination campaign spread. Mere days after their arrival at Murambi, the trap closed irrevocably behind them: Mayors who had promised to bring humanitarian assistance, aided the encirclement of the hill by the Interahamwe (Hutu) militia. At dawn on April 21, thousands of ordinary Hutus attacked, armed with machetes, clubs and sticks. Possibly up to 50,000 men, women and children were exterminated in Murambi.

Twenty years after these events, the past is not past yet – not in Rwanda and not around Murambi. However, this anniversary could facilitate a more serene dialogue than the polarising shouting match of the last decade between the Rwandan government and its detractors. Murambi sheds light on the nuances of such a debate.

Successful reconciliation?

Discussions with survivors of Murambi underscore how excruciatingly difficult co-existence remains. On the hills of Gikongoro, community life has resumed after the horrors of the 1990s. The push for universal primary and secondary education, the construction of roads and government-provided health insurance are popular among young and old, rich and poor, and, yes, Hutu and Tutsi. Villagers discuss the competence of a local official or the rhetoric of a Kigali minister when the state fails to deliver on its developmental agenda. But civic debate is only one part of the conversations. There are other discussions that show a different side to post-genocide life.

Rwandan genocide refugees remain in DRC

Contrary to the negationist venom that is produced on diaspora websites to trivialise the murder of approximately one million Rwandans, there is little denial of the genocide among the villagers. Many have appeared before gacaca courts and have confessed to participating in the extermination of their neighbours, relatives and colleagues. These people have to live with having committed the worst crimes imaginable and now work on their fields, side by side, with many of the survivors: Unlike in Nazi Germany and the “Israel solution”, the separation of victims and perpetrators after the conflict, was impossible in Rwanda.

The often-made Holocaust analogy also falters in other respects. Contrary to 1945, 1994 was not the end of the killings, as outsiders often suppose. Two million Hutus were driven by their genocidal government into neighbouring Zaire/Congo; while thousands of civilians died of cholera, the genocidaires used refugee camps to launch attacks on their homeland which had fallen under the control of the rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Kigali’s new rulers.

In regions like Gikongoro, extremists waged a guerrilla war cum extermination campaign against Tutsi for four years. The RPF responded with a counterinsurgency. Although the exact number of deaths in Rwanda and Congo will always remain unknown, tens of thousands disappeared. Not all of these were armed extremists; elderly Hutu and children are included in that figure. Their deaths, though intimately related to the genocidal graveyards on which the RPF has been forced to build the New Rwanda, are not part of the official narrative. But the loss is no less painful and no less consequential for any state and nation-building project.

It is important to note that post-genocide conversations do not coincide neatly with the fault-line of genocidaires and their victims during the 1994 hecatomb. Some Tutsi survivors speak sceptically of the RPF – a supposedly Tutsi movement – because they feel that their soldiers failed to adequately protect them after the genocide’s official end. The urbanised, Anglophone ways of RPF cadres in Kigali and their embrace of a Hutu economic elite contrast starkly with the abject poverty which many survivors experience today.

Apart from a colonially crafted notion of ethnicity – now officially abolished by the government – these people share little in terms of livelihood options or even memories of the genocide. A similar split exists among Hutus. Some are operating within the movement that many wrongly predicted would commit revenge genocide; highflying businessmen aside, more than half of the Rwandan Defence Forces’ recruits are probably Hutu. Others are, like the Tutsi, unable to pick up their life and move on from what they experienced in the 1990s.

Western responsibility

Somewhere between fragmentation and reconciliation, there is one thing that draws wide agreement in Gikongoro: A more nuanced conversation should not merely be an affair of Rwandans doing more soul searching regarding each other’s suffering. The devastating responsibility of the outside world in the 1994 tragedy and its aftermath is still insufficiently dealt with, in spite of apologies by the UN Secretary General and the Belgian government, the former colonial power.

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The people of southwest Rwanda are well placed to utter this criticism: When France intervened in May 1994 through Operation Turquoise – ostensibly to create humanitarian safe zones but in the process allowing its client-regime-turned-genocidal-cabal to escape to Congo – it decided to install the army headquarters on the Murambi hilltop. Pictures of French soldiers playing volleyball and posing with their tricolore next to school buildings where the killings took place are local symbols for the unresolved responsibility of prominent members of the international community.

Where is the accountability for Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, who ran his father’s “Africa cell” for years, or former Foreign Minister Alain Juppe who channelled French assistance to extremist Rwandan leaders in the run-up to the conflict, during the genocide and after the formal defeat of the genocidaires? What to think of the role of former Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes who helped persuade the UN Security Council to withdraw the overwhelming majority of peacekeepers after the killing of 10 Belgian paratroopers, thus facilitating the extermination of 75 percent of the Tutsi population by the Interahamwe? And why did the permanent members of the Council between 1994 and 1996 refused to disarm the genocidaires in the refugee camps in Congo, a failure that paved the way for the Great African War?

With such questions left unanswered, many Rwandans feel that it is unacceptable that many portray the genocide as merely an affair of Hutus, Tutsis and an ignorant outside world. What happened in 1994 was a global catastrophe. If the ghosts of Murambi are to find some rest, the creation of more space for nuanced local dialogue runs through improving the international context of these discussions.

Recently, Rwandans welcomed two potential turning points: The UN’s determination to take on the FDLR rebels in Congo  – direct heirs of the genocidaires, with an officer corps that was heavily implicated in the 1994 massacres – and the sentencing, for the first time, of a genocide suspect by a French court – spy chief Pascal Simbikangwa – for organising the Interahamwe.

For Rwandans, it will take much more atonement and accountability to address the wounds created in the last 20 years by the very leaders of what is supposedly a global village. The UN would have more moral credibility and political leverage to implement the “Responsibility to Protect” in conflict theatres around the world, if its most prominent members would not merely offer condolences to Rwanda’s current leadership and advise it on how to deal with reconciliation, but undertook a serious reckoning with their own unfinished business in the killing fields of Central Africa. May there be no further delay in doing so. 

Harry Verhoeven completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford, where he teaches African Politics. His research focuses on conflict, development and environment in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region and he is the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN).