This week with the AP students, we are going over the effects of imperialism on Africa and on Asia. We have seen how the Europeans literally scrambled for Africa. Over the winter break, your’e going to have a book critique assignment, on a specific text: We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. To prepare the APWH students for what you will read, this blog is for them (although all my students are expected to particpate in the blogs). This is two-question observation: first, why is it felt that European imperialism, in part, encouraged the acts of genocide that were evident in Rwanda in 1994? The second will need some explaining on my part: As so many Hutu participated in the genocide, which pretty much wrecked the legal system in Rwanda, how can justice prevail without a return to the horror and violence which occurred in the spring of 1994? Should Rwanda simply put everyone on trial, Western-style (in French, of course), or should Rwanda find another mechanism which is more relevant to their own society and customs?
Rwanda, Ten Years Later: Justice Is Elusive, Despite Peace
for National Geographic News
|April 6, 2004|
|Every time I visited Rwanda after the 1994 genocide—during my years
as a reporter covering Africa—it was like entering a world askew
from the verve and vim of the rest of the continent.At the airport the cab drivers never hustled me for my business. On the road into Kigali, the capital, there never seemed to be any traffic. I rarely heard music playing. The place always seemed eerily quiet, reserved, almost lethargic.How could this be the country where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during a hundred-day spasm of ethnic slaughter ten years ago?
The genocide was ignited by the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above the Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. Soon, the streets filled with murderous Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe, or “those who work together.”
Spurred on by furious calls for blood by extremist politicians and a popular radio station, the militiamen first killed the Tutsi business and political elite before turning to ordinary Tutsi citizens.
In weeks the slaughter had spread to much of the Rwandan countryside. Local officials ordered Hutu peasants to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Those Hutus who refused were murdered themselves. At its peak, the genocide claimed 8,000 lives per day, a rate far faster than the Holocaust.
Far from being an impulsive outburst of ancient tribal animosity, the genocide was in fact precisely planned and executed by one of the most authoritarian states in Africa.
Today, exactly ten years after the start of the genocide, Rwanda is remarkably at peace. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front—the former rebels who toppled the genocidal regime—has worked hard on abolishing ethnic divisions.
But peace has come at a price. President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, rules Rwanda with an iron fist. Critics charge there is no freedom of press or association. Opposition parties have been outlawed. Such is Rwanda’s irony: Just as the genocide was made possible because of the government’s absolute authority over its citizenry, so is peace maintained today.
I was never in Rwanda during the genocide. But I spent the summer of 1996 during the war in neighboring Burundi, a country with an almost identical ethnic makeup as Rwanda—roughly 85 percent Hutus and 15 percent Tutsis—and its own ghastly history of ethnic violence.
As an outsider, it’s always been difficult to explain or understand the ethnic strife in these tiny central African nations. Hutus and Tutsis are very similar: They speak the same language and share the same culture. But the main cause of the conflict can be traced back to European colonialism.
The Belgians, who once ruled both Rwanda and Burundi, came with a strange form of race science. After concluding that the tall and thin Tutsis were superior to the short and stocky Hutus, the colonialists produced ethnic identity cards and favored Tutsis for all positions of power.
Resentment among the Hutu majority gradually built up. In 1959 riots killed 20,000 Tutsis and sent many more fleeing to neighboring countries, such as Uganda and Tanzania.
When Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutus took over. For decades a Hutu dictatorship further polarized the ethnic state, blaming Tutsis for every crisis.
The originators of the 1994 genocide—a small group of Hutu politicians from northern Rwanda—harnessed the well-oiled state apparatus to their murderous cause, extending its tentacles to the grassroots level.
Local officials exhorted Hutu farmers to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Some farmers were told they could appropriate the land of those they killed.
At roadblocks the ethnic identity cards originally introduced by the Belgians proved invaluable to Hutu gangs. The gangs needed to know who was a Tutsi, and thus who should be killed.
The scars of genocide are everywhere in Rwanda today. In a church at Ntarama, south of Kigali, the remains of 5,000 Tutsis who had taken refuge there, many of them children, have been left to rot between the church pews where they were killed—a haunting memorial to their brutal slaughter.
But the new government has abolished the ethnic identity cards, and it has promoted an ambitious program of national unity. Many former militia fighters who fled to neighboring Congo after the genocide have returned to Rwanda and joined reintegration camps, where they have been taught new skills.
Critics, however, say the new government is using the past to justify a de facto one-party state, virtually eliminating all political opposition in the process.
“This is an extremely disciplined and effective political organization that has incorporated a tradition of 300 years of strong control in Rwanda and turned it to its benefit,” said Alison des Forges, a Rwanda expert at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The biggest problem may be justice. Some 100,000 people are still locked up in Rwanda’s prisons. Only 11,000 cases have so far been handled.
Few of those who have confessed to killings have expressed sincere remorse, instead blaming what happened on evil spirits or the former government.
In 2001 the government started organizing village courts known as gacaca (meaning “on the grass,” which is where they are to be held), in which elected lay judges would hear witness testimony from villagers.
Not a single trial, however, has so far been held. Some observers warn that if gacaca is extended throughout the country, it could increase the number of accused by as many as 600,000 suspects, making the process unmanageable.
A lack of trials would not sit well with genocide survivors, who have already been told they will receive no financial reparation, as first promised. It will also hurt innocent Hutus.
“If there’s no establishment of who is guilty, that means there’s no establishment of who is innocent,” des Forges said. “That leads to a globalization of guilt—that all Hutus are guilty—and the consequences of that for any kind of future reconciliation is, of course, very, very serious.”
After the Holocaust, the international community pledged “never again” to allow genocide to take place. Yet it did happen—in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.
By killing ten Belgian United Nations soldiers early in the three months of slaughter, the Hutu militias sent a message to the outside world: Stay out of Rwanda.
The tactic worked. Western governments avoided using “genocide” to describe the slaughter. Under the UN Geneva convention, calling the event a genocide would have obliged them to intervene.
The United States, stung by failure in Somalia a year earlier, vetoed any military intervention and successfully lobbied for the withdrawal of UN forces.
In recent years leaders of national governments and international institutions have acknowledged their mistake. During a visit to Rwanda in 1998, President Clinton apologized for not acting. While commemorating the tenth anniversary of the genocide, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he personally could have done more to stop it.
Many survivors I met in Rwanda over the years were understandably bitter about the international failure to stop the genocide, but some said they understood why.
“People forget,” said Esther Mujawayo, who lost her husband in the genocide and started a support group for 18,000 widows of the massacres. “We are even forgetting.”
In 1999, on the fifth anniversary of the genocide, Mujawayo was watching the NATO bombing campaign unfold in Kosovo. “When I saw the television news, I watched it and I turned it off,” Mujawayo said. “Then I realized how easy it is to tune out.”
On a lush hilltop outside Kigali five years ago, I followed Anastase Ndagijimana through a rusted metal gate into a school compound that was mostly destroyed when militias raided it in 1994. As a young choir sang inside the school, Ndagijimana bowed his head in front of a mass grave that included 15 family members.
“I can understand why no one came to help,” Ndagijimana told me. “We are very far away in Rwanda.”