Events of 20 years ago remain pivotal to the Kagame regime’s efforts to build a post-ethnic nation
Images of the past: survivors donated photographs of victims at the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, the capital
One of Paul’s first memories is being shot at. “My daddy put me over his shoulders. As we were running a soldier took aim at me, but he missed.”
Paul and his father were among hundreds of thousands of Rwandans heading for the refugee camps of eastern Congo alongside Hutu extremists who, 20 years ago today, began their genocidal mission. They sought to wipe out the Tutsi, a minority group favoured under Belgian colonial rule and then subjected to murderous discrimination in the next 35 years of Hutu rule. Close to 1m Tutsis and their Hutu sympathisers were killed.
Paul’s father, a mechanic, had hidden many Tutsis in their home, and his second wife was a Tutsi. But at the end of the 100-day genocide, friends advised him to flee with Hutu perpetrators for fear of retaliation. Like thousands of others, he died of diarrhoea in the camps. Soon after Paul was reunited with his mother in Rwanda in 1996, she died too.
“I feel embarrassed that my mother is a Hutu,” says Paul, 23, belatedly completing his secondary education atop a hill covered in maize, bean and banana plants and threaded through with a rugged red dirt road.
Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, a Tutsi refugee turned guerrilla army leader, has rebuilt the country with the same meticulous manner in which he wrested control of the state and ended the genocide. The country has sought to incorporate its shattered people into what it insists can be a post-ethnic nation. It is trying to suppress ethnicity as it seeks to insulate future generations like Paul’s from trauma and ethnic mistrust.
“Actually [Mr Kagame] could have done revenge because he was a Tutsi but didn’t,” says Paul, who did not want to use his real name. “He brought peace, he repatriated us all.”
Rwanda has spent years entrenching stability through improved access to social services, greater equality and economic development as insurance against future upheaval. But it has yet to work out how to weave all Hutus back into the fabric of the country – which will be crucial to its future.
The commemoration period, which starts on Monday, will be a particularly difficult and painful time for many Rwandans. The government has helped train an extra 750 counsellors for the event, which will be launched in a ceremony at the national stadium. “It shakes things up [but] you have to do it. It helps,” says Nadine Niyitegeka, who lost many relatives during the genocide. Aged two, she hid in a church with 10,000 others as killers moved in. One day they caught sight of her mother, who escaped as they tried to round up more people.
While working as a tour guide at a memorial in a Kigali suburb, Ms Niyitegeka discovered a picture of herself as a child at the church. Working at the memorial made it easier for her to talk about the events, but her friends find it much harder. “I try to help them to share what happened with me,” she says.
The post-genocide effort to collapse notions of ethnic difference jars with the rituals of commemoration. The Rwandan government promotes state-supported memory as part of national identity. Across the tidy hillside capital, commemorative posters urge citizens to remember the 20th anniversary with the Kinyarwanda language slogan “Kwibuka20” (Remember 20).
“We owe it to victims and survivors to reckon truthfully with the past. Historical clarity is important,” says Louise Mushikiwabo, the foreign minister, who worries some enemies of the regime are working to have “some altered version of history” accepted.
Official history has already shifted. The campaign of killings used to be widely referred to internationally as “the Genocide against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu”, but this year the Rwandan government successfully lobbied the UN to strike out the final three words. Some feel that change fails to recognise that hundreds of thousands of Hutus were also likely killed during the genocide.
The government also bristles at the suggestion that, after the genocide, its army pursued Hutus in Congo. According to a much delayed UN report published in 2010, Rwandan soldiers deliberately hunted down Hutu refugees across the border.
“The narrative prevents the Hutus from commemorating their dead. They cannot even talk about it, and that leaves a very, very dangerous situation on our hands,” says Theogene Rudasingwa, a Tutsi dissident and Mr Kagame’s former chief of staff who has sought exile in the US. “Until then we really cannot talk about reconciliation – it is a frozen thing, whatever others claim. There’s a lot of latent anger and frustration.”
Senior officials acknowledge Hutus were also killed, although opposition figures have been jailed for saying as much. But Ms Mushikiwabo says the change brought clarity. “It is the Tutsi that were targeted – that does not mean that other people were not killed, including in the Hutu group,” she says. “The idea that there is a problem being Hutu vis-à-vis the genocide, I don’t think it’s the case.”
But ethnicity remains a difficult subject. “Survivor” is used as a synonym for Tutsi; genocide laws restrict discussion of ethnicity; and some argue a controversial new “I am Rwandan” campaign emphasising national unity is ethnically divisive.
Detractors perceive the campaign as a means to extract apologies from all Hutus and commit future generations to assume collective responsibility forever. The effort has put the government at odds even with survivors’ groups, whose members have joined together as surrogate families with names such as “Hope Family” or “Don’t Be Afraid Family”.
“We don’t accept that someone can ask forgiveness for what his father did, we don’t accept he represents all Hutus and it’s not all Hutus who did the genocide,” says Jean Paul Kagabo, executive secretary of the 43,000-member student survivors’ association. His mother and dozens of other relatives were killed in the genocide, but his aunt was saved by a Hutu family who hid her. Mr Kagabo escaped by crossing into Burundi, soon after passing a river that ran red with blood. “We had no choice but to drink the red water, we were so thirsty,” he says.
The title of a forthcoming book from US writer Philip Gourevitch points to difficult ethnic realities that persist: You Hide That You Hate Meand I Hide That I Know. “This word reconciliation has always been problematic to me,” he says, suggesting non-violent coexistence might be the most one could achieve until “generational replacement” eases the pain.
. . .
Senior government figures helping create a post-ethnic nation use an ethnic calculus to defend charges that they are fostering a new Tutsi hegemony. “From 1959-62 we lost 300,000 Tutsis [to purges],” says John Rucyahana, a retired bishop and president of the national unity and reconciliation commission, who denies UN accusations he raised funds for the M23 Tutsi-led rebel group in Congo. “Suppose those 300,000 lived. How many offspring would we be having today in this country? How can anyone think that Tutsis are predominant in the government when they were eliminated for such a long time?”
Outside criticism of the Rwandan government is growing. It is accused of fomenting violence in neighbouring eastern Congo with its own forces and proxies, prompting foreign allies to freeze aid; assassinating dissidents who fled the upper echelons of Rwanda’s powerful security apparatus and sought to overthrow the regime from abroad; and making dissent impossible in what is effectively a one-party authoritarian state.
South Africa last month expelled Rwandan diplomats after what it said was a third attempt by government agents on a prominent Rwandan dissident in exile there, following the murder of another last year.
Some argue these measures are the inevitable byproduct when dealing with the enormity of genocide. Others caution they reflect an intransigent but brittle system that is ultimately at risk of violent implosion.
“[The ruling party] has dictatorial tendencies but we have to challenge them peacefully,” says Frank Habineza, president of the opposition Democratic Green party, which has finally been registered after four years.
“People were put in prison, went into exile, lost their jobs. We have gone into big suffering to have the party registered here. The opposition is treated as enemy of the state,” says Mr Habineza, who fled the country in 2010 after a series of death threats. Soon after, the vice-president of his party was found dead, his head severed.
. . .
One test of whether Rwanda can evolve democratically will be whether Mr Kagame steps down in 2017 as the constitution demands. There is no doubt his ruling party will continue to hold sway even if he departs.
Senior officials say openly they would like him to remain, while many Rwandans, mindful that power has never before changed hands peacefully, seem to feel the same way. “You can’t deny the path they’re taking has worked for the last 20 years in keeping it stable,” says a senior African official. “But there are no guarantees for the next 20 years.”
Ensconcing a dictator may enfeeble the nation in the long run. “I don’t mind changing the constitution, they’re just papers and so on,” says a senior government official.
Rwanda has made a virtue of what some refer to as its singular natural resource: regimentation. In 1994 it was put to a devastating purpose. Today, it has helped rebuild the country and allowed it to become the most effective aid spender in the continent. The government defiantly rebuts foreign allies when they frown over the lack of domestic political freedom or its cross-border incursions.
It reminds them of their failure to intervene in the genocide, chastises the west for neocolonial attitudes and offers well-trained soldiers for peacekeeping operations in Darfur and Central African Republic.
“There are not many countries willing to send good soldiers to UN operations, and a Rwandan battalion makes a difference,” says an international official who talks of Rwanda’s “genocide credit” with a guilt-ridden international community.
This same regimentation is likely to deliver a highly managed transition whether Mr Kagame steps down or launches a referendum to change the constitution. Political freedom seems a long way off. Defence minister General James Kabarebe, who fought alongside Mr Kagame for 32 years and is seen as the second most powerful figure in the country, suggests things will change slowly – if at all.
“Maybe the good that the [ruling party] has done will create a conducive environment for democracy but we’re still fresh within the genocide era,” he says. “Genocide is not something small. It will always define the way we do things.”
Education: The past takes its place in the classroom
For 12 years after 1994, Rwanda decided not to teach the history of the genocide, not only because of the devastation of schools, teachers and textbooks, but because of the sensitivities involved.
While teaching the doctrine of “never again” and equal access to services may be critical to bringing up new generations to move beyond ethnic hatred, studying the genocide also risks tension and distress: classrooms include the children of both killers and killed, taught by traumatised teachers who had both perpetrators and victims among their families.
“There was a time [after we started teaching genocide] that we had some incidents of graffiti, people abusing their fellow students, talking about killing again and genocide ideology – some people still harbour that feeling, but this is precisely why it should be taught,” says Augustin Gatera, director in charge of the humanities curriculum at the Rwanda Education Board.
Education in particular is highly charged in Rwanda. Before the genocide, under discriminatory Hutu rule, most Tutsis were in effect excluded from secondary school. Vincent Biruta, the education minister, who was born into a Tutsi family, remembers having to write about the “misdeeds” of Tutsis that justified them being exiled and massacred in purges starting in 1959. “I had to sit for exams, I wanted to succeed,” he says.
Now education is open for all, inclusive and Mr Biruta says he does not tell his own children they are Tutsi. “Our focus is that our children do not inherit our problems and that’s why education is key.”
Today, 2.3m children attend primary school, with only 600,000 going to secondary school, but the basic free education allocation will soon be extended from nine years to 12.
Rwanda will also soon switch from a knowledge-based system of teaching by rote to a more enquiring competence-based system. That may invite children to question what they are told – something otherwise constrained in the nation at large by laws against genocide ideology.
The latest revised textbooks remain dogmatic, however, portraying the Hutu/Tutsi distinction as an invention of Belgian colonial rule, later further exploited by ruthless, racist Hutu Power governments and knowingly ignored by the international community, omitting the past divisive role played by Tutsi monarchy. “But the Rwandans themselves are also to blame,” says Mr Gatera.