Rwanda : no easy answers

Before this trip all I knew about Rwanda was that there had been a horrendous genocide years ago and, they had silver back gorillas. I vividly recall watching with horror the “ethnic civil war” that erupted in this beautiful country. The simplified media view at the time was ethnic tensions that had exploded….I thought to myself , how can a country or its people ever recover from this ??? Impossible!

The scale of the genocide, the way in which ordinary people,  neighbours, co workers and even friends slaughtered one another was (and remains largely) inconceivable to me. So when our guide collected us from Kigali airport around 1pm and suggested we first stop at The Memorial Remembrance and Learning Centre in Kigali I jumped at the opportunity to try to better understand what happened in 1994.

It’s a beautiful memorial reminiscent of the Holocaust Museum in Nuremberg in that it serves not only to show respect for those murdered but also implores us not to forget, to learn from our past atrocities. Entrance is free and they offer audio tours, books etc, the cost of which goes towards maintaining the centre and of course they welcome donations.  Interned here are the bodies of 250 000 victims of the genocide, allowing them a final resting place and those who mourn them a place to find what solace they can.  The children’s room tries to pay its respects by giving a personal face to some of the children slaughtered placing their photos above information such as name, age, favourite foods and playthings. The Memorial rightly places this atrocity in the greater context of world events and shares other acts of genocide and politicides that have occurred in history.So what did I learn?  I learnt there are no easy answers and we all (as humans and citizens of the world) bear some responsibility. I am afraid a bit of history is required to give full context to this.

Firstly while Rwandans’ identified themselves as either Huti or Tutsi this was largely a socio-economic division, I forget exact details but if you had say less than ten cows you belonged to one group, more and you moved to the other group. So one could theoretically be both a Huti and Tutsi in one lifetime.  Then came the Belgians and colonisation. With that came a few benefits (education and medicine) but also the first ethnic division as the colonists divided the Rwandans into groups of Huti and Tutsi according to physical characteristics. A picture of a Rwandan having his nose measured reminded me of the apartheid governments ridiculous pencil test. They deliberately implied that the Tutsis’ were intellectually superior and Hutis more given to physical labour. As you might imagine this sowed seeds of discontent that flourished long after colonisation ended.

Civil war and conflict arose and in 1959 many, mostly of Tutsi origin were forced to flee attacks. They planned to return home once things settled but the Rwandan government resisted this so strongly that finally these exiles formed the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) and decided to use force to invade Rwanda in October 1990 – the start of a civil war that lasted 3 years. Despite this civil war Kigali remained largely untouched and for most its citizens life went on largely as normal.  Eventually in August 1993, the Rwandan government was forced to negotiate the Broad Based Transitional Government  (BBTG). The idea was an interim government including members of all parties as well as the RPF.  However during this period of transition the relative calm began to disintegrate. Murders of opposition party members and Tutsis increased.

In the autumn of ‘93 the UN sent people to monitor and facilitate the launch of the BBTG.  What I learnt at this genocide memorial confirms my belief that the UN is no more than a toothless, posturing, rich boys club whose good intentions do more harm than good. Certainly their presence at this time gave a false sense of security…who knew they would pull out as soon as the manure hit the fan. If they had not given the impression of being there to protect the citizens, almost certainly more would have fled sooner. When they were asked for assistance they sent too little far too late. While French forces focused on evacuating high ranking individuals, many of them the architects of the genocide. Ironically the manpower they provided in doing so would have been sufficient to end the genocide.

In the interim certain media within Rwanda began a propaganda campaign against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Tutsis are a bane on society, they are planning to kill us all in our beds, and much else along those lines. The music some of the radio stations spreading hateful vitrolic meant it was popular among the youth. Unfortunately insufficient secondary schools meant only about 1 in ten young boys went onto secondary schools. Testosterone filled, half educated young men made a fertile pool for genocide planners to fish from and many were trained as ‘Interahamwe’ meaning “those that work/stand together” Despite this innocuous name they were being trained as  death squads.

On April 6th 1994 the presidents plane was shot down and shortly after the deputy was also assassinated and…the bloodbath began.  

So there are many reasons for the escalation of the civil war erupting into genocide and yet…it still leaves so many questions I cannot answer to my satisfaction. How is it possible to lose so much of one’s humanity that one bludgeons, shoots or machetes a 2 years old? How can anyone force a woman to kill her own children before they murder her ? Even now my eyes well up as I type this. If Hell is a place it looks much like the photos and images captured within these walls. The individual stories give a glimpse into this horrific 100 days the genocide lasted.  How is it possible that neighbours, friends who regularly ate dinners together, whose children played together, who were godparents to one another’s offspring then refuse refuge to their Tutsi neighbours when the Interahamwe came to slaughter them? Worse their children pointed out the Tutsi children who played with them. Only one member of the family survived the slaughter.  Because Tutsis were said to have long and elegant fingers many young Tutsis had their fingers chopped off.  I will not lie it was harrowing walking through the exhibition I could not stop myself from openly crying at some points. 

It could leave one despairing for humanity, and yet, there were the other stories. The most mind boggling contradictions of humaness I came across was in a book by Carl Wilkins,  ‘I’m not leaving’ the only American to remain in  Rwanda throughout the 1994 genocide. For instance Tharcisse Renzaho, a military colonel, governor of Kigali, later convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity was often key in authorising and assisting Carl whom he must have known was also assisting Tutsis among others. Angelique, a neighbour who was well aware that Carl was protecting the Tutsi people who lived in his house and whose wounds Carl tended was responsible for compiling kill lists of people in the area but never reported Carl. 

And then there those like the Muslim man who opened his door to the knock of a young woman desperately fleeing her pursuers. She didn’t know him nor he her. It was the last door at the end of the alley she believed she would die, she knocked only out of desperation. He let her in and barred the way to the Interahamwe. The 70 year old pensioner who hid families in the shed for her livestock and used her reputation as a witch to scare away the Interahamwe. The man who dug trenches to hide in from the Tutsis,  believing the propaganda that the Tutsis were out to kill all the Hutus. But when the bloodshed started he used them to hide fleeing Tutsis and devised ingenious ways to feed then without arising suspicion. The school children who when the Interahamwe stormed into their class demanding they divide themselves into Hutu and Tutsi refused to saying “We are all Rwandan here” if I recall 3 children died as the “militia” shot at them, one lost her leg but undoubtedly more would have died had these children not been so brave. Then there is Carl Wallis and the many others who put their lives on the line when they had legitimate reasons to evacuate in order to save fellow human beings.  It is this dichotomous ability of man, the continuum of behaviour which goes from murderous to selfless (sometimes within the same individual!) that drives me to study psychology and explore spirituality. 

The RPF eventually ended the the genocide 100 days after it started.  The first thing they did was remove ethnicity from the id cards, now everyone is Rwandan, they implemented universal health care, improved education and are building new schools, university attendance is now based on merit not quotas. Today Rwanda has the lowest corruption of any of its African neighbours. While the government has done much to bring to justice the perpetrators and implement laws to criminalise hate speech and genocide, it does recieve criticism for effectively being a one party state and for repression of free speech under the guise of preventing another genocide. Told you, no easy answers. 

View of Kigali City in Rwanda.

There is probably not one person in Rwanda today who is not in one way or another bearing the scars of the 94 genocide. Our one guide lost his father, younger brother and sister. He asked us what the memorial was like, he hasn’t been able to bring himself to go there. So many children were orphaned, women left destitute, widowed with no children to care for them. The trauma will almost certainly take generations to heal and yet ….I was wrong…Rwanda rose like a phoenix from that bloody period. The way in which Rwanda and it’s people have rebuilt and reconciled leaves me in awe.

This was a hard post but fear not from the beastlyness of humans to the humaness of beasts as we go Gorilla trekking tomorrow!

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