: Rwandan genocide
Rebuilding Rwanda: ten years on
Fr Mark Raper SJ
This article was published in the Australian Financial
Review, 2 April 2004.
As many Christians commemorate the Holy Week leading to Easter,
thousands of quiet, sad memorials will be held across Rwanda as
the people of that country re-enact their own passion story. Ten
years ago, on April 6, 1994, a raging genocide was unleashed which
claimed more than 800,000 Rwandan lives in 100 days. This densely
populated and beautiful central African country was decimated and
two million of its people displaced. The world was shocked but also
In the year or so before the genocide, I had been on several missions
to neighbouring Burundi as the agency I then directed, the Jesuit
Refugee Service, had been invited to help displaced people and refugees
to return home. With the outbreak of violence in Rwanda, we went
to Bukavu in Zaire (now Congo) - at the southern part of Lake Kivu
in Rwanda's southwest corner - to prepare for the possible arrival
of refugees. The community at a large Jesuit school, Alfajiri College,
agreed to assist, though none of us imagined the deluge of humanity
that would soon wash over this remote corner of the country.
Once the fury of the conflict had ebbed, I made my way to Rwanda's
near deserted capital, Kigali. At our Jesuit retreat house, Centre
Christus, I found the blood-soaked room where just months before,
on April 7, a group of people had been murdered. Among them were
three Jesuits, Innocent Rutagambwa, Chrysologue Mahame and Patrick
Gahizi. Patrick was the superior of the Jesuits in Rwanda and director
of the local JRS program, helping refugees who had fled Burundi
after the assassination of its president the previous October.
I found a spent cartridge that I still have as a relic, along with
others from Liberia and Bosnia.
Whenever I chance upon these relics, I search for some meaning
to these events. What really happened? Why did it happen? Could
something like this happen to us? How could the international community
be so quick to respond to the humanitarian tragedy, yet so impotent
when it came to preventing it? How can the Rwandan people mourn
their losses, find a realistic sense of justice and be reconciled
and united as a people?
What did happen? It was portrayed as ethnic conflict, as if that
truth was also an explanation. On April 6, a plane carrying Rwandan
president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it landed in Kigali.
The president, a Hutu, had been preparing, under intense international
pressure, to sign into law the Arusha accords. This would bring
about a more democratic process and Habyarimana ran the risk of
losing his 20-year grip on power. Immediately the Rwandan Armed
Forces and Hutu militia (the interahamwe) set up roadblocks and
went from house to house, killing Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians.
The next day 10 Belgian soldiers with the UN peacekeeping forces
were killed along with the moderate prime minister whom they were
assigned to guard.
In these attacks that precipitated the genocide, extremist Hutus
first targeted moderate Hutus and other moderate figures, whatever
Prising open the layers of Rwandan society, one can find factors
that help us begin to understand. The withdrawal of colonial power
after independence in 1962 accentuated ethnic cleavages which were
often manipulated through media propaganda and discrimination in
employment practices and education policies. Exclusive ethnic conceptualisations
of what it meant to be Rwandan were promoted.
Rwanda's population, some three million in the 1960s, had risen
to about 7.5 million in 1994 and its density was among the highest
in sub-Saharan Africa. The new experience of nationalism in Africa
rigidified borders and made the natural nomadism of previous centuries
impossible. By the mid-1980s family farming plots had been divided
as many times as possible, leaving many second, third and fourth
sons without an income or a future. At about this point the international
market for Rwanda's principal commodity, coffee, collapsed to one
half of its former value. Another factor was the growing scourge
of HIV/AIDS, which left many young people without the care and direction
of their parents.
Since independence the Belgians had intensified their input into
education for the Hutu population, therefore many boys and, for
Africa, a high proportion of girls, had had the opportunity of secondary
school education. So there was a significant population of young
people whose hopes and expectations had been raised by their schooling,
but who were now uprooted, left landless, jobless and futureless.
Rwanda was like a dry forest after a long drought. The desire for
power and the precipitating fear provided the spark. Individuals
with political aspirations exploited the discontented mass of young
people, using radio stations to send them to the hills with a poisoned
message of ethnic hatred. Ethnicity and discontent were exploited
by individuals for corrupt reasons, allowing the conflict to escalate
steadily until the planned and speedily implemented genocide of
Could the international community have done something to stop the
slaughter? With the warnings from NGOs on the ground, couldn't powerful
nations have done something? Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian chief
commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1993-1994,
tried in vain to persuade his superiors (Kofi Annan was then head
of UN peacekeeping) to send more troops. He left Rwanda in 1994
with a post-traumatic stress disorder and recently published Shake
Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, which gives
a first-hand account of the genocide. The reluctance of the US for
humanitarian intervention, shaped by its humiliation in Somalia,
influenced other powers in their tragic inaction.
What can be done now? The Rwandan people have put enormous energy
into reconciliation, rebuilding and overcoming its debilitating
history. Last year the Rwandan people cast their votes peacefully,
approving a new constitution outlawing incitement to ethnic hatred.
There are positive moves to achieve a sense of national unity and
a more inclusive, ethnically heterogeneous national identity. Structures
and rhetoric are intended to hold the people together as one nation.
Despite the pride in these efforts, there is still much grief. Of
course people cannot forget what has happened.
Creative attempts to seek justice have been enacted in Rwanda.
Because of the immense number of people accused of involvement in
the genocide, and because of the small number of people competent
to run the existing justice system, many accused were still awaiting
trial years after 1994. So a village justice system, gacaca, was
set up, to help all Rwandans acknowledge the truth. Last year 40,000
people were released under the gacaca system. It is not only prisoners
who are released, but also survivors, who risk being prisoners of
the past. It has been important to find a system of justice that
will not be so heavy that the whole society is forced to carry its
Rwanda's experience is very particular, but carries echoes of other
stories of survival after crisis. In my 20 years with the JRS I
came into contact with survivors in many countries, including East
Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, Angola and Bosnia. Those
who have experienced brutal atrocities have forged a range of emotional
and psychological survival tactics. While some survivors choose
to forget, others were clear that only by remembering could they
recover. Most wanted to know the reasons and to learn every detail
about what happened and who was responsible for the disappearance
or death of their husbands, mothers, siblings, friends and colleagues.
They wanted to bring these people to justice and so begin to put
the past behind them. They said, "We don't seek revenge but
justice, and the perpetrators have to be responsible for their acts."
They want reconciliation but reconciliation with justice. They don't
want past events to recur.
In El Salvador I learned that there is a natural progression from
truth to justice to reconciliation. Then in Rwanda we learned that
one cannot begin to inquire into the truth of what happened until
the mourning is complete. And mourning does not end until the bodies
are properly buried and the spirits of the dead can rest at peace.
As the time for mourning passes, in the calm that follows, it becomes
more possible to learn what really happened. Judgements can then
be made on the basis of the facts, establishing the truth as much
as possible and enabling decisions about reconciliation. Yet while
the truth must come out, there is a risk that constant repetition
of the stories will cause sentiments to harden.
The immense heaviness of the Rwandan story was from the beginning
lightened for me by the qualities of many people whom I met, whether
in Rwanda or in the refugee camps. I witnessed great kindness and
repeated acts of courage. Hundreds of families took in orphaned
children, as the most natural and most African thing to do. Tutsi
widows helped their Hutu neighbours prepare food to take to men
in prison who may have killed their husbands. In We Wish to Inform
You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch
tells the stories of two groups of schoolgirls in Kibuye and Gisenyi,
who during an attack on their schools were roused from their sleep
and ordered to separate into Hutus and Tutsis. The girls refused,
saying they were simply Rwandans, and they were beaten and shot
indiscriminately. Gourevitch concludes, "Mightn't we all take
some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could
have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?"
Should we hold memorials, or should we try to forget? No one can
tell a grieving widow to forget the love of her life or the child
of her flesh. Ten years is a short time for mourning and recovery
after such an immense tragedy, and memory is important. But it is
important for the Rwandan people to remember also the heroism shown
by those girls. And it is important for us, international friends,
to know that side of the story too. Rwanda remains poor, the extreme
pressure for land remains. Its people deserve our prayers certainly,
but also our solidarity in looking to the root causes of the injustices
they have suffered and of their grief.
Mark Raper SJ AM is provincial of the Australian Jesuits. From
1990 to 2000 he was international director of the Jesuit Refugee
Service, based in Rome, and throughout the 1980s he was regional
director of JRS for Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok.
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