Twenty years on: the enduring paradox of Rwanda

By Kim Harrisberg 6 April 2014

7 April 1994 marks the start of the Rwandan genocide. Over a period of just 100 days, more than 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by their compatriots. Twenty years later, Rwanda remembers the killings, and ponders its future. By KIM HARRISBERG.

On this date, twenty years ago, the Rwandan Hutu militia were taking to the streets to murder, rape and torture their fellow Rwandans. 7 April is the official beginning of what would become known to the world as the Rwandan genocide, where mass murders resulted in an estimated 800,000 deaths in 100 days, mainly carried out by Hutus against Tutsis.

I spent a month writing for a Rwandan government newspaper last December. This was a strange place to be in a country where media freedom is increasingly considered a rarity. I learnt about both the tumultuous history of the country, as well as the contentious politics that have both aided and stifled the country’s development.

Twenty days before South Africans would line the streets to vote in the country’s first democratic elections, the streets of Rwanda were being lined with bodies. American journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote about the “selling of cabbages”, which was the term used for the selling of Tutsi’s heads on the side of the road. They went for the equivalent of R0.80 in today’s currency.

It was the vicious climax of years of colonial indoctrination, tribal prejudice, poverty, corruption, nepotism and desperation.

That 1994 genocide was actually the second major bloodletting in Rwanda. The first one took place in 1959, referred to by some as the first genocide. It took place after years of both German and Belgium favouritism towards the minority Tutsi elite, whom they believed to be superior due to their fairer complexion and stereotypically slender noses and faces.

Much like the dompas during apartheid, the Tutsi, Hutu and the Twa, a minority indigenous group, were forced to carry identification to further entrench the hierarchy between the different tribes.

The Hutu rebellion in 1959 meant that hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, predominantly Uganda. Amongst those fleeing was the family of current Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, who would later lead the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) back across the border to save the remaining Tutsis from complete annihilation by the Hutu militia in 1994.

Kagame is both president and saviour to genocide survivors and returning Rwandan refugees. He is the one who ended the bloodbath that the international community both misunderstood and neglected. From conversations I shared with colleagues and friends in Kigali, it is this indebtedness to Kagame that inhibits objective criticism of his party’s failures.

It took the 2004 Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda to bring the genocide to the public eye ten years later, and despite contested factual mishaps, this film left an after-image of flying machetes and screaming children.

But when I arrived in Kigali last December I was met with tall buildings, impeccably clean streets, punctual public transport and roads so safe that a young girl could walk them alone late into the night. I had been expecting hot, chaotic, quintessential African mayhem. What I found was cool, orderly, and peaceful.

On paper, Rwanda is an African success story, a benchmark to the outside world when it comes to economic development, anti-corruption, education, social welfare and conflict resolution.

Rwandans and the international world speak proudly of the ‘Gacaca’ courts set up to accommodate the large number of genocide perpetrators awaiting trial. These courts are based on traditional village courts and have acted as transitional, participatory justice systems towards reconciliation in the country.

It has the highest ratio of female ministers in government in the world and it is one of the few countries expected to achieve almost all of the 2015 Millenium Development Goals.

From an economic angle, Rwanda boasts an annual economic growth of 8% since 2000, with a growing GDP that has only improved since 1994. In 2012, GDP per capita was said to be at almost $1, 170.

Rwanda has also pioneered revolutionary social practises, such as the ‘Umuganda’: a mandatory community service, on the last Saturday of every month, where everyone is expected to help out by cutting grass, repairing buildings and sweeping the roads.

However, scratching beneath the surface reveals that there is more to Rwanda than a growing capital city, clean streets and an egalitarian government.

In Kigali, suburban mansions exist across the road from mud houses with straw roofs. Supermarkets stock a mixture of basic local products or expensive imported goods. The signs of humanitarian organisations line the roads like street lamps. There are no beggars on the streets, but that’s only because they’ve been shipped off to islands on Lake Kivu (or so the rumours go). There is also very little media freedom and an omnipresent feeling of fear among many people.

I was in Rwanda during an interesting time for South Africans. Patrick Karageya, Kagame’s former head of intelligence chief-turned-critic, was found murdered in a room in Sandton’s Michelangelo hotel after fleeing to South Africa for political asylum. Karageya’s story only made it on to page 8 of the newspaper for which I was writing, and consisted of a single paragraph with no mention of possible ties to the Rwandan government. And why would it, being a government paper and all. (This was despite anyone at the newspaper ever admitting to being even remotely affiliated to the government).

Karageya was said to be working closely with Kayumba Nyamwasa, a Rwandan who had once held Karageya’s former position as head of intelligence. Nyamwasa had fled to South Africa in 2010, and escaped two attempted murders, one involving a bullet to his stomach.

These events were reported in Rwanda by a local journalist Jean-Léonard Rugambage, who was found murdered soon after in Kigali.

The assassination attempts caused great tension between the two countries. The final straw was an alleged attack on a safe house in Johannesburg by Rwandan diplomats; the three accused diplomats were expelled from South Africa, and Rwanda expelled six South African diplomats in retaliation.

These contradictions – the economic development coupled with political repression, the peaceful streets of Kigali contrasted against the violence employed by the Rwandan government abroad – illustrate the paradoxes of modern-day Rwanda.

I have heard Kagame being called a “benevolent dictator” whose heavy hand exudes the type of “tough love” unruly children sometimes need from parents in order to mature. A visit to the genocide memorial may almost convince one of this. But when will this ‘heavy hand’ end, if at all?

My short time spent in Rwanda left me feeling both impressed with how far the country has progressed and afraid of where it is potentially going. My own dichotomous perceptions pale in comparison to the mixed emotions of loyalty and anxiety felt by those who call this place home.

Perhaps the best tribute to the victims of the futile and ruthless murders twenty years before would be the surety that no further subjugation will take place on Rwandan soil again, in any shape or form. And if this cannot be achieved, then speaking honestly and openly about both the successes, failures and ominous threats faced by this resilient African country is the next best step. DM

Read more:

  • South Africa to Rwanda: Don’t touch us on our sovereignty! on Daily Maverick

  • How to spread Rwandan propaganda, and intimidate opponents? Twitter, of course on Daily Maverick

  • A good man in Rwanda on BBC

Photo: A handout picture made available by the United Nations shows Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the President’s Office in Urugwiro Village, Rwanda, 06 April 2014. On 07 April, leaders including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will gather in Kigali to remember the events in 1994, when around 800,000 Rwandans were brutally killed in a three-month campaign by the Hutu-led government against the Tutsi population. EPA/EVAN SCHNEIDER / UNITED NATIONS / HANDOUT

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