It’s been over two decades since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Rwanda has just completed Kwibuka24, in memory of hundreds of thousands massacred. But remembrance is complex, and the country’s identity as a role model in Africa has met concern over an increasingly authoritarian regime. And where the public and personal intersect, the question lies: is Rwanda surviving or thriving?
On 24 April 2018, four mass graves were found in Gasabo, Rwanda.
The discovery occurred days before South Africa celebrated Freedom Day, for the end of apartheid, and days after the end of Kwibuka24 –commemoration of the Rwandan genocide.
The genocide took place from 7 April to mid-July 1994, alongside South Africa’s transition to democracy.
The graves, believed to hold as many as 3,000 people, were discovered in Kabeza village, Kabuga I cell in Rusororo Sector, Gasabo District.
Rwandan publication The New Times reported the holes were dug in 1992 by then-leaders, with plans to dump in Tutsis. Officials from Ibuka, the umbrella organisation for genocide survivors, said it was “inconceivable” that the mass graves had been there for over two decades, with local residents and genocide convicts staying silent.
Twenty-four years later, despite public telling and re-telling of the Rwandan story, holes remain. Despite the focus on recovery, on the fringes lie unpalatable complexities. Details not yet discovered, perpetrators not yet admitting wrongdoing, traumas not digested, or those not fitting neatly into the categories of victim, perpetrator or rescuer.
Politically and economically, Rwanda’s successes have been widely celebrated. Since January 2018, President Paul Kagame has been at the helm of the African Union. He has been described as a hero; has counted Tony Blair and Bill Clinton among his supporters.
Rwanda has boasted 64% female representation in Parliament, and reduced its maternal mortality rate by nearly 80% since 2000. Children in Rwanda are entitled to 12 years of free education and schools have the highest enrolment rate in Africa. Over 90% of the population is on the national health programme, with significant drops in malaria and HIV/Aids.
To combat malnutrition, Kagame introduced One Cow Per Family, benefiting hundreds of thousands of families. He also introduced One Laptop Per Child, which by 2016 had deployed over 267,000 laptops to 930 schools. GDP growth has averaged 7.26 percent from 2000-2017.
The success story, however, is not the whole story.
Kagame earlier pledged to step down in 2017. In 2015, however, a constitutional referendum was approved to allow the president to run for three additional terms, meaning Kagame could be in power until 2034. When he won the 2010 election by a landslide, three major opposition parties were excluded from the ballot, with two opposition leaders jailed.
In 2004, ethnicity was outlawed. “Divisionism” was punishable in prison. In contrast to the explicit race-related policies and dialogues of post-apartheid South Africa, reconciliation was approached with the data erased. “It is not possible to know, or even discuss, whether the majority Hutu population is well represented in universities,” wrote Mark Lacey in the New York Times. “No such records are kept.”
Supporters hailed it as a leap towards reconciliation, while critics said it suppressed opposition to Kagame’s governing party, which led the Tutsi rebel movement to oust Hutu militias.
Schools, meanwhile, still had to teach history. Rwanda’s education system had been dealt a devastating blow by the genocide. Some 3,000 teachers had fled or been killed and two-thirds of the 1,836 schools had suffered damage. Teachers have spoken of being arrested or intimidated for not sticking to the government-approved version of the genocide. This, they argue, potentially contributes to ethnic tensions – even if ethnicity is not publicly acknowledged.
In March 2018, Rwanda celebrated a ten-year plastic ban, hailed by environmentalists as a pioneering move. Less widely reported was the darker side of the ban: plastic bag smuggling, accompanied by imprisonment, public shaming and a culture of plastic-bag vigilantism.
The clean streets of Kigali, meanwhile, reportedly come at a cost: detention and beating of “undesirables” such as street vendors, sex workers, homeless people and beggars at the Gikondo Transit Centre.
In March 2018, family of businessman and critic of the Rwandan regime Leon Orsmond raised the alarm: he was missing. In August 2017, women’s rights activist and opposition politician Diane Rwigara was rearrested.
In 2014, Rwanda’s former chief of external intelligence, Colonel Patrick Karegeya, was killed in his suite at the Michelangelo Towers, Johannesburg. He had fled Rwanda in 2008, establishing an opposition movement. Karegeya had reportedly been meeting with South African and Tanzanian intelligence officials. At a prayer meeting after his death, Kagame said: “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it. Anyone, even those still alive, will reap the consequences.”
Foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo denied the killing of dissidents, saying: “Rwanda, as any other country that I know of, has its own way of doing things.”
Author Anjan Sundaram speaks of a strict construction of narrative in his book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, describing the country as increasingly authoritarian. Sundaram’s Rwanda is a theatre, with firm expectations to stick to a publicly approved script.
“Rwanda is the great success story of a post-conflict state in Africa. The country’s preferred narrative — one of redemption and renewal after the experience of unspeakable atrocities during the 1994 genocide — is an irresistibly inspiring one that has won Kagame and his leadership team friends in high places around the globe,” wrote Laura Seay – also citing Sundaram – in the Washington Post.
“Whether it is a response to an experienced journalist pointing out the Rwandan military forces’ role in perpetrating mass killings in Zaire/DRC after the genocide, or Kagame’s backing of the Congolese M23 rebel movement, Kagame can count on support from his powerful friends to defend his behavior and his interests, regardless of how undemocratic and human rights-violating his behaviour might be.”
So yes, for supporters and detractors alike, there are holes in the story. There are multiple reasons for this. The first is Kagame himself. It is difficult to reconcile the image of a dictator with the country’s overwhelming economic recovery and unexpected social stability following the genocide.
The second – South Africans and other post-conflict nations may recognise this – is that it is extremely challenging, at national level, to memorialise large-scale horror in a way that represents all who experienced it adequately, particularly when other aspects of recovery are paramount too. Some analysts have argued (critically or admiringly) that Kagame’s Rwanda is the antithesis of victimhood; but for some, who who deal with their memories differently, this causes tension between their personal lives and the public narrative.
And thirdly, there is the issue of how stories are disseminated. Media freedom has been a controversial matter in Rwanda since the passing of stricter controls post-genocide. Rwanda has been questioned by international press for being slow to allow media freedom despite recovery in other areas. The state can determine operational rules for media outlets and journalism standards, and just 10 of the 50 registered print publications publish regularly. “This intensely restrictive law stems from the fact that one of the main sources of genocide ideology in 1994 was print and broadcast media,” reported Harvard Politics. “It is this lingering thought – that genocide ideology is intrinsically connected to free media – that propels legislation like the 2013 media law.”
A report by Anton Harber, based on numerous interviews, noted that while journalists were afraid they were not protected against harassment and threats, censorship was not only externally enforced. It was also partly voluntary – a tightrope walked to avoid returning to the ethnic battles that resulted in the genocide.
Harber’s point of voluntary censorship is instructive. Individual views on recovery differ widely in Rwanda. But one thread is consistent: it was hard-won. And for supporters, Kagame’s methods are a fierce and understandable defence of this recovery.
Others believe that greater media freedom could be a valuable tool. Daily Maverick spoke to Dr Nicole Fox of California State University, Sacramento. Fox is a professor in criminal justice and the author of Rising from the Ashes: Memory and Reconciliation after the Rwandan Genocide, which will be distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press next year. Fox cited Scott Straus, author of The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda, whose research found that while radio did impact hard-liners in the violence – people who were already on board with the genocidal ideology – it had little impact on most of the poorer Rwandans who did not have access to radio or other media. Ideology, she said, “was not disseminated in the way we thought,” which means anxiety over media influence may be unfounded. Further, Fox added, hate speech laws can be balanced with free speech, supporting social recovery alongside economic recovery.
2: What is remembered
But there are Rwandans who believe an uncompromising stance has aided social recovery. Innocent Maniraruta, a fieldworker for Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), tells Daily Maverick the current approach to reconciliation has been successful. He notes, however, that the UN tally of 800,000 killed has been debated.
The RPF government has said 1,071,000 people were killed in 100 days, of whom 10% were Hutu. Out of a population of 7.3-million, around 300,000 Tutsi are believed to have survived the genocide, though thousands of widows, who were raped, are now HIV positive. Additionally, around 85,000 orphaned children were reportedly forced to become heads of families.
Maniraruta lost his brother, Vincent, in the genocide, as well as his father, sister, cousin, uncle and aunts. He fled and survived by going into hiding with a Hutu family he knew. Senior family members advised him to tell nobody he was Tutsi, not even the children, and continued to shelter him.
“On our way to Nyanza [where he and his brother were fleeing to in hopes of escaping the genocide], the soldiers (Gendarmes), including high-rank people, hid and waited for us,” Maniraruta recalls. “When we saw them, they instructed us to sit down and await instruction to go back home. Some of them were hidden; others were in the car with guns and grenades.
“In five minutes or less after sitting, they started to kill us with grenades and guns. Most of the Tutsi died on the spot. Others ran away into the water. There was a big river [nearby]; I went into it four times even though I couldn’t swim. Many of us perished in the water.”
Upon arrival at Nyanza, Maniraruta went to the hospital with his young brother, as he was injured, and asked a doctor for help. They were refused. They wanted to hide in the toilets, but feared it wouldn’t be safe.
“Finally, we went out of the hospital and decide to rejoin our colleagues with whom we had come from Kaduha. In the town centre I asked my brother to wait for me there, and I went to look for someone to accommodate us. I went to someone I knew who refused to hide us… but he gave me 30 Rwandese francs and accompanied me to pass by the barrier in the main road, which was already established that evening in in order to start killing.” When he returned to where he had left his brother, he was told everyone he had travelled with – including Vincent – had been taken to Nyabisindu district and killed.
“In my memory, I always remember how I left my brother alone in the street and couldn’t see him again till today. But I think only God knows why we didn’t go together.”
Later, Maniraruta encountered a barrier, manned by people armed with machetes. Again, he fled to seek refuge with a Hutu family. This time, he was luckier. He told them he was a Hutu who came with Tutsis from Kaduha. When they discovered his lie, they continued to shelter him.
“I thank them very much. They did everything they could to protect me till I arrived the place controlled by RPF Inkotanyi, who were trying to stop the genocide, even though almost all Tutsis were already exterminated,” he says.
Maniraruta is happy in Rwanda today. He supports the government, including its stance on ethnicity. He does not hold the Hutu people responsible for the genocide; rather, he blames a flawed earlier system. Conversely, he credits the current government for rebuilding Rwanda, creating a space in which he can rebuild his life. “I remember everything done by our Hutu brothers in killing innocent people in different ways – for only the reasons that they are Tutsi, and with the aim of taking over their possessions after killing them,” he says. “We didn’t choose our ethnicity or race when we were born, but the bad leadership and genocide ideology from 1959 till 1973 led to the genocide in 1994.
“Till today I don’t have words to describe what I saw, and the reasons why our neighbours, friends, even Hutu relatives – as we were somehow mixed – changed in one minute because they got instructions to kill. May God bless every Hutu who at least saved the life of a Tutsi, which was not easy during that time.”
Maniraruta is not alone in the bigger-picture view. Fox’s recent research, on the assigning of blame in post-genocide Rwanda, found that many Rwandans locate blame with colonial powers. This, she says, has been a powerful factor in reconciliation.
For Maniraruta, much of the fear and suffering he endured is associated with having to declare his ethnicity then. Now, renouncing it is a relief. “It is a long story that I cannot state. I saw people burning the houses of Tutsi everywhere. What ashamed me is that all of it was supported by the government, which was giving instructions to exterminate the Tutsi; in all roads they used to put barriers so that no one could pass without their consent and before checking in our identity, where our ethnicity was clearly stated.”
He could not imagine that Hutu and Tutsis could ever reconcile. “But today we live together, work together, drink together,” he says. “This was the result of good leadership from the current government that had the vision, since 1994, of unity and reconciliation, peace and durable economic development.
“I can assure you that today, many of my friends come from different ethnicities, and we have chosen to be Rwandans forever instead.”
Maniraruta also believes, fiercely, in Rwanda’s power to rebuild itself. He recalls feeling abandoned by international powers at the time of the genocide. The suffering he witnessed – and the sense of abandonment he felt – has informed his career ever since. His faith, today, lies with MSF, the current Rwandan government, and Rwandans themselves. That’s where he saw the biggest differences being made.
For Jacques, a refugee living in South Africa, the outcome has been different. He does not believe he would feel any safer in Rwanda today than the Rwanda of 1994. It is difficult to ascertain whether he believes he is in physical danger, or whether trauma has robbed him of ever feeling safe.
This subtle distinction underlines the enormous responsibility facing leaders in nations recovering from trauma. How does one memorialise, narrate, and construct in a way that heals and reinforces a sense of public safety, while acknowledging that for some victims, it is not over?
Jacques was fifteen in 1994. His sister had already been killed at a local university. He was escorted home from boarding school by a soldier who hoped that Jacques’ father, an established businessman, might pay him for delivering Jacques safely. When they arrived, everyone in the street was dead. Including his family.
“When we got home, my mother’s leg was lying outside,” he says. “Inside, my father was cut in half and at the neck. Dogs were fighting over the remains of my mother.
“When he saw that he was not going to get money, the soldier left me. I don’t know how I got out of the country until today. I was running from the house looking for other kids I knew in the street, but nobody was there.”
Since 2001, Jacques has lived in Cape Town with his wife and son. He pronounces it “not bad”. Asked if he minds using his real name, he shrugs. Jacques is not his real name anyway. He has not used his name since he left Rwanda.
The signs of trauma on Jacques are stark. He visibly lives in fear. A taxi driver, he suffers flashbacks that sometimes compel him to pull over to the roadside to regroup. His mind drifts.
Jacques’ story raises an uncomfortable reality: that for survivors, the genocide may be the primary trauma, but not the only one. Jacques has faced xenophobic violence; many worrying health scares with his severely disabled son, who is unable to speak, eat or go to the toilet by himself; and multiple losses after the death of his family. And then there is the treacherous journey he took leaving Rwanda.
“In Kenya,” he says, “when I got a psychologist – every time I saw him, I started crying. Every time he asked me, ‘Where is your family?’ I would just start to cry. He tried to teach me that every time I meet people I must tell them. Then it will go away.”
The crying went away. But the losses didn’t. Like many, Jacques walked across dangerous territories seeking refuge. Unlike many, he survived. The genocide was the beginning of a slow-motion unravelling of his life that never fully mended. Refugees walked together in transient groups, scrambling for survival. Of those he formed bonds with en route, many died.
“Usually it’s very nice when you are watching a movie,” Jacques says of violence. “But I don’t watch movies any more. When it’s happened to you…” He trails off.
Then it’s not entertainment, I offer. He looks down.
Jacques walked through conflict zones, witnessed bombings, got sick from living on scraps of bush meat. “Sometimes there were people walking who would fall down dead from being tired, hungry,” he says. “When you stand up, you see three or five sleeping, dead. You try to touch but you see he is finished.”
Exhaustion had other consequences. “When they are walking they start with the things they are carrying, blankets or food. They throw it away when it becomes heavy. Then you come to the baby. The baby has no food, the baby is crying, or something is chasing us like a (wild animal). They just throw it. It was shame, it was pain. But you couldn’t help it. We walked until, when I took my shoes off, I didn’t have heels, they were rotten from walking.” One man he walked with for an extended period was killed by a snake.
“He was my friend,” says Jacques. “When I remember that guy, I feel so bad.”
Today, he distrusts the peace in Rwanda. He still fears ethnic tensions, despite the many years past, and the outlawing of ethnicities.
While talking, he tends to trail off, look down, stare off into the distance. He drifts away.
“The thing that is never finished in my heart is, why couldn’t they take them inside?” he asks of his family. “Why did they leave the dogs eating them? I also ask myself, why did I not take them in, why did I not cover them up? That is always with me. But I was so shocked, I just ran.
“I’m not going back to that country. I promised myself.
“They say Rwanda is very fantastic now, it is improving. Maybe my life can change. But I am not interested.”
Psychologists Daily Maverick spoke to agreed that often, refugees suffer a level of trauma requiring specialised, intensive therapy, of the kind that – for example – is offered at the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture in Cape Town.
In this respect, says Fox, Rwanda’s resources must be considered. Memorialisation can be triggering, so it can be wise to focus on the success story, take care of basic needs first, and memorialise to whatever extent is possible without traumatising everybody else. But this can be difficult to balance.
“If you don’t have enough counsellors to keep the public safe [from trauma] how do you work with sexual assault survivors, for example?” she asks. “If you don’t, you have the problem of marginalisation of the sexual assault survivors. It’s hard to justify the marginalisation of people who suffer the worst types of assault if they do not have their voices heard. But the lack of specialised care is hard to grasp as an outsider.” In Fox’s experience, she relates an incident where five hundred people were having a severe trauma response and the hospitals were full.
“I don’t think there is just one path forward,” she says. “The important thing is to have these conversations, so that all this is on the table.”
Rwanda’s officials have made considerable efforts to ensure memorials are constructed and the genocide is remembered annually, while simultaneously drilling home a message of national unity and recovery.
Private initiatives have also pitched in. Organisations like Alert International have facilitated dialogue clubs, bringing together perpetrators and victims to facilitate reconciliation. They have publicised the story of Patricia and Aloys – Aloys approached the organisation following an eight-year jail sentence, and has participated in the programme with one of his victims, Patricia. Through the programme, Patricia has received trauma counselling. Sport has also played a role in the country’s reconciliation efforts.
But needs vary, and for some, rapid economic recovery has not always meant personal recovery. Some, like Lucie Niyigena, find the idea of living alongside perpetrators of the genocide untenable. For others, like the women behind the much-publicised basket-weaving programme supplying Macy’s, reconciliation was a basic need, tied to economic survival. They had to get along in order to make a living.
It is, says Fox, an entirely individual process. But often, reconciliation is about more than healing. It is a matter of survival.
The trouble comes in where reconciliation becomes a little more complicated. For starters, reconciliation is also not only a Rwandan issue. Healing has, in part, been hampered by the refusal of some perpetrators to come forward. Maniraruta believes perpetrators living abroad should be extradited immediately to face charges. (In the case of Claver Berinkidi, for example – a naturalised Swede of Rwandan origin – a Stockholm court in 2016 sentenced him to life in prison for his role in the genocide.) Where perpetrators are protected internationally, it rubs salt in old wounds.
Then there is the matter of what to do when the role of perpetrators is not clear-cut. Scholar Aliza Luft has argued that guilt and innocence is not as simple as many reports would have us believe: there are not simply victims and perpetrators.
Fox agrees. Some of her research refers to “people who rescued” rather than rescuers, because in many cases, people who performed heroic deeds may also have perpetrated terrible crimes, depending on specific circumstances. Sometimes perpetration came with trauma. But for many of these “grey area” genocide survivors, there is no comfortable place in the post-genocide narrative.
“These stories give us a better understanding of the complicated dynamics of violence,” she says. “The Rwandan government doesn’t want to look at these stories, necessarily, because it’s very messy. It’s hard to look at these acts without tying them to identity.”
Journalist Leroy Sievers wrote of his encounter with a Congolese man who served as an interpreter, travelling alongside the perpetrators of the genocide after his wife was killed. “I can’t put into words what I was feeling: anger, revulsion, hatred, shame, guilt,” Sievers related.
“I couldn’t comprehend what our interpreter must have been going through… His wife, a Tutsi, was killed during the genocide, murdered before his eyes. He paid her killers to shoot her rather than use machetes to hack her to death. He was spared because he was Congolese.
“Now he’s a fairly well-known singer in Congo, and on the drive back, he sang a song he wrote for his wife. The last words are, ‘Wherever you are, I still love you.’”
3: What isn’t spoken
In the post-1994 official remembrance of the genocide, the theme is “Never Again”. But “Never Again” implies that the genocide is done, finished. The trouble is, for some, closure hasn’t come yet.
Those newly discovered graves speak volumes. They tell the story of thousands of families and friends who never found out what happened to their loved ones. Or those who knew the graves were there and, for whatever reason, remained silent. At Kigali Genocide Memorial, more than 250,000 genocide victims are laid to rest. That leaves hundreds of thousands unaccounted for. Whatever we know about the genocide, there is a great deal we don’t know yet.
Is outlawing ethnicity facilitating reconciliation or allowing hurt to fester?
Are strict media laws protecting citizens or silencing them?
Is the Rwandan government propelling its citizens towards a bright economic future, or tightening the noose on an increasingly authoritarian state?
Most of all, has the fear of genocide ideology legitimised a system where ethnic tensions can fester, many traumas go unacknowledged, and the state cannot be criticised? Or is Rwanda doing the best healing it can with the resources it has, while admirably fostering nation building?
Evidence suggests a mixture. Fox says nation building is a process of creating a story, then getting citizens to accept that story. Acceptance of that story will vary. But by and large, she believes Rwanda’s post-genocide nation-building process has been successful so far.
“If you define it as infrastructure, public health, imagining citizenship and new national symbols, clearly Rwanda has done all that. I don’t know any country in which nationalism is in harmony with citizens across the board,” she says. “However, I think Rwanda struggles with the same things many other post-conflict communities struggle with.”
Fox did not comment on the political climate. But the interviews with Maniraruta and Jacques, though they differ, are instructive – as are the stories of those who don’t comfortably fit into the categories of victims or perpetrators. They serve as a reminder of why Kagame has been supported, of how much was at stake. Add to that his willingness to stand up to the West, in context of Rwanda’s colonial history, and the country’s economic recovery, and perhaps for citizens it becomes a question of priorities.
“We cannot underestimate the power of hope,” says Fox. “Especially for people who have lost everything.
“I met a woman who said: ‘I don’t think we have free speech like you do in America, but we have a mosquito net and my children have been vaccinated.’ And the way Kagame talks back to the West in an assertive way gives some Rwandans a lot of pride, especially given the legacy of colonialism.
So yes, in terms of recovery, I think that hope does matter.”
That, and two other things: “Having a witness that cares to hear your story – and the names of people who are no longer here.”
The latter two may be remain messy, painful, unpredictable for some time yet. And perhaps that is inevitable. But if Fox is correct, Kagame is a strategist. He has picked a battle he can win, and it’s to deliver much-needed hope. With a caveat, perhaps: whatever it takes. Make of that caveat what you will. DM
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