Reconciliation in Rwanda
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Divide and rule
I have said before (and will certainly say again) that the road to hell is paved with false analogies. Nevertheless, one cannot help but note that in the colonial project it was not uncommon for the imperial power to take advantage of, or even create, ethnic conflicts in pursuit of a divide and rule strategy. Britain did this with Jews and Arabs in Iraq, Tamils and Sinhalese in Ceylon, and in Kenya, Kikuyu and Luo.
Rwanda was colonised first by Germany and then by Belgium. The Berlin Conference of 1884 assigned the territory covered by Rwanda and Burundi to Germany as part of German East Africa. The territory was administered as a German colony from 1897 to 1916.
Early explorers had found a monarchical society governed by a class of people who seemed so clever and sophisticated that they did not fit existing European stereotypes of Africans. These were the Tutsi, who made up about 15 percent of the population and ruled a land where the large majority was of another group, the Hutu. Europeans took this as proof of simplistic racial theories that were then in vogue. Gerard Prunier writes that Europeans were “quite smitten with the Tutsi,” finding them a “superior race” of people who were “meant to reign,” possessed “a refinement of feelings which is rare among primitive people,” and had “an absolutely distinct origin from the negroes.” The Hutu, by contrast, were seen as “less intelligent, more simple, more spontaneous, more trusting…extroverts who like to laugh and lead a simple life.” Ignorant of the complex web of mutual obligation that had bound Tutsi and Hutu together for generations, European colonizers placed one group in direct control of the other.
The Germans did not significantly alter the social structure of the country, but exerted influence by supporting King Kigeli Rwabugiri and the existing hierarchy and delegating power to local chiefs. Tutsi patrons ceded cattle, and therefore privileged status, to Hutu or Tutsi clients in exchange for economic and personal service.
Both the Germans and the Belgians promoted Tutsi supremacy, considering the Hutu and Tutsi different races, a view not universally accepted today. When the Belgians took over they used detailed physical measurements that they believed would allow them to place every Rwandan in a racial category. In 1933 they made the fateful decision to issue identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. While it had previously been possible for particularly wealthy Hutu to become honorary Tutsi, the identity cards prevented any further movement between the classes (or races). Scholars disagree on the origins of and differences between the Hutu and Tutsi; some believe that they are derived from former social castes, while others view them as being races or tribe. In 1994 these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them.
In the 1950s, as the decolonization of Africa was approaching, the Belgians changed their Rwanda policy. Moved in part by new egalitarian impulses that made them see Tutsi domination as undemocratic, and also by fears that educated Tutsi were turning toward Marxism, they encouraged a rising sense of Hutu grievance. Finally they decided, in the words of John Bale, author of Imagined Olympians, “to switch their support to the educated Hutu.” After ruling for generations through the Tutsi, they reversed themselves and made the Hutu masters of Rwanda just before granting the country independence in 1962.
Hutu militancy increased, as did opposition to the monarchy. The existing system of Tutsi supremacy was challenged. It was now Hutu who increasingly felt they could re-write history. They represented Tutsi as Aryan “immigrants” or “invaders.” The power base had shifted to the Hutu elite. This was a turning point in the political history of Rwanda. One can thus view the subsequent ethnic cleansing and genocide as horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s.
Belgium continued to rule Rwanda as a UN Trust Territory after World War II with a mandate to lead the nation to independence. Tension escalated between the Tutsi, who favoured early independence, and the Hutu emancipation movement, culminating in the 1959 Revolution. Hutu activists began killing Tutsi, forcing more than 100,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, including Uganda. In 1962, the now pro-Hutu Belgians held a referendum and elections in which the country voted to abolish the monarchy. Rwanda was separated from Burundi and became independent in 1962. Cycles of violence followed, with exiled Tutsi attacking from neighbouring countries and the Hutu retaliating with large-scale slaughter and repression of the Tutsi.
After independence, government-sponsored Hutu gangs carried out periodic massacres of Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled the country. Those who remained were given a subservient status much like that imposed on blacks in South Africa. They became second-class citizens and were denied full rights to education, employment, and travel. Whenever extremist or corrupt Hutu politicians needed a scapegoat, or wished to divert attention away from their misdeeds, they attacked the Tutsi minority.
In 1973, Juvenal Habyarimana seized power in a military coup. Pro-Hutu discrimination continued, but there was greater economic prosperity and violence against Tutsi diminished.
In 1994, during 100 days, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were killed in well-planned attacks ordered by the interim government which took power when President Habyarimana was assassinated on 6 April. In January 2012, the key findings of a four-year-long expert investigation, commissioned by French judges Marc Trévidic and Nathalie Poux, were released to the world’s media. Most commentators thought the findings vindicated the ‘official version’ of the Rwandan genocide, which holds that the plane shooting was the opening move by Hutu extremists in their carefully planned genocide of the Tutsi population. Barry Collins, a writer on African affairs and author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, disagrees. [i] The Tutsi RPF gained control of the whole country by mid-July. When the RPF took over, two million Hutu fled Rwanda, in particular to Zaire (now Congo) fearing reprisals.
This definitely meets the criteria of genocide. Victims were chosen because they were Tutsis or Hutus sympathetic to Tutsis. The true numbers of dead will never be known – some estimates go as high as five million but the figure generally used is 800,000.
The killing of Tutsis by Hutu tends to eclipse the massacres and reprisals carried out against Hutus by the RPA in Rwanda and in IDP camps in the Congo.
How has Rwanda dealt with the aftermath of genocide?
The new government had the huge logistical problem of dealing with the vast number of people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government carried out more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand arrests by 1997. By 2001, Rwanda’s prisons and communal jails were bursting at the seams with 120,000 alleged genocidaires. Rwanda’s courts were shut down for more than two years after the genocide. Amnesty International estimated that after the genocide there were only ten lawyers left in the country. The government calculated that it would take another 110 years to prosecute all the prisoners.
Philip Gourevitch wrote: “Nobody ever talked seriously about conducting tens of thousands of murder trials in Rwanda. Western legal experts liked to say that even the lawyer-crowded United States could not have handled Rwanda’s caseload fairly and expeditiously”.
From time to time, the government conducted mass releases. After 2003, between fifty and sixty thousand inmates were set free and on February 19, 2007 eight thousand prisoners were released. Those released are seldom welcomed back into their communities.
A good start was not made to the process of reconciliation. Punishment and retribution was the reason, in 1998, for the public execution of 22 prisoners, some of them high ranking officials. The executions drew huge crowds overtaken with blood lust. This was not a way to end the cycle of revenge.
Gacaca court system
To speed things up, Rwanda implemented the Gacaca court system, often translated as “justice on the grass”. This is a method of transitional justice designed to promote healing and a new start, with justice to some extent being placed in the hands of the victims. Cases have usually involved cows or land or water and could be remedied by reparations or a heartfelt apology.
The man who inspired Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, wrote:
“The two aggrieved men were required to share a gourd of banana beer as a sign of renewed friendship …. Whether you were the victim or the aggressor you had to strip yourself of pride and recognize the basic humanity of the fellow with whom you were now sharing a banana beer …. Everyone who showed up to hear the case was invited to sip the banana beer too, as a symbol of the accused man’s reconciliation with the entire people.”[ii]
Genocide survivors and the bereaved face the accused and acknowledgement and apologies are encouraged. Confessions are only accepted if they give all information about the crime, including incrimination of co-conspirators.
The system has been criticised because of survivors being targeted for giving evidence. There have been false accusations as well as intimidation of witnesses. The acquittal rate has been 20%, suggesting a sizable number of cases have not been well-founded. There is a strong chance that witnesses’ memories will be unreliable. Also, there is less protection for defendants than in conventional courts because there are no lawyers – suspects will have to represent themselves. Back in 2005, Alison des Forges of Human Rights Watch wrote: “Obviously the problem of delivering justice after the genocide is an overwhelming problem. Gacaca may not be ideal but there is at this point no alternative.” Lists of suspects compiled in preparation for Gacaca, indicated that almost as many took part in perpetrating the genocide as were killed.
The courts are based on a traditional way of resolving disputes, in which villagers elect “people of integrity” to hear the evidence and reach a verdict. There are nine judges for each court, and they have the power to impose penalties of up to life in prison. They will deal with major crimes including murder and assault, though rape will still be dealt with by conventional courts.
Jeanette Ayinkamiye, a 23-year-old seamstress, lost her mother, her father and seven brothers during the Rwandan genocide. When interviewed by French journalist Jean Hatzfeld she said: “We forget the details, confuse the dates, mix up the attacks, make mistakes… Over time we still have very precise lists of memories; they become more and more truthful, but we hardly know anymore how to order them in the right way.” According to psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, the accounts of ‘truth’ given by victims and survivors are not about facts. They are about the impact of facts and “the continuing trauma on their lives created by past violence”.
Stephen Kinzer wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2007: “Political and religious leaders are urging people to forgive those who attacked them. An amazing number say they have”. “In a remote and dusty village in Mbyo district, near the border with Burundi, I met a man and woman who were longtime neighbors. In 1994 the man, Xavier Nemeye, hacked to death the husband and four children of the woman, Rosaria Bankundiye. He tried to kill her as well, but she escaped with machete wounds in her skull. She told me that an itinerant Protestant pastor convinced her to forgive Nemeye. “Through God, we had the blessing of being able to reconcile with those who committed these acts,” she said, speaking slowly and with evident pain. “I don’t wish anything bad for him. If someone kills him, it will not be me.” There was a long silence after she finished. Then her assailant began his account. “Considering what I did, if I had to sentence myself, even killing me would not be enough,” he said. “This was collective crime. I am guilty, and the government was guilty. The government planned the killing. I killed.”
Gacaca was Rwanda’s own approach to the aftermath of genocide. There was also international intervention. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set up in November 1994 by the UN Security Council in order to judge people responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international law in Rwanda or by Rwandan citizens in nearby states, between 1 January and 31 December 1994. The new Rwandan government came to view the tribunal as an assault on both its legitimacy and sovereignty
From 1995, ICTR has been sitting at Arusha in Tanzania. Through several resolutions, the Security Council called on the tribunal to complete its investigations by end of 2004, complete all trial activities by end of 2008, and complete all work in 2012. These targets were found to be unrealistic and the Security Council called upon the tribunal to finish its work by 31 December 2014 to prepare for its closure and transfer of its responsibilities to the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals which will begin functioning on 1 July 2012. To judge from the ICTR website, like all areas of modern life, genocide provides lucrative employment for western ‘consultants’. http://www.unictr.org/tabid/155/Default.aspx?id=1264. Each of the ICTR’s few convictions has cost more than $60 million.
There has been much animosity within Rwanda against the ICTR for its slowness, incompetence and alleged rampant corruption. The UN has a bad name in Rwanda because of its failure to intervene during the genocide.
The retributive nature of the ICTR discourages honesty from the accused in the dock. Georges Rutaganda argued that “It is not Hutus who are guilty of this so-called genocide. We are convinced there was no genocide. It was a situation of mass killings in a state of war where everyone was killing their enemies …. There are a million people dead, but who are they? They are 800,000 Hutus and 200,000 Tutsis. Everyone was killing but the real victims are the Hutus. So they’ve got this so-called genocide all wrong”.
Kohen, Zanchelli and Drake[iii] argue that restorative justice initiatives have moved Rwanda closer toward reconciliation than retributive measures, such as those taken by the ICTR. However, they also suggest that the Rwandan government has not shown a serious commitment to healing the wounds that persist between either individual Rwandans or groups. They argue a case for the importance of pairing a comprehensive search for justice with a commitment to truth-telling and accountability by the victims and perpetrators of the genocide, as well as by current government officials.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch says: “Accurate accounts of the genocide must establish in all their complexity the roles of the leaders, the followers, and the dissidents within Rwanda as well as the parts played by various international actors. This is essential both for assessing fairly the behavior of individuals and for creating strategies for the future. We must find ways to increase the numbers and effectiveness of resisters against such crimes, whether within or outside the society at risk. We must understand how local and international protest can resonate back and forth to create the swell of outrage that will prevent or halt future genocides.
This work is one of the many that must come to establish the historical record, to lay the groundwork for justice for Rwandans and accountability for all others who failed to respond to the bonds of our common humanity. The story must be told.”
What is Rwanda like today?
Rwanda is a small country with 8.8 million people packed into a land about the size of Maryland. The population is young and predominantly rural, with a density among the highest in Africa. The climate is moderate, there are few jungles, and slave traders never penetrated into Rwandan territory. Rwanda is landlocked, and for much of its history it was isolated from the world; the first European did not arrive until 1892. It has neither great mineral wealth nor space for large-scale agriculture.
The capital of Rwanda, Kigali, is considered by many observers to be the safest city in Africa today, and Rwanda one of the safest countries in the world. An international school opened for the children of foreign investors and entrepreneurs flocking to the country. Rwanda has low corruption compared with neighbouring countries. Many outsiders believe that no other poor country is embarked on such a promising campaign to improve itself, and are thrilled with what President Kagame is doing.
“How can I forgive, when my livelihood was destroyed and I cannot even pay for the schooling of my children?”[vi] Many have argued that poverty fed the violence. Kagame is addressing the problem of poverty.
During the 2000s Rwanda’s economy, tourist numbers and Human Development Index improved rapidly. Between 2006 and 2011 the poverty rate reduced from 57% to 45%, and child mortality rates dropped from 180 per 1000 live births in 2000 to 111 per 1000 in 2009.
In 2007, Stephen Kinzer reviewed several books on Rwanda and discussed his own experience of the country in the New York Review of Books. Kinzer quoted Josh Ruxin, the former director of a health programme at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, who was so enthusiastic about Rwanda’s prospects that he moved there to run a “Millennium Village” project in a rural part of the country. “I’ve worked in fifty countries and I think this is the only country on the planet that stands a chance of migrating from extreme poverty to middle income in the space of the next fifteen years.”
Despite the apparent success in recovering from the genocide, the Rwandan government has been criticized by human rights groups. Before the 2003 presidential election, the man who would have been Kagame’s principal opponent was jailed on corruption charges. Political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics.
Philip Gourevitch has written extensively about Rwanda (and Sri Lanka) in the New Yorker and elsewhere.[iv] He defended himself in the Columbia Journalism Review
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(http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/philip_gourevitch_shoots_back.php?page=all) against charges that he was pro-Kagame. The were some interesting comments on the article from bloggers. An anonymous commenter wrote: “Gourevitch has never been a shill or sycophant. Gourevitch is right to press his criticisms of the international aid community and the botched humanitarian efforts that have enabled killers as much as rescued victims and survivors. What is even more surprising is how France remains marginal to the story even though they, more than any outsider, were the chief enabler of the Hutus and who continue to bungle its involvement and the events on the ground”.
The editor of an independent Rwandan newspaper, Shyaka Kanuma, said that for years he saw Kagame as “a power-hungry, self-serving guy.” However he acknowledges that: “Some of the things he did to suppress opposition were necessary. We have people in our country who would do absolutely anything to get power.”
“Media have had a destructive role in the history of Rwanda. The use of the media by powers especially in the preparation and execution of genocide has had harmful effects on their credibility in our society. We still have in mind the notorious Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, as well as Kangura newspaper. How can we make of media instruments of peace and not hatred?”[v]
Human Rights Watch has pointed out the deficiencies of the Gacaca system. “Many individuals accused of very serious crimes—such as multiple murders—can now be tried by Gacaca in seeming contradiction to its original purpose.” HRW concedes that the present iteration seeks to establish offender accountability while also serving the government’s goal of catalyzing the slow-moving genocide trials.” The government had to do something about the huge prison population. Human rights campaigners were complaining about cruel and inhuman treatment. Releasing prisoners and using the Gacaca system means that a lot of guilty and dangerous people are on the loose. It is unsurprising that the government does what it can to impose a firm hand and regards western ides of human rights as a luxury in this situation.
Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression but underestimating the importance of stability and economic progress. Kagame’s defenders argue that too much democracy too soon will split Rwanda apart again. Texan agronomist Tim Schilling told Kinzer: “It’s necessary to have a little repression here to keep the lid on” while Kagame’s economic development program takes hold.
Another Rwandan reader of Gourevitch’s CJR article commented: “What Rwandans need to ask themselves, what Africans need to ask themselves, is for how much longer will we base our apparent differences on things written from a western perspective? How much longer will we hate each other because of things written by the west? Because it is only them who write historical facts about how different we are!”
Another commenter, Mikhaila Cupido wrote: “Currently the good guy seems to be Hutu. And no one takes into consideration how hard the country is working on getting rid of these colonial references to the Rwandan people. And these rantings remind me of the colonialists and their once great love of the Tutsi and when they couldn’t benefit from it anymore they swapped sides to the Hutu.”
Rwanda is covered with memorials to the genocide. Some killing sites were left intact with the bones of victims on display. Because the country is densely populated, Rwandan citizens see these memorials every day. There is a national day of mourning every year in April and the president leads a ceremony which is broadcast nationally.
In spite of this enforced “remembering” there are also “silences”. No history is taught in schools because there is no consensus on what to put in the national curriculum.[vii] There has been a pragmatic failure to investigate crimes committed by the RPA. This has given fuel to Hutu ideologues attempting to raise ethnic consciousness.
Kohen et al: [viii]“The lack of honest, public discussion about ethnicity in Rwanda poses serious problems for the process of political reconciliation. If these ethnic terms are wholly suppressed, it seemingly becomes impossible for the victimized group to forgive the offending group. For if the government was to undertake the difficult work of identifying prominent victims who might offer forgiveness to the Hutus as a group—or if Kagame, himself a refugee of Hutu-led violence, were to act as Rwanda’s Mandela—these statements would be in direct contradiction of policies of ethnic re-education. Further, the loose interpretation of terms like ‘genocidal Ideology’ and ‘divisionism’ discourage any sort of public dialogue on the role that ethnic identity can or should play in Rwandan society. This discourse could potentially be very useful in setting the stage for political reconciliation, as it could establish a common understanding between Hutus and Tutsis collectively. Taken together, these policies not only move Rwanda further from a comprehensive attempt at political reconciliation, but make it virtually impossible for Hutus and Tutsis to begin rebuilding the trust that was so violently broken by the genocide.”
The world might see the Hutus as monsters in the genocide but they can still see themselves as victims. Kohen et al:“The continued emphasis on Hutu victimization encourages offenders to view their participation in the genocide as legitimate action in the face of their own potential victimization while clearly discouraging an apology to those Tutsi whose families were murdered or who were themselves in grave danger. This feeling of victimization is furthered by the perception amongst Hutu that members of the RPF are not held accountable for crimes they committed, as neither the ICTR nor the gacaca courts have jurisdiction to try these crimes.”
Govier[ix] points out, “A group’s acknowledgment of its own victimization poses dangers of a cult-like and ceremonial sharing of group pain. In the ‘we-ness’ cultivated under the ethnic tent, a sense of victimhood may be created all too easily, and may too readily displace efforts to understand the complexities of the past.” Jeremy Sarkin[x] suggests what is needed is “a properly constituted, totally independent, non-government appointed commission in Rwanda,” without which “anger, resentment, hatred, and revenge might be the order of the day.”
[ii] Rusesabagina’s autobiography entitled An Ordinary Man was the basis of the film Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina has called Kagame a war criminal and alleges “Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis…Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own. They are known locally as Hutus de service or Hutus for hire.” He has also criticized Kagame’s election to president.
[iii] Personal and Political Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Social Justice Research March 15, 2011
[iv] We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Gourevitch (1998)
[vi] Ervin Staub , Healing, reconciliation, forgiving and the prevention of violence after genocide or mass killing: an intervention and its experimental evaluation in Rwanda Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2005, pp. 297-334
[vii] Eugenia Zorbas Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda, Journal of African Legal studies.
[viii] Personal and Political Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda, Ari Kohen, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Michael Zanchelli, Washington, D.C. ,Levi Drake Washington, D.C.
[ix] Govier, T. (2002). Forgiveness and revenge. London: Routledge.
[x] The Tension between Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Politics, Human Rights, Due Process and the Role of the Gacaca Courts in Dealing with the Genocide, Jeremy Sarkin, Journal of African Law, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2001)
emy Sarkin, Journal of African Law, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2001)