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Rwanda: 10 Years Later, How Is the Country Coping? (Part 1)

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Heads of state from Africa and Europe will gather tomorrow in Rwanda for memorial services marking the 10th anniversary of the world's worst genocide since the Holocaust. In 13 weeks of tribal bloodletting, between 500,000 and 800,000 people were hacked, shot or clubbed to death while the international community stood idly by.

Prague, 6 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago, two exotic words -- known to few people outside central Africa -- suddenly forced their way into the lexicon of languages around the world.

Hutus and Tutsis. The mere enunciation of the names of Rwanda's two main tribes conjures up memories from the spring of 1994, when machete-wielding killers committed the world's worst genocide since the Holocaust in just 13 weeks of bloodletting.

The international community did little to stop the slaughter by Hutu extremists of between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates. The world may ponder that inaction on 7 April, the 10-year anniversary of the genocide's beginning, although only one Western leader -- Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt -- will join African leaders gathering tomorrow in the Rwandan capital of Kigali for memorial services to remember the dead.

Among those due to attend is Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, whose government was recently accused by a senior UN official of carrying out systematic killings of villagers in ethnic attacks reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide.

By most accounts, Rwanda is remarkably peaceful these days.

But it is also still struggling to cope with the legacy of genocide. Wounds are still fresh, and government efforts to achieve peace -- laudable in some respects -- have also led to the repression of political dissent and memory. It is unclear when, and if, Rwandans will ever be able to put this tragic chapter in their history behind them.

"Rwanda is a very small country, [a] very poor country, [a] densely populated nation," said Rodrique Ngowi, a Tanzanian-born reporter for AP who has lived in Kigali for the past three years. "Survivors and suspects live side by side. They go till the land side by side. They live in peace. But there is lingering mistrust."

Ngowi said the government of President Paul Kagame has sought to eliminate ethnic divisions, using methods such as doing away with the ethnic identity cards that Hutu killers used to identify their victims. Ngowi said people are urged by the government to see themselves not as Hutus or Tutsis, but simply as Rwandans.

In an effort to speed up what has been a painfully slow judicial process, the government is also releasing thousands who have confessed to their killings. After a brief stint in a so-called reeducation camp, they are returning to towns and villages across the country, sometimes even moving next to families whose relatives they killed.

"Survivors and suspects live side by side" in Rwanda, "but there is lingering mistrust."
While the government says a lot of valuable testimony has come out of these confessions, Ngowi said it has been very hard for the victims, who are unable to forget the bloodshed despite society's need to move on.

"When you talk to survivors -- and there are many -- they are very, very vocal," Ngowi said. "For them, the legacy will always live with them. They do not want to forget. The justice system in Rwanda has been rather slow in dealing with suspects and the survivors have strong feelings about that. They want to see justice being done. So for them to forget very easily is not possible."

Ngowi added that for Rwandans, the United Nations International Tribunal for War Crimes in Rwanda has been a failure. The tribunal, the first of its kind, is based in Arusha, Tanzania, and has significant resources. Still, it has only had 20 convictions so far. Ngowi said more needs to be done.

Rwandans "hear of the occasional conviction and some acquittals," Ngowi said. "Local people cannot identify with the proceedings over there. They are too remote. They seem like alien proceedings." He added that "the government also is very upset with the pace of trials in Arusha. They quote an annual budget of some 170 million dollars, but people have seen little from such massive resources."

The Rwandan killings were sparked 10 years ago today, when two missiles struck a plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart. All aboard were killed.

The genocide started in earnest the next day. Thugs belonging to the Hutu majority claimed Tutsi rebels were behind the killing. They took control of the government and encouraged fellow Hutus to join in the massacre. Hutus who refused to do so were often killed.

The killing only stopped when Kagame's exile Tutsi army won the war and took control of the government. His Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) army went on a counter-rampage, killing tens of thousands of Hutus and chasing them into neighboring Congo, where the RPF reportedly killed another 200,000 people.

Now, Kagame's government is among Africa's most authoritarian. Fearing any more bloodletting, it allows neither a real political opposition nor a free press.

Gregory Salter, an Africa expert based in South Africa with the Economist Intelligence Unit who has covered Rwanda since 1992, told RFE/RL that the government has aggressively spread a version of history that blames former colonial power Belgium for the country's divisions.

"They want to push the idea that actually, [the difference between] Hutu and Tutsi referred more, before the Belgians came, to whether or not you owned cows, and that the Belgians turned it into an ethnic thing as part of their divide-and-rule strategy," Salter said. "For most of their rule, the Belgians -- they really did push this strong racial agenda. And they said that Tutsis were superior to Hutus. Definitely, they planted a time bomb there -- I think that's indisputable."

However, Salter added that now there might be a new time bomb. He said government efforts to stifle free speech and smooth over divisions could one day blow up in its face.

"I do find it troubling that when Hutu politicians say that the top jobs are being reserved for Tutsis and that it's not fair -- [that] they get imprisoned for using 'divisionist' language and stirring up the people," Salter said. "OK, some of them might be trying to do that, and I understand the sensitivities of the post-genocide setup. But if you close down the debate, it doesn't go away, it just goes underground. It carries the seed of its own worst nightmare."
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