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Nation in recovery

November 24, 2009

After a genocide, how does society go on, its victims living side by side with perpetrators of unimaginable horror?

Rwanda is a nation in recovery. Fifteen years after a genocide that slaughtered over 1 million people, and displaced 7 million of the 9-million-strong population, the wounds remain raw and reminders are everywhere. I quickly lose count of the number of genocide memorial signs marking mass killings. Our bus from the Tanzanian border at Rusumo Falls to Kigali passes through Kibunge, for example, a town in which a church, convent and school acted as a killing centre for more than 20,000 people.

The government is trying hard to heal the country, but it’s an uphill struggle. Every week, more people are arrested for ‘promoting genocide ideology’, but for each arrest, there are many who go unchallenged. The traditional ‘Gacaca courts’, used for centuries to settle community disputes, have been revived to judge genocidaires. But witnesses and victims who speak at these courts regularly disappear under mysterious circumstances, later turning up dead in latrines or rivers. Victims of the genocide atrocities are intimidated and continue to suffer here – and that’s not even taking into account the continuing murders of Tutsis in the DRC and in refugee camps elsewhere. Genocide denial is another indignity victims face, with many people describing the orchestrated mass murder event as a ‘civil war’.

On Thursday, victims received another blow when the United Nations international Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda Appeals Court overturned the 2008 conviction and 20-year sentence for genocide handed to one of the key architects of the slaughter. Protais Zigiranyirazo (‘Mr Z’), brother-in-law to the former president and a man so vile that his catalogue of activities include involvement in the 1985 murder of US primate researcher Dian Fossey as well as being a member of the inner circle of 1994 genocide organisers and planners. The appeals court threw out the conviction because of “serious errors” in the way the judgement was written. Mr Z was free to go, and he celebrated his release with a huge ostentatious party at Stiggies in Arusha – the bar’s Australian owner relishing in telling how he put ‘Release me’ on the juke box as he entered, and then played a popular Rwandan genocide-denial song as he walked down the stairs. I am appalled that the Appeals Court didn’t order a retrial if there were technical problems with the original judgement.

Our bus winds around steep volcanic mountains, carpeted with lush vegetation. Forests climb the slopes and crops from wheat to banana, tea to apples, crowd the flatter sections. Unlike many other places in Africa where rainfed agriculture is the norm, Rwanda has well-maintained irrigation structures, at least in these parts. It is also noticeably cleaner than its neighbours – plastic bags are banned (my brother, who flew in with shrink-wrapped luggage, had to remove the plastic before entering the country), the monthly community action keeps drainage and sewerage clear, and there is a general pride in cleanliness whereby it is culturally unacceptable to litter the streets. This clean-up extends to other aspects of society too. Corruption is almost non-existent now, following huge efforts by the president, and crime and the usual hassles are also near-absent. Kigali feels very safe, very clean, very European in fact.

But civilization is such a very thin veneer.

The origins to the genocide go back to 1932, when the Belgian colonial government introduced – for the usual reasons of divide-and-rule control – identity cards, splitting the cohesive population along socio-economic lines. Anyone who owned more than 10 cows was classed a Tutsi; less than 10 cows meant a person was a Hutu – and this applied to their descendants too. Batwa pygmies were classed as neither Hutu or Tutsi but generally discriminated against. The Belgians then organised society to favour the Tutsis and added a large dose of the then-popular eugenic theory to the mix, thus creating a society based on inequality, resentment and division. Ripe, in other words, for conflict.

Creating a genocide requires something more. Among the ingredients for this one was the Belgian policy of arming the Hutus and training them, an intense government-led propaganda hate campaign instructing and justifying killing of Tutsis, and plenty of help from the French – French soldiers, for example, helped identify Tutsis at roadblocks, and in 1993, the government completed an arms deal worth $12 million aided by loans from the French government. There was nothing spontaneous about the ethnic cleansing of Tutsis.

Genocide was instant. Roadblocks sprang up across Kigali, prepared death lists of names were distributed and Hutu gangs went from door to door murdering, torturing and raping Tutsis. Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends on friends, even family members murdered their own. The catalogue of atrocities is too gruesome and sickening to detail, but it includes a practice of deliberately infecting women with HIV, targeting women and children in particular for brutal, pain-prolonging attacks. By the end, there were over 300,000 orphans and more than 85,000 children were head of their household in a country in which the infrastructure had been destroyed, homes demolished and the ability to govern dismantled. The streets were littered with corpses; dogs had to be shot in Kigali because they had developed the taste for human flesh. 99.7% of children interviewed in 1995 had witnessed violence, 86% had seen dead bodies, 68% had themselves experienced brutality. There were more than 2 million refugees, many of whom continue to suffer refugee status in camps in Tanzania and Uganda.

UN Commander General Dallaire, based in Kigali, requested assistence prior to the genocide, estimating that just 5,000 troops with the authority could stop the genocide. Instead, the UN mission was recalled. The number of foreign troops used in the evacuation of foreigners from the country would have been enough to stop the genocide. The guy who ordered the UN mission to be recalled was Kofi Anan – he went on to be the UN Secretary General.

“At first it feels like a nightmare, but then you realise that it’s real because you don’t get to see their faces anymore,” explains one 60-year-old man, who watched his wife of 25 years and two sons murdered with machetes in front of him by a family friend.

On our bus to the lake resort town of Gisenyi, we get chatting to a bright lad called Yves Rwibutso, who has good English and helps us find a guesthouse when we arrive after dark. We invite him to join us for a beer and we chat about the project he is starting up to help orphans. We drink beer and talk about poverty, about Obama, about African politics. He is 22 years old. After a time, I ask him for his story.

Yves was six years old in 1994, when his father, a professor of political science in Calgary University was requested to return to Rwanda. His old colleagues asked him to come back because with the peace process, there was hope that the country could be improved, and Chris Rwibutso could start up a political sciences department at the university in Butare. The family travelled to Uganda, and Chris crossed into Uganda full of hope. Within one month genocide was launched and he was dead.

“I am a genocide orphan,” Yves says, smiling apologetically at the bad news, “but it’s fine.” Then: “My parents were murdered, but it’s fine,” he adds as a reflex.

The peace process ended with the main political leaders’ plane being shot down on its way back from peace talks in Arusha. Chris was arrested soon after and, hearing no news of his whereabouts, Yves’ mother Alexia, went with Yves to Kigali to find him. Chris was released a month later, badly tortured and injured, but alive. A few days later it was his and his wife’s joint birthday, and a day before their wedding anniversary – they decided to throw a party. Close friends and family were invited, as were a couple of close colleagues, including the lecturer who had invited him back to Rwanda. This lecturer was asked to speak by Chris, early on in the festivities. He stood and said: “You should say goodbye t your family. Now is your time to die.” As the party stood in shocked silence, armed militia stormed in and began killing. Yves watched as his two parents were hacked to death. Yves was left for dead, but despite slashes to his stomach and multiple head wounds, he survived, owing his life to a Hutu woman who picked his lifeless body from the pile of death and carried him away, hidden on her back under a shawl.

Yves story doesn’t end there, it begins. The next 15 years of his short life are filled with more incidents of murder, misery, discrimination and suffering. And yet, from it all, Yves has emerged a sweet, gentle young man, with a university degree in political sciences and a desire to help other orphans. His two sisters, aged 11 and 13 in 1994, escaped with relatives to Uganda. For many years, the survivors believed Yves had died with his parents. “My sisters are both atheists now and they live in Germany,” Yves says. “They hate Rwanda and would never live here after what happened.

The Rwandan genocide was not the first and is unlikely to be the last. What turns so many ordinary people into killing machines? Could what happened here, in Bosnia, in Germany happen in, say Britain? We have had tribal conflict in the form of football hooliganism. We’ve had inexplicable national hysteria when Diana died, for example.

Genocide does not arise mysteriously from nowhere. Every genocide has had obvious signs, starting with a margianalised group that is deliberately targeted in hate campaigns. Where in the world is that happening now? Where will the next genocide occur? Can we prevent it this time?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. kennedy permalink
    November 26, 2009 12:26 am

    This is a very interesting look at the shameful event in our lifetime when the same humanity that had said “never again” stood- by and let it happen again. What a shame. Genocide for all intentions is happening in DRC, it is bound to happen in other countries and the rest of the world will stand-by because what matters is not people being slaughtered, but national interests.

    On another note, what exactly do you mean by Kigali is very European in fact? How do you measure Europeanness?

    • Gaia permalink*
      November 27, 2009 5:44 pm

      Hi Kennedy, What is happening in the DRC is indeed very worrying, but I wonder if the anarchy there can be described as genocide. In terms of Europeanness, I guess I mean the concept of fixed prices, buses that leave on schedule, lack of corruption, clean streets and so on. It’s unusual elsewhere.

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