Why coexistence doesn't equal reconciliation in Rwanda

by Tim Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Saturday, 5 April 2014 09:03 GMT

Alphonsine Mukamfizi, 42, who miraculously survived three attempts on her life and had to fake death in order to survive, with a deep cut on one side of her face, looks on at her home in Nyamata, a small town outside of Rwandan capital Kigali April 4, 2014. The rest of her 11 family members were all killed on those occasions during mass killings in the 1994 genocide. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

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Twenty years after the fastest genocide of its scale in history, old resentments fester alongside new

One Hutu killer describes feeling "like two different people" as he took part in the genocide: a man who obediently slaughtered his Tutsi neighbours because the mayor told him to, yet who hid one of their daughters in a grain basket to save her from the machetes.

A Tutsi survivor recalls the moment attackers rounded on her 17-year-old brother as he cried: "Why are you killing us? We used to be friends."

And an aid worker and an ambassador lament the world’s failure to stop the fastest genocide of its scale in history.

These are fragments from a series of first-person accounts we’ve collected to mark the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s 100 days of slaughter. Taken together, they give extraordinary insight into the psychology of atrocity: how so many ordinary people - friends, neighbours, doctors, teachers, priests - could take part in the bloodletting.

They also hint at the moral complexity underlying Rwanda’s efforts to balance truth and reconciliation, justice and forgiveness.

Take Frederick Kazibwemo, the man who killed "like an animal" by day and felt sick by night as he recalled the kindnesses of his now-dead neighbours. In addition to describing the mindset of a genocidaire, his account touches on the economic and political resentments that helped fuel the ethnic hatred.

"The mayor told us we have to kill Tutsi," he says. "We should take their land and cows. We should take everything. Many of us Hutu were poor and the Tutsi were rich."

Twenty years later, old resentments fester alongside new.

A great many genocidaires like Kazibwemo spent years in custody as they waited for their time in village courts known as gacaca that were set up to deal with more than 2 million cases. Given the overflowing prisons and enormous backlog, the courts often let the accused go if they confessed and showed remorse.

Other convicted killers were released early after a 2003 amnesty, provided they confessed and asked for a pardon. The result is that thousands of murderers today live alongside survivors.

It’s coexistence, but hardly reconciliation.

"If you kill people and you are not punished, you cannot understand the seriousness of what you did," a survivor told our correspondent, Katy Migiro, who collected most of the stories. "If they have another opportunity to kill, they will."

Meanwhile, many Hutus feel aggrieved at what they see as a one-sided narrative of the genocide presented by the Tutsi-dominated government of President Paul Kagame.

That narrative, they say, ignores the thousands of moderate Hutus who were slaughtered by extremist Hutu militia. It also glosses over alleged atrocities committed by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), Kagame’s rebel army that swept in from Uganda in 1994 to end the genocide.

A major part of Kagame’s reconciliation strategy is to promote a Rwandan identity that eschews ethnic labels. Remembrance is a collective affair, played out every April during genocide commemoration week.

But critics say the approach paradoxically serves to entrench ethnic divisions. Here’s how one Hutu in exile puts it: "In Rwanda today, they say there’s no ethnic groups and then they speak of genocide against the Tutsi. It’s a contradiction. The automatic question is who killed them and the answer is Hutu. Hutus are made to feel like criminals.

"It is very dangerous when people are made to feel guilty because of their identity. If you do that, it makes them identify with themselves even more and begin working out how to get out of it by any means including removing the powers that be to regain their dignity."

Given Rwanda’s history of massacres, the phrase "by any means" has an ominous ring.

For the outside world, the memory of Rwanda is one of shock and shame. Shock that genocide unfolded right under our noses. Shame that nobody did anything to stop it.

"You still hear about it: 'The international community abandoned Rwanda'," recalls Johan Swinnen, Belgian’s then ambassador to Rwanda,

It marked a turning point for international aid workers, who only really got into gear when hundreds of thousands of Hutus, fleeing the advances of the RPF, crossed into what was then eastern Zaire.

As deadly cholera struck the refugee camps that sprung up around Mount Goma, it suddenly dawned that the people the aid workers were helping included large numbers of killers and their families. Meanwhile militia leaders virtually controlled the camps.

"You could see the militia soldiers training," recalls Samantha Bolton, who worked for Medecins Sans Frontieres, which pulled out of the camps in December 1995 after realising humanitarian aid was actually helping Hutu extremists regroup and prepare for another conflict.

"They would be jogging and marching with their clubs and machetes. You could see they were killers. Their eyes were dead, their souls gone."

On Monday, when Kagame lights a flame of memorial that will burn for 100 days, the focus will be on remembering the 800,000 who died in one of history’s cruellest chapters.

But questions around humanitarian intervention in morally complex conflicts and how best to bury the past are dilemmas that will resonate wherever atrocities are committed, from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka and Syria.

When people talk about moving on, they tend to use words like truth, acknowledgement, justice and forgiveness. Those words had real meaning in post-apartheid South Africa, for example, where Nelson Mandela presided over the reconciliation process with undisputed moral authority.

But how much currency do those words have in Rwanda today?

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