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thinking about rwanda


"African leaders have failed the people of Africa; the international community has failed them; the United Nations has failed them. We have failed them by not adequately addressing the causes of conflict, by not doing enough to ensure peace; and by our repeated inability to create the conditions for sustainable development." Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, 1998


After the hundred-day massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, representing the Tutsis both at home and in exile, invaded Rwanda with its Uganda-trained army and took over the government. Close on two million Hutu perpetrators, their families, supporters and condoners, and anyone who feared reprisals for being Hutu, fled over the border to Zaire.
In those days it wasn’t difficult to find perpetrators in the refugee camps who admitted to their part in the killings; some even boasted of it. But within a year they realised that such admissions were unwise: by the end of 1995 it was hard to find anyone who would admit there’d been a genocide at all. A civil war, yes - everyone knew that; some massacres, possibly; but no-one admitted knowing anything first-hand.
For a time exile in the camps, run and stocked by aid agencies, was tolerable. And it gave the ‘Hutu Power’ extremists there, who had organised both genocide and exodus, the chance to set up a new power base, retrench, recruit and plan.
But in November 1996 Congolese rebels, about to seize leadership in their own country and backed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front for its own strategic reasons, attacked the camps, shut them down, and forced the refugees back to Rwanda.
An American journalist near the Zaire border observed the mass repatriation. ‘They came at a rate of twelve thousand an hour, a human battering ram aimed at the Rwandan frontier. But this wasn’t the invasion long promised by the extremist Hutu leadership; rather it was a retreat from exile, conducted in near-silence. Except for the knock of cooking pots, the swish of bare feet and rubber sandals, and the bleat of a stray goat or a lost child, the homecoming mob was ominously mute.... Back in Rwanda thousands stood for hours watching the influx with the same wordless intensity.’ They were watching the murderers of their families coming home.
The government of Rwanda surprised everyone by declaring a moratorium on arrests of suspected génocidaires. It was a practical move aimed at dealing with an impossible situation; like all such solutions, it was inconsistent and arbitrary. Nearly a million suspects were in prison awaiting trial; thousands more - the most wanted - were known to be among the returning refugees, still eager to fight for the Hutu cause.

Rwanda has been called ‘a tropical Switzerland in the heart of Africa’. It’s about a third the size of Belgium, who administered it from 1919 (when it ceased to be part of German East Africa) until independence in 1962. Visitors find it a beautiful country. (‘Beautiful?’ said one Rwandan. ‘After the things that have happened here?’)
Most of the Rwandan population belong to the Hutu ethnic group, traditionally farmers. For many centuries Rwanda attracted Tutsis - traditionally herdsmen - from northern Africa. By the very nature of these pastoral and agricultural roles, Tutsis tended to become landowners and Hutus their clients. The social system which thus evolved continued, at first relatively unaffected by European colonial intervention.
But independence also brought revolution. The Hutus rebelled against the minority overlords, who had become increasingly oppressive during the Belgian administration, and seized power. Tutsi communities were stripped of land; many went into exile, where they formed the RPF with its efficient army, and bided their time.
The Hutu administration was unhappy, and marked by tensions between communities and provincial factions. In 1990 RPF rebels seized the hour and attacked. After a ceasefire, there were some efforts to negotiate a new multi-party constitution; but the country collapsed into chaos when the Hutu-born President, who’d managed to please no-one, was killed in an aircraft crash (widely believed to be no accident) in April 1994.
Faced with what they perceive as a threat, people often become cruel and dangerous. Now came extremist ‘Hutu Power’ radio broadcasts and propaganda, urging neighbour to turn on neighbour. The aim, they said, was the elimination of Rwandan Tutsis; first, though, moderate Hutus who were not anti-Tutsi should be killed. The genocide began.

Two years later, killers and survivors faced living together again - sometimes, bizarrely, in the same houses. The radios broadcast exhortations once more, but this time they were saying that the returnees were welcomed as brothers and sisters. The new President’s message was endlessly repeated:
‘The Rwandan people were able to live together peacefully for six hundred years and there is no reason why they can’t live together in peace again. Let me appeal to those who have chosen the murderous and confrontational path, by reminding them that they, too, are Rwandans. I am calling on you to abandon your genocidal and destructive ways, join hands with other Rwandans, and put that energy to better use.’
Was ‘living together peacefully’ really possible for people incited to hatred, or for people whose families had been butchered before their eyes? ‘Well,’ said Vice-President Paul Kagame, now de facto ruler of Rwanda, ‘You don’t necessarily go for everyone you think you should go for. Maybe you create an atmosphere where things are stabilised first. Others you can even ignore, for the sake of leading a kind of peaceful co-existence.’
Can you rehabilitate someone who had ‘followed the logic of the genocide’? ‘I think you can’t give up on such a person,’ said Paul Kagame. ‘People can be changed. Some people can even benefit from being forgiven, from being given another chance.’
For some génocidaires, that meant another chance to kill. Hundreds of surviving witnesses were murdered, because arrests relied mainly on their evidence.

One of the returnees was a man called Girumuhatse, from the highlands of central Rwanda. He found a family of genocide survivors living in the home he’d left in 1994. Though the government allowed returnees to evict squatters with 15 days’ notice, Girumuhatse knew that the survivors had nowhere else to go; so the two families were living together.
During the genocide Girumuhatse had been given the job of managing a roadblock in his village. The roadblocks were set up all over Rwanda, with the purpose of seizing Tutsis. Roadblock leading was a position of modest responsibility and power. Girumuhatse was clearly ambivalent about what he had done, and about what he should now do.
‘Right now, all is well. But then, at that time, we were called upon by the state to kill. You were told you had the duty to do this or you’d be imprisoned or killed. We were just pawns in this. We were just tools.’ But on the other hand, ‘In most cases of the killings, it was my responsibility, because I was the leader. Now I am back I will tell the authorities about it.’
Girumuhatse had been under a particular pressure to kill: his wife was a Tutsi. ‘I was able to save her, because I was the roadblock leader. I had to do it, or I’d be killed. So I feel a bit innocent. Killing didn’t come from my heart. If it was really my wish to kill, I wouldn’t have come back.’
Did he also feel a bit guilty? ‘I knew many of the people that I ordered killed. If I didn’t kill they would kill my wife. Now, if I tell all, I will get only a limited punishment. The authorities understand that many just followed orders.’
For people like Girumuhatse, the political scene, changing governments, the structure of society, were not things about which he felt his opinions mattered. The authorities were the authorities, whoever they were, and, whoever they were, you did what they said.

Many hard core génocidaires remained free and to took their war with them. They made for Rwanda’s north-west, the traditional home of Hutu extremism. And, at the beginning of this year, these former soldiers and militiamen were still there. They have made killing raids, ambushed vehicles, attacked schools, burned buildings. They have terrorised and maimed civilians they consider hostile. (Incidents have been reported of school students being ordered to divide into their ethnic groups; when the young people refused, saying they were all Rwandans, they were shot indiscriminately.) These extremist militias have recently killed tourists, too.
Their aim: not only their expressed intention to continue the extermination of Tutsis, but also to bring down the government by demonstrating that it is too feeble to control them. In addition, this way of life has been their only means to escape prison and the law.
There is another inequity. The burden of tolerance, of continued danger, of inadequate support, falls most heavily on the survivors of the genocide. There is no money to spare to help them; many wish they had been killed; a number have committed suicide. Many feel, as did the daughter of one of Girumuhatse’s victims, that ‘before this return, we were beginning to forget; but now it’s like a healing wound that’s been reopened’. Another woman said: ‘This man, who is responsible for his acts, lives with his family and gets his property back; he killed ten people in my family, and I am unsupported.’ ‘Oh, we’ll just live together as usual,’ a man said wearily, and an old woman added, ‘We’re like birds, flying around, blown around.’

Why should we care? Well, if we agree that people are responsible for their actions, most of Europe owes Africa a profound apology.
European colonial powers created the arbitrary political map of Africa (some believe that if densely-populated Rwanda had been able to redraw its frontiers to include an uninhabited swathe of Congo, many of its problems would be solved, or might even not arisen). Colonial powers imposed discriminatory social and bureaucratic structures on the Africans, favouring with education and responsible jobs the people whom they thought ‘suitable’ (in Rwanda, the Tutsis - being characteristically tall, thin-lipped, aquiline - appeared the more congenial to European eyes and ideas). Colonial powers established and confirmed such ethnic ‘difference’ and consequent snobbery, and thus unsettled the socio-economic system which, with language and culture, Hutu and Tutsi had shared for centuries. Colonial powers introduced modern weapons and modern methods of waging war.
And it was from Europe that the missionaries came. ‘Nowhere in Africa has Christianity had a more decisive impact than in Rwanda’ says an encyclopaedia entry. The Hutu revolution was inspired by the clergy’s teaching: they learned to see themselves as oppressed. With the European example before them, it was armed resistance they chose, and met.
Rightly, groups and organisations who are trying to stop the killing in Rwanda are holding to a central principle: Africans themselves must take responsibility for their actions and their future. This means African solutions to African problems. It means liberation, at last, from an authoritarian colonial heritage which offered no education for independence, only a fatal and culturally alien blueprint to copy.
But there will be no end to the fighting as long as arms suppliers - European, of course, but also American, South African, Middle Eastern - continue sending in weapons and mercenaries without restraint. Kofi Annan is right: until and unless that is stopped, we shall continue to fail the peoples of Africa. n

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