20 years after the Rwandan genocide, it is a crime within the country’s borders to question the official version of events. The crime of “genocide denial” is punishable by a lengthy prison term.
What follows is based on the recent BBC documentary, Rwanda’s Untold Story, along with other sources.
As I’m sure you know, this story is disturbing. But, as I always say, knowledge is power – and we must focus on healing and reconciliation. In some ways, it is said that the truth heals. We need to employ new skills in order to heal the past and move forward to a better future. For more about this, see: Remembering the Attack on the Westgate Mall.
The official story of the genocide, as we all know, is that nearly one million Tutsis were murdered by Hutu militia, officials and other Hutus. The murders were brutal. A museum still houses mummified bodies of some of the victims. Tutsi militia – the self-styled Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which had been drawn from those who had been displaced to neighbouring countries including Congo and Burundi, then returned to Rwanda under the leadership of Paul Kagame, putting an end to the genocide.
Films such as Hotel Rwanda and the somewhat more explicit Shooting Dogs retell part of this story.
However, some academics from the international community are now questioning the received narrative. They have found evidence that many more Hutus than Tutsis were killed. These academics have been accused of “genocide denial” and banned from Rwanda.
Whenever a story is suppressed, I tend to think there must be some truth to it.
The data suggest that, if, indeed, approximately one million people were murdered during the genocide, 200,000 were Tutsis. The rest were Hutus.
Official Rwandan government figures reveal that there were no more than 500,000 Tutsis living in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. Many Hutu refugees fled Rwanda out of fear of violent attacks, and many of them and other Hutu civilians were killed during the genocide. Five million more Hutus are said to have been killed when the Rwandan forces invaded Congo. The UN supports some of these findings.
Rwanda’s Untold Story implicates Paul Kagame in the killings.
In a story that always has the power to shock and horrify, these statistics provide more horror and more shocks.
Never Been to Rwanda
I’ve never visited Rwanda. I intended to go a couple of years ago, until my plans were cancelled. But I am haunted by images of the conflict, drawn from film.
Rwanda’s Untold Story includes an interview with a young Hutu woman who escaped to the woods, where she and her family sheltered with other Hutus for many years. She was eventually airlifted out, and has never been able to return home to Rwanda. A fictional character facing the same fate was depicted in Shooting Dogs but, to the best of my recollection, she is a Tutsi.
Many members of the film crew on Shooting Dogs were themselves survivors of the genocide, having seen their families murdered. The film was shot on location in the places where the events depicted occurred.
As always, it is important to remember the historical context of these events. Rwanda is a country that was invaded and occupied by Europeans, who, as colonisers often do, exacerbated the pre-existing tensions between different groups.
What can we learn from these lessons from history? Words and pictures cannot begin to convey the horror of these events. But we can learn from them.
There were some individuals whose actions stood out. These people demonstrated individual, personal courage, and their willingness to communicate saved lives.
The documentary Ghosts of Rwanda speaks of Captain Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese United Nations officer who ignored the orders to remain neutral. He personally rescued many people, taking them to safe havens and then getting them out of the country. He would go to places where the miltants were based and negotiate with them. In the end, he was shot while travelling in his car.
UN General Dallaire, author of Shake Hands with the Devil, also defied his orders, refusing to leave the country when ordered to withdraw. Another documentary stated that he and his troops remained in place and were given supplies by the BBC in return for daily information reports. Dallaire still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
One person can make a difference. Hotel Rwanda depicts real-life hero Paul Rusesabagina protecting and sheltering Tutsis from attack. Rusesabagina subsequently went on the record as saying that Hutus had also been attacked by Tutsis.
The Healing Process
It takes enormous courage to stand up to one’s enemy. It takes even more courage to sit down with him or her and begin to dialogue.
We need to learn better forms of communication, we need to employ communication skills that can aid reconciliation. The truth cannot be buried forever. It will always resurface eventually.
At the gacaca courts, a type of Rwandan version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hundreds of thousands of people have confessed to the killings, but the fears and suspicions continue. I wonder how many, if any, Tutsis have confessed to killing Hutus.
Many Rwandans are still traumatised by their memories of the nightmare they and their nation endured. A project called Project LIGHT is using Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to help people to recover from the trauma of the genocide.
One thing that sets EFT apart from other methods is that trauma can be addressed without re-traumatising the individual, which is what happens during traditional talking therapies. In therapy, people are usually encouraged to relive and re-experience past traumas, which can re-traumatise them as part of the healing process. EFT is different. For more about this, see: Peace of Mind.
What Lies Ahead?
There are many, many stories about the genocide still to be told.
20 years later, Rwandans are rebuilding their lives. Former rebel leader Paul Kagame is President. Terms like “Hutu” and “Tutsi” have been outlawed. The country is prospering. In particular, women and girls are becoming educated and building successful businesses. But this prosperity is unlikely to continue unless the divisions that still exist in Rwandan society, and the remaining hatred and prejudices, are addressed.
It will take enormous courage truly to rebuild Rwanda. But if this does not happen, some fear an even worse genocide will result.