Three lessons from the Rwandan genocide

This year will be marked by the commemorations of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Twenty years later, it is still time to mourn the dead but also to draw lessons from the tragedy. 

rwanda-genocide-memorial-tourThe first lesson to learn from the Rwandan genocide is taught by historians: their work disclosed that the political logic behind ethnic hatred not only led to dehumanizing the Tutsi minority but preceded the genocide of that minority. Hatred for otherness, exacerbation of difference until there is no longer room for living together have powerfully contributed, in both Rwanda and Nazi Germany, to making possible, if not unavoidable, mass murder. We must not stop contradicting the theories which tend to make ordinary the crime, or even to justify it, by seeing it as a spontaneous event following the murder of President Habyarimana. We do know today that the Rwandan genocide was not an accident of History but the product of a racist ideology and a murderous will.

The second lesson is addressed to the international community whose indifference and inaction appear today not only as a political mistake but also as a moral fault. That blameworthy attitude shows the civilizational complex of superiority of an international community still recovering from the Somalian fiasco of 1992 at that time. By allowing and reinforcing the sense of impunity nurtured by the opposing forces present in Rwanda, the abstention of foreign powers has also participated to the escalation of violence and the onset of the most horrible atrocities. This lesson resonates today with a singular echo in a context of mass murders perpetrated every day in Syria and the drama which is taking place in Central African Republic. This is the reason why the Rwandan genocide should raise awareness not only among those who tell the story, but also the people who hold in their hands the fate of entire regions. International justice alone, if it is to be relevant, will never replace the action of diplomacy, and sometimes the use of force to prevent the worst from happening.

Finally, the third lesson is that revisionism, with all its symbolic brutality, always prevent memories from finding root in people’s minds, survivors from mourning and honoring with dignity the victims. Revisionism banish the prospect of reconciliation between communities who once tore each other apart.  The accounts of the Tutsi survivors and their executioners, like those of Holocaust survivors seventy years ago, unveil the unspeakable suffering of people who prepared themselves to die and who had to learn to live again.  With the images, the nightmares haunting their nights and the memory of missing loved ones tearing their hearts apart. Commemoration is not only a matter of honoring the dead, it helps the living rebuild their lives.

Elie Wiesel wrote that he who chose to dedicate the rest of his life to tell the story of the Holocaust because he thought he was indebted to the dead. Not remembering them, he said, amounts to betraying them one more time. This is why we should, twenty years later, learn all the lessons from the Rwandan genocide.


Translated by Ndeye Mane Sall

Rwandan Genocide, 20 years later: Desperately in search of peace (2/2)

"It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important." Martin Luther King

Terangaweb_Gacaca RwandaGenocide is not a crime as any other. While the other forms of conflicts meet political and economic interests, genocide is a concerted plan in view of eliminating the members of a given group. Genocide aims to “purify” the social group by removing the elements regarded as unworthy to be part of it: Jews in Germany, Blacks in South Africa[1], Tutsis in Rwanda… Other countries have had the rather difficult task of reconciling a people torn apart by a conflict. In South Africa there were the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, in Sudan was chosen the radical solution of secession, in Ivory Coast we are crossing fingers for the maintaining of a flickering peace.  

Rwanda is (rightly) known to be the good pupil in the Great Lakes Area since it achieved its “resurrection” in various fields (See Le Rwanda, une Nation phénix (1ère partie) – L'Afrique des idées and Le Rwanda, une Nation phénix (2ème partie) – L'Afrique des idées). The country is being ruled with an iron hand by Paul Kagame who succeeded in inspiring the wind of development the country needed since 1994. What about the Rwandan society? The genocide has radically materialized a division that had been festering for a while in Rwandan society. The reconciliation between members of a society is not a matter of policy, it is nonetheless essential among people who are condemned to live together anyway. Thus forgiveness never can be an instruction given to the community but the state has the duty to ensure that anywhere, all members of a society feel like they are part of a group, otherwise it must enforce an official end to dissensions, in the absence of forgiveness.

That idea underlies penal law of all the countries which abolished death penalty: punish the culprit both to stop the cycle of violence then prevent any act of revenge and to ensure that the convict will be reinserted. The right to punish (or to avenge…) belongs thus to the state. The act of genocide involves necessarily all the layers of the society as it often concretize itself because “Some wanted it. Others committed it. Everybody let it happen.[2] If the act involves all the nation, the work of reconciliation should go further and deeper. It is about not letting subsist a vestige of animosity from one side or another, an animosity that could some day trigger new conflicts on the smoking remnants of the precedent.

The gacaca are scathingly criticized for not being professional courts and not responding to any criterion that defines a jurisdiction: impartiality, independence, fairness… but how could it be otherwise?

On the one hand, in the wake of the genocide, it was urgent to judge the hundreds of thousands criminals detained, the members of legal professions were either among the victims or among the accused…when they hadn’t fled the country. Qualifying the work of the gacaca as lacking juridical rigor would be a way to reproach Rwanda with not applying an ordinary solution to a situation that was anything but ordinary. Desperate times call desperate measures.

On the other hand, those courts, thanks to their popular dimension have helped to put together and confront people who never would have dreamt of this form of participatory justice in a classic legal framework. It would be indeed very naive to consider that, at the end of the trial, victim and offender end up hand in hand.  Besides the victims have been raising their voice to denounce a justice they consider expeditious and biased (how to believe an accused who ‘exchanges’ his remorse against the promise of a sentence reduction?) but following such a tragedy, there were not so many solutions. Except parting the country in two between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the only alternative solution was to permit systematic revenge which would have undoubtedly led to another tragedy with the same actors in reversed roles: the Tutsis as offenders and Hutus as victims. The chosen solution was certainly not the best but it is objectively the most adapted given the elements.

The genocide is only twenty years old, it is still too early to make an assessment of History and judge the progress in terms of social peace which will certainly take many years more to concretize. But Rwanda has started a process that should, in the very long term and, if it still followed, erase the divisions that should not exist. It could pass through (like in Nigeria) by a subtle power sharing between Hutus and Tutsis, an equal access for both ethnic groups to state structures, education, employment… in short concretize what the Constitution theorized: all Rwandan are equal.

Reconciliation is also and above all a matter of memory. Collective memory and individual memory. Maybe the second will be less acute in two or three generations and maybe time, failing to heal the wounds, will have eased the pain. For the time being, the dazed survivors are reintegrating as best they can that society which is still home to their offenders, and stoically bearing the plain view of their executioners, now allowed to walk free. Because “Amarira y’umugabo atemba ajya mu unda »[3]


Translated by Ndeye Mane SALL

Read the first part of this article here.



[2] Citation de Tacite


[3] Proverb in kinyarwanda : The crying of a man remain in his chest.


Rwandan Genocide, 20 years later: Desperately in search of peace (1/2)

“I don’t believe those who say that we have hit the bottom of atrocity for the last time. If there has been genocide, there can be another one, at any time in the future, anywhere, in Rwanda or somewhere else, if the underlying cause is still present and we don’t know what it is.” A survivor[1]

rwanda-genocide-memorial-tourBetween April and July 1994, Rwanda, a country of Central Africa, suffered what is known as the bloodiest genocide ever known, taking into account the number of victims and the short duration of the terrible abuses: nearly 800 000 people (Tutsis and moderate Hutus) were slaughtered in three months according to the United Nations. As we are close to the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, what is the current situation in Rwanda?

It remains difficult to specifically date the origin of the divisions between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups. The term of “ethnic group” is even inaccurate in a country where Hutus as well as Tutsis speak the same language, the Kinyarwanda and both share the same customs and beliefs. In the thirties, the Belgian colons initiated the distinction between the two groups in official documents by creating ‘ethnic’ identity cards and giving to the Tutsis the power to rule the country under the tutelage of colonial administration. To the Tutsis was given access to education and power by the Belgian colonizer while the two other Rwandan ethnic groups, Hutus and Twas, were forsaken.

When Rwanda achieved independence, the gulf the colonizer had created turned out difficult to bridge: the Tutsis were more and more targeted in massacres meant to exile them in Uganda, Burundi or DRC. Rwandan exiles from Rwanda attempted several times to take power while fighting under the banner of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Hutu government never took long to strike back with massacres against the Tutsis remaining in Rwanda by way of revenge. On April 4th 1994, the Hutu Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana dies when his plane, which was about to land in Kigali, is shot down by a missile. For the Hutus, the Tutsis of the RPF are the obvious responsible of the attack.

The murder of the Rwandan president triggered a genocide which had been festering for a while. The following day marks the official beginning of the massacres. Organizing themselves in armed militias, the Hutus killed almost a million of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in few months. On July 4th, the Rwandan Patriotic Front enters the capital, Kigali, take power and install a government of national unity which symbolically has a Hutu as Head of State, Pastor Bizimungu. In 2000, the RPF won the elections and Paul Kagame, a leader descending from that generation of exiled Tutsis in Uganda, became President. He launched a process of justice and reconciliation to make all the Rwandan live together again, peacefully. Unity and reconciliation then became real policy objectives: a National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation is created in 1999, the mention of the ethnic origin disappears from the identity cards and the new Constitution explicitly specifies that all Rwandan are equal.[2] The work of the Commission is based on several approaches among which the ‘education for peace’ also known as Ingando, which aims at shedding a new light on Rwanda history, understanding the origins of the divisions among the people, encouraging patriotism and fighting genocidal ideology.

Nonetheless there cannot be no reconciliation neither peace without justice. Hence an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set under the aegis of the United Nations to bring to justice the perpetrators of genocide and other violations of the international humanitarian law in Rwanda from January 1st to December 31st 1994. The ICTR aimed also at “contributing to the process of national reconciliation in Rwanda and maintaining peace in the region. »[3] For the time being, 65 people have received a final judgment, 10 cases are currently pending and an accused is awaiting an upcoming trial.

Beside the ICTR, another court is in charge of judging the hundreds of thousands people involved in the acts of genocide: the gacaca (pronounced gatchatcha) which are the Rwandan people’s courts. Traditionally reserved to civil litigations, the gacaca is based on the search of guilt admission and forgiveness. A law created in 1996 to better organize the prosecution of genocidal crimes or crimes against humanity attributed jurisdiction between the Tribunal and the gacaca. The former is in charge of prosecuting the planners, the organizers and the leaders of the genocide, those who acted in positions of authority, the renowned murderers as well as people guilty of sexual tortures or rapes (jurisdiction shared with regular Rwandan courts). And it is the gacaca’s responsibility to prosecute and judge the authors or accomplices of voluntary manslaughter or assaults that resulted in the death, and those who wanted to kill the victims but only caused injuries or committed other serious abuses without intending to kill the victims. In other words the masterminds are to be judged by the ICTR and the executing criminals by the gacaca. During the trials, each court brings together defendants and the victims’ families, the debate are open to the public and whoever confesses their crimes can benefit from a reduced sentence or even be pardoned. Whenever there is a sentence, it is often symbolic: the defendants are way too numerous and the prisons way too overcrowded.

The gacaca came to the end of their term on June 18th 2012, with two millions people judged.

As the consequences of this genocide have spread far beyond the Rwandan boarders (Rwanda – RDC: les dessous d’une guerre larvée – L'Afrique des idées ), it is legitimate to ask whether the widely acclaimed reconciliation have kept its promises.


Translated by Ndeye Mane SALL

Read the second part of this article.

[1] Dans le nu de la vie, Jean Hartzfeld