Remembering the Rwandan Genocide: The Difficulty to Remember All Victims

The symbolic flame remembering the victims of the Rwandan genocide

20 years ago the 1994 Rwandan genocide started. In just 100 days some 800,000 to a million people were killed. The world stood by, the international community did literally nothing. The phrase “never again” coined after the Holocaust got an empty phrase. Although, very ironically, Rwanda was on the UN Security Council at the time, the killings were only stopped by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) that invaded the country from Uganda and stopped the killings. Today, Rwanda and the world are remembering the 1994 genocide, although not all victims are commemorated.

The events started when president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali. Hutu extremists blamed the RPF and the Tutsi in general for murdering the president and started the genocide. However, it was identified in 2012 by a French inquiry that Hutu extremist groups themselves shot down the plane. Immediately after the death of Habyarimana, road blocks were established and men, women and children of all ages butchered with machetes, guns and grenades. The genocide was carried out by the then Rwandese army, local police, national guards and the militia group known as Interahamwe. Rape was a widely observed phenomenon. Many people tried to flee and left their homes behind.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo called the genocide “the most brutally efficient killing spree in human history.” And rightly so, I would not be aware of any other genocide where so many people were killed in such a short time. The killing was planned and the Hutu extremists were able to rely, at least, on the indirect support of foreign powers – including the training of the Rwandan military by the French while a genocidal climate already existed. Rightfully, the Rwandan President Paul Kagame suggested in Jeune Afrique that France and Belgium were involved in the genocide. Kagame said that they better face the “difficult truth.” That has caused a diplomatic row, because France is clearly not ready to face the truth as of yet.

Account of a genocide survivor
Account of a genocide survivor

When I visited Rwanda in 2011, I was impressed by the amazing beauty of the country and how organized the country is, the cleanliness of the streets. I was also very much impressed by the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center that clearly was very much influenced by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. The exhibition is very moving and the story of events is very well presented. Outside of the museum are a couple of gardens with many symbols that represent Rwandese mourning. It is all very impressive if there would not be quite a disturbing fact: only Tutsi seemed to die during the genocide. Moderate Hutu were excluded. And also the atrocities committed by RPF forces when they invaded the country to stop the genocide are not debated. Why?

There was the clear attempt of Hutu extremists to kill all Tutsi; thus, the 1994 Rwandan genocide was a crystal-clear case of genocide; next to the Holocaust it was the one genocide in the 20th century that fits all criteria that researchers of genocide established. At the same time, also moderate Hutu were killed because they were in the way of the genocidaires. However, it is simply not in the interest of the ruling elite in Kigali to include the Hutu that were targeted as it would reduce the events of spring 1994 to a civil war and therefore “taking away” the narrative of victim and liberator. There is the fear that the very basis of how Rwanda functions would be undermined. The discourse in Rwanda is still very much is based on the ruling RPF – the party that is the very same force that stopped the genocide in July 1994. Not least Paul Kagame himself pushes for a history that promotes some stories while others are openly oppressed.

A great article has been written by René Lemarchand on the memorialization process in Rwanda and how the discourse changed of what happened during the genocide. While at the beginning all victims were remembered, the narrative changed significantly during the past years. I have observed that myself during a commemoration event at Georgetown University in Washington DC in April 2012. Instead of commemorating the victims of the genocide, only Tutsi were remembered. While it is clear to all sides that the large majority of victims were indeed Tutsi, it is nonetheless a very problematic turn towards purposefully excluding some victims.

Among the Rwandan leadership there is a huge fear that the number of victims is constantly put down as some sources suggest that it was not a million people who were killed but “at least 500,000” which would lower the amount of victims enormously. After all, however, it is a situation like with the Holocaust. An exact number cannot be established. And yet, everyone refers to six million Jewish victims during WWII. Equally, the enormity of the crimes during the Rwandan genocide is not challenged by mainstream media and academia, as some people around Kagame fear. The attempts of Hutu communities in exile to question the genocide on social media will not bear fruit. The enormity of the events is simply too obvious to people around the globe.

Some of the names of the victims that were slaughtered during the genocide.
Some of the names of the victims that were slaughtered during the genocide.

Today, Rwanda is by many means a show case for reform and highlighted as a role model for the rest of the African continent. However, this image has been tarnished due to the allegations by the international community, including UN reports, that Rwanda supported the M23 rebels in the eastern DRC. Since the mid-1990s, Rwanda has continuously supported rebel groups – to fight Hutu extremists but also for economic benefit. In addition, the accounts that high-level Rwandese who have fallen out with the regime are accumulating. The recent murder case of former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in South Africa has caused concern not only in the host country but around the globe that any dissidents are threatened to be killed by the Rwandese government (read more in an excellent BBC analysis).

Official mourning began three months ago with a flame of remembrance touring towns and villages across the small central African nation, and culminated today when the torch arrived at the national genocide memorial. Kagame lit a flame that will burn for 100 days, the length of time it took government soldiers and “Hutu power” militiamen to carry out their plan to wipe out the enemy who was given names of insect, dehumanizing them. It is indeed of utmost importance to remember the hundred thousands of innocent victims who had die for no reason in the spring of 1994. And yet, the Rwandan leadership still has to grapple of how to remember the past and that will include the remembrance of all victims. However, one thing is sure: remembering “is far more art than science” as National Geographic article pointed out.

Update (8 April 2014): Slight changes of this article have been conducted suggested by a Rwandan friend of mine.

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