By Rachel Vincent
“I would say 5% were good, 5% were neutral—and the rest of the 90% were evil.”
So says a Tutsi survivor, talking about her fellow Rwandans in a videotaped interview that is part of the very moving exhibit at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. The Centre opened 10 years ago, a decade after the 1994 genocide that killed up to 1 million Rwandans—mostly Tutsis—and displaced about 2 million. More than 300 thousand children were left orphans, and in some cases entire families were wiped out. Up to half a million women were raped, and some of these women still struggle with HIV-AIDS.
In one room of the centre, survivors have hung photographs of family they have lost: babies in the arms of their proud and smiling mothers, young couples getting married, a man showing off his soccer prowess and many serious passport-size people staring straight into the camera. They could all easily be any one of us.
In Rwanda, it seems that everyone you meet lost a family member and/or had to flee where they lived during what they now officially call “the Tutsi genocide”. Our guide for the day, a vivacious young woman who plans soon to open her own bakery, lost two brothers. She was only eight years old during the 100-days of killing, and one wonders– but doesn’t ask– what she remembers of those nightmarish days.
Remembering in Rwanda is both intensely personal and an act of national identity.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre has exhumed over 259,000 bodies from Kigali and nearby communities, putting them in coffins and giving them a proper burial. There are also memorial events in towns and communities across Rwanda every year between April and July, during the 100-day period when the genocide took place. During this rainy season, Rwandans recall the rain that allowed them a few hours of relief from the killing, and lay flowers or hang ribbons for the dead.
Remembering is also a source of jobs.
Tourists in Kigali can visit the gaudy 1970s mansion built for a former Hutu strongman President who was one of the architects of the genocide. The tour guide takes us slowly through this African Graceland testimony to excess. In the master bedroom he shows us a table made from elephant legs, which he tells us was a present from the former Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese Soko. We all shudder at the sheer creepiness of it all: the custom-made gun rack in the children’s bedroom, as well as the swimming pool for the pet python (also said to be a gift of Mobutu).
Also on the genocide tour: military barracks where 10 Belgian soldiers were killed at the onset of the 100-days, and l’Hotel les Milles Collines—otherwise known as “Hotel Rwanda”–where a Hutu hotel manager famously risked his life to protect a thousand Tutsis during the genocide.
But this Hollywood version of bravery aside, heros were in short supply when Rwanda needed them most.
The French government funnelled arms and offered political legitimacy to the Hutu extremist leaders who for years before the 1994 genocide had been imprisoning, torturing and occasionally massacring Tutsis. The UN Security Council condemned the massive killing early in the 100-days, and then almost immediately reduced its boots on the ground presence in Rwanda. In what will go down in history as one of the most egregious examples of the international community’s collective failure, UN officials ignored the pleas of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire for more help to protect those who were at risk of being killed.
The story of Rwanda’s genocide—with its origins going back to the German and Belgian colonial period—leaves leaves you wondering how this country has gone from being decimated by mass killings and displacement to one of Africa’s success stories. How have Rwandans left behind all the hate, resentment and trauma to rebuild Rwanda in a short twenty years?
The oft-repeated narrative from guides and careful residents is that the colonially-imposed, artificial distinctions between Tutsis and Hutus have been deliberately and effectively replaced by a strong sense of national unity. And the people of Rwanda are now working together to build a strong country, a robust economy.
One hopes that even some of this narrative holds true, and that Rwanda genuinely moves beyond its genocidal past. But what seems to be missing from the official narrative is some critical analysis about to what extent Rwanda’s rapid progress is dependent on international aid and is also sustained by the ongoing conflict just next door, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even US officials, who for years refused to criticize Rwanda, are now pointing the finger at Rwanda for fueling the conflict in the Congo.
Can one generation really shake a decades-old conflict? Can there really be lasting peace in Rwanda as long as there is no peace in the Congo?
Rachel Vincent is the Director of Media and Communications for Nobel Women’s Initiative. Vincent started her career as a radio journalist, working for six years in Canada, the US and Mexico, where she hosted an afternoon radio program in Mexico City. She left journalism to be the head of communications for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, based in Montreal. For the last 16 years, she has turned her in-depth understanding of media towards advising NGO’s and others on how to communicate their messages most effectively through media. She has worked as a senior communications advisor, speechwriter and media strategist for not-for-profit groups and governments on international and social justice issues.