Rwanda will next month mark twenty years since the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and though victims have been accorded befitting tributes on each of the past 19 anniversaries; there’s one flaw that should be seriously reviewed.
There’s a disturbing disparity when it comes to quoting the figure of those who perished during the a hundred day human madness that engulfed Rwanda putting the nation on the brink of collapse.
Inside Rwanda, writers and other commentators consistently and generally quote the number at ‘over a million’ while reports by external commentators seem to ‘prefer’ quoting ‘over 800,000’ a disparity that has far reaching historical and legal consequences if examined critically.
It’s is not a matter of preference to quote 800,000 or 1,000,000; this is a world historical event that must be well preserved not only out of respect for those who perished, their ever grieving surviving relatives and friends but also to ensure that facts are properly recorded to protect them from distortion.
If humanity is to guard against future genocides then figures of victims of the past atrocities must be properly recorded and consistently reported by those in the media in order to emphasize their sheer cruelty.
There’s a difference between eight and ten; 80 and 100 and that means 800 and 1000 can’t mean the same thing. In business journalism, reporters are told to get the numbers right, figures are at the centre of a business story and any distortion rips the heart out of a story.
Numbers become even more important when reporting about human tragedies, there’s nothing like ‘one and a half people were killed in an accident’, every life counts and must be counted.
Therefore, when one writes that the 1994 genocide claimed 800,000 lives and another that the same event claimed over one million people, there’re 200, 000 lives in between being disregarded something which is simply unacceptable by all standards.
While the lack of consensus could be justified by the difficulty of computing the real figure, after twenty years, the country’s scholars, legal experts, historians and archivists need to sit and agree on how to record that inescapable part of the country’s history in order to cultivate not only consistency but also weed out grounds that would breed future distortions.
On February 6 while delivering a speech during a leadership dinner in Washington, Rwanda’s first lady quoted numbers regarding the genocide as follows; 50,000 widows and 75,000 orphans, 650,000 internally displaced persons, 2 million refugees fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu men, women, and children were massacred in 100 dark days.
In a commentary by Professor Nshuti Manasseh (March 17, 2014) published by New Times, the respected professor twice quoted a number consistent with the First Lady’s, first in (Para3) “…the resultant genocide cost us one million of our comrades …” and later in (Para11) “…that not only cost a million of our own…”
Meanwhile, the Wikipedia page on the Rwandan genocide quotes an astonishing figure of 500,000 to one million and whoever wrote the page surprisingly quotes a BBC report of April 1, 2004 even when there’re properly researched books and studies on the matter.
This means Rwandan scholars have left the reporting of arguably the most important national historical event of the country to outsiders and the result is distorted facts and disrespect to central figures- a dangerous precedence.
With Wikipedia and other online libraries replacing properly researched books and scholarly documents as a source of information for young scholars, it’s important for Rwandan scholars to keep an eye on such publications and offer editing services and corrections in order to safeguard historical facts.
One simply has to examine the ongoing stand-off between Russia and Europe over Ukraine and China Vs Japan over the disputed islands of Diaoyu/Senkaku in the East China Sea to see the significance of history in preventing future conflicts.
In Rwanda, the case of Victoire Ingabire, the jailed chairperson of the Unified Democratic Forces is evidence that the country’s history is not short of political opportunists who would jump at the chance of distorting the genocide’s numerical impact.
That’s why genocide scholars should reach a consensus on the figure at the heart of the 1994 genocide to prevent future conflicts that could arise from distortion; the 1994 Rwanda genocide against the Tutsi should get the same historical respect as the genocide of the Jews whose victims have consistently been reported at six million several decades after the end of World War 2.
The margin between 500, 000-800, 000 and 1000, 000 is simply too wide and dangerous to history.
Kenneth Agutamba is a post-graduate student at the Communication University of China