20 years after Genocide: Rwanda’s message to the world

Although the Rwandan Diaspora was scattered across the five continents, we remained connected through our extended family and friends ties and our distinctiveness in sharing a collective sense of human dignity through our traditions and values.
Down but not out: Physically impaired soldiers mount a guard of honour during the 20th Liberation Anniversary on Friday. (John Mbanda)
Down but not out: Physically impaired soldiers mount a guard of honour during the 20th Liberation Anniversary on Friday. (John Mbanda)

Although the Rwandan Diaspora was scattered across the five continents, we remained connected through our extended family and friends ties and our distinctiveness in sharing a collective sense of human dignity through our traditions and values.

There was indeed a touch of romanticism evoking those ideals, as if they were aroused from ancient rituals. To bridge the gap between past and future, the flames of Gihanga’s fire (Mythical Founder of Rwanda) were to be kept alive and burning, fueled by our resilient will to return home, by any means necessary.  

My teenager years…a rude awakening to a reality so remote to that of my childhood. 

A far cry from the melting pot society where I naively thought everyone was one and the same. Instead, I was to discover a world of inequality and social injustice, racial discrimination and political recrimination. A world where people were tagged and placed in community boxes to be disposed of when the powers that be saw fit. Ours was to be labeled ‘Africans Living In Europe!’

In the sixties there were only a few of us to speak of; not enough to scare the society we were living in, but enough to maintain our own way of life and adapt to our new found status of exiles. 

Despite living in the first world, our second-class citizenship status squarely placed us in the third world category of the global food chain, and we understood it quite fast. 

And so the search began. An in-depth excavation of our past, looking for answers to our present predicament.  Unbeknownst to them, their rejection of us was to shape who we were to become as a people. Little did they know, indeed, that by confronting us with our brutal and common past, we were to rediscover the bravery of our ancestry, the courage of our convictions and the power of our people…

And so we went back to square one, we hit the books, we looked for answers.  We learnt of the ills of colonisation and its negative impact on our civilisation, understood the genesis of our pain and chose to stop the falling rain.  

Until then, we never really knew why our parents upped and left the Motherland, barely speaking of the atrocities they faced there since the late fifties, accepting their fate as permanent refugees with no country to call their own. 

Not for long though, for these were revolutionary times. The sixties told us of the bravery of men and women alike, refusing to stand aside while the pages of history were being filled by others. We stood in awe as the real revolutionaries Bob Marley spoke of, took on the establishment and fought back against imperialism and colonisation the world over. I felt connected. They were fighting for themselves just as much as they were fighting for me and my people. 

The little I knew about my origins came from family education and community life, so I developed this insatiable hunger for about anything related to my motherland. The history, the culture, the language, the codes, the ethics… I was listening to everything African in terms of music while staying true to the singularity of my home culture, a mix of esthetics and excellence.

My thirst for knowledge wasn’t confined to Rwanda though; quite the contrary. From Cuba to Vietnam, Algiers to South Africa, Mozambique to Biafra, including Wounded Knee, I wanted to know it all. My world was full of posters of the Che, Lumumba, Malcolm X, Mohamed Ali, Ho Chi Min and books from the likes of Plato, Herman Hesse, Khalil Gibran, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Ante Diop, Padiri Kagame, Musenyeri Bigirumwami…

I was sympathetic to liberation movements like the ANC, MPLA, PAIGC, EPLF and many others. We were dreaming of justice and development…we were dreaming of a better Africa! 

Although the Rwandan Diaspora was scattered across the five continents, we remained connected through our extended family and friends ties and our distinctiveness in sharing a collective sense of human dignity through our traditions and values. There was indeed a touch of romanticism evoking those ideals, as if they were aroused from ancient rituals. To bridge the gap between past and future, the flames of Gihanga’s fire (Mythical Founder of Rwanda) were to be kept alive and burning, fueled by our resilient will to return home, by any means necessary.  

Fast forward to the late eighties, early nineties…the Berlin Wall falls, the Soviet Union dissolves, the Cold War is over!

Gone were the days where revolutionary movements were to systematically be tagged ‘communists’. African dictatorships were in for a rude awakening of their own. Young revolutionaries took to the bush, guerilla warfare ensued, and empires fell, one by one. Exiled Rwandans on the receiving end of such brutality took part in movements to liberate Mozambique, Congo, Uganda… we could damn near hear the Che cheering us on: “Hasta la Victoria, siempre!” 

The ideological fine-tuning from years of resilience as refugees and a fresh victory over the reign of terror of one Milton Obote gave birth to one of the most incredible liberation movements in African History; the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)! 

The essence of the RPF struggle was based on the twin ideals of peace and justice coupled with a sense of inclusiveness for all Rwandans. 

What was to become one of Africa’s most effective liberation movements didn’t quite start out that way. On October 1 1990, as the Rwanda Patriotic Army launched its first attack against Habyarimana’s troops, their Commander Fred Rwigema met his demise in obscure circumstances, throwing the movement in complete disarray. 

Major in the Ugandan Army at that time, Paul Kagame was on a course in the USA. Upon hearing the news, he saw it as his duty to fly back, take charge, reorganise, and continue the struggle on behalf of his fallen comrade. 

What he did with the movement’s political and military wings was nothing short of a miracle. In no time, he turned failure into success, gained considerable ground on the notorious ‘Forces Armees Rwandaises’ of Habyarimana, forcing him into a power sharing deal he would have never considered otherwise. In fact, if it weren’t for the French troops and the unwavering support of Francois Mitterand and his Government, the RPF would have easily gone all the way instead of stopping in the outskirts of the capital, Kigali. 

The Arusha agreements were unfortunately never to yield their intended results. As defeat grew near, the regime drew to extremes, once again choosing to be on the wrong side of history to the detriment of the Tutsi population.

Drawing on the fear mongering of the ‘Tutsi invaders’ theory, extremist factions within Habyarimana’s circle of trust hitched a plan for a ‘final solution’ aimed at correcting the mistakes made in 1959. According to them, letting some of the ‘cockroaches’ live proved to be a fatal mistake that needed adjusting once and for all. 

One of the reasons I have a high regard for the RPF and its leadership is their chosen attitude and actions during the 1994 Genocide and the management of the war prior to the apocalypse. When the West convinced itself to abandon Rwanda to its doom, effectively withdrawing the all too few UN troops present, the RPF refused to stand and look. It fought long, it fought hard. 

And to the bitter end of 100 days, it defeated the Genocidal regime of ‘Abatabazi’. Even more amazing is the level of discipline it required from them to refrain from descending into madness themselves, considering the horror they witnessed firsthand. The RPF could have easily gone from defenders to avengers; they did no such thing! When faced with the challenge of one of their own falling prey to such primal instincts of revenge, the reaction from the leadership was as swift as it was expeditious! Freedom fighters became heroes and not killers. 

Stopping the Genocide in 1994 was only the first step in permanently defeating it. The magnitude of the killings and the way they had been conducted by associating maximum layers of society in the crime was threatening the ambition of the RPF to deliver an inclusive project for all Rwandans. So many ordinary people had been dragged into the crime. Reconstructing Rwanda’s social fabric, after years of decay from colonial times, proved to be a herculean task awaiting the country. Yet the RPF stick to their reason for being: Peace and justice for all Rwandans.

The magnitude of the horror that was the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi became evident to me through family, more so, then the media. Although we remained glued to our TV screens, clinging on every word from every news reporter, our home phone would become the only lifeline between my wife and I and our families in Rwanda. Unfortunately, this lifeline proved ineffective in the face of the murderous rage of those who were hell-bent on carrying through their final solution scheme.

My wife, who grew up in Kigali, was trying to keep up with the flow of information. Unfortunately, no good news was to come her way as the majority of her family and friends perished during this unspeakable tragedy.  

During what will forever remain as the longest three months of our lives, our community and friends carried out a permanent sit-in in front of the French Embassy in Brussels in protest to their unwavering support of a regime that had turned against its own people. While doing so, we made enough noise to alert the world to a tragedy their leaders and governments had sadly decided to turn a blind eye to.

When came the time for me to make my way home to Kigali in July of 1994, what was supposed to be by far the best day of my life was tainted with the blood of the far too many sisters and brothers who had been sacrificed to the altar of madness.

It would take another year for my spouse to accept to join me. This ordeal had taken a heavy toll on her but the call of duty proved stronger. The duty she felt to her people, her nation, and her family… the survivors. 

Orphans needed the comfort of her love, widows the warmth of her compassion. Together we could do it, we had to.   But it wasn’t until around 2000, that my wife accepted the fact that she could live in the same space as the killers responsible for the loss of our loved ones. Twenty years later, though we understand the necessity of moving past the horrors of yesteryears for the sake of our common future,  my wife remains scarred by the barbarism of this painful past…

The post Genocide leadership delivered way beyond expectations in restoring social cohesion and the dignity of Rwandans. 

Against all odds the country has become this mysterious unexplainable African miracle that succeeded where many predicted it would fail. 

Many self-righteous critics love to hate post Genocide Rwanda because of the results obtained through homegrown solutions outside of the classic development patterns. They have been predicting doom for the past twenty years to no avail. 

It hasn’t been a stroll though, for the Rwandans. Many challenges and imperfections persist in rebuilding. Through compromises, trials and errors and strategic fine-tuning, post-genocide Rwanda is delivering on the promise of a better tomorrow. 

Paul Kagame, the RPF and Rwandans from all walks of life had to reinvent their own nation, after it had been sacrificed on the altar of man’s inhumanity to man. 

Despite the challenges, today’s Rwanda is honouring the likes of Patrice Lumumba, Mutara Rudahigwa, Rwagasore Louis, Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, Nelson Mandela, Meles Zenawi and many other of our African heroes by living up to their dreams and aspirations of a self-reliant and prosperous Africa, at peace with itself…and the World.

 

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