Kwibuka 25: Why it’s crucial to stop assault on memory

A group of young men assaulted a young woman in Musanze because she looked like a Tutsi. A husband killed his wife because she had gone to attend a genocide commemoration event.

These are only two of a number of criminal cases linked to the Genocide against the Tutsi. There have been others, and a number of arrests of people suspected to have committed offences related to genocide ideology or denial have been made.

Indeed the Chief Justice, Professor Sam Rugege, said last Saturday that cases of genocide denial were on the rise.

The Catholic Church in Rwanda made what was widely considered a misjudged, mistimed and insensitive plea for the early release of elderly or sick people convicted of genocide crimes. The Church has since recognised its mistake and apologised.

Similar cases have happened outside Rwanda. Last week Le Monde published a cartoon that enraged Rwandans. They protested vehemently on social media. The cartoon was removed but it had caused damage and its intention had been clear.

It is baffling to decent, right-thinking people that denial and revisionism should still be so strong twenty-five years after the genocide. It appears strange that as people remember and pay respect to victims, comfort survivors and try to come to terms with human evil, and commit to its never happening again, others are intent on opening wounds, or calling for the resumption the evil that they were stopped from completing.

They shouldn’t be, nor be surprised. Deniers are at their virulent worst during the commemoration period.  And experience in other places shows that time does not matter in these matters. It is seventy-five years since the Holocaust; there is still denial and even calls for the extermination of Jews. The genocide of the Armenians was committed more than a hundred years ago. It is still denied.

What is the reason for the crimes reported in the country in the last few days when there has been so much effort at education and reconciliation? Why does denial persist when it is clear that genocide was committed? Why is there an attempt to distort history when the facts are well-known and documented?

Answers to these questions lie in the interests of varied groups that benefit from keeping the genocide ideology alive.

There are, for instance, the perpetrators who remain faithful to an ideology of extermination out of a twisted sense of guilt that they did not complete their evil designs, or are still smarting from defeat and harbour a strong desire for revenge.

In recent times, a variant of the perpetrator group has emerged. Their descendants in such countries as Belgium have formed organisations dedicated to denial and rewriting the history of Rwanda. Jambo ASBL formed in Belgium is the new face of genocide denial among descendants of originators of the genocide ideology and those who put it into practice.

In a blatant case of political opportunism, Rwandan fugitives from justice, but who masquerade as political dissidents, have adopted the cause of genocidaires and have become their most ardent advocates. This is one of their weapons in their fight against the Government of Rwanda.

Then there are the pseudo-revolutionaries and liberals who, in an ironic twist, present victims and those who defeat genocide as violent and intolerable people, and the perpetrators as peaceful and innocent. Among these are some academics and other professionals who have flirted with leftist ideas but have failed to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Others have had strong and personal connections to the genocidal regime that have blinded them to its crimes or the successes of those who ended the genocide. Or they have been rebuffed by the new administration and are chafing from the snub. Professor Filip Reyntjens fits into this category very well.

Finally, there are some who are driven by a personal animosity towards Rwanda’s leaders, especially President Paul Kagame.

The groups may be diverse but their methods for denial or revisionism are similar.

A favourite method is an assault on memory. They question whether there was actually genocide and by so doing cast doubt in the minds of people, especially those that may not have experienced it directly.

A variant of this method is to try to blur memory and urge forgetting. They say so many things. It happened so long ago. Perpetrators are very old or many of them are dead. We must put the past behind us (without reckoning with it) and move on.

Then there is the reinterpretation (in many cases inversion) of history to create an alternative narrative that seeks to absolve some, reduce the enormity of the sin, or even demonise the victims.

The persistence of denial and revisionism many years after the genocide proves that the ideology and its proponents still exist and they do not tire from trying to put it into practice. So should those who fight it.

That’s why teaching about genocide must continue – at home and in the community, at school and places of worship, and in other places.

That is also why institutions of memory such as memorial centres must be maintained to preserve physical testimony of the horrors of genocide that some may have only heard or read about as stories.

That way we guard against assault on memory and consequent normalisation of genocide ideology.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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