Rwandans today start a week-long commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. In the run-up to the remembrance week, The New Times’ Eugène Kwibuka spoke to Jean-Damascène Bizimana, the executive-secretary of the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG) who addressed several issues, from post-Genocide challenges 24 years later, to the main focus of this year’s official mourning week. Below are the excerpts.
It’s been 24 years since the end of the Genocide against the Tutsi and Rwandans have made significant strides to deal with its consequences. But what are the main challenges that remain and deserve special attention today?
Many challenges remain but let me just mention two of them; the first one is the genocide ideology that is still held by some people, especially in foreign countries. The second challenge is of some survivors who are still suffering from Genocide scars, physical or psychological.
For example, I know of a Genocide survivor who currently lives in Belgium and up to now she often dreams of people coming to kill her, psychiatrists in that country attend to her case using conventional treatment of mental illness yet the person is suffering from Genocide-related trauma.
Those are serious problems that need to be addressed.
Let’s talk about the welfare of Genocide survivors. How’s the situation?
There are still problems related to both mental and physical health for Genocide survivors as a result of the Genocide. Some of them live with HIV/Aids because they were raped in the Genocide and some are still suffering from the physical consequences of the sexual abuse they experienced.
Others have a serious problem of trauma as a result of the Genocide. At the moment, CNLG is working with the Ministry of Health to conduct a comprehensive study on factors behind continued trauma despite many government interventions to help survivors, and how the trauma can be overcome.
There are also justice issues. Some young Genocide survivors had their land sold off by either their foster parents or some other people or given away by the Government as part of the land redistribution exercise and the young survivors today need land.
Also, some other young survivors have issues with banks that still haven’t revealed details about their parents’ bank accounts so that they can access any savings that are on the accounts. Ironically, these banks have been actively recovering the loans they had given to those whose lives were cut short by the Genocide.
It’s a serious problem that has so far been addressed by both Parliament and the National Bank of Rwanda (BNR). The central bank has shared the list of accounts that belonged to Genocide victims but many survivors still believe some accounts have not been revealed.
How about homes for Genocide survivors?
FARG (the Fund for Support for Genocide Survivors) takes care of that and shelter is generally not a problem for survivors.
But there is a problem of dilapidated housing units for some Genocide survivors and because it requires a lot of money to refurbish them FARG will be repairing only those that are dire state, the issue could be solved for good in the next four years.
On fighting genocide ideology, senators have urged government to come up with a policy on how institutions and individuals can help eradicate ideology. Do you feel the same?
The policy to fight genocide and its ideology is actually in place. What hasn’t been done yet is submitting it to the cabinet for approval but this will be done in July or August, right after the Genocide commemoration period (although the official commemoration period lasts one week [April 7-13], memorial activities continue through July 4 – the day when the killings were officially brought to an end by the Rwanda Patriotic Front army).
We are currently revising the policy of 2014 and we have to update it because the approach to fight Genocide denial and ideology keeps changing, the policy has to be up-to-dated.
What does the policy entail?
It’s mostly about prevention and fighting genocide ideology by teaching special groups of people like the youth, prisoners, church members, and others. Efforts are especially put in teaching the history of Genocide, explaining what genocide ideology is and its consequences as well as groups that tend to spread it.
Senators recommended that government should prepare didactic materials on fighting genocide ideology at different levels and devise a framework on how to use the materials. What’s your take on this?
That was done. We work with the Rwanda Education Board (REB) to ensure that Genocide against the Tutsi and its ideology is part of history lessons.
We work together to prepare the content based on the level of students.
You have argued before that a more stringent legal framework is needed to minimise unnecessary appeals by Gacaca convicts. On which grounds do most convicts tend to appeal?
We have requested that the law be revised so that such appeals can stop. The 2012 law that closes Gacaca courts lays out four grounds on which a convict can appeal but the most important are two: one is when there is new evidence that warrants a review of the case, and the second is when one is accused of killing someone and then the alleged victim surfaces.
Most people apply for appeals on the ground that there is new evidence to suggest that they didn’t commit the crime.
Because killings during the Genocide were perpetrated by many people who mostly operated in groups, some convicts maliciously claim in their application that they are innocent because there is someone who pleaded guilty about killing the very person who applicant is accused of killing.
In our investigations we normally find that the victim was not killed by one person but rather a group of people and the applicant who claims to be innocent is guilty because they were part of a group that committed the crime.
It has become clear that most applicants know that they aren’t innocent but they just give it (appeal) a try in what many say is “gauging the mood”.
How will the issue be resolved?
The law has to stop these unfounded appeals. It should specify that those who can appeal should have serious grounds for appeal, such as in the event that a person who was said to have been killed is found alive.
Here, at CNLG, we feel that should be the only ground under which Gacaca convicts can appeal.
So how are you looking to do this?
There are two ways to do it. The first one is enacting a special law that repeals the law terminating Gacaca courts. It should be a short law made up of one or two articles.
The second way of doing it is integrating these aspects in the law terminating Gacaca courts. (Gacaca courts were semi-traditional community based courts that adjudicated nearly two million Genocide cases in 10 years before they were closed in 2012)
CNLG has prepared three topics that will be discussed by Rwandans during this year’s commemoration period. What are these topics and why did you choose them?
There are three topics that will be discussed. The first one is the difference between genocide and other atrocities or war crimes.
The idea is for people to understand the uniqueness of genocide so that people can stop saying that they didn’t know what it was or find themselves in trouble with the law for promoting genocide ideology and undermining the Genocide against the Tutsi.
The second topic is about the evidence for the Genocide against the Tutsi. This includes explaining major facts on which the international community based to call what happened in Rwanda a genocide. We chose this topic because some people, especially the youth, tend to read information on the internet authored and circulated by Genocide deniers, and get confused.
We want Rwandans and foreigners to understand well the facts around the Genocide and why it is called such.
The third topic will be about Rwanda’s measures to deal with Genocide consequences and it will be about Rwandans’ efforts to render justice after the Genocide, how survivors were helped to rebuild their lives, how the present rule of law and institutions came about, and how the country has come of age.
You message to Rwandans and the world on this occasion of Genocide commemoration…
The key message I have for Rwandans is around this year’s theme: “Remember, Unite, and Renew”. We have to think about our country’s history right from colonialism when colonialists divided Rwandans and how Rwandans accepted these divisions. We should look at the role of Rwandans in this bad history and learn from it.
Genocide didn’t benefit anyone, not the killers, and certainly not the victims, we have to think about it, reflect and recommit to work together as one people, as a nation. The young generation deserves better, it is our duty to ensure that they live in a united country, where they will not be held back by the same harrowing experiences that characterise our history. It’s our responsibility to build and leave behind a better country; we owe it to the young and future generations.