Rwandan’s resilience despite continuing denial of the Genocide

During a presentation at the Rwanda Symposium held in Oxford in March 2009, the audience was struck at the resilience exhibited by local Rwandans in their villages.In making the presentation, I drew their attention to a revealing article by Ed Caesar that had appeared in a January 2009 issue of The Sunday Times of London. The article told the harrowing story of Helen Mukandori, and how she is now coping with her two protagonists 14 years after the 1994 genocide in her village of Gishari in Rwamagana.
Venuste Karasira who lost an arm during 1994 Genocide againt the Tutsi gives his testimony.
Venuste Karasira who lost an arm during 1994 Genocide againt the Tutsi gives his testimony.

During a presentation at the Rwanda Symposium held in Oxford in March 2009, the audience was struck at the resilience exhibited by local Rwandans in their villages.
In making the presentation, I drew their attention to a revealing article by Ed Caesar that had appeared in a January 2009 issue of The Sunday Times of London.

The article told the harrowing story of Helen Mukandori, and how she is now coping with her two protagonists 14 years after the 1994 genocide in her village of Gishari in Rwamagana.

Helen not only has to live next to Mupagasi, “the man who butchered her husband and son”, but also has to contend with Rwabagabo who looted her home and “has promised to kill me [Helen] before he dies.” 

Both men have served their sentences meted under the semi-traditional Gacaca justice system. However, while Mupagasi is reconciled with his victim through recanting his actions and being forgiven as demanded by Gacaca, Rwabagabo is still in denial of his culpability in the issued threats.

The Sunday Times article observed that, “while Helen and Rwabagabo’s story illuminates the manifold problems still facing Rwanda, Helen and Mupagasi’s shows what heart and backbone have achieved already.”

The example of Rwabagabo is significant, as it demonstrates the yet unappreciated spectre of continued denial of the Tutsi genocide that is not only playing out in the villages, but is violently being felt across the Great Lakes region under the gaze of the international community.

This does not preclude France’s continued denial of its role in the genocide process, which remains at the root of the current diplomatic row between the French government and Rwanda.

The Tutsi Genocide Process in Rwanda

Research on genocides, notably by Stanton, has charted out the course of this denial in Rwanda drawing from similar trends across the world.

Stanton observes that denial is the culminating stage in a continuum of seven other stages that trace the beginnings of the intention to commit genocide to the consummation of the act.

He traces the first seven stages as classification; symbolization; dehumanization; organization; polarization; preparation; and, extermination.

Through all these, however, runs a thread of denial with each stage re-enforcing and leading from the other. It may thus be shown how the eighth stage of denial continues to perpetuate itself decades after the act of genocide was committed.

To take the example of Rwanda, the first stage, classification, can be described as the cultural and “racial” distinction between the three social categories of Rwanda imposed by the Belgians to identify them as the Tutsi “Caucasians”, the Hutu Bantu “negroids” and the Twa “pigmoids”.

This was a divide-and-rule tactic espoused in a racist ideology that was adopted by the First and Second Republics of Presidents Kayibanda and Habyarimana, respectively. This is despite the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa constituting one people sharing the same culture and language.

The second stage, symbolization, affirms the classification by attributing symbolic characteristics that could be physical or otherwise. For instance, shape of the nose or names used to describe a group through stereotypes and clichés.

Classification and symbolization are fundamental operations in all cultures. They become steps of genocide only when combined with dehumanization, the third stage. Denial of the humanity of others is the step that permits killing with impunity. In incitements to genocide the targeted groups are called disgusting animal names – such as when the Tutsi were referred as Inyenzi (cockroaches), which made them less human and therefore easier to kill.

Genocide is always collective because it derives its impetus from group identification. It is always organized, often by states but also by militias and hate groups.

In Rwanda, in the fourth stage of organisation, death squads were trained by the Forces Armee Rwandais (FAR) for mass murder and then everyone was encouraged to participate, spreading hysteria and overcoming individual resistance.

It was at this stage that, beginning 1990, the French under Operation Noroit are first enjoined in the process through the technical and military support offered to the Habyarimana regime.

This liaison encouraged Hutu extremists with the thought that France was on their side.

Genocide, however, is also aimed at polarization, the fifth stage, which is a negation of the fact that people can be reasonable to work things out, where one group attacks the other, coupled with the systematic elimination of the reasonable citizens who would otherwise slow the process.

The first to be killed are therefore the moderates from the killing group who oppose the extremists in the genocide ideology.

In the sixth stage, preparation, lists of victims were drawn up in Rwanda.  Individuals were forced to carry ID cards identifying their “ethnic” group because identification greatly speeds the slaughter.

In the genocide, Tutsis could then be easily pulled from cars at roadblocks and murdered. Throwing away the cards did not help, because anyone who could not prove he was Hutu, was presumed to be Tutsi. Radio RTLM was used to mobilize and identify potential victims by name and place of residence.

The seventh step provides the final solution – extermination. It is considered extermination, rather than murder, because the victims are not considered human. They are “vermin” or “cockroaches” to be eliminated.

Targeted members of alien groups, who the Tutsi were perceived to be, were killed, including children. Because they were not considered persons, their bodies were mutilated, buried in mass graves with dog carcasses to emphasize the perpetrators’ contempt for the victims.

The French Denial

During the seventh stage, the French make another entrance, under Operation Amaryllis following the plane crash on 6th April 1994 that killed Habyarimana resulting in the Tutsi massacres.

By this time, it was clear that these were not sporadic massacres by angry groups of young men reacting to the death of their president.

Instead of intervening to stop the carnage, France instead flew out Agathe Habyarimana to Paris, along with other Akazu and Hutu extremist figures who organized the killings.
However, note how in all the above stages there has been denial in one form or the other, basically denying the humanity of the victims as people with rights to be respected.

This denial derives from not accepting that the actions being committed are wrong all through the stages, culminating with the denial that the genocide ever happened.

The irony is that the majority of the population were bystanders, whose passivity and inaction was construed by the perpetrators as agreement with the persecution of the Tutsi.

The passivity reinforced the perpetrators’ perception of themselves as heroes, thereby legitimizing the denial and negation of the genocide.

For this reason, some of the perpetrators such as Rwabagabo may still not feel culpable. This would however manifest itself in many subtle ways regionally and internationally.

From the start, there was a misperception of the reality on the ground that can be traced to 1993 during the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) negotiations with the Habyarimana government.

In February 1993 the RPF attacked Rwanda, provoked by continued killings of Tutsi in Bugesera, Gisenyi and other parts of the country by the Government forces and militia. The attack forced the intransigent Government of Rwanda back to the negotiating table.

This culminated into the The Arusha Peace Agreement of August 1993. The Agreement paved the way for the deployment of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) in October of the same year, with a peacekeeping mandate under Chapter Six of the UN Security Council.

This would be a lukewarm intervention that was limited, ineffective and therefore doomed to fail. With the advantage of hindsight, and in the face of the genocide that erupted during its watch, one could surmise that the UNAMIR mission was a total failure.

This is because the UNAMIR wound up its mission in April 1994, leaving the token force of General Dallaire and his handful peacekeepers holed up in Kigali with no logistical support while the genocidaire regime went on rampage.

Then UN Security Council in June, 1994 mandated a French-led multinational humanitarian intervention, Operation Turquoise, that, as it would turn out, sought to salvage the genocidal regime.

Though some lives were saved, Operation Turquoise created a safe haven for the genocidal regime in southwestern Rwanda and facilitated their safe withdrawal into Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo – DRC) with a hostage population of more than two million refugees by the end of July 1994.

Ironically, the supposedly humanitarian intervention created the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world had ever known. Thousands of refugees were dying daily from cholera and other water-borne diseases.

This humanitarian catastrophe attracted further international intervention, with the United States as the lead nation under Operation Support Hope.

Many international observers saw Operation Support Hope as a face-saving attempt by the US government to recoup its international leadership after failing to intervene during the Rwandan genocide.

This US humanitarian intervention, however, would serve to confuse the effects with the cause, i.e., the victims of the genocide with the perpetrators and their hostages, so that when Tipper Gore, the wife of the then US Vice President Al Gore, visited the Goma refugee camps, she would erroneously remark, “I have seen genocide in its face,” not comprehending that among the refugees were the perpetrators of the genocide.

Current Regional Manifestation of Denial

In a bid to recapture power, the exiled genocidaire regime reorganised in camps to launch armed attacks into Rwanda under the watch of Zaire’s Mobutu regime, in tacit sympathy of other regional leaders. This created the first concrete manifestation of denial that continues to this day.
The genocidaires, who would come to call themselves Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), transformed humanitarian assistance to the Rwandan refugees in the Congo into military hardware and embarked on what came to be known as Opération Insecticide. Opération Insecticide entailed genocidal incursions in Northwest and Southwest of Rwanda between 1995 and 1996.

Note the term “insecticide”, which symbolised their continued extermination of the Inyenzi (Tutsi coachroaches). Opération Insecticide internationalised the Rwandan conflict in the region, and would form the basis for the forced return of the Rwandan refugees in late 1996 with the RPF pre-emptive attacks on the armed genocidaires in the refugee camps, that would be followed by the overthrow of their ally, President Mobutu, in May 1997.

Other FDLR operations from the DRC in succeeding years included Opérations Alléluia, Amen and Odyssey 1997, 1999 and 2000, respectively.

In May and December 2001, Opération Oracle du Seigneur got underway in Rwanda, resulting in the capture of the FDLR faction commander and his Chief of Intelligence. This capture, which included 1,762 insurgents, effectively marked the end of insurgency inside Rwanda.

However, in 2003 Opérations Trompête and Tabara would take place from South Kivu, seeing the return to Rwanda of the top FDLR commanders in their denunciation of the insurgencies. Beginning 2004 to date, Opération la Fronde (sling) has been going on and is doomed to fail with the return of other top commanders.

Note the Christian insinuation of the genocidal attacks with the names given to the insurgency operations, i.e., Alleluia, Amen, Oracle du Seigneur (Oracle of the Lord), Trompête (suggesting Joshua’s trumpet as he entered Jericho in the Old Testament), and la Fronde (evoking David’s defeat of Goliath with the deadly sling).

These insinuations suggest Christian blessings, attempting to give credence to the continued genocide ideology to their increasingly dwindling followers.

Many of the rebels continue their return to Rwanda where they are recanting their insurgent ways and gainfully getting rehabilitated back into society.

However, many of the Rwandan rebels remain in DRC where they are currently being pursued by an alliance of Rwanda and Congolese forces, as in the recent Umoja Wetu campaign.

While Rwanda and DRC relations have been much better with the exchange of Ambassadors, the success of the alliance is nevertheless subject to taking on board the security concerns of Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP, notwithstanding Nkunda currently being in Rwanda’s custody.


In as much as the Rwanda-France row may persist, it only amounts to a diplomatic spat predicated on the French denial and ongoing Paris litigations on who was responsible for Habyarimana’s demise.

The Sunday Times article is nonetheless more indicting observing that, “A final solution was organised by the French-backed Hutu leadership, with Habyarimana’s plane crash the stage-managed trigger.”

However, the fact that the Interahamwe genocidaires can find sanctuary in the region underlies a challenge which has significant implications on regional security.

It however may be noted that the international community may be appreciating the seriousness of the regional insecurity with the recent arrest of two FDLR leaders in Germany. It therefore may seem there is light at the end of the channel.

On the other hand, while the rebels and individuals such as Rwabagabo may still remain unrepentant, efforts continue apace to bring the people together in Rwanda.

The establishment of the Gacaca justice system was in the mould of the African proverb that says, “when you want to solve disputes, you do not take a knife to cut, but a needle to sew.” Thus the reconciliation demonstrated between Helen and Mupagasi.

About the Author
Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara is Rwandan Defence Attaché,
UK Embassy

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