“A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met”, so the old saying goes, that might be wishful thinking of an extreme optimist, yet, it is frequently vindicated.
Until last week, St Marylebone Parish Church in the heart of London was just one of the many historical churches in London one passes by daily. For the UK Rwandan Diaspora community, however, the church is now a firm friend.
It is within its mixture of neo-classicism and Pre-Raphaelitism interior that Rwandans were warmly welcomed for the service to mark the 22nd commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against Batutsi, or Kwibuka22.
This was Thursday last week, on April 7.
The church’s beautiful choir, under the leadership of Director of Music Gavin Roberts and his assistant Thomas Allery, transported the congregation with solemn anthems by, among others, Gabriel Faure and Herbert Howells.
In the collective act of commemoration, each individual contemplated their own loss; individual relatives, friends, acquaintances, a seemingly endless list of names, now living only through the memories of those who will not forget, who must not forget.
A promise of remembrance renewed each year. Here, and there, people in their own thoughts were moved to silent tears, to be comforted quietly and affectionately by those next to them.
Little Daniela Musabi, twelve years old, read a poem in memory of loved ones the memory of whom she could never have, taken before she came into being. “Of all the things they killed...” she begun, enumerating those she will never know.
April being the month of Easter, in her sermon, the Rector of St Marylebone, The Rev Canon Stephen Evans linked Rwanda’s emergence from darkness to the light and hope of the risen Christ. He ended it with the words ‘remember, unite, renew’ in heavily accented Kinyarwanda which earned him deserved applause.
President Paul Kagame could easily have been describing the service when he tweeted, “what happened 22 years ago is never easy to comprehend but today Rwandans and other people of goodwill remember and honour the lives lost.”
But, in a world that knows genocide, there is genocide’s inevitable echo, genocide denial. As the years since the Genocide increase, so do the efforts of Genocide deniers.
This year more than any of the preceding years, the theme running through all commemorative events, will be combating Genocide denial.
In an emotional testimony, Caritas Umulisa talked of the cruelty of Genocide deniers. Narrating her narrow escape from the killers, at one instance saved by the dead as it were, by lying among them, and playing dead until the marauding killers had passed by, she spoke of a brother who was not so lucky, and the manner of whose death remains a painful mystery. “And they still say there was no genocide, how cruel”.
“And this is the first time in 22 years I have said this”, she added, “I would like to offer a personal thank you to the RPF Inkotanyi. The day you arrived to save us might have been my last. Thank you for your sacrifice.”
In her remarks, journalist Linda Malvern, who has researched and written extensively about the Genocide ,drew on her own research to remind the world that “the racist ideology which underpinned the genocide of Batutsi, and which encouraged the killers, never went away”
“A wider, well established and dangerous campaign to promote this hate-filled ideology exists to this day. Its adherents deny the genocide of Batutsi took place.” She warned that the denial of genocide was not restricted to the perpetrators.
“If anyone believed the denial of 1994 Genocide of Batutsi was a marginal interest among a few ideologues, the evidence shows far wider support. People are colluding in efforts to deny the reality of what happened.”
“The promotion of denial of genocide of Batutsi comes from former defence lawyers at the International Tribunal Court for Rwanda (ICTR), from journalists and authors and academics in senior positions in European and US Universities.”
With such impressive opinion formers putting the wind in the sails of Genocide perpetrators through Genocide denial, Malvern observed that their efforts have gained the most unlikely allies.
“In the 2014, the twentieth commemoration...the US Holocaust Museum posted an essay as part of a major 20th commemoration project on 9th January 2014, and it cast doubt on whether or not the Genocide of Batutsi was planned.”
“Recently the museum endorsed research seeking to minimise the effect of genocidal propaganda campaign, research which tries to diminish the influence of the hate-filled incitement.”
“On 1st October 2014, the BBC broadcast “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” a documentary which throughout sought to denigrate what it called the ‘official story’ of the genocide of Batutsi.”
“It gave legitimacy to ludicrous claims which drastically reduced the death toll. It created confusion about events and distorted the nature of the crime of genocide, and it minimised the role of the Interahamwe militia.” And it is not just organisations which support genocide denial directly or indirectly. She recalled the role of France.
“Any history of the genocide against Batutsi must hold to account certain French politicians and military officers, who at the highest levels, played a determining role in events, supplying weapons, training the militia and giving legitimacy to the genocidal interim government.”
“In France the genocide fugitive group is unique in size, unique for the seniority of its members and unique because of a lack of trials or extradition. It has been left to civil society groups to track down fugitives and build cases against them.”
The theme of Genocide denial was emphasized in the address, of the newly appointed Rwanda High Commissioner to Britain Yamina Karitanyi.
“A systematic count by the Government of Rwanda, in collaboration with Genocide survivor organisations has established that 1,074,017 were murdered, of whom 934,218 have been identified by name.”
“Today, unfortunately, we are not just remembering the lives lost but we are fighting another terrible threat, that of Genocide denial.”
“Some have attempted to reduce the genocide against Batutsi to an undefined act of mass killing and tied it to other conflicts so as to confuse minds.”
These last comments may have been in reference to some groups of Diaspora Rwandans in the UK, London in particular. These groups have gone as far as holding events purporting to represent all Rwandans, during which they do indeed seek to obfuscate the uniqueness of the Genocide against Batutsi by aligning it with other conflicts in the Great Lakes region.
Their objective is to target the local population who know little about Rwanda and its recent history, and to fill their audience’s minds with their deliberately distorted version of events. They perpetuate the image of a Rwanda which is still in conflict, and in their words, where “reconciliation is a distant dream.”
Absurd as these groups may be, it is as well to note that they sense an opportunity to ride on the current wave of Genocide denial which is apparently supported by many in the mainstream.
It is against this tide that the call to Remember-Unite-Renew must be taken up by Rwandans and, in the words of President Kagame, other people of goodwill.
It is a call heeded by most in the UK Rwanda Diaspora. What was begun at St Marylebone Parish Church in London will continue on 23rd of this month, as members of the Rwandan Diaspora who could not get to London, hold another commemorative event in the midlands, where the message to fight Genocide denial will be reiterated.
The writer is a London-based broadcast journalist and programme maker.