Jettisoning Hutu, Tutsi labels easing antagonism in Rwanda

I am writing in response to Paul Rusesabagina’s Oct. 19 commentary, “Political, economic cruelty still rampant in Rwanda.”

I am writing in response to Paul Rusesabagina’s Oct. 19 commentary, “Political, economic cruelty still rampant in Rwanda.”

Rusesabagina is a Rwandan refugee who has lived in Belgium since his courageous acts in Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide. (Those acts were celebrated in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”) His view on Rwanda is totally negative and very different from those who have recently visited and worked in Rwanda. I have taught in Rwanda for six weeks each of the past two years. I have three objections to Rusesabagina’s opinions:

Hutu, Tutsi labels harmful

Rusesabagina makes many statements with the Hutu-Tutsi labels that have caused Rwanda so much suffering. These labels are artificial, as the two groups have been intermarrying for more than 500 years and perhaps as long as a millennium. Ethnographers no longer recognize Hutu and Tutsi as distinct ethnic groups.

Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, practice the same religions and share the same culture.

The divisions exist today primarily because the Belgium colonialists identified each Rwandan on an identification card as Hutu or Tutsi. While the Belgium authorities tried to judge by skin color, height and the width of the nose and lips, they usually based their decision on wealth — the more wealthy being labeled Tutsi.

The current Rwandan government has worked hard to eliminate these class labels. In Rwanda, I frequently heard, “There are no Hutu or Tutsi; we are all Rwandans.”
I think that the government is wise to reject these labels. Only when they are gone will the underlying cause of the Genocide be eliminated.

I fear Rusesabagina’s repeated references to Hutu and Tutsi will have the effect of continuing and intensifying the hatreds that caused the 1994 Genocide.

Praise misdirected

Rusesabagina compares current Rwandan President Paul Kagame unfavorably with former president Juvenal Habyarimana, stating that the latter lived “a simple life with a closer to reality annual salary.”

I am shocked that the man whose administration fomented a Genocide that killed people at a faster rate than any other should receive such applause without mention of the horror he helped create.

Habyarimana took over leadership of Rwanda with a coup in 1973 and ruled as a dictator for 20 years until his death. He was elected three times, running under the only party label allowed in the country.

He was omnipotent and extraordinarily wealthy. He armed extremist militias, such as the Interahamwe, that did most of the killing during the genocide, and supported people like Hassan Ngeze, who, through the newspaper Kangura, spread hatred for Tutsis.

Current President Kagame led the forces that ended the genocide and was democratically elected to office in 2003. He is now attempting to raise the quality of life of everyone in one of the most densely populated countries of the world by emphasizing education and technology.

Courts bring healing

In his commentary, Rusesabagina criticizes the Gacaca courts. These courts are based upon the traditional cultural communal law enforcement used in the past in Rwanda. They use the mediation and reconciliation model applied so effectively in South Africa after apartheid.

These courts were instituted to deal with the extraordinary number of cases resulting from perhaps as many as a million citizens being implicated in the genocide killings.

From what I observed and learned from many who have come to Rwanda to see the courts in action, they are working well. Are they perfect? No. But, there are many, many stories of people forgiving neighbours who admitted killing their family members. And there are also stories of those involved in killings telling of their relief at being able to reveal what they were a part of. These courts have helped to bring much healing to Rwanda.

While in Rwanda, I was greatly impressed by how the people of Rwanda seem focused on reconciliation and moving forward to a better life. I wish that the Rwandan refugees would join in this for the good of their mother country. I was so inspired by my first experience in Rwanda that I returned this year with laboratory equipment for schools and sponsorships for secondary students needing support. I hope to return again.

The US and the United Nations ignored Rwanda in 1994. I believe that we owe Rwandans help as they now continue to rebuild. The new US Embassy being built there is one expression of our country’s belief in the stability and progress of Rwanda. Let’s all give them our support.

Albert Schlueter, of Yellow Springs, is retired from Central State University, where he taught chemistry. He was in Rwanda during March and April, and in the spring of 2006.


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