I am sure that last Monday (1st November) passed with 90% of Rwandans not giving a thought to it. However, if Rwandans care about 7th April, they should know that the grief of that date finds root in the events of 1st November 1959, even if partly.
As 7th April 1994 saw the eruption of a genocide that had been meticulously prepared and tried out for a long time, so did 1st November 1959 see the first “practice-genocide” that was the first test of the possibility of its final execution.
1st November 1959 marked the day when massive pogroms against Batutsi were commenced in Rwanda, starting with the northern regions. Thousands were executed by fellow peasants who came from distant regions, as opposed to 1994 when neighbour set upon neighbour, father upon wife and children or wife upon husband and children.
But, as in 1994, the crazed peasants used the same traditional implements.
Among the victims, those who were not slaughtered were evicted from their mostly grass-thatched huts, which were subsequently torched. Property was looted and animals, mostly cattle, butchered in an orgy of meat-munching but also as an act that was calculated to remove the symbol that marked Tutsi identity.
Survivors of the pogroms scampered across borders for the safety of exile, while others were herded into transit camps from where they were sent to the then Siberia of Rwanda, the region of Bugesera.
As said above, the 1994 Genocide does not find root solely in these events but also in others before and after. The events before involved campaigns, some covert and others overt, carried out by colonial administrators and their White collaborators in the Catholic Church clergy.
In administration, the campaign was led by Jean Paul Haroy, who was the Vice-Governor General of Congo Belge (today’s D.R. Congo) and Ruanda-Urundi (the two countries of Rwanda and Burundi, then colonised as one country), with a seat in Kigali. The campaign centred on portraying Batutsi as Communists to the West, even if it was a contradiction in monarchical Rwanda.
Inside Rwanda, Batutsi were portrayed as the true colonialists and Bahutu as their colonised underlings, again contradicting the fact that before colonialism, both had lived harmoniously side by side as Rwandans, societal conflicts as in other peoples of Africa notwithstanding.
In the Catholic Church, Monsignor André Peraudin led the onslaught on Batutsi that was so vicious that even Colonel Logiest, colonial head of Rwandan security, was startled into stating, in his memoires entitled ‘Mission au Rwanda’: “Un évêque Peraudin qui a épousé la cause Hutue.”
(A Bishop Peraudin who is married to the Hutu cause)
At a time when Communism was taboo to the West, branding Batutsi Communists was signing their diplomatic death warrant. From that time, the West didn’t want anything to do with them. Internally, the fault lines had been drawn and inculcated into Rwandans and what remained was a “trigger”, to spark off the “practice-genocide”.
First, the meaning of this “practice-genocide”. I’ve seen someone use the expression to describe the periodic pogroms of the years between 1959 and 1993, but personally I’d call them all genocide. After all, in all the instances the intention was to eradicate what was perceived to be an ethnic group. What is genocide if it is not the intention?
But, as can be seen in my scanty delivery, my knowledge of the history and sociology of Rwanda is limited and I therefore cannot claim the authority to challenge that. Mine is only to recount what I remember as I saw it.
Coming back to the “trigger” of 1959, it was provided by Monsignor Peraudin. When activists who were agitating for immediate independence were involved in a scuffle with those who wanted a gradual transition, headed by Dominique Mbonyumutwa, Peraudin spread the false rumour that “Tutsi aristocrats” had killed him “because he was Hutu”. He lived for long after.
That touched off a spate of deaths and destruction whose culmination, in the end, was the 1994 Genocide. Those who survived the early pogroms but remained in Rwanda were the final victims. This time, however, they included all those who had been crammed in the concentration camps of Bugesera and later had miraculously continued to survive repeated attempts at their final extermination.
The catastrophe that colonialism and its legacy visited on this country is indistinguishably enormous but that visited on the internally displaced persons of Bugesera is beyond words.
From the transit camp of Ruhengeri, known as Katanga in reference to Rwandans who had been shipped to the copper mines of Belgian Congo by colonialists, there was no let-up to their suffering till most of them met their grisly end in 1994.
After being kept in camps without relief, they were herded to River Nyabarongo shore to await the ferry that would see them across. Many succumbed to hunger and exhaustion, as no kind of assistance was accorded them. In fact, many times the colonial master delayed to call for the hauling of the ferry, intentionally.
When they were finally offloaded into tsetse-infested Bugesera, without any access to food, shelter, medical care, et al, it was to certain death. Yet, except for repeated “practice-genocides” and Bagosora’s “final apocalypse” of 1994, the survivors of this hell-hole had even managed to prosper.
For them and for all Rwandans, victims of the colonial annihilation enterprise of Kanyarwanda, 1st November deserves a place in the macabre history of this land.