Rwanda’s closure from a brutal past - A phoenix rises from the ashes

“I realized after the Genocide that there was more that I could and should have done, to sound alarm and rally support. The international community is guilty of sins of omission,” Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan commenting on the international community’s silence during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

“I realized after the Genocide that there was more that I could and should have done, to sound alarm and rally support. The international community is guilty of sins of omission,” Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan commenting on the international community’s silence during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Legend has it that a phoenix, after being burnt to ashes, would always rise again from the same ashes to its original form and fly. This is the story of Rwanda – a phoenix that has risen from the ashes.

Adam Hochschild’s internationally acclaimed book; ‘King Leopolds Ghost’, came to life during my recent visit to Kigali’s Rwanda Memorial Centre - a cemetery and a place of remembrance of those killed in the 1994 Genocide.

Hochschild, gives a vivid narration of events in Africa’s dark colonial past - especially the brutality of resource exploitation in the Belgian-Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo).

I could not help but mentally reopen chapters of his book, in which he so brilliantly narrates atrocities in the then Belgian Congo under King Leopold 11 – a genocide which claimed 8 million Congolese lives.

The description of the nature of the killings is exactly what I witnessed in the Memorial Centre - butchered bodies, hands cut off, cut out tongues – all sorts of ghastly inhuman, totally diabolic ways or means of inflicting pain on another human.

It is this genocide ideology, rooted in our colonial history, whose success was not only based on the use of force but also on ‘tribal’ classifications and differentiations based on origins and time of arrival into territories.

This was Rwanda’s case, a former Belgian colony that ended up with three distinct ‘tribes’: the Tutsi, Hutu and the Twa.

The colonial administrators then carried out their business based on those classifications, determining superior tribes to inferior ones, playing the Hutu and Tutsi against each other, leading to the first Genocide against the Tutsi in 1954 – in which over 20, 000 perished.

Entrenching the genocide ideology in the country’s political veins, to be  propagated through the years in the church (in particular the Catholic Church, Reverend Athanase Seromba was the first Catholic Priest to be charged with the 1994 Genocide by the ICTR), media (several journalists are also on trial), the State and foreign powers, in this case the French Government. 

Rwanda’s story exposes Africa’s intricate post-colonial history, rooted in a colonial construction that was never meant to give her people freedom and peace.

While the narrative of the horrific events in Rwanda has tended to be based on Eurocentric views and attitudes towards Africans – of ingrained rivalries (ethnic hatred) amongst African ‘tribes’, in this case the Hutu versus the Tutsi, it is important to interrogate how such designs suited the colonial project even in post-colonial Africa.

The shooting down of a plane carrying the French-backed leader of Government, Juvénal Habyarimana in April 1994, started a chain of events that will always be a black spot in Africa’s history.

It is reported that within a 100 days, at a rate of 10, 000 people per day – over a million people were massacred.  Fourteen years on, more bodies are still being discovered, the most recent being those found in the eastern region - Ruhunda area.

The first part was to dehumanise them by calling them ‘Inyenzi’, Kinyarwanda word for cockroach; then the flames of ethnic hatred were set alight.

If you are killing cockroaches you do not need to feel; they are no longer human, but mere pests that can be easily wiped out.

They were ‘smoked’ out of their homes, churches, every corner or hole that seemed to be hiding an ethnic Tutsi or moderate Hutu was cleansed.

These are the gory images on display at the Memorial Centre, systematic, well coordinated mass killings in the church, schools, on the streets. Painful images of toddlers lying dead on the streets.

The international community is silent until the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), takes its destiny into its own hands and launches an attack mainly from Uganda against the Hutu militants, quelling them - ending the slaughter. The world hung its head in shame vowing, ‘Never Again’ – a little too late.

Paul Kagame, who is lauded for his policy of ethnic reconciliation, was elected President in 2003. He refuses tribal or national identities for persons of African descent, relaxing citizenship laws.

France has not accepted Kagame, seeking instead to have him and nine other officials prosecuted on allegations of downing Habyarimana’s plane.

The African Union at its summit backed Kagame’s arguments on the potential flaws of the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, in which a state extends its laws into another country on alleged crimes against its nationals.

Relations remain sour between Rwanda and France, and to this end there is no French embassy in Rwanda, France having backed the late Habyarimana’s government with military and financial support. Even more insidious is the alleged logistical support France provided for the Genocide perpetrators.

In the book “Shake Hands with the Devil,” General Romeo Dallaire, (a Canadian who led the UN Peace-Keeping Mission during the Genocide), narrates his experience, with the notorious French Humanitarian Army Aid or ‘Operation Turquoise’.

“They weren’t there as neutrals to help victims of the genocide, they were there to help perpetrators of the genocide.,,,, Often the French camps where the Tutsis were taken turned out into slaughter camps where the French abandoned them to the genocidal Hutus.”

Furthermore, France has refused to hand over Genocide suspects in her territory, and there is some tension over the extradition of the two - Isaac Kamali and Marcel Bivugabagabo - to Rwanda to face justice.

In 2007, Rwanda recorded a 7 percent economic growth, the mainstay of her economy being agriculture specializing in tea and coffee. Tourism is booming, with visitors from all over the world.

Over the weekend the Rwanda Revenue Authority, (RAA), celebrated its 10th anniversary, reporting that this year the domestic revenue component of the Budget overtook the external grants component.

Tax revenues  increased from Frw74 billion in 2000 to Frw111 billion in 2003 to an estimated Frw275 billion in 2008.

Legal means established to deal with the perpetrators of the violence in Rwanda, part of the healing process have been set up.

The traditional ‘Gacaca’ courts, give reconstructive justice, through local traditional systems, that also foster a spirit of  reconciliation. Then there is the Arusha-based International Criminal Court (ICC), which has tried scores of Genocide perpetrators.

It is an intricate story in which Rwanda remains haunted by the ghost of her colonial past. It was while driving back to the office that a sudden realization hit me.

All along I had pondered the neat, well tarred roads not seen in African capitals, especially those that have suffered this kind of turmoil in recent years.

It dawned upon me that working on her roads was part of her closure from that sordid past. In the planting of palm trees on the highways; the neat, well manicured grass, Rwanda is moving on.

It is part of the closure as she starts to rebuild the tattered economy, instill hope in a traumatised people, become a competitive member of the African Community and a leading global player. The phoenix has indeed risen from the ashes.

The author is a journalist

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