Mass apology and the Genocide: The ghosts that just won’t rest

A suggestion at a July youth meeting attended by President Paul Kagame that Rwandans in whose name genocide was committed in 1994 should apologise on behalf of the perpetrators, has provoked a raging debate on the extent of mass culpability and the propriety of imposing collective guilt.

A suggestion at a July youth meeting attended by President Paul Kagame that Rwandans in whose name genocide was committed in 1994 should apologise on behalf of the perpetrators, has provoked a raging debate on the extent of mass culpability and the propriety of imposing collective guilt.

Some young people at the Youth Connect dialogue had mooted the idea, which Kagame enthusiastically supported.

The extreme sensitivity of the proposal and the ensuing debate are easy to understand. Much as Kagame’s Rwanda has forcefully moved to disband its old ethnic categories, it is an open secret that the Hutu are made to feel the burden of the guilt.

It is they who targeted the Tutsis, and inasmuch as there were many heroic cases where individual Hutu shielded and protected their fellow Tutsi, the broad brush of the grisly killings was driven by Interahamwe-led Hutu hordes determined to exterminate all “coackroaches” (Tutsi) from the face of Rwanda.

The argument that “Hutus also suffered” is certainly correct, but it doesn’t ameliorate Hutu culpability - precisely because Hutus killed other Hutus because these were seen to be politically sympathetic to the Tutsis.

So, is it right, is it moral, to exact collective guilt on a whole people? In his classic book on the Rwandan genocide – We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We will Be Killed With Our Families – American journalist Philip Gourevitch implies a collective reckoning is in order because genocide is essentially a communal crime.

“It is, of all things, an exercise in community building,” he writes, chillingly. “While genocide may be the most perverse and ambitious means to this end, it is also the most comprehensive.”

It begins, he goes on, “with a plan whose execution is cleverly designed to look planless.” The trigger could be a rigged election or, in Rwanda’s case, the shooting down of a presidential plane.

What was Gourevitch saying? In analysing genocide, it is critical to keep in mind that masses of the population are enjoined in the macabre exercise against the target enemy. The Rwandan genocide, unlike many others, was not committed only by a military or select team of deranged killers. Countless ordinary people were co-opted to carry out the killings.

As such, others believe the cleansing should be generational. When Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany knelt before the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, the act became a powerful symbol of reconciliation between Germans and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Guerrilla war

Brandt’s generation had not committed the genocide itself, but his act of penitence was undertaken for all Germans, past and present.

Interestingly, the suggestions from Rwandan officials regarding mass apologies have been opposed by “Ibuka”, the powerful lobby group representing genocide survivors. It fear, it seems, is that pushing reluctant Hutus to this direction may harm the larger cause of reconciliation in Rwanda.

Prof Jean-Pierre Dusingizemungu, the president of Ibuka, argues that the burden of criminal responsibility cannot be transferred. In law, that is perfectly true. However, the demons from the genocide that Rwanda is still battling were political. During a recent RPF conference, many serving government officials stood up and apologised to Rwandans on behalf of, presumably, fellow Hutus.

“What happened in Rwanda is not something ordinary. I did not commit genocide but when I go to the West...I apologise on behalf of Rwandans,” President Kagame stated.

Dr Deogene Bideri, a lawyer and researcher on genocide, said asking Hutus to seek forgiveness on behalf of their relatives was not strange. He said that would help to achieve true reconciliation among Rwandans.

“Our culture is unique, and when people commit mistakes in your name, have a duty to apologise on behalf of your people,” Dr Bideri said. Then there is the rump of the Interahamwe that fled to eastern Congo, and officially calls itself the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The presence of the rebel militias prompted Rwanda to invade its huge neighbour in 1996, to drive home the refugees. Large numbers of former Interahamwe, their families and other refugees fled deeper into the rainforest, vowing to keep up a guerrilla war.

That led to a second Rwandan invasion in 1998, triggering a wider war which sucked in several neighbouring countries and has since cost an estimated 3 million lives.

In April, one of the rebel group’s leaders, Ignace Murwanashyaka, declared an end to their struggle, marking a turning point for both Rwanda and the war-ravaged eastern Congo.

“The FDLR condemn the genocide committed against Rwanda, and their authors,” he said. “It is committed to fight against all ideologies of ethnic hate and renews its commitment to cooperate with international justice.

Peaceful return

“From this moment forward [the FDLR] announces that it is halting all offensive operations against Rwanda.”

He spoke at a press conference in Rome after talks with the Sant’Egidio religious community, a Roman Catholic group that brokered a peace deal in Mozambique in 1992. A statement by the FDLR, which has an estimated 30,000 followers in the Congo, said it recognised the “catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Great Lakes” and was aware of the “incredible suffering of men, women and children in the region”.

In its statement, the FDLR said it would accept disarmament and the peaceful return of its forces to Rwanda. It called for an international inquiry into “terrorism and other crimes committed in the Great Lakes region”.

The big question is whether this softening is shared by the hardcore element of the FDLR, or whether it is the changing dynamics in eastern Congo that is forcing the decision.

A UN intervention brigade has been positioned in Goma, ready to attack militias that fail to disarm. DR Congo is also tired of the FDLR, seeing in it an ever-ready excuse which Rwanda exploits to intervene and destablise eastern DRC through groups like M23.

“I think they have realised they have nowhere to go,” a military analyst, Henri Boshoff, told Reuters news agency. “They have seen the progress in Congo, the possibility of elections and the initial steps of the integration of the army.

“A lot of these people had nothing to do with the genocide and just want to go home. We will have to see how the hardcore leaders on the ground react

This article was first published by Africa Review (

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