The shaft of light from a somber stained glass window at the heart of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is said to symbolise hope. Designed by Ardyn Halter, the son of Auschwitz survivor Roman Halter, it depicts the descent to genocide and is set atop a series of steps indicating the points where warnings could have been heeded, where turning back was still an option. But the world watched mutely as the final barrier was breached, and Rwanda descended into hell.
What I had always assumed to be the conflagration of existing tribal rivalries turned out to be a misconception. The Rwandan account claims no distinction between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes in physical appearance, language or cultural beliefs. Status, it appears, was always based on wealth rather than ethnicity.
The message then is that genocide wasn’t inevitable. Colonial compulsions and manipulative politics played on class divides and led Rwanda down the path to devastation. The details are too many to fit into one short post. But briefly: the stage was set as early as 1933, when Belgium fanned divisions in its African colony by issuing distinguishing identity cards.
Two decades later, the Tutsi king’s attempts to usher in democracy and independence was countered by orchestrating a Hutu rebellion. Tutsi fled the ensuing purges in droves. The ‘divide and rule’ propaganda was further manipulated post independence in 1962, including the use of discriminatory quotas.
Chafing at harsh refugee laws and opposition to naturalisation, Tutsi exiles in Uganda set up the Rwandese Patriotic Front to facilitate a return to their homeland. In 1990 the military wing of the organisation invaded Rwanda. The incumbent government requested and was granted help from France to put down the rebellion. A peace accord favouring the RPF was signed in 1993 that upset Hutu hardliners in the government, who then whipped up hate by encouraging vitriolic racist broadcasts on the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines.
The mysterious shooting down of president Grégoire Habyarimana’s plane on April 6 1994 was the final catalyst for an all out massacre. A coded fax by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire – Canadian commander of the UNAMIR – warning of the presence of arms caches and impending plans for ethnic cleansing, was ignored by the UN.
The Interahamwe, a Hutu extremist group instantly seized power and nearly a million Rwandans – Tutsi and moderate Hutu – were systematically exterminated in the course of just one hundred days between April 7 and mid July.
Neighbours turned on neighbours. Women were brutalised and deliberately infected with HIV. Catholic priests abetted the merciless slaughter of thousands of parishioners cowering in churches*. Members of the UN Security Council meanwhile collectively excluded the ‘G’ word from every resolution on Rwanda.
Two days after the start of the massacres, the RPF army initiated a fresh offensive that culminated in the capture of Kigali, and put an end to the genocide under the leadership of Paul Kagame: a Tutsi refugee from Uganda, who went on to become vice president and president. And poster boy for progress.
Kagame scripted Rwanda’s extraordinary climb out of the dark and devastating chasm of mass murder, and transformed the economy of this tiny landlocked state with few resources. Rwandans today boast a national identity unencumbered by ethnic tags. Reconciliation processes, they claim, have seen perpetrators and victims move forward with grace and dignity. A practice called Imihigo, encourages accountability and community participation in governance.
Most impressive of all is Rwanda’s position at 49 on the Corruption Perception Index 2013 (up from 53 in 2012!)…..well ahead of many European nations, and miles ahead of democratic India. Also, an ambitious plan aims to raise Rwanda to international middle income range by 2020! A textbook example of the power of leadership with vision, albeit an authoritarian one that has increasingly come under pressure for its questionable democratic credentials.
It is hard to believe you are in sub-Saharan Africa when you disembark at Kigali. The airport and immigration experience is pleasant, the roads smooth and well marked, tourist infrastructure friendly and welcoming. The capital is spotless, thanks to the ban on plastic, and a compulsory community enhancing program called Umuganda, in which the president and his council of ministers lead by example in cleaning the streets every last Saturday of the month.
“If one billion of us adopt Umuganda, we could clean the entire world!” quipped an astounded R.
Just past the memorial section with soul searing descriptions of the genocide, is another stained glass window by the same artist that depicts steps leading up from the carnage and into the future. While Rwanda’s future appears bright beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, tensions persist.
Security is tight. Scanning of bags and frisking at hotels and malls is mandatory and meticulous. While our guide brushed it off as a precautionary measure post the bombings in Kenya, it is evident that fear of insurgency from exiled genocidaires across the border, and a slide back into chaos is very real. Forced reconciliations and the sidelining of Hutu loss in the genocide, many feel, might also exacerbate simmering tensions.
But optimism and pride is equally palpable. Dorcy Rugumba, acclaimed theatre director, who lost many members of his family on day one of the genocide, voices his people’s optimism in this Guardian interview:
“You just have to trust that the killers will not raise their children in hate, and that those children will succeed in inventing their own future, and not follow in their fathers’ ways. Because people are not predestined to be bad, you know. You have to believe that or you’d be lost.”
Writing this, my second genocide post, I am not so sure I do.