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Rwanda - 30 years on

It was an event that sent shockwaves around Africa, and around the world. And now, 30 years on, we need to look back to learn how it all began.

Rwanda - 30 years on
Warning: some readers may find some elements of the article upsetting

100 days. 6 people a minute.

That’s the death rate. Yes, you read that right.

6 people were murdered, every minute, for 100 days.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine the scale of the slaughter. It’s hard to imagine how this happens, in relatively modern times. It’s also hard to imagine how the world can sit back, day after day, for week after week, witnessing shocking brutality happening in the open, and do nothing.

So now, 30 years on, we can look back at the path that led Rwanda to this terrible event and the path the country has since taken out of the darkness.

For those of you who may not know much about the events of 1994, it may just seem like this violence sprung up out of nowhere. In many ways, it fits the bubbling sub-narrative we have of Africa, that of a place where sudden bursts of shocking violence can occur at any time. Never mind that Africa is the second largest continent on earth, with 54 different countries within its borders. The same borders were drawn by hands who had never touched the continent, and without any care for existing tribal groups or histories. There is a perception that Africa, and all the countries found within, are all close to anarchy at a moment’s notice. To paraphrase the saying, the view is that when things go wrong in Africa it is Africa’s failings, but when things go well it is merely luck.

Despite the dangers of painting all countries here with the same brush, there is a reason some countries have had issues with stability. The simple reason is that many of these modern countries are only 40 to 60 years old, and have all been hamstrung with foreign interests plundering all attempts to stand on their own feet. Emerging from a war for independence and colonialism is hard, and it is even harder to do without someone picking your pocket as you stand up.

Starting with the beginning, you can trace the genocide in Rwanda to a colonial policy put in place in the 1800’s. Prior to colonialism, Rwandese people largely consisted of three loosely defined tribal groups: The Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa. In the most casual terms, the Hutu largely farmed land, the Tutsi largely farmed cattle and the Twa were a race of pygmy hunter-gatherers. Even these groups were pretty vaguely defined. For example, if a Tutsi lost their cattle they could be considered a Hutu, and so on. However, as many early colonial leaders found around the world, the best way to control a population that outnumbers you is to divide and conquer.

The German colonial leadership and the Catholic church believed the Tutsi to be racially superior to the other two tribal groups. Why? Because they were taller and converted to Christianity at a faster rate than the Hutu. So, in return, they began to favour the Tutsi with better lifestyles, opportunities and conditions. At the same time, they began to further exclude the Hutu, creating a sub-class of citizens. It was also around this time that the so-called ‘Hamitic hypothesis’ came to popularity in Europe, which believed that the Tutsi and other groups like the Bedouin were actually distant descendants of the ancient Jewish people. Whilst still not considered equal to white people, they were ranked racially above the merely ‘African’. When the Belgians ‘temporarily’ took over the colony during World War 1, they cemented this divide with official ID cards identifying each group as separate classes. They also encouraged the tensions between the Tutsi and the Hutu, with the Tutsi now many generations later beginning to believe the myth about their superiority.

Sporadic violence broke out for decades between the majority underclass of the Hutu and the Tutsi elite. In 1959, with Belgium still plundering a colony it said it would give up in the 1920’s, a Hutu uprising resulted in mass deaths and over 150,000 Tutsi fleeing Rwanda. The Belgian colonial powers, rather than fix this broken system, simply divided the country into two countries. Now there existed the Hutu Rwanda and the Tutsi Burundi. This lasted for two more years until the independence of the neighbouring Belgian Congo encouraged a large independence movement in this area. The Hutu took democratic control of the country and, paying homage to a century of division, immediately expelled all Tutsi from positions of power. Belgium gave up their claims to all the colonies, although continued to work behind the scenes on the ground through the powerful Catholic church in the region.

Sporadic violence continued to break out occasionally. When the government was overthrown in 1973, the new leader General Juvenal Habyarimana originally tried to allow Tutsi to hold an equal place in society. As a result, many Tutsi returned to their home country to live and work. But, about a decade afterwards, due to a sudden outbreak of violence by Hutus who saw the Tutsi as ‘invading Rwanda’, he stopped this process. It was around this time that the pejorative ‘inyenzi’, or “cockroach’, started being used as a term for any Tutsi returning to Rwanda, and then eventually applying to all Tutsi. The groups became more and more polarised, with attacks and revenge attacks going in a never-ending cycle. It blurred the borders between Rwanda and Burundi and saw a steady stream of refugees moving between the neighbouring countries.

As still holds true today, if you are a media company and you want a committed readership, you give your viewers a problem and then tell them who to blame for it. State media in Rwanda began to follow this trend. They ran scare campaigns of how the Tutsi planned to take over, how they planned to murder Hutu in their sleep and how all Tutsi in Rwanda were essentially sleeper agents. They said that ’inyenzi’ spread disease and couldn’t assimilate into Rwanda. This rhetoric may sound familiar to any student of history. Local attacks became more and more common and ‘defence’ militia groups roamed the country, causing localised violence against Tutsi. In 1990 a rebel force known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) attacked Rwanda, with the stated intention being to allow Tutsi to return to Rwanda. After some fighting between the two groups, the Rwandan government and the RPF signed a peace agreement known as the Arusha Accords. These accords allowed the Tutsi in Rwanda to share power in a newly elected democratic government. In Rwanda, local Hutu militants were furious with General Habyarimana for this ‘concession’. The UN sent in a small force to keep the peace. The local commander, seeing where the situation on the ground was headed, asked for more troops. It was denied. He also asked for a change in the rule of engagement to allow them to intervene in case of a genocidal act.

It too, was denied.

Meanwhile, foreign governments were making big business out of the local conflict, none more so than the French. Why intervene to stop an ongoing and lucrative war when you are the ones selling the weapons?

In April of 1994, General Habyarimana flew to Tanzania for further regional peace talks with local leaders, including the Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira. Flying back to Rwanda, he offered to give Ntaryamira a lift on his jet. As they came into approach at Kigali airport, two surface-to-air missiles were launched and the plane was shot down, with no survivors.

Who launched the missiles has become a source of debate for decades. Official confirmation may never come. However, experts from around the world, in numerous inquests from numerous countries, largely agree that they were launched from an area inside the airport. This means it would have come from Rwandan armed forces, and more than likely, hardliners within the Presidential Guard itself. Habyarimana’s ‘capitulation to the enemy’ was seen as the final straw. When the UN forces arrived at the airport to investigate and secure any evidence, they were stopped from entering by the same Presidential Guard.

Ultimately, the truth didn’t matter.

The Hutu militia immediately claimed it was a planned Tutsi invasion. They began to round up and massacre any Tutsi they could see, using those same ID cards the Belgians introduced. They also began to kill any moderate Hutu they found, including the prime minister. This may seem like a violent reaction, but it was far more insidious than that. It was within an hour of the plane crash that roadblocks were set up across the country and the militia were out in force. These militia groups were well organised, equipped with new weapons and carried so-called ‘kill lists’, detailed lists of every Tutsi and their Hutu allies. The UN forces could see the violence unfold, as they and many others said it would. However, they were only there in a peacekeeping capacity and were not allowed to intervene as the murders began. They were later attacked in an ambush, and rather than change their mission parameters to allow intervention in case of genocide, they were instead pulled out of the country.

The Tutsi were now completely defenceless. This wasn’t the detached, clinical murder of the Holocaust or distant carpet bombing of more modern times. In Rwanda, men, women and children were rounded up and killed, largely with machetes and clubs. Brand new weapons, provided by the French government, were used to corral people in areas where they were killed on mass. Seeking safety, people fled to churches, which had historically been a place of refuge. But this time, with the blessing of some local Catholic priests, the churches were locked and set on fire or bulldozed. Brainwashed by decades of dehumanisation, neighbours killed neighbours. Women were attacked and if not killed, left permanently disfigured and infected with HIV as a form of continual punishment.

Meanwhile, for 100 days, over three months, the world did nothing. The UN voted against sending in assistance or changing their mission parameters, instead choosing a strongly worded letter. No other foreign power stepped in to help, despite the UN peacekeeping force stationed in neighbouring countries pleading for assistance. In a typical condescending reaction, the world media merely referred to it as an ‘African tribal conflict’ rather than as a one-sided act of well-organised genocide. The killing only stopped when in the end the RPF broke through the borders and took over the country. The Hutu militia fled into neighbouring countries, mostly the DRC.

The country the RPF had taken over was ruined. Almost a million people lay dead around the country. There were almost 95,000 orphans scattered about, with their entire families and family history destroyed. Also known as ‘the forgotten genocide’, over one-third of the entire Twa population had also been murdered for assisting the Tutsi.

The RPF had taken on anyone who wanted to fight in order to move quickly into Rwanda, and this open-door policy now caused issues. There were numerous revenge attacks on Hutu civilians, and an estimated 30,000 more died over the initial period of the takeover. But, within six months, the violence had mostly ended. With the country in ruins, the new leadership realised that they needed to start completely anew.

Since then, the recovery has been nothing but remarkable.

The focus was on rebuilding as one Rwanda, and one of the first acts was to make it illegal to divide citizens into ethnic groups. There were no more Hutu, or Tutsi, or Twa, verbally or otherwise. Now, everyone was Rwandese. Coming together with a common purpose, they slowly put together the pieces of their home.

The effects of this change are still seen today. The last Saturday of each month is known as ‘Umuganda’, which means ‘coming together for a common purpose’. It’s half a day for communities to come together and make their local area right. This means physically cleaning the entire community, and also dealing with any issues in the community before they turn into simmering tensions. It’s this reason Rwanda is largely recognised as the cleanest country in Africa, and visitors are often amazed. It is spotless, with no rubbish and no graffiti. Why make a mess when you are going to have to clean it up in a few weeks anyway? The other half of this reconciliation is forgiveness. Militia members in prison can ask forgiveness from those they have wronged and if granted, clemency is given. Often this results in the prisoner offering to assist the family of the harmed as a form of penance. The New York Times did an incredible photo series of these reconciliations about ten years ago.

Rwanda isn’t perfect. It has been accused of meddling in neighbouring DRC by supporting an anti-Hutu militia, a claim the government denies. There are also claims that the president, and former RPF leader, Paul Kagame is becoming more authoritarian as time progresses. All of these are fair concerns. But the country of today is a far cry from the country of 1994, and compared to other countries that have undergone upheaval, the change is remarkable. The Kosovo war and resulting massacres in 1998, occurring only four years later, have seen fault lines and tensions remaining in the region. Meanwhile, Rwanda has picked up the pieces and gotten on with it.

Tourism has since flocked to the country to witness its natural beauty and to visit the incredible mountain gorillas. The predominantly young population, an end result of the genocide, has meant that technology companies and business have set up their East African headquarters in Rwanda and today it thrives as a tech hub to rival nearby Nairobi and other growing economies. It is a stunningly beautiful country, with hills, lakes and verdant greenery.

In only 30 years the country has gone from an open graveyard to a modern, thriving country. After time spent in hell, that must seem like heaven.

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