Rwanda is a country that has passed through a disastrous conflict and genocide with devastating effects. But the lessons learned in the aftermath of the genocide have changed the country forever.
Rwanda, a small country located in central Africa, has been home to nine million people from two tribes known as the Hutu and the Tutsi which have lived side by side in peace for centuries. There was no known ethnic conflict or major conflict between Hutus and Tutsis until the last fifty years. Rwanda was first colonized by Germany in 1899. Belgium took control of the country in 1919. In 1961, Rwanda’s monarchical government was removed by a referendum and the first parliamentary elections were held but at the expense of a number of massacres. In the following year, the country gained its independence.
Although the country became independent in 1962, the effects of colonialism lingered until recently. An example of this is the ethnic division between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. During the colonial period, the Belgian colonizers and the Church significantly favored the Tutsis over the Hutus. The colonizers had followed a divide and rule strategy and used the Tutsis in power instead of controlling the country directly; this widened ethnic differences. The colonizers had made membership of the Tutsi tribe a means of getting better education or obtaining a government or administrative position. Since both tribes speak the same language and have the same skin color, it was virtually impossible to tell them apart, so the colonizers had issued ethnic identity cards based on the measurement of people’s nose length. Until World War II, the Tutsis were masters of the country with a proven long record. However, the strategies of outsiders including the Church had changed in the mid-twentieth century so that Hutus gained more access to positions of power. In the 1950s, the Hutus took power and controlled the country. Considerable numbers of Tutsis were exiled to neighboring countries on many occasions. Until the 1990s, Hutu power was largely unchallenged in Rwanda. However, Tutsi exiles were organizing in neighboring countries and this was perceived as a grave threat to Hutu rule. Political conflict over the control of power and resources resulted in an exponential increase in ethnic violence. The Hutu government conceived Tutsi empowerment as a threat to their own interests and launched a media campaign calling for genocide. After a chain of events, including the death of the Rwandan president in a plane crash, a terrifying genocide commenced. For a while, Hutu people were strongly encouraged to kill their Tutsi neighbors, and those who did so were rewarded for their actions.
As a result, the genocide exploded quickly between April and June 1994. The world did not attempt to prevent the massacres. Men and women, children and the elderly, all were identified by their ethnicity and executed wherever they were found. Hatred was at its peak so that even relatives turned against each other. While a Hutu husband was among the survivors, his Tutsi wife was killed, and their children were kept alive as they were seen as sharing their father’s Hutu ethnicity. More than 800,000 people (Tutsis and moderate Hutus), according to official records, were massacred by the army and the extremists.
At last, without any international help, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi-led rebel movement, overthrew the regime in June 1994 and the genocide was stopped. The country has been at peace ever since; however, Rwandans continue to struggle with the legacy of genocide.
After the Rwandan Genocide, one of the biggest challenges for the new RPF government was handling the detention and prosecution of more than 100,000 people who were accused of genocide-related crimes. Pointing to the seriousness of the situation one of the RPF government ministers said, “When we captured Kigali, we thought we would face criminals in the state; instead, we faced a criminal population.” The genocide orders were given by executives of the state but the crimes were carried out by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. The pink uniform of prisoners is well known in Rwanda today since the transfer of prisoners from one place in the country to another is common. By 2000, approximately 120,000 people accused of genocidal acts were being held in the prisons, which were populated far beyond their capacity. In ten years, the courts have only managed to prosecute about 10,000 suspects. In other words, it would require at least another 110 years to prosecute all prisoners accused of genocide-related crimes. Although almost half of the prisoners have been released to ease the system at various times, the courts still need to work faster.
To overcome the backlog in the legal system the Rwandan government introduced the Gacaca (pronounced “gachacha”) courts, a community justice system inspired by traditional procedures for cultural communal law enforcement. Gacaca means “justice on the grass” and the court is launched in an open grassy area or village green, near the main street. The main advantages of these courts are the ease of assembling the court in public, and the way they provide the opportunity for everyone to exercise their right to speak through an interactive court. Gacaca is the latest means used by the Rwandan government to realize truth, justice, and more importantly the reconciliation and healing of the community much sooner than would otherwise have been possible. Rwandans have welcomed the Gacaca. One man who lost his brother in his twenties and another who abandoned his wife since she belonged to the so-called hostile tribe have found the Gacaca court in their local area a valuable place to express their feelings and seek justice in the shadow of ineradicable memories. Yet other people, who participated in the genocide, have found the opportunity and encouragement to admit their wrong-doing and relieve the pain of their remorse.
Gacaca has its pros and cons, which I will not go into here; however, the genocide carries important lessons both for Rwanda and the world. It showed how lack of tolerance and understanding of negligible differences can indeed turn into cruelty and brutality, resulting in one of the biggest genocides in history. Rwandans, who were previously divided as Hutus and Tutsis, now do not even pronounce the words Hutu and Tutsi in public in their daily life. Rwanda today exemplifies a good example of living together with differences despite the fact that those differences were recently the cause of a tragic conflict.
Indeed the Rwandan people, who once killed each other without mercy, can tolerate with no discomfort a diversity that in other nations is a great source of potential conflict, an area of interaction that other countries have been struggling with for a long time. Rwandans welcome all religious traditions in their cultural richness. Saturdays and Sundays are like a festival time; Christians all dress in their best clothes and walk to church. (Many Christians observe and practice Saturday Sabbath in Rwanda.) Although Muslims are in a minority, the adhan (call to prayer) is recited from mosque loudspeakers; the shifting Islamic holidays are accepted as national holidays. If religious differences were a cause of fighting, then Rwanda would still be one of the most problematic countries in the world today. In contrast, Rwanda is a good example of how the establishment of accountability combined with tolerance and understanding can help to transform and strengthen a country even when it has fresh memories of one of the biggest genocides in history.
Mehmet Sen is an engineer in San Francisco Bay Area. He visited Rwanda many times for business purposes.
Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press, 2001.
Reyntjens, Filip and Stef Vandeginste. 2005. “Rwanda: An Atypical Transition.” In Roads to Reconciliation, edited by Elin Skaar, et al. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Stover, Eric and Weinstein, Harvey (2004). My Neighbor, My Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Susanne Buckley-Zistel (2006): “The Truth Heals?” In Gacaca Jurisdictions and the Consolidation of Peace in Rwanda. Die Friedens-Warte Heft 1–2, pp. 113–130.