My Biggest and Most Lasting Impression of Rwanda – By Maribeth Shanley

During most of the month of February, I spent my time visiting with Edwin Sabuhoro for whom I will help him write his autobiography.

Out of respect for the people of Rwanda, everyone who comes to Rwanda has an obligation of knowing the country’s terrible history.  It is the history that haunts the hearts and souls of today’s Rwandan men and women.  Once you know the history, and even more, embrace that history can you begin to know the people you now share your intimate world with?  You are now ready to embrace the hearts and souls of these incredibly loving, generous and deeply wealthy humans.  You feel your entire being melding with their history and the people who still live in the spirit of their original ancestors.

After my first meeting with Edwin, I did some research on the history.  I knew of the 1994 Genocide but didn’t know that it was the last of four.  Nor did I understand the connection of the brutality to colonialism.  My single question was,  how does a country come back after such a horrific act that was perpetrated by its citizens?

As a result, I traveled to Rwanda not just to learn Edwin’s history, but to learn the country’s history and how it was connected to everything.

I learned much while in Rwanda and Uganda.  Now, what stands out most in my mind,  is how a country of people can live through the twisted European view of how the world should work as they imposed their point of view on the peoples of Rwanda through a thoughtless, yet clinical form of brainwashing.

The Belgian colonialists turned a once harmonious country into a deeply disturbed one as two groups of people, the Tutsi and the Hutu were turned upside down and inside out causing a horrific chasm which manifested itself in attempted genocide.  Yet, regardless of these revealed horrors, through a return to the pre-colonial traditional justice, Rwanda has returned to its true nature.  In fact, the country is listed as one of the top twenty safest countries on earth; a list that does not include the U.S.

The history of which I speak is wrapped in a commonality of the innocence of heart and spirit, but which was invaded and brainwashed into believing they were something far different from who they were.  This invasion took place in the late 19th Century; and, as it is with most modern-day invasions the footprint of that invasion had Western European imprints all over it.   In particular, the footprints were those of  Germany and Belgium.

Western Europeans come from a fictional then learned and honed tradition of incredible vanity and imagination.  It is a history whose core is so warped that it lacks the power to embrace and learn from other cultures that are still innocent and pure; other cultures passed down via the spoken word told through stories.

It is a familiar fate that has plagued the entire world causing distortion and doubt of one’s past.

Colonialism, the European Plague

In the beginning, Rwandans were one.  They spoke the same language, honored the same gods and dreamed the same dreams.  Although they came from different origins, their hearts were one.

The Twa are the original inhabitants of Rwanda.  They are small in stature and are known as pygmies.  They lived in harmony with the forest and all it had to offer.  Both the Hutu and Tutsi migrated from northern regions.  The major difference was their economy.  The Tutsi were well-organized herd’s people who possessed sophisticated combat skills.  On the other hand, and although the Hutu were larger in numbers, they were less organized, lacked the same skills of combat and came from a history of farming.

The rest of this story is long and detailed.  Thus, I will try to shrink it in a shorter version which will give you all the important pieces to link together.   Dominating the story were lies, distortion, chaos, and ugly pain.  It’s a recent history we are all familiar with.  It involves tremendous brainwashing, and the result is a terrible reality called Genocide.

You probably anticipate the outcome of this terrible reality.  You also intuitively understand the nature and birth of this dreadful outcome.  However, suffice it to say, it begins with the Germans.  Then, after WWI, with the Belgians.  The two parties involved were the majority ethnic group, the Hutu and the smaller group, the Tutsi.

In the late 1800 ’s the European countries were divvying up the Continent of Africa that were inhabited by other ethnic groups.  In particular, the division of the continent of Africa took place mainly between Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and France.

The big land grab began with the Belgian colonists who were an egregious lot ruled by a narcissistic Head of State, King Leopold II.  Having access to the ocean was critical for Leopold’s Belgium because Leopold worshiped greed demonstrated through physical objects, especially shiny objects like gold, diamond, as well as other resources such as rubber.  Leopold hired the journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley to travel to the then Kingdom of Kongo in order to establish Belgian rule over the country, its wealth of resources and its people.

Leopold was a nation builder who had free reign given to him by the Belgium Civil Government.   Following in the likeness of their ruler; the Belgium colonists were equally narcissistic.  They believed their race to be a superior one.

Once the acquisition of land grab was complete, the colonial nations of Europe, at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 gave legal authorization to Leopold’s claim by committing the Congo Free State to improving the lives of the native inhabitants.  During the same conference, Rwanda began its colonial history as it, then Ruanda-Burundi was handed over to Germany.  To the north of both states was Uganda which was given to the United Kingdom.

Never intending to honor his commitment to improving the lives of his new people, Leopold completely ignored that commitment.  Instead, he used the Congo, with its access to the Atlantic Ocean, to further enhance his wealth as he influenced the creation and utilization of the Publique Force, a military comprised of Belgian regular soldiers and mercenaries from other countries with a mandate to keep the natives in check.

During the occupation of the Congo, an ethnically mixed African force called Askari was established under the Publique Force.  The Congo was filled with rubber trees, so rubber became the major export product.  The military forces’ major purpose was to enforce rubber quotas as well as other forms of forced labor.  The system was a brutal use of power by a colonial government ruling from afar.  Stories of brutality were common as flogging of Congolese men and flogging and rape of women as well as the burning of villages became the accepted norm.

The grotesque ivory trade, i.e., the brutally hacking off the tusks of elephants left to die a painful death as their carcasses rotted in the sun was begun at Leopold’s behest.  By the early 1890’s the slave trade also took hold in the Free State.

As the Congolese people were experiencing the cruelty of their rulers, in Ruanda-Burundi, nothing was happening.  The tiny state was a land-locked one.  Thus the united people never realized their land was no longer theirs, as they continued living as they always had in peace and harmony.

Instead, Germany was more interested in the massive State of Tanzania to the east which they also acquired from the Berlin Conference.  Tanzania had a vast coastal area bordering the Indian Ocean.  A fortunate fact for the people of Ruanda-Burundi.

It wasn’t until 1894, that the first German entered the kingdom.  Count von Götzen, visited the court of the sitting Mwami, Rwabugir, informing the surprised Mwami that his land had been under German rule for the last nine years.  Had it not been for the untimely death of Rwabugir the following year, Germany would more than likely have taken a hands-off approach.  However, with the death of the Mwami, a battle over Rwabugir’s successor influenced the Germans to move in.

Germany was well aware of the peaceful existence of the three ethnic groups in Rwanda (modern-day spelling).   German Catholic missionaries previously visited the small country and one explorer wrote of the curious, cohesive behavior and traditions of the native inhabitants.   After all, a peaceful environment was a new phenomenon for Europeans who had spent their entire existence waring with each other.  Thus, between 1894 and WWI, Germany ruled from afar by assigning German agents to the courts of local leaders.

During the First World War, Germany invaded its neighbor Belgium.  In retaliation, Belgium fought back by invading Ruanda-Burundi.

Following WWI, the fate of the people of Ruanda-Burundi was sealed when in 1924, the League of Nations granted Belgium a mandate to rule over Ruanda-Burundi.  The mandate would dramatically change life for the native Ruandans.

Belgium completely ignored all that Germany allowed as it linked the region with Belgian Congo.  However, Belgian form of rule in Ruanda-Burundi was designed differently from that of the Congo.

Where the Germans appreciated the cultural closeness and the notion of a cohesive, and harmonious state, the Belgians couldn’t grasp the concept at all.  Thus, began a great divide as friction took hold of the state.

Believing the Tutsi to be a superior “race” from the Hutu, the Belgians treated the Tutsi group far different than they did the Hutu.  They liked everything about the Tutsis who were tall and elegant physically and scorned the Hutu who were shorter.  They even brought in scientists who were influenced to demonstrate a physical difference between the two groups, all for one reason.  They wished to divide the two groups as they pitted them against each other.

The Belgians also appreciated the Tutsi economic culture.  On the other hand, they looked down their noses on the Hutu.  Instead of running the government of Ruanda-Burundi themselves, the Belgians assigned the Tutsi as administers of the government of the tiny state.  Differences began to establish themselves as they subtly created an invisible divide between the Tutsi and Hutu. The Belgians intentionally pitted the Hutu against the Tutsi.  However, the Tutsie never changed their behavior from feeling as one.   Conversely,  feeling the emotional and mental abuse by the Belgians, the Hutu began to change as extreme jealousy and hatred for their once brothers and sisters began to fester.

There were still inter-marriage as the two groups lived as neighbors and friends.  However, the psychological warfare the Belgians waged on the Hutu created a terrible cultural divide on a larger scale.  The end result was the establishment of a foundation that created a divided nation at odds with itself.

In 1935, the difference in this ethnically driven class system was solidified and made even more obvious when identification cards distinguishing the two groups were issued. This terrible distinction and, more importantly, the obvious favoritism of one group over another set the tone for the future…a future which would give rise to brutal violence conducted by the Hutu against the Tutsi.

Too, where prior to the ID cards and colonialism in general, Hutus had access to the Tutsi status, the ID cards made it almost impossible for a Hutu to become a Tutsi.  As such, colonialism proved itself to be the cruel feudal form of a rule, as it locked and loaded one group’s burgeoning hatred for another.  Suffice it to say that NEVER in the history of the Hutu/Tutsi interaction was racially-based massacre an outcome.  However, the first occasion resulting in a manifestation of that hatred established itself as the rush toward independence from colonialism began to take shape during the late 1950’s.

When Rwanda struggled for independence from Belgium, ironically, the Belgians, fearing a revolution, switched the status of the two groups.   The Belgians took the administration of the government away from the Tutsi and handed it over to the Hutu.  Like a powder keg, the growing hatred for Tutsi became the norm in Ruanda.

In 1957, the Ruandan Hutu leaders published a Hutu Manifesto, thus preparing its supporters for a future of politically charged conflicts based solely on ethnic grounds.

In 1959, the first of four outbreaks of mass violence was subsequently sparked when a group of Tutsi political activists beat up a Hutu rival named Dominique Mbonyumutwa.   Although Mr. Mbonyumutwa survived the beating, rumors of his death spread like wildfire through the Hutu population resulting in a nationwide campaign of Hutu violence against the Tutsi.  This first massacre lasting several months became known as ‘the wind of destruction.’ At the same time, many Tutsi, including the 25-year-old hereditary ruler, the Mwami, fled Ruanda.  The absence of a monarchy would prove detrimental to Tutsi future and Ruanda in general.

During the elections of 1960, the Hutu politicians scored an overwhelming victory as one of the authors of the Hutu Manifesto, Gregoire Kayibanda, led a provisional government during the interim period between colonialism and independence.

Independence came in 1962.  Despite that the UN pressured the two territories, Ruanda and Urundi to federate as one nation, the territories decided to separate.  Although ethnic violence continued in Ruanda between 1959 and 1961, in 1962, the U.N. declared the territory a republic.   The ‘republic’ declaration was due to the absence of the young Mwami as the monarchy was declared defunct and the republic declaration was made official.  After the declaration, the government changed the spelling from Ruanda to the modern-day spelling…Rwanda.

Immediately following independence, Rwanda held its first presidential election.  Gregoire Kayibanda was declared the President of the Republic of Rwanda.  Since his party’s name translated to ‘the Party for Hutu Emancipation,’ it became blatantly obvious what the central focus of his presidency would be.   Within the pages of that manifesto, the name ‘cockroach’ had been coined and that name became synonymous with the minority Tutsi population.  As a result, the killing of the cockroaches became an all-too dominant theme of Rwandan life.  This growing hatred gave rise to the Hutu government’s determination to maintain control as it freely whipped up the frenzy of hatred at any time it perceived a crisis.  That crisis reared its head in 1963.

In December 1963, several hundred exiled Tutsi guerrillas entered Rwanda from Burundi and advanced within twelve miles of the capital of Kigali but were eliminated by the Rwandan army.  Yet, the event gave the government just the ammunition it hungered for as it declared a state of emergency and gave the order to ‘clear the bush’ of subversive elements, a covert term for kill the cockroaches.

Over the course of a few days, 14,000 Tutsi were massacred in the southern province of Gikongoro and became known as the worst, systematic massacre since the Holocaust.  Yet the actual worst of the four massacres was yet to come.

The third wave of killings took place in 1973.  It began in one part of Rwanda and was spreading to other sections of the country when the killings abruptly stopped.  Descriptions of the sequence of events for this third wave were all too like the previous occurrences.

Rumors emerged among the Rwandans that a massacre was about to happen.  Prior to all such massacres, there seemed to be an inevitability that established itself.   Over the course of time, the massacres gave way to an official name, muyaga, which, translated, meant wind.  Like a terrible wind, the event would begin with a fury, then, just as suddenly as a wind, would end abruptly.  No one would know when the events would come, but, like the wind, the rumors were carried by the winds into every nook and cranny of the country.

Looting by Hutus of Tutsi property would be the first indication that the event had begun.  Next, Tutsi houses would be set on fire.  Then the actual killing would take place with the killers, Hutu and those being killed, Tutsi.  The killings would last as long as the wind blew.  It stopped when the command was given.  In the hinterland, that command to stop began with the beating of drums, followed by calls from hilltops, “Ihumere…ihumere…ihumere…” or,  “It is time for peace.” At the announcement, the violence would abruptly cease.  Killers would return home and Tutsis who were still alive would return to where their houses stood.

If there can be logic in insanity, the massacres of Rwanda are an example of logical insanity.  The reasoning went like this.

The looting would begin at the behest of the Hutu leaders who would give the command to proceed with the terror.  Next, the looting would escalate to the burning of the houses being looted.  Both the looting and the burning would lead to concern about what would happen when the violence ended, which it always did.  The big question…would there be retribution on the part of the effected Tutsi?  Would the rightful owners of the looted goods demand their property be returned?  Since that was a real possibility, then the rightful owners must be eliminated.  Thus, the killings would take place.  Yet, it wasn’t enough to kill only the male rightful owner of the goods.  The family members, who could lay claim to the goods, also needed to be eliminated.   Thus, the insanity would be coherent.

The latest massacre of 1973 coincided with the unrest that was taking place among the Hutu supporters of Gregoire Kayibanda’s regime.  Fighting within the Hutu leadership had erupted.  To gather support for his regime, the president rallied the Hutu population to get ready for the muyaga aimed at their common enemy…the Tutsi.  As the underlying flame of hatred for Tutsi was stoked, the plan was embraced by the president’s supporters as well as his opposition, who viewed the violence as a justification for a planned coup.  The underhanded power grab cost thousands of Tutsi lives during this muyaga as it had during the two preceding massacres.  During this same period, thousands more Tutsis fled the country.

The planned coup d’état took place that same year.  Gregoire Kayibanda was removed from power by a group of army officers who subsequently propped up one of their own, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana.  Habyarimana remained in power for the next twenty-one years, running a conventional military dictatorship which was initially welcomed by several European countries including, and in particular, France.  However, Habyarimana’s Hutu ethnic policy, which was essentially an extension of the former policy was becoming increasingly problematic.  Just across Rwanda’s borders a vast number of Tutsi exiles were becoming increasingly unwelcomed by their host countries yet attempts to send the refugees’ home became futile as Rwanda rejected them.

In 1986 Habyarimana declared as a policy that no refugee would be granted the right to repatriate.  Thus, during the following year, the exiles formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as it committed itself to an armed struggle against the sitting regime.  The nucleus of the RPF were Tutsi officers serving in the Ugandan army.  One of those officers, Paul Kagame, would later become president.

On a predetermined date, October 1, 1990, the officers deserted from the Ugandan army taking their equipment with them.  The newly formed RPF subsequently moved south and crossed the border into Rwanda.  The invasion sparked an all-out civil war between the Rwandan army and the RPF.  Paradoxically, the invasion also ignited one of the twentieth century’s most horrific genocide.

Initially, Habyarimana was able to resist the RPF invasion as French President Mitterrand deployed paratroopers to assist Habyarimana’s efforts of crushing the invasion.  This initial resistance became a precursor to the horrific genocide as Habyarimana’s government encouraged a new wave of Tutsi persecution.

In December 1990, the country’s most virulent racist newspaper published the Hutu Ten Commandments, which was nothing less than a litany of hatred aimed at the Tutsi population.  The commandments attributed treachery and dishonesty not only to all Tutsi, but it also condemned any Hutu who befriended a Tutsi.  In fact, the eighth commandment which became the tenor of hatred stated that ‘Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.’  This commandment gave rise to a new breed of ethnic battle cry called Hutu Power.

Sanctioned by the Habyarimana regime, in 1991 the government recruited Hutu youth militias who became known as the Interahamwe orthose who attack together.’   The stage was set for what happened next.

The Genocide of 1994

Immediately following the recruitment of a youth militia, their violent members, all young men, roared through the streets on motorbikes.  Sanctioned by the government they felt powerful as their hatred was fed by drunken rallies held under portraits of President Habyarimana.

In seclusion, they assembled together as they perfected the skills of manipulating machetes.  During this period, they set fire to houses owned by Tutsis as well as those owned by Hutus believed to be sympathizers.  They also utilized the government resources as they drew up lists garnered from the Identification Card information.  They knew who Tutsi were and who the Hutu sympathizers were as well.  Worse, they also knew where they lived!  During this period, the mood of ethnic violence festered and was directly fueled by the government.  An example of this heightened frenzy transpired in March of 1992 when Government-owned Radio Rwanda spread a deliberate, false rumor that a Tutsi plot to massacre Hutus had been uncovered.

By 1992, however, Habyarimana had begun losing his popularity among his extremist supporters.  His failure to completely suppress the RPF guerrillas came under scrutiny by international powers that were pressuring him to come to terms with the rebels.  As a result, he began negotiations with the RPF.  This infuriated the Hutu Power criminals as news spread that the government had declared a ceasefire with the Tutsis.  In August 1992, this ceasefire news provoked a new wave of attacks on Tutsis.  Over the next year, the peace process continued as it further alienated the Habyarimana regime from its former supporters.

In August 1993, following talks at the Arusha Accords in Tanzania, Habyarimana signed a peace treaty with the RPF, officially declaring peace.  However, the treaty went even further than simply declaring an end to the war.  Habyarimana negotiated the right of return for all Rwanda’s refugees, the merging of the RPF with the national army as well as establishing a transitional period leading up to elections and a democratic government.  During the transition, a provisional government would be established which would include representation of the RPF.  In addition, UN forces would be invited into Rwanda for purposes of securing the process.

As would be predicted, the peace terms outraged the Interahamwe and their political superiors.  On April 6, 1994, a rocket believed to have been fired by Hutu extremists hit the plane carrying Habyarimana and the head of state of neighboring Burundi, killing all on board.  Blamed on the Tutsis, the assassination of the President was just the desired justification for Hutu extremists as they conducted a killing orgy over the following weeks.   Fueling the orgy were state radio broadcasts which urged the people to “do their duty” with instructions to seek out Tutsis as well as Tutsi-sympathizers living among the Tutsi.  Eliminate the cockroaches was the message.

On April 29, the state radio announced that May 5th would be the cleanup day during which the capital, Kigali, would and must be cleansed of Tutsis.  One infamous broadcast even suggested that, in the interest of thoroughness, unborn children should be torn from the wombs of pregnant women.

In this environment of utter revulsion, the Interahamwe and a large portion of ordinary Hutus, who were given the ultimatum by their peers to kill or be killed, went to work with a fury never recorded in human history.  Between April and July, known also as the 100 days of slaughter, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in the cruelest and crudest of fashion.  The weapon of preference was the everyday, agriculture tool…the machete.  The UN forces, though present at the time, were powerless to intervene as the U.N. wasted precious time.  They sat idle, reluctant to declare the genocide for what it was, an ethnic cleansing.  Former U.S. President Clinton also reluctant to intervene describes his indecision as THE greatest regret of his presidency.  It was a terrible thing that the genocide could take place while the world stood by in silence.

Too, during the initial stages of the bloodbath, the Hutu Prime Minister, now by default, the Constitutional Head of State, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and her husband were murdered by the Government’s own Presidential Guard whose duty it was to protect her and her family.  Once dead, the guard turned on the ten Belgian U.N. peacekeepers also charged with protecting the new president.  The guard ordered the Belgians to lay down their arms.  At first reluctant, they finally complied.  The guard then methodically castrated each of them, gagged them with their own genitalia, and then murdered all ten men.

The Rwandan carnage ended in July and only after the RPF, led by Kagame, took over the country.  Immediately following the takeover, an estimated two million Hutus fled across the border into Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania.  The fleeing Hutus were running from the RPF.

Post Genocide

As can be imagined, immediately following the genocide, chaos broke out.  Since the murderers would not allow burials, bodies littered the country.   They were everywhere!  Thousands of bodies were dumped into the northern flowing Nyabarongo River, thus sending the Tutsi bodies out of the country forever.

With Rwanda now in control and under the watchful eyes of the RPF, thousands of Hutus, including members of the Interahamwe, fled across the borders.  The exodus quickly gained notoriety as it became known as the fastest exodus of modern times.  Yet, those fleeing Rwanda were not refugees seeking safety.  They were groups of Hutus instructed by their former leaders to take refuge on the border, as their intentions became crystal clear.  It was nothing less than the Hutu exiles’ desire to continue the war.  At the same time this exodus was taking place, some 700,000 refugees, most of whom were exiled Tutsis, began returning to their home country.

As the RPF captured the capital, Kigali, in June, the French military simultaneously set up a safe zone in the southwest of Rwanda.  The safe zone was dubbed ‘Operation Turquoise’ whereby a ‘safe zone’ was intended to stop the genocide…yet…ironically the RPF were prohibited from entering the safe zone.    Too, the genocide had already been curtailed by the RPF causing the exodus of the militants, members of the former government as well as ordinary Hutu civilians.  The French finally ended their intervention when France sent word to retreat which led to approximately 300,000 people fleeing the turquoise zone; many who feared retribution.  On July 18th the RPF forces moved in and captured the town of Gisenyi in the upper northwest corner of the republic, declaring a new government with Pasteur Bizimungu as president and Kagame in the newly created position of vice-president.  Gisenyi became the center of the provisional government causing 800,000 Rwandans to flee across the border into Goma, Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This exodus was also highly organized as administrative structures of the former Hutu government were simply transferred across the border.

By the end of August 1994, an estimated 2.1 million Rwandan refugees took up residence in some 35 camps.  Another nine camps were established in Burundi and an additional eight camps in Tanzania.  The refugees around Goma included an estimated 30-40,000 soldiers from the former Armed Forces of Rwanda.  They were fully armed and had an intact officer corps and transport unit.  The politicians of the former administration also relocated to Goma.

About 140,000 refugees voluntarily returned to Rwanda during the three months following the original exodus.  The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHRC), sent in to help was forced to halt its efforts to repatriate refugees, however, when both their staff and the refugees were threatened by the Interahamwe under orders of the exiled leadership, they left.  However, by September 1994 rumors of violence by the RPF inside Rwanda, combined with tightened control by Hutu leaders inside the camps brought the return to a halt by early 1995.

Aid to the camps was inadequate.  After pleas from the UN, the U.S. finally agreed to join the effort.  U.S. relief planes were sent in to drop food packages from the air to alleviate the suffering in the camps, but the opposite happened.  People were slaughtered in the rush to the packages, causing the U.S. to refuse to bring the aid closer to the ground.  As time went by disease besieged the refugees in the form of dysentery and cholera.   The result, over 50,000 died.  Soon rainfall amplified the disastrous conditions as many of the refugees contacted septic meningitis.

During the onslaught of disease, the French established a field hospital in the area of Lake Kivu.  To aid the ground forces, Israel intervened with the largest medical mission in its history.  As France provided the medical supplies, Israel provided an all-volunteer military force of surgeons comprised of specialists and sub-specialists.  In addition, the Netherlands sent in a small group of medics and nurses.  CARE Deutschland supplied ambulances and Merlin of Ireland sent in trucks and heavy equipment to distribute food and supplies.  Together CARE AND Merlin are credited with curbing the death toll in Lake Kivu, near Goma, Zaire.

As the world began to recognize the devastation, media coverage of the refugee crisis emerged eventually resulting in President Clinton’s declaration that Rwanda was in the middle of the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis in a generation.”  The result was a mobilization of a large relief effort.  But, because the effort was an afterthought, in a large sense, it became a day too late and a dollar short.

Attention quickly became focused on the refugees of Goma as 200 aid organizations rushed into the area to start emergency relief efforts on the level of that given to the Yugoslavian wars.  Until December 1994, the UNHCR received over $1 million monthly resulting in a rapid drop in mortality rates.  The American military was deployed to Uganda’s Entebbe Airport where an emergency operation was established.  From this location relief and personnel were transported to the crisis regions.  Many humanitarian organizations expressed concern that the military was involved; however, it quickly became evident that only the military could create a large, logistical support system capable of exporting with the necessary speed and efficiency needed to alleviate the massive humanitarian emergency.   If health threats weren’t enough for the refugees to deal with there were more hardships to deal with as well.

Many of the refugee camps fell under the governance of the former political leaders as they were inadvertently put in charge of the food supplies.  Under this authority, a ‘system’ was put in place whereby ‘elected popular leaders’ were able to step in as a front for the real leaders to secure control over the aid.  The system punished those identified as enemies by withholding that aid from them in favor of giving more food supplies to those identified as supporters.  The system then enabled the supporters to make money.  By reporting more refugees than the actual number of exiles, the supporters were able to sell the surplus.  They even created a food tax, forcing actual refugees to buy their food.  For example, this system led to 40% of the ‘enemy’ refugees in one camp receiving less food than the 13% of the ‘supporter’ refugees.  This in-camp corruption became a means of intimidation as refugees who either disagreed with the structure, complained to aid workers or who tried to return to Rwanda were subject to punishment up to and including murder.  However, as the acute level of the humanitarian crisis began to stabilize, aid workers began to raise concern over the presence of armed elements in the camps.  Members of the Interahamwe militia established outposts on the outskirts of the camps, as they reported directly to officials from the former government.  The humanitarian workers began to report the corruption on behalf of the suffering refugees who began to complain that the relief organizations were creating the corruption causing a crisis of conscience among the agencies, who answered the quagmire by abandoning the camps.   

As the RPF established the new government in July 1994, the military wing of the
RPF was renamed the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) as it became the national army.  As Kagame assumed the role of Vice President, Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu public servant under the Habyarimana, but who had fled to join the RPF was appointed the president.  Bizimungu and his cabinet had some control over domestic affairs, but Kagame remained commander-in-chief of the army, was, in fact, the actual ruler of the country.

As international aid was being concentrated in the refugee camps across the borders, Kagame went to work rebuilding the country.  He made tremendous efforts to portray the new government as an all-inclusive one vs. a Tutsi only government.  One of his first acts was to remove the ethnicity from ID cards to remove the distinctions between Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa.  Also, during this post-genocide period, new soldiers were recruited to the army.

Shortly after establishing the post-genocide government, it began prosecuting crimes committed during the genocide.  The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, under the mandate of the U.N., was set up in Arusha with intentions of prosecuting the most senior leaders responsible for the genocide.   In addition, the government determined to prosecute all suspected perpetrators, including ordinary citizens who were known to have taken part in the killings.

Between 1994 and 2000 120,000 suspects were arrested.  There were so many suspects intended to stand trial that the prisons were bursting at the seams.  By 2006 and twelve years after the genocide, only 10,000 of those arrested had been tried.  Recognizing the impossibility of continuing, the government introduced Gacaca, a village court system based on traditional, pre-colonial justice.  Gacaca is loosely translated as justice in the grass.  The system was adopted as a means of healing the people in order to move the progress of repairing the country forward.  The goal of the Gacaca system was meant to do the following:

  • Establish truth about what happened
  • Accelerate the legal proceedings against those accused of Genocide Crimes
  • Eradicate the culture of impunity
  • Reconcile Rwandans and reinforce their unity
  • Use the capacities of Rwandan society to deal with its problems through a justice based Rwandan Custom.

Today, Rwanda is again harmonious with no division between the different groups.  In fact, my assessment is that Rwanda is a model nation who could teach the rest of the world a lot about how to heal.

Footnote:  This morning I watched the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, talk about his new book, In the Shadow of Statues, and his reasons for removing all New Orlean’s  Confederate statues.  To the question, why don’t more public figures address the same issue, Landrieu responded that it’s because humans have a hard time asking for forgiveness as well as granting forgiveness.  Landrieu’s answer reminded me of the most important lesson I carried in my heart home from my time in Rwanda.

While visiting the Kigali Genocide Museum, the sacred grounds with its church and school where over 1,000 adults and children were slaughtered, then the compound where Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her husband plus the ten Belgian soldiers murdered, I learned the following.

I learned how a tiny country situated in the heart of Africa, and under the guidance of a giant leader, Paul Kagame, became a beacon of light and hope for the entire world. Guided by their tradition prior to colonialism of sitting in the grass and discussing their future in the shadow of genocide, they were able to speak of sorrow, regret, then forgiveness and love. Thank you, Rwanda for giving the world hope that humans can become giants.

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Filed under history, Maribeth Shanley, writing

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