These evocative words recall a pogrom that lasted 100 days – from 7 April to mid-July 1994 – and took the lives of an estimated million people, mainly Tutsis, moderate Hutus and the Twa, who largely comprise the ethnic make-up of the country. The country remembers its recent past through designating public holidays: 7 April being Kwibuka or Remembrance Day, followed by a week-long period of national mourning, Icyunamo. They wrap up this period with Liberation Day on 4 July, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, under the leadership of General Paul Kagame, finally defeated government forces and thus ended the genocide.

The ethnic tensions in Rwanda precede the 1994 genocide carried out by government-backed gendarmerie and militias, including the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, with historians tracing tensions to circa 1700 when eight kingdoms dominated the territory. These tensions were amplified when after the Berlin Conference in 1884, both Rwanda and Burundi were handed over to the Germans, who in turn consolidated the hand of the Tutsi people by using them as proxies to administer colonial rule. The historic resentment grew and festered over decades. While well-documented, the run-up to the killing frenzy in 1994 was enabled by media, in particular, radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which broadcast deeply racist propaganda, including the Hutu Ten Commandments:

  1. Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, whoever she is, works for the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who
  1. Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?
  1. Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason.
  2. Every Hutu should know that every Tutsi is dishonest in business. His only aim is the supremacy of his ethnic group. As a result, any Hutu who does the following is a traitor:
  1. All strategic positions, political, administrative, economic, military and security should be entrusted only to Hutu.
  2. The education sector (school pupils, students, teachers) must be majority Hutu.
  3. The Rwandan Armed Forces should be exclusively Hutu. The experience of the October 1990 war has taught us a lesson. No member of the military shall marry a Tutsi.
  4. The Hutu should stop having mercy on the Tutsi.
  5. The Hutu, wherever they are, must have unity and solidarity and be concerned with the fate of their Hutu brothers.
  1. The Social Revolution of 1959, the Referendum of 1961, and the Hutu Ideology, must be taught to every Hutu at every level. Every Hutu must spread this ideology widely. Any Hutu who persecutes his brother Hutu for having read, spread, and taught this ideology is a traitor.

The impact of a concerted and orchestrated hate campaign, together with the downing of a plane carrying Rwandan and Burundian Presidents, Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutus, was the trigger for a 100 day frenzy whose goal was to kill every Tutsi in the country. Ethnic identity (reflected on identity cards) and appearance were the basis for death by guns, machete and farming implements by neighbour on neighbour, youth militias and gendarmerie. Moderate Hutus and Twa were collateral damage in a hate-filled campaign to rid the country of Tutsis.

Rape as a weapon of war was carried out on a large scale and it is estimated that between 250 000 and 500 000 women were raped during this period of 100 days. Many were deliberately infected with HIV and the residual impact is still felt in the country, with a very large population living with HIV/AIDS. Orphanhood too is a norm and whole villages have been created to take care of ‘genocide orphans’ and widows left bereft.

Reams of analysis and critique exist about the role of the international community, the church community, the United Nations (UN) and regional bodies, including the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), to stem the tide of death. This, in the face of overwhelming evidence of a genocide about to take place and subsequently one that claimed the lives of more than a million people but that can be gleaned elsewhere.

This piece attempts to grapple with the necessary conditions for a post-conflict social transformation, informed by a recent visit to Rwanda in April 2018.

Conversations with Rwandans elicit a cautious approach to the topic of the genocide. At a push, Tutsis name the 100-day pogrom as the genocide, while Hutus reference it as a social revolution. While the version of history is still heavily ethnically tinged, and pain resides deep in the hearts of victims, these are expressed in private spaces that are considered safe.

The post-genocide narrative has been carefully constructed and all references to ethnic origin have been suppressed. The highest premium is placed on an all-inclusive “Rwandaness” with Rwandese becoming the lingua franca across the country. Reconciliation informs social and political cohesion as state strategy and the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission continually reinforces the imperative to reconcile and live peacefully with each other.

The reality though is that relations between Rwandan people remain tender and even fragile, particularly when macro policy directs people to cohabit in common spaces and places, often forcing victims and perpetrators to live in close proximity and inter-dependently. An oft-cited Rwandan proverb, ubuze uko agira agwa neza (if there is nothing you can do, it is better to be nice) sums up the sense of resignation many in the country feel.

The community healing process through the gacaca or traditional justice courts, the custom of sharing drinks (l’umusangiro) and even marrying off children across ethnic groups as a means of building social capital in a post-conflict society, have their place. While this may not work for some, these forms of catharsis have a place in healing and dealing with history and memory. The pressures of a domestic political process to drive national unity and reconciliation certainly inform the lengths to which people have and will go to forge an identity not steeped in revenge and retaliation.

The UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, dealt with the most serious crimes committed during the 1994 genocide. While it was a long and painful process for victims, and its efficacy has long been debated in human rights circles, it did establish international legal principles, not least that of rape as a war crime.

The complexity of the situation and the above notwithstanding, requires one to stand in the shoes, however superficially, as an outsider, and weigh the benefits of the high premium on reconciliation and crucially identify the conditions for coexistence with a path paved with retribution and revenge. There is no seamless choice. The silence or as some refer to it, the “open secret” bears heavily on many, who are forced to deal with their traumas through a form of amnesia. For others, 24 years later, new resentments fester, not least accusations that under President Paul Kagame, the Tutsis are on the ascent – politically, socially and crucially, through control of the levers of the economy.

The Rwandan genocide commenced in the month and year that South Africans were in the throes of welcoming a new democratic era and on the cusp of the first general election granting universal franchise. The negotiations were done and dusted, and an Interim Constitution drafted as precursor for a final one. Hope, reconciliation and goodwill were in the air. While some of this has dissipated in the intervening years to the present, Rwanda is a stark reminder that some paths should never be trodden. South Africa must be better than to fall victim to political entrepreneurs peddling race hatred, fear and retribution.

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director

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