The Lasting Legacies of Rwanda's Genocide

Susan Thomson

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In 1994, Hutu militias and civilians targeted their Tutsi neighbours, friends, and colleagues, killing at least 500,000 Tutsis in just 100 days. It was the worst case of genocidal violence since the Nazi holocaust.

Because it must never happen again, it’s important that we reflect on the lives of the Rwandans that lived through the genocide – the 85 per cent of the current population that lived in the country during the civil war (1990-1994).

It is worth noting that Rwandans of all ethnicities – Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa – were caught up in the maelstrom of violence in 1994. Undeniably, the Tutsi were targeted solely because of their ethnicity. That the Tutsi died in great numbers is well established in both the academic and policy literatures. Lesser known, in part because the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government denies their experiences, are the countless stories of survival and succour of ordinary peasant Rwandans of Hutu ethnicity who took extraordinary risks to protect Tutsi they knew. These stories include instances where notorious killers protected Tutsi they knew personally, ushering them safely through roadblocks, warning them of the whereabouts of marauding groups, and even hiding them at their homes. Some individuals killed during the day, but at night, they would shelter and hide Tutsi friends and relatives. In this way, many Tutsi survived because of help from a Hutu family member, friend, colleague, neighbour, or stranger.

To acknowledge that Rwandans of all ethnicities suffered various forms of violence during the genocide does not diminish the horror, gravity, or meaning of the genocide against the Tutsi. Instead, it situates the events of 1994 in a larger landscape of violence, in which peasant Rwandans were disproportionately affected when they were targeted by armed groups and militias. It also highlights the injustice that many peasant Rwandans feel in the face of government efforts to impose a single version of how the genocide happened and what needs to be done to recover from it. This government version does not take into account the various standpoints of genocide survivors, perpetrators, survivors of atrocities led by the RPF rebels (who now hold power), bystanders, Rwandans in the diaspora, and so on. In addition, the government presents a simplistic version of the cause of the 1994 genocide: identity politics grounded in decades of bad governance that resulted in deep-rooted ethnic hatred of all Tutsi by all Hutu.

Related: What We Mean When We Talk About Genocide

Eighteen years after the genocide, the silencing of the physical and emotional violence that the majority of Rwandans experienced during the genocide does more than erase their suffering – it also allows their economic and political grievances against the ruling RPF to accumulate. The vast majority of peasant Rwandans who survived the genocide are poor, politically marginal, and traumatized by what they experienced during the genocide. Many lack clean water, adequate food, affordable health care, and education. To add insult to injury, the government does not allow for frank and open discussion of the genocide. Discourse on the subject is reduced to making the Hutu tell the truth about what they did during the genocide, and making the Tutsi forgive their Hutu aggressors. In essence, reconciliation is not a sincere affair of the heart – it is an administrative matter.

As Rwanda marks the 18th anniversary of the genocide, there are two things that the ruling RPF can do to encourage a more open and inclusive political culture that brings in peasant experiences of violence while creating a more economically equal society. First, President Paul Kagame should create space for national dialogue – an open and safe space where Rwandans of all ethnicities, and from all walks of life, can meet to discuss what happened to whom during the genocide, and to strategize ways forward from the hurt of the past. As Olive, a Hutu widow whose Tutsi husband died during the genocide, said, “Hutu confess to get free. But we know what happened! We were there in 1994. Not all who killed get justice – the government pardons them for reconciliation. Not all who didn’t kill go free – the government puts them in prison for reconciliation. What kind of peace is this? It is not from the heart.”

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Second, the government needs to develop policies to equitably manage Rwanda’s natural resources (its people and its land). The Government of Rwanda estimates that by 2020, Rwanda will be home to some 16 million people. With 430 people per square kilometre, it already has the highest population density in Africa. Land pressures in rural Rwanda are intense. The government requires rural farmers to grow coffee and tea instead of the crops needed to feed their families. A new land policy has decreased peasant holdings to less than a half-acre. The RPF does not allow peasant farmers to voice their concerns about its agricultural policy and the inequitable ways in which land is distributed into the hands of government loyalists.

On this 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, it is imperative that the lived experiences of peasants before, during, and after the events of 1994 be incorporated into government policy and practice, lest the toll of growing socioeconomic inequity and the daily injustices that many peasants experience make another round of mass political violence possible.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.