Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash
Remembrance: a sacred act which has the power to unite us, remind us of who are and what we are all capable of, and crystallize a shared vision of who we want to be. This April marks twenty-five years since the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The nation will come together to remember when their world was turned upside down and celebrate how far they have come since.
It could well be argued that since Rwanda is such a remarkable testament to national reconciliation and progress from unspeakable atrocities, we should move on and focus on the future rather than dwell on the past; why remember such an ugly scar on the face of humanity? Like a black thread woven through the fabric of the country, this dark episode in history makes up part of the whole tapestry of Rwanda’s story, and the Rwandan people are a beacon of hope in a world that is still reeling in division, writhing in hatred, and fraught with misunderstanding.
I’m not about to launch into a complete exposition of the causes of what happened here in 1994. Instead, I’m going to suggest that the single most significant factor underpinning this crisis, those that have gone before it, and those that have come after it, is this: when we forget our shared humanity and dehumanize the ‘Other’, we unravel every thread of peace that binds us together. When we use our differences to rob others of their intrinsic worth and humanity, we tear apart the very edifice of progress that we stand on.
Rwanda had been stewing in a noxious narrative of fear and suspicion a long time prior to 1994 when the fuse of genocide was lit. The racist ideology of European colonizers seeped into the national psyche of Rwanda and the surrounding region like a slowly spreading poison, through every school, administrative, and political office of the time. It began when one group of people believed that they were morally and intellectually superior to the other. This was a time before universal human rights were enshrined among nation states; when trivial differences were used to espouse spurious general claims and justify violent and exploitative action. As President Paul Kagame said in a Genocide Memorial speech in 2014:
“All genocides begin with an ideology — a system of ideas that says: This group of people here, they are less than human and that they deserve to be exterminated. The most devastating legacy of European control of Rwanda was the transformation of social distinctions into so-called ‘races’. We were classified and dissected, and whatever differences existed were magnified according to a framework invented elsewhere. The purpose was neither scientific nor benign, but ideological: to justify colonial claims to rule over and ‘civilise’ supposedly ‘lesser’ peoples. We are not. This ideology was already in place in the 19th century and was then entrenched by the French missionaries who settled here. Rwanda’s two thousand years of history were reduced to a series of caricatures based on Bible passages and on myths told by explorers. The colonial theory of Rwandan society claimed that hostility between something called ‘Hutu’, ‘Tutsi’, and ‘Twa’ was permanent and necessary…With the full participation of Belgian officials and Catholic institutions, this invented history was made the only basis of political organisation, as if there was no other way to govern and develop society.”
Did the international community come to its senses then when the UN was given precise information by Canadian General Romeo Dallaire that a systematic genocide was about to be executed? Again, the dehumanizing factor came into play in the most macabre way, when one set of lives was deemed less worthy than the other. While the 1948 Genocide Convention necessitated a Chapter VII mandate to use necessary force in the case of genocide and ‘acts of genocide’, it soon became clear that since Rwanda was neither a place of oil nor geo-political importance, necessary force and the duty to protect was not going to happen. National interest reigned supreme; humanitarian action was reigned in by what happened further north in Africa just months before the start of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The return of American soldiers in body bags after the ‘Black Hawk down’ killings in Somalia was one of the principal reasons that the Clinton Administration issued Presidential Directive 25, or PDD-25.
When the international community had the chance to act, media narratives churned out the usual reductive commentary on African affairs: same old tribal savagery, business as usual in Africa…
In the end, the bloodied spectacle of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda was delivered onto the lap of an overwhelmed United Nations, hamstrung as it was by the narrow interests of their Security Council member states. It was the sacrificial lamb at the altar of real politik, but nothing could atone for the cold indifference of many of the member states on the Security Council bar France, whose motivations for Operation Turquoise were less than philanthropic. The Bush Administration along with the UN promised a New World Order – a magnificent ideal that floundered in the realities of a post-Cold War world in which battles lines were drawn around ideologies and worldviews rather than trenches and front-lines.
As Miroslav Volf argues in his magnum opus, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, “exclusion” of people who are alien or different [real or imagined] is among the most intractable problems in the world today. He writes, “It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference. The issue is urgent. The ghettos and battlefields throughout the world―in the living rooms, in inner cities, or on the mountain ranges―testify indisputably to its importance.” He cautions in his other great book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World against perpetuating the evil committed rather than guarding against it. In this way, “the just sword of memory often severs the very good it seeks to defend.” We need to remember rightly in this violent world. Should people just let go of the past, or should we continue to remember, and in what way? Ultimately, in the case of the Genocide against the Tutsi, that is up to the Rwandan people to decide.
Today, Rwanda poses serious lessons to the world. Only a few weeks ago, a man incensed by bigotry and intolerance opened fire at a packed Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, leaving blood and disgust in his wake. If there’s one thing that we can be sure of, it’s that the only force in this world (or out of this world), more powerful than hatred and fear, is love and forgiveness. Farid Ahmed, who lost his wife in the terrorist attack, said “I lost my wife, but I don’t hate the killer. As a person, I love him. I cannot support what he did. But I think somewhere along in his life, maybe he was hurt. But he could not translate that hurt into a positive manner.” Although mainstream media has given far less exposure to these atrocities, it has transpired that Nigerian Christians have been suffering too – it is estimated that over the past couple of months, over three-hundred have been killed or had their houses razed to the ground by Fulani militants. The video below demonstrates the profound power of forgiveness. It is this type of reconciliation that is healing Rwanda to this day, and which is rooted in forgiving rather than forgetting. In the words of President Paul Kagame:
“If the Genocide reveals humanity’s shocking capacity for cruelty, Rwanda’s choices show its capacity for renewal. Today, half of all Rwandans are under 20. Nearly three-quarters are under 30. They are the new Rwanda. Seeing these young people carry the Flame of Remembrance, to all corners of the country over the last three months, gives us enormous hope. We are all here to remember what happened and to give each other strength. As we do so, we must also remember the future to which we have committed ourselves.”
.@PatriciaHeaton is overcome with emotion as she learns of a Rwandan woman’s decision to forgive the man that murdered her family. ❤️ “Often it’s women who help bring people together.” pic.twitter.com/TVexkf3dLd
— Entertainment Tonight (@etnow) March 1, 2019
Opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily represent those of Azizi Life, but those of the author.