As Rwanda pursues reconciliation, let's not forget to remember
Monday marks 20th anniversary of genocide that paralyzed the world
Twenty years ago Monday, Hutu extremists, armed with machetes and machine guns, began killing their neighbors. On the first of what would become known as the 100 Days, they shot, maimed and tortured Tutsi men, women and children as the world stood by and watched.
Hours earlier, the plane carrying Rwandan President JuvÃ©nal Habyarimana was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, the nation's capital. To date, the culprits behind the attack that killed everyone on board, remain unknown.
But what is clear is that the assassination initiated a slaughter that spread through the country with horrifying precision and speed. After decades of racial tension, Hutu extremists, representing the country's ethnic majority, took it upon themselves to eliminate the Tutsi minority from Rwanda. It may seem simple; majority versus minority, one race against another.
But as I learned last semester, nothing about Rwanda is simple.
In a seminar with UB's Comparative Literature Department, I studied the origins of the Rwandan genocide and the narratives produced by witnesses, survivors and perpetrators. Learning about the history of Rwanda and the enduring influence of its colonization, and reading the firsthand accounts of the endless, atrocious violence that gripped that nation for months, permanently altered my understanding of the Rwandan genocide.
The timeline of the genocide is probably all too familiar by now. In the span of approximately three and a half months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered with minimal intervention from the international community. The timeline of the genocide and the shocking brutality and sheer terror it evoked have been documented in history books and brought into the public eye by films like the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda.
Updates from the country today speak of rebuilding a nation torn apart by violence, and as poverty rates fall and life expectancy doubles, statistics suggest a nation on the mend. But meanwhile, the survivors of the genocide pursue both justice and reconciliation, with news outlets documenting stories of some Hutus and Tutsis living together in peace, while other survivors continue to fight for the conviction of the genocide's participants.
Although the "during" and the "after" of the genocide are critically important, in all the news coverage and analyses it seems the "before," an equally crucial part of Rwanda's violent story, is often overlooked.
Before enrolling in the course, which is taught by Shaun Irlam, I maintained what was (I think) a fairly typical level of familiarity with the event. I knew the violence was ethnic in nature, between Hutus and Tutsis. I often forgot who the good guys and bad guys were; whenever the topic came up (usually each April), and I realized my ignorance, I'd double check on Wikipedia to make sure I seemed reasonably knowledgeable. And because I'd watched Hotel Rwanda, I also thought I understood the violent nature of the events and the suffering of all those involved.
Once I'd studied the genocide for a semester, I knew enough to acknowledge that I hadn't really known anything.
The complexity of the relationship between Hutus and Tutsis had completely escaped me. In contrast to my assumption, and the common portrayal that Hutus and Tutsis are distinct ethnic groups, when they originally settled in Rwanda, the ancestors of Hutus and Tutsis created a single language and shared the same religious and cultural beliefs. The primary difference between Hutus and Tutsis was occupational: Hutus tended to work as farmers while Tutsis raised cattle. People tended to marry within their occupational groups, leading to physical differences between the groups, though due to intermarriage these differences were far from absolute.
This may not seem relevant; after all, I'm looking back centuries prior to the events of 1994. But, as I learned, Rwanda's history is key to its present. Specifically, Rwanda's colonial history led to the creation of the ethnic groups that I had so casually accepted as inherent and defined as "good" and "bad."
Hutus and Tutsis were beginning to identify as increasingly separate groups, with the pastoral Tutsis beginning to take power, when, in an all-too-familiar story of imperialistic conquest, Europeans arrived. In Rwanda, these Europeans were the German; they maintained a relatively hands-off approach but relied on Tutsis to maintain control over Hutus, reinforcing Tutsi elitist attitudes. But after WWI, Germany ceded control of Rwanda to Belgium, who directly manipulated the social structure of the population.
Under Belgian rule, Hutus were branded as ignorant, inferior outsiders while Tutsis were lauded as intelligent, cultured Rwandan natives. Hutus struggled to gain access to education, maintain any positions of power or progress economically. The Belgian colonial government produced distinct identities and ensured that Tutsis and Hutus remained continually at odds, and in doing so fueled an ethnic hatred powerful enough to generate a genocide decades later.
After the country gained independence in 1962, the population endured years of continued ethnic and political conflict that culminated with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans.
I knew nothing of this history, but now that I do I'll never think about the Rwandan genocide in the same way. There's nothing simple about the events that transpired, nowhere to easily locate the blame and no way to seek retribution for the injustices sustained by the nation as it was taken over by colonizing forces. But as the Rwandans who committed acts of violence during the genocide continue to face trial, I think it's important to remember that they're not the only guilty parties.
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