Rwanda 20 Years Later: Is Recovery Possible?  

On April 4, 1994 the small East African country of Rwanda began a permanent transformation. In the span of 100 days, an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 people were massacred in a bloody ethnic conflict between the minority Tutsi and majority Hutu. It wasn’t until the killings had largely ceased that the United Nations formally recognized the crimes against humanity that occurred in Rwanda as genocide. The international community was stunned and once again proclaimed, “Never Again”.

Twenty years later, the “land of a thousand hills”, where human remains once littered the streets, has become one of the cleanest countries in the world and is quickly evolving into an economic powerhouse. Predicted to be one of the first African nations likely to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, Rwanda is on track to provide universal primary education and healthcare, to reduce extreme poverty, and to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, all by 2015. Many scholars attribute Rwanda’s success to President Paul Kagame, a fierce leader whose strict administration has made it illegal to discuss ethnic identities and who is credited for repairing the once broken country. A former commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF),  a Tutsi militia group known to be complicit in the genocide, Kagame has operated from a military-esque approach for the past 14 years. Rwanda is the only country in the world whose parliament is mostly composed of women, though the Kagame administration has been criticized for its influence by males. With great strides being made in health, education and gender equality, Rwanda’s stunning recovery has made the country a success story. But one cannot help but to wonder, how are her citizens?

Rwanda has attempted to reconcile with its bloody past and the international community has helped to facilitate this lengthy and complicated process of healing. The gacaca courts are a community-based justice system that was established in 2001 to be used as a means of persecuting and jailing the overwhelming amount of genocidaires, or individuals who committed atrocities in 1994. Gacaca has been praised for being a grassroots form of restorative justice derived from a long cultural tradition of unity and healing. Additionally, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was erected by the U.N. Security Council and put on trial major players in the genocide. The actions of gacaca courts and the ICTR resulted in hundreds of thousands of trials, with many perpetrators serving speedy sentences only to return to the villages they had helped to destroy. Survivors and perpetrators have become neighbors, and it is not uncommon to hear stories of Hutu and Tutsi families intermarrying as a symbol of peace and forgiveness.

In a recent New York Times piece titled “Portraits of Reconciliation”, photographer Pieter Hugo captures perpetrators (all men) and survivors (mostly women) holding hands, standing side by side, and lying in the grass with one another. The photo series was commissioned by organizations that assist Rwanda’s  reconciliation efforts. One organization, the Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI), is non-profit and counsels small groups of Hutus and Tutsi, eventually guiding perpetrator’s to formally apologize to an individual whose life was disastrously affected by crimes he or she committed during the genocide. The perpetrator and his/her family bring peace offerings of food and beer to survivors and both parties agree to reconcile. This is followed by singing and dancing. Though a seemingly uplifting piece, the article shares the thoughts of the survivor and the perpetrator: a more critical reading of the statements reveals that for some survivors, forgiveness felt coerced, perhaps uttered in order to have a house rebuilt. Additionally, it seems as though some apologies may be motivated by the promise of early prison release. The individuals photographed are extremely admirable for participating in such a complicated and painful process; however, I do not believe the project to be a positive or accurate reflection of the true feelings of Rwandans. Programs such as these depict Rwandans as extraordinarily graceful and remarkably forgiving. Though I do not doubt the heart and courage my fellow countrymen and women have, putting Rwanda and her survivors on this impossible pedestal of reconciliation is potentially disastrous.

The genocide of 1994 was largely carried out with simple weapons like machetes, clubs, and knives. Countless survivors watched as their fathers, mothers, spouses, and children were beaten, maimed, and dismembered. An estimated 600,000 women were victims of sexual violence, and some gave birth to babies born of rape. Resuming normal life post-conflict has been everything but easy. Two decades later, mental illness in the form of PTSD and depression runs rampant. World Health Organization Rwandan representative Delanyo Dolvo believes that the situation calls for mass counseling. But even counseling is not the perfect solution. “The whole thing is just so pervasive, you probably need 10,000 counselors to even begin to make a difference…we all know that the effectiveness of this counseling, even in the best circumstances, is not that great,” Delvo admits. Adding to the challenge of working with direct genocide victims is “inter-generational trauma transmission,” a phenomenon documented following the Holocaust. I argue that this secondary trauma experienced by the children of survivors, these suppressed (and growing) ethnic tensions, and the forgiveness forced by governmental and non-profit agencies are detrimental.

True reconciliation following genocide is nearly impossible.  Victims are often forced to forgive perpetrators because they are neighbors and/or have little chance of seeing justice for their slain families. Buying into this myth of miraculous reconciliation leads to horrific consequences. Instead of ensuring true justice and thus adequate healing, there is an illusion of peace and forgiveness—but survivors are still suffering. Rwanda is not alright. Meanwhile, the international community, guilty of standing and watching as another genocide occurred, breathes a sigh of relief due to Rwandan’s seemingly remarkable progression. The world can now move on and forget what occurred in 1994 because to them, Rwanda has healed herself. But I believe the opposite to be true. Ethnic divisions, though not as visible, are stronger now more than ever. Residual anger lingers within children and surviving family members of those lost. Though the past twenty years have been the longest Rwanda has gone without conflict in recent history, what happens when Kagame’s reign is over? Or when citizens begin to violently protest the government? Is genocide on the horizon? True healing has not even begun, let alone been achieved, and the events of the genocide will remain in the DNA of Rwandans for decades to come.

As a refugee of the Rwandan genocide, I am truly concerned for the state of my people. Continued ethnic animosity can even be seen in Rwandan immigrant communities. Families and friends who were once close as newly settled immigrants begin to harbor anger and resentment based on cultural prejudice and political beliefs. Back in Rwanda, similar issues paired with property disputes, government actions, genocide allegations, and survivor-perpetrator proximity add more layers to the messy process of reconciliation. One begins to wonder if Rwanda can truly reconcile with her past and if forgiveness in this context is truly plausible. Perhaps not. But we can learn that forced forgiveness is not the answer and that true recovery is a long, complicated, heartbreaking, imperfect road.

Raissa M.



One thought on “Rwanda 20 Years Later: Is Recovery Possible?  

  1. Kathy says:

    So very disturbing ….well written!

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