Rebuilding Rwanda: ten years on

Fr Mark Raper SJ

As many Christians commemorate the Holy Week leading to Easter, thousands of quiet, sad memorials will be held across Rwanda as the people of that country re-enact their own passion story. Ten years ago, on April 6, 1994, a raging genocide was unleashed which claimed more than 800,000 Rwandan lives in 100 days. This densely populated and beautiful central African country was decimated and two million of its people displaced. The world was shocked but also paralysed.

In the year or so before the genocide, I had been on several missions to neighbouring Burundi as the agency I then directed, the Jesuit Refugee Service, had been invited to help displaced people and refugees to return home. With the outbreak of violence in Rwanda, we went to Bukavu in Zaire (now Congo) - at the southern part of Lake Kivu in Rwanda's southwest corner - to prepare for the possible arrival of refugees. The community at a large Jesuit school, Alfajiri College, agreed to assist, though none of us imagined the deluge of humanity that would soon wash over this remote corner of the country.

Once the fury of the conflict had ebbed, I made my way to Rwanda's near deserted capital, Kigali. At our Jesuit retreat house, Centre Christus, I found the blood-soaked room where just months before, on April 7, a group of people had been murdered. Among them were three Jesuits, Innocent Rutagambwa, Chrysologue Mahame and Patrick Gahizi. Patrick was the superior of the Jesuits in Rwanda and director of the local JRS program, helping refugees who had fled Burundi after the assassination of its president the previous October.

I found a spent cartridge that I still have as a relic, along with others from Liberia and Bosnia.

Whenever I chance upon these relics, I search for some meaning to these events. What really happened? Why did it happen? Could something like this happen to us? How could the international community be so quick to respond to the humanitarian tragedy, yet so impotent when it came to preventing it? How can the Rwandan people mourn their losses, find a realistic sense of justice and be reconciled and united as a people?

What did happen? It was portrayed as ethnic conflict, as if that truth was also an explanation. On April 6, a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it landed in Kigali. The president, a Hutu, had been preparing, under intense international pressure, to sign into law the Arusha accords. This would bring about a more democratic process and Habyarimana ran the risk of losing his 20-year grip on power. Immediately the Rwandan Armed Forces and Hutu militia (the interahamwe) set up roadblocks and went from house to house, killing Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians. The next day 10 Belgian soldiers with the UN peacekeeping forces were killed along with the moderate prime minister whom they were assigned to guard.

In these attacks that precipitated the genocide, extremist Hutus first targeted moderate Hutus and other moderate figures, whatever their ethnicity.

Prising open the layers of Rwandan society, one can find factors that help us begin to understand. The withdrawal of colonial power after independence in 1962 accentuated ethnic cleavages which were often manipulated through media propaganda and discrimination in employment practices and education policies. Exclusive ethnic conceptualisations of what it meant to be Rwandan were promoted.

Rwanda's population, some three million in the 1960s, had risen to about 7.5 million in 1994 and its density was among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. The new experience of nationalism in Africa rigidified borders and made the natural nomadism of previous centuries impossible. By the mid-1980s family farming plots had been divided as many times as possible, leaving many second, third and fourth sons without an income or a future. At about this point the international market for Rwanda's principal commodity, coffee, collapsed to one half of its former value. Another factor was the growing scourge of HIV/AIDS, which left many young people without the care and direction of their parents.

Since independence the Belgians had intensified their input into education for the Hutu population, therefore many boys and, for Africa, a high proportion of girls, had had the opportunity of secondary school education. So there was a significant population of young people whose hopes and expectations had been raised by their schooling, but who were now uprooted, left landless, jobless and futureless. Rwanda was like a dry forest after a long drought. The desire for power and the precipitating fear provided the spark. Individuals with political aspirations exploited the discontented mass of young people, using radio stations to send them to the hills with a poisoned message of ethnic hatred. Ethnicity and discontent were exploited by individuals for corrupt reasons, allowing the conflict to escalate steadily until the planned and speedily implemented genocide of 1994.

Could the international community have done something to stop the slaughter? With the warnings from NGOs on the ground, couldn't powerful nations have done something? Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian chief commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1993-1994, tried in vain to persuade his superiors (Kofi Annan was then head of UN peacekeeping) to send more troops. He left Rwanda in 1994 with a post-traumatic stress disorder and recently published Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, which gives a first-hand account of the genocide. The reluctance of the US for humanitarian intervention, shaped by its humiliation in Somalia, influenced other powers in their tragic inaction.

What can be done now? The Rwandan people have put enormous energy into reconciliation, rebuilding and overcoming its debilitating history. Last year the Rwandan people cast their votes peacefully, approving a new constitution outlawing incitement to ethnic hatred. There are positive moves to achieve a sense of national unity and a more inclusive, ethnically heterogeneous national identity. Structures and rhetoric are intended to hold the people together as one nation. Despite the pride in these efforts, there is still much grief. Of course people cannot forget what has happened.

Creative attempts to seek justice have been enacted in Rwanda. Because of the immense number of people accused of involvement in the genocide, and because of the small number of people competent to run the existing justice system, many accused were still awaiting trial years after 1994. So a village justice system, gacaca, was set up, to help all Rwandans acknowledge the truth. Last year 40,000 people were released under the gacaca system. It is not only prisoners who are released, but also survivors, who risk being prisoners of the past. It has been important to find a system of justice that will not be so heavy that the whole society is forced to carry its burden.

Rwanda's experience is very particular, but carries echoes of other stories of survival after crisis. In my 20 years with the JRS I came into contact with survivors in many countries, including East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia, Angola and Bosnia. Those who have experienced brutal atrocities have forged a range of emotional and psychological survival tactics. While some survivors choose to forget, others were clear that only by remembering could they recover. Most wanted to know the reasons and to learn every detail about what happened and who was responsible for the disappearance or death of their husbands, mothers, siblings, friends and colleagues. They wanted to bring these people to justice and so begin to put the past behind them. They said, "We don't seek revenge but justice, and the perpetrators have to be responsible for their acts." They want reconciliation but reconciliation with justice. They don't want past events to recur.

In El Salvador I learned that there is a natural progression from truth to justice to reconciliation. Then in Rwanda we learned that one cannot begin to inquire into the truth of what happened until the mourning is complete. And mourning does not end until the bodies are properly buried and the spirits of the dead can rest at peace. As the time for mourning passes, in the calm that follows, it becomes more possible to learn what really happened. Judgements can then be made on the basis of the facts, establishing the truth as much as possible and enabling decisions about reconciliation. Yet while the truth must come out, there is a risk that constant repetition of the stories will cause sentiments to harden.

The immense heaviness of the Rwandan story was from the beginning lightened for me by the qualities of many people whom I met, whether in Rwanda or in the refugee camps. I witnessed great kindness and repeated acts of courage. Hundreds of families took in orphaned children, as the most natural and most African thing to do. Tutsi widows helped their Hutu neighbours prepare food to take to men in prison who may have killed their husbands. In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch tells the stories of two groups of schoolgirls in Kibuye and Gisenyi, who during an attack on their schools were roused from their sleep and ordered to separate into Hutus and Tutsis. The girls refused, saying they were simply Rwandans, and they were beaten and shot indiscriminately. Gourevitch concludes, "Mightn't we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?"

Should we hold memorials, or should we try to forget? No one can tell a grieving widow to forget the love of her life or the child of her flesh. Ten years is a short time for mourning and recovery after such an immense tragedy, and memory is important. But it is important for the Rwandan people to remember also the heroism shown by those girls. And it is important for us, international friends, to know that side of the story too. Rwanda remains poor, the extreme pressure for land remains. Its people deserve our prayers certainly, but also our solidarity in looking to the root causes of the injustices they have suffered and of their grief.

Mark Raper SJ AM is provincial of the Australian Jesuits. From 1990 to 2000 he was international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, based in Rome, and throughout the 1980s he was regional director of JRS for Asia and the Pacific, based in Bangkok. This article was published in the Australian Financial Review on Friday 2 April 2004.