The Rwandan genocide: the mass atrocity that hasn’t yet said its last word

On April 26th, 2018, the director of the Memorial for the Rwandan genocide announced the discovery of over 200 dead bodies in mass graves dating from the Rwandan genocide. After this announcement, several survivors of the genocide went there to try and identify the exhumed bodies. Maybe they were able to recognize the necklace that belonged to their sister, or the t-shirt that their dad was wearing the day he disappeared. One thing is for sure: those responsible for these massacres thought they could hide the dead, erase their tracks… But eventually, the truth always comes out.

April 2018 marks the 24th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a despicable massacre which killed 800 000 innocent victims in only three months. The international community proved unable to respond in time, and tried to deny its responsibility by claiming it was impossible to anticipate such a turn of events back in 1994. However today, historical hindsight allows us to doubt these claims: especially when analyzing the chronology of events, the persecution and stigmatization phases that led to the genocide.

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To understand the dynamics that led to the massacre of more than 800 000 people, mostly Tutsis, we need to look back at history. The introduction and internalization of identity impulses based on ethnicity date back to the colonial period. At the beginning of the 20th century, German rule on Rwanda laid the cornerstones of an ethnic ideology favoring the Tutsi tribe over both the Twa and the Hutu tribes, thus encouraging its superiority on a professional, economic and social level. This discriminatory treatment in terms of ethnicity was then pursued by Belgium at the end of the First World War. Under this new colonial regime, Tutsi’s continue to be considered as superior, which sparked feelings of hatred between the different tribes, whose ethnicity had been formalized as their main marker of identity. Incidentally, in 1931, the ethnic origin of Rwandans appeared on their registration card.

In 1962, Rwanda become independent. Finally, the country would be able to have control over its own history, to build itself as an autonomous entity, to be master of its own destiny and to defend the interests of the Rwandan people… “Finally”, they thought. Yet, what appeared as a historic opportunity soon turned into a nightmare. After its independence, the regime was overthrown in favor of the Hutu tribe. Multipartyism was allowed in 1991, so the Tutsi tribe continued to exist in the opposition; but the memory of years of ethnic policies and discriminations made any opposition appear as a racial conflict. The Hutu government also put in place a hateful and discriminating propaganda towards Tutsis, which became more and more targeted by violence perpetrated by armed forces working for the government. These exactions grew in scope with the development of a civil war. On April 6th, 1994, the attack perpetrated against the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, marks the beginning of the genocide.

More than 800 000 dead. More than 8000 children, women and men slaughtered in a systematic, structured and strategic way. More than 800 000 people massacred because of a “Hutu” reference on their identity card. More than 800 000 victims of violence from individuals in military uniform, but also from neighbors who had been convinced of the necessity to erase anybody who was different.

On the 4th of July 1994, the Patriotic Rwandan Front, created by the Tutsis in 1987, won the military victory that put an end to the massacres. However, the damage was already done…and the worst was yet to come. There was a social pact to rebuild, feelings of revenge and hatred to master, a duty of justice to fulfill…the challenges remained numerous.

The judgement of those responsible not only represents an issue but also an unavoidable duty. How do we go about reintergrating the survivors of such a massacre? How can we begin to imagine that the very notion of coexistence when the sense of impunity is so dominant?

The UN responds in part to this duty of justice through the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), established on 8 November 1994 by the Security Council. The duty of justice however does not only require the judgement of the direct perpetrators of the genocide but also that of its indirect leaders and accomplices. This therefore raises the question concerning the responsibility of the international community and its catastrophic defection. The role played by France (in the context of Operation Turquoise, under a humanitarian  mandate accepted by the UN) is often considered a taboo subject. Did it provide weapons to the genocidal government? Francois Hollande announced three years earlier the declassification of all the archives relative to this operation. Yet to date, their access continues to be complicated.

Other non-state entities are also accused of complicity in regard to the perpetrators of the genocide. Therefore NGO’s like Ibuka (“remember you” in Kinyarwanda) point to the potential liability of actors like BNP Paribas. The NGO, along with Sherpa anti-corruption association and the Civil party Collective for Rwanda) filed a complaint against the bank for “complicity in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity”. They accuse the company of having participated in the financing of arms purchases for Rwanda even though an arms embargo had been voted by the UN.

The duties of memory, of justice and support for the survivors are far from fulfilled, even today. These duties require continuous efforts to which we can all contribute. The statement “never again” in the context of mass atrocities, genocide and crimes against humanity has shown its limitations and failures. It is only when we devote more to the duty of memory that this statement can be truly powerful.

This article was written by Valentine Blés- a member of the Communications Task Force. Valentine is currently finishing her masters in International relations (specialising in Middle Eastern studies and diplomacy) at Sciences Po Paris.

The article was then translated by Marion Andréani, a member of the Translation Task force and Lily Pryer, the Communications Coordinator at STAND France. 





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