Notes from the Debate on the twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide, Sunday April 6th 2014
At about twenty past eight on the evening of Wednesday, April 6th, 1994, an aircraft was approaching Kigali airport, the capital of Rwanda. It was carrying, among other people, Juvenal Habyarimana, the President of Rwanda, who was returning from peace talks in Tanzania designed to bring to an end the four year civil war in Rwanda. As the plane made its descent, missiles were fired which brought the plane down in flames and killed everyone on board. This was the signal for a bout of killings, lasting three months, which killed three quarters of a million people, about a tenth of the country’s total population. The killings were portrayed to the outside world as “tribal conflict”- in other words, these Africans are at it again, best just to let them get on with it. But this was just a smokescreen- the roots of the conflict went deep into Rwanda’s long history.
Rwanda is a small country, a bit bigger than Wales. It lies at the centre of Africa, just under a range of volcanoes (where gorillas are still found). The rivers flow mainly eastwards, eventually into the Nile, but the extreme west flows down to the Congo and the Atlantic. The soil is volcanic, the rainfall good, and most of the country high enough to escape from malaria. So it has long been the basis for thriving agriculture and a high population.
Rwanda society had for centuries consisted of three main groups: Tutsis, or cattle-herders; Hutus, or farmers; and Twa, or forest-dwellers. These all spoke the same language, Kinyarwanda (language differences are one of the main criteria of what it means to be separate “tribes”), and, although there are some physical differences- Tutsis on average tend to be taller, Twa shorter (sometimes called “pygmies” by Europeans)- evidence that these come from different ethnic origins is lacking. What is clear is that some few hundred years ago, two of the Tutsi clans managed to achieve a dominance over most of the country, and established a monarchy, with a mwami (king) who was always obliged to choose his queen from the other Tutsi clan. It’s possible that this development came because of the migration of new Tutsi clans from the north-east (developments in neighbouring Buganda may have pushed them southwards), and at times the monarchy extended its power far beyond present-day Rwanda, though never into the mountainous north-west of the country, where Hutu kingdoms remained independent. Some aspects of this monarchy were pretty cruel- if you rebelled, you could expect not only your own execution, but that of your whole family, and your farm would be give to others. Within the monarchy they told stories to explain these things: when Kigwa, the first man, came to earth from heaven, they said, he had three sons, whom he named Gatutsi, Gahutu and Gatwa. One day Kigwa needed to go on a long journey, and to test his sons, he gave them each a calabash of milk, telling them to keep it safe until his return. But Gatwa was greedy and drank the milk. Gahutu was clumsy, dropped the calabash and spilled the milk. So when Kigwa returned home, only Gatutsi was able to offer his father the refreshment he needed. Kigwa therefore decreed that from henceforth Gatutsi would rule over his brothers.
When Europeans first reached central Africa in the middle of the 19th century, this was the situation they found- a strong monarchy, ruling over a considerable area. The existence of this strong state gave the Europeans a dilemma, because according to their own mythology, Africans were not capable of building such organisations, only of living in simple clan and tribal societies. Early on, their thinking was based on the story of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, in Genesis chapters 9 and 10. Ham misbehaves, and is cursed, with all his descendents, by Noah. All Africans were thought to be children of Ham, and therefore cursed along with their father. The introduction to my grandfather’s Family Bible, which we still have, makes this abundantly clear.
Later thinkers rejected this old Genesis story as myth, but held to the new “scientific” theory of evolution, in which Africans were a lower, more primitive type of humans than Europeans. So Africans could not build strong monarchies. But here was a Tutsi monarchy in central Africa. Only one conclusion was possible- that the Tutsis were originally not Africans at all, but had come from elsewhere, and settling in central Africa, had easily achieved dominance over the more primitive African natives. Such was the understanding with which Europe began its colonisation of Africa.
Rwanda was first given to Germany, as part of their German East Africa, and remained so until Germany’s defeat in 1918. In the 1990s there were still old men who would shout after you “Long live the Kaiser”- I suspect it has died out now. The Rwandese word for “mayor” is Burugomisitiri, a Kinyrwanda pronunciation of Burgomeister. The early German missionaries preached mainly to the Hutus, who they regarded as a down-trodden people, but with only limited success. The royal family long despised this new-fangled European religion. It was when Rwanda and Burundi were given over to Belgium that determined efforts were made b y Belgian Catholic missionaries to covert the mwami, royal family and leading Tutsis to Christianity. They succeeded in the early 1930s, when the new mwami Rudahigwa encouraged Tutsi aristocrats to convert (though he himself was not baptised until 1943). Within a few decades Rwanda became, at least in nominal terms, the most Christian country in Africa, with over 80% of the population belonging to churches. True to what they saw as the ethnic divisions of Rwanda, all education was concentrated on the Tutsi elite, which simply reinforced the traditional pattern of Rwandese society. Whereas in the past a wealthy farmer could have his status changed and be recognised as Tutsi, now your position depended wholly on birth- identity cards were stamped with your “ethnic” origin. Of course, there was a rush to be registered as a Tutsi if you could manage it- about 15% of the population were so classified.
But these were also the days of Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change”, and European colonialism was about to end. In the late 1950s, as it became clear that the Belgians would soon leave, a political party grew up, called Parmehutu, which said that when the Belgians leave, we will not go back to the traditional society, we will have democracy, and rule by the majority. So, at independence in 1960 the mwami and royal family were expelled, and Gregoire Kayibanda, the head of Parmehutu, became president. But running a newly independent country was not easy. It was at the time when everyone thought that the best way countries could prosper was to export goods onto the world market- the Belgians had invested heavily in coffee production, but it was not to bring the promised results. Partly because of that, and accusations that he was not dealing strongly enough with the intermittent raids on the country led by Tusti exiles , and his government was too biased towards southerners, Kayibanda was overthrown in 1973 by a military coup led by Habyarimana. He was a north-easterner, from the part of Rwanda that had never been part of the Tutsi-led monarchy- and far more inclined to regard Tutsis as immigrants who did not belong in the country. We are too crowded, he said, to contemplate the return of any Tutsi exiles. But when coffee prices fell catastrophically on the world market in 1989, the country was plunged into deeper economic difficulties.
At precisely that time, in 1990, there came the biggest threat to date to Habyarimana’s Hutu government- an invasion of Tutsi exiles from Uganda: they had learned their skills helping Museveni come to power there, and were determined to change things in their native country.
Gradually antagonism against Tutsis grew- not only were they trying to return to “enslave us”, but the Tutsis living in Rwanda were the “inyenzi”, the cockroaches who needed to be “cleansed” for Rwanda to become a good and racially pure state. While peace negotiations went on in neighbouring Tanzania, forces in Habyarimana’s government were secretly arming gangs on unemployed young people, the “interahamwe” (those who work together), ready for the final show-down. This was sparked off by the shooting down of the President’s plane on April 6th. In the first couple of days, all the opposition politicians, Hutus included, who were known to be opposed to the genocide, were eliminated. And then the real “work” could begin. Tutsis were herded together, often into churches, and slaughtered with machetes. Scores of bodies were dumped in the river, to “send them back where they came from”.
Knowing what was happening, the invaders in the north, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, led by Paul Kagame, redoubled their efforts to end the war and the genocide. By July 1994 they had overrun the whole country, and many of those who had perpetrated the genocide fled into neighbouring Zaire, to nurture plans to re-invade Rwanda. So the RPF now had a two-fold task. It had to find a way to deal with the remnants of those who had organised and perpetrated the genocide, some of whom gradually returned to Rwanda, but others stayed out there, supported by President Mobutu of Zaire, a constant threat to the new Rwandese government. So when forces opposed to Mobutu staged a rebellion in Zaire, the Rwandan army joined in, creating a civil war which still goes on, and in which the role of Rwanda has come under increasing criticism.
And in Rwanda itself to rebuild a shattered country, where some of those who fled into Zaire were now returning, plus some 800,000 former exiles had come back with the victorious RPF. And plenty of widows and orphans. “We are not Hutu, Tutsi or Twa”, they said “we are all Rwandese”. In other words, the divisions of the past can no longer be a part of our country. But easier said than done.
Challenges: A continuing suspicion of Hutu males, even those who were born after 1994. Suspicion therefore that Kagame and his group never intended to let go of power. But unless Hutu young men are included resentment will build up again.
Causes for hope:
· A recent report that Rwanda is about to become the first African country to achieve the Millenium Development Goals in health.
· The Widows’ Co-operative in south Rwanda (Nyantanga)- visited in 1999. Working together well. It took a while to realise that there were both Hutu widows (whose husbands had taken part in the genocide, and who had either later been killed or disappeared), and Tutsi widows, whose husbands (and others in their families) had been killed in 1994. And yet they said “It is the love between us that will end the conflict in our country”. This attitude is not found everywhere in Rwanda today- but in some places.
· A Social Transformation Programme at Kigeme Episcopal Diocese, also visited in 1999. Groups to study what has happened in society in the light of the Gospel. The leader of the programme said “In the past in Rwanda there was too much obedience. It was true under the Monarchy, it was true under Colonialism, it was true under both the First and the Second Republics. So when the authorities told people to kill their neighbours, they obeyed. Now we are not teaching people to be rebels, but to question what the authorities tell them to do, to decide according to their own consciences.”