Twenty-five years after the massacre of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Rwanda and the world gathered this month to remember the lives of those lost. For victims and their perpetrators, it was a chance to explore their Rwandan identity as well as heal old wounds.
Rwandans commemorated the 25th anniversary of the start of the genocide on 7 April. In the capital Kigali, citizens were urged to “kwibuka” “remember” in Kinyarwanda, the official language. Remembrance has long been one of the overarching policies of the Rwandan Patriotic Front government of Paul Kagame to heal the country.
When he captured control of Rwanda in July 1994, he inherited not so much a state as a cemetery. In the preceding 100 days, some 800,000 Tutsis and 30,000 moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu extremists and civilians alike. Their rotting corpses were still lying in the streets and many churches.
The memory of the massacre is kept alive through a string of government programmes. Pupils for instance are discouraged from identifying themselves as Hutu or Tutsi and are instead asked to focus on building the future of a common Rwanda, in the spirit of the country's new flag and national anthem unveiled in 2001.
Bridging the divide
The issue of reconciliation reverberates strongly in Kagame's regime, although some critics complain the Tutsi rebel commander turned politician is exploiting the horrors of the past to deflect attention away from his authoritarianism. The Rwandan president has always responded that the West has no right to lecture him on morality, accusing the big powers of having turned a blind eye to the genocide.
In the run up to the commemorations, Kagame joined both Hutus and Tutsis in a community building exercise in Nyanza, around 100 km from the capital, to clean up and remove weeds from memorial sites.
This emphasis on unity appears to have paid dividends. In 25 years, the small, landlocked country with a population of 12 million has experienced no further large-scale violence. Further still, it is prospering, with rapid growth, and sharply declining poverty. Many attribute Kigali's success story to Kagame..
Double genocide theory
However, in recent years, new studies have emerged seeking to shed a different spin on Rwanda's complex and charged history. For instance, the Netflix production Black Earth Rising airs the arguments of Kagame's supporters but also unearths comments of his opponents, who accuse the RPF of orchestrating a tit-for-tat killing of Hutus in what is presented as a double genocide.
In a recent interview with magazine Jeune Afrique, Kagame downplayed these revisionist ideas--revisionism and genocide denial are in fact against the law in Kigali. “Like the [Jewish] Holocaust, many people are still in denial because they don't want to face up to their responsibilities,” he said.
Maybe so, but Rwanda's participation in two subsequent wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and backing of eastern rebels, led international donors to suspend a number of aid programmes in 2013. The move angered Kagame, who that year devoted national commemorations to the theme of self-reliance, encouraging citizens to contribute to a national development fund to make up the shortfall. Still, the irony won't be lost on certain survivor groups, who have long complained about receiving inadequate reparations.
This year's theme is likely to focus on the region. Tensions between Rwanda and Uganda soared last month when Kigali closed down a busy border crossing with Kampala, accusing President Yoweri Museveni of harbouring and protecting Rwandan dissidents hostile to the RPF government.
However, Museveni is not the only one on Kagame's black list. Tensions have risen also with Burundi's leader Pierre Nkurinziza, who accuses Kagame of leaving out Hutus from his national reconciliation plans. But the fact that quite a number of Hutu political and military figures who were very much anti RPF and anti-Tutsi have now been reintegrated not just into society but into the army and government, would suggest otherwise. The attitude is: “let it go. If we want peace we have to be reconciled with our enemies”.
There has been a thaw in Franco-Rwandan relations recently too, which were strained over allegations of French complicity in the genocide in support of the Hutu government. A sign of this was President Emmanuel Macron's support of Rwanda's former Foreign Affairs chief Louise Mushikiwabo for the job of head of the Francophonie organisation, which she got. And, Kagame's personal invitation to Macron to attend Sunday's ceremony. Yet outstanding issues remain over bringing to justice alleged perpetrators, many of whom have found refuge in France.
On Friday, Macron sought to dissipate some of these doubts by appointing a new team of researchers and historians to look into archives of France's role in the mass murder. The French president himself will not be attending the commemorations, but is sending Rwanda-born MP Hervé Berville to lead the French delegation. Over thirty heads of state are expected to attend.