The translator wouldn’t ask the question.
We were sitting in the community meeting space of a “reconciliation village” near Rweru, along the southern border of Rwanda with Burundi. We’d been talking with five villagers, three Tutsi who had survived the genocide and two Hutu who had been perpetrators – and who had also been their neighbors before the 1994 killings.
I’d been in a few other reconciliation villages – all founded by Prison Fellowship Rwanda, a religious non-profit which began working in Rwanda’s prisons over a decade ago to convince genocidaires to ask for forgiveness once they were released, and to counsel them in the Bible’s teachings about it. PFR has built six villages for Hutus and Tutsis who are willing to live together again, and to work in co-ops for the benefit of the community. They hope to build a total of 15 to 20 in the next few years as more genocidaires come out of prison.
The five villagers appeared relaxed and comfortable with each other, the Tutsi women even throwing their arms around the Hutu men with an easy affection when they posed to take a picture. Forgiveness took a lot of time, and work, explained one of the women, who lost almost all 48 members of her family during the genocide. But in the end, she said, “You forgive to separate yourself from the hatred.”
After we’d talked for a while, I wanted to move the conversation in a different direction. I wanted to ask about the tens of thousands of Hutus, overwhelmingly civilians, who’d been killed by the armed forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group of mostly Tutsi refugees, which had stopped the genocide – and whose leader, Paul Kagame, has been president of the country since 2000, and its de facto leader since 1994.
I carefully posed the question to my translator, who works for Prison Fellowship Rwanda, which is closely aligned to the government: “Was real reconciliation possible in Rwanda if there was no punishment for the killings of Hutus, no acknowledgment of their deaths?”
He shook his head. No. He would not ask the question. “It’s political,” he said.
“It’s above their level.”
It’s become one of the grimmest facts of late 20th-century history: more than half a million Rwandans – mostly Tutsis and some moderate Hutus -- lost their lives in just over a hundred days in 1994, while the world failed to intervene. The genocide was perpetrated by extremist Hutus, fed on a generation or more of propaganda that portrayed Tutsis as the enemy, as “cockroaches” that needed to be exterminated. Using whatever weapons were at hand – guns, knives, machetes, clubs, hoes – perpetrators killed as many as 800,000 of their countrymen, their neighbors, their relatives, their colleagues. It was an unthinkable mayhem that still frames the political, social and cultural landscape of the country today.
I didn’t come to Rwanda until the fall of 2015, 21 years after the genocide and nearly a decade after I’d begun working on this project. It was a deliberate choice to make this the last chapter of this work. Rwanda holds different lessons than the other places I’ve been. It holds warnings, too.
I’d followed Rwanda closely, concerned by its state-mandated agenda of unity and reconciliation -- a top-down, carefully-managed narrative aimed at constructing a new Rwanda, with only one ethnicity, “Rwandan.” In the other post-conflict places I’d worked on this project, including Sierra Leone and northern Uganda, I’d explored grassroots cultural efforts, community-driven work. Those endeavors seemed more genuine to me than Rwanda’s carefully-crafted national experiment, which has drawn on cultural sensibilities about truth-telling and forgiveness, but packaged them in a political mandate.
But then the scale of the killings in Rwanda was exponentially worse than the other places I’d been: An international criminal court, which closed in December 2015, after more than two decades of work at a cost of $2 billion, indicted 93 individuals; while the “gacaca” courts based on a local justice system, and called into action by Kagame, dealt with some two million cases over ten years in a flawed legal process that has drawn much criticism, from all sides.
From the beginning, a new narrative was being woven – a necessity, in so many ways, for a country that had ripped itself apart as viciously as Rwanda had. But it was being created by an elite group, led by Kagame, who also had much to gain by visioning a new story for Rwanda. Over the past twenty years, as the new version of Rwanda has been cemented, there has been a vast simplification of pre-genocide history, which now claims that Hutus and Tutsis always lived in peace until the colonial powers came; there has been the creation of a unified tale of the genocide itself, with clearly defined roles of Tutsis/moderate Hutus as victims and of all other Hutus as complicit or as perpetrators; and there has been a virtual silencing of any other version of Rwanda’s past or present through a government that has grown increasingly authoritarian, controlling the press and effectively eliminating political opposition.
I’ve called this chapter of the overall project “Postcards from Rwanda,” because during the month I was there, I found what many colleagues who know the country well had warned me of to be true: it’s almost impossible to have a meaningful discussion with Rwandans about anything that counters the new narrative.
For one thing, it’s illegal to use the designations “Hutu” or “Tutsi”; for another, to question the official version of the genocide – to ask anything about the massacre of tens of thousands of Hutus by RPF forces after the genocide was officially over – is to invite criminal charges of genocide denial or revisionism. Over and over again – in the reconciliation villages I visited, in shops, taxis, in tourist locations, at genocide sites – people offered almost identical observations, “Oh, we lived in peace before the colonial powers came. We were one,”; “The previous government taught us bad propaganda, they caused the violence”: “Thanks to this government, we are able to live in peace again.”
In fact, Hutus and Tutsis had a long and complicated relationship before the colonial powers came. The two groups had evolved over time – Hutus were cultivators, agrarians, making up by far the majority of the population, about 85 percent. The minority group, which tended cattle, were pastoralists known as Tutsis, who over time they became the ruling elite. Physical characteristics tended to mark each group – Hutus were shorter, with broad noses, and Tutsis were taller and thinner. But occasional intermarriage (which continued in the twentieth century) blurred those lines. And the distinctions were blurred even further by the fact that a Hutu who acquired cattle could become a Tutsi, while a Tutsi who lost his cattle also lost his status, becoming a Hutu.
The Germans, and then the Belgians, certainly made all of this worse when they showed up – creating rigid ethnic lines and deciding among other things that Tutsis, who had more “Caucasian” features than Hutus were the more intelligent group, favoring them highly within the colonialist power structure. But Westerners didn’t invent the distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis, or the tensions between them – tensions which extremist Hutus took to unthinkable extremes during the genocide.
You wouldn’t know that in post-genocide Rwanda. Colonial powers caused all the problems. Before they showed up, everything was fine. Period.
The new narrative is enshrined at Rwanda’s single most identifying public spaces -- the official memorial sites scattered around the country, where guides repeat the same truisms. Before the colonial powers came, there were no problems. There are no Hutus, no Tutsis, we are all Rwandans.
It’s a reductionist story that’s further simplified by the very design of the memorials – bones are placed in mass graves, with no attempt made to identify and individualize the remains (in fact, individual bodies which have been exhumed at massacre sites are not kept intact; remains are mixed together when they are brought to memorial sites). The scale is overwhelming, a monolithic horror – and the displays of exposed bones and stacked skulls are so raw that many survivors’ families have objected, asking for the bones to be buried.
Yet at each of the sites I visited, there was also a carefully orchestrated acknowledgment of one or two individual stories, settings of single coffins or graves marked with specific text about how the person was killed. One victim speaks for the thousands of victims who lie in adjoining mass graves. It’s a vivid punctuation point in a structured narrative that rests on a bipolar unity – one group of victims, one group of perpetrators. “They” (Hutus) did that to “them” (Tutsis).
The government is intentional in the story it’s creating with these memorials, in the public space that it’s curating and controlling for remembering the genocide. The aim is to have every victim of the genocide, or as many as can be recovered, buried at one of the sites. I ask a guide about families whose loved ones may have been killed near their homes – whose remains are easily located and identified. What if that family has already buried the victim and prefers to keep a private grave on their own property, or in their village, as a way of mourning and caring for their relative?
“Well, it’s possible,” the guide says. “But someone from the government will visit them and talk to them about the memorials. Once they are sensitized, they usually see that it’s the right thing to bring the remains here.”
I made my driver uncomfortable more than a few times during the two or three weeks he took me around Kigali and beyond, pressing as delicately as possible on some of his rote answers. The day he told me, “We had a government who told us bad things, now we have a good government,” I pushed gently, asking what would happen if a bad government came back in power? Would he believe what that government said? Several Rwandans I’d met had said Oh, no, never again (“never again,” not surprisingly, is a core theme the government’s platform of unity and reconciliation), yet my driver startled me when he replied, “Well, that is the problem. We are African. We don’t like to think for ourselves. How can we change that?”
The danger, the warning bells, of a society with a unified narrative that allows for no other voices in the public space, is that people aren’t encouraged to think for themselves. In fact, it’s actually discouraged, or criminalized – or it can cost you your life (several opposition politicians forced to leave Rwanda have been murdered abroad in recent years). This doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t Rwandans firmly committed to building a just society, that there aren’t deep and genuine acts of reconciliation to be found, and of friendships preserved across ethnic lines. It’s just that the suppression of truth – of someone else’s narrative – makes for a shaky foundation for nation building.
Unfortunately, the West has been complicit from the beginning in allowing Kagame to create this highly selective version of Rwanda’s national identity. In October 1994, a team of UNHCR investigators filed a report claiming that the RPF had committed genocide on the civilian Hutu population, killing an estimated five to ten thousand people a month between April and August of that year. The Gersony Report, as it’s known, was buried, apparently under orders from the highest levels of the UN, and with the agreement of the US. For years, officials denied the report’s existence, until it was leaked to the press in 2010. But the damage had been done – Kagame and the RPF were never held accountable by the international community for the killings.
The first chapter in an official new narrative had begun, one that continues to the present. “It’s political,” as my translator said that day when I tried to raise the question with the villagers who’d told me about their own reconciliation. “It’s above their level.”
International donors and Kagame’s friends – including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – were far more impressed by the rapid strides Rwanda has made under Kagame’s leadership. The country stabilized quickly and is celebrated in many circles abroad, particularly among Christian groups, as a model of reconciliation; economic growth has clocked in at around six percent a year (made possible in part by foreign aid which has accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the country’s annual budget); red tape and mid- and low-level corruption have been virtually eliminated, making Rwanda a magnet for investment; Rwandans are now guaranteed nine years of free, compulsory education; the country has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians in the world (68 percent); litter has been reduced (Kagame banned plastic bags nation-wide); and Kigali is a relatively safe, clean capital (helped in part by laws that make it illegal, for example, to run out of gas).
But twenty-one years after the genocide, after the RPF came to power, Kagame’s tightly-woven narrative is showing signs of fraying. Criticisms long made by human rights activists – about the regime’s human rights record, about repression of the media and political opposition – are starting to be echoed by others. Kagame has drawn sharp criticism from the UN for Rwanda’s role in two decades of unrest in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo – a conflict that has taken an estimated five million lives. And his goal of turning agrarian Rwanda into a middle income society by 2020 is falling short: an estimated 85 percent of the country remains in poverty, living on $1.50 a day.
So much is hidden in plain sight. So much of the past – the past that no one talks about openly – is there for the seeing. A Rwandan colleague, a fellow photographer, who now lives in the US, returned for the first time in years not long ago to visit family. He has thought of the genocide as a visual atrocity – in which people were often singled out for death based solely on their looks, on whether they had the physical traits associated with Tutsis.
He was startled to find that despite the national refrain of “We are all Rwandan,” the visual landscape – billboards, entertainment, advertising – was actually dominated by a specific physical type: the tall, slender, straight-nosed look of Tutsis. Watching the Miss Rwanda pageant in 2014, he was shocked to learn there was a height requirement for contestants. To enter, they had to be at least 1.63 cm (nearly 5’7”) tall, a restriction that all but virtually eliminated Hutu women, who are generally shorter, from the contest.
He says he needs to concentrate on the good things that are happening in Rwanda, on the committed relationships he sees between Hutus and Tutsis. It’s what gives him hope. But he remains uneasy about the future of his country. “The shadows,” he says, “are hiding lots of violence.”
Shadows. Lessons. Warnings. It’s hard to read between the lines of Kagame’s post-genocide narrative, with any surety of where that script will lead. But every time I think about the fact that it’s illegal to use the words Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, I can’t help thinking of my first long-term, post-conflict project, in Bosnia and Hercegovina, once part of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
When World War II came to an end, Marshall Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader of Yugoslavia’s Partisan forces during World War II, created a second Yugoslavia, a socialist federation of six nations whose peoples were Croat, Serb and Bosniak (Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim) – and who had been on different sides of the conflict. Tito outlawed the use of those names, declaring “Unity and Brotherhood” as the guiding principle for all Yugoslavians.
It was an authoritarian regime. Tito was named president for life in 1953, although he was widely seen as a “benevolent dictator.” But his death in 1980 triggered tensions that had always been just beneath the surface – leading to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, fueled by the nationalist identities Tito had tried to stamp out. In 1995, near the end of the war in Bosnia (and just one year after the bloodletting in Rwanda), Serb forces murdered some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in what has been called the worst genocide in Europe since World War II.
At the end of 2015, Kagame announced that he would seek a third, seven-year term in the 2017 elections – to the very vocal dismay of many in the West, including the US, who see the move as undermining Rwanda’s development as a democracy. Although Rwanda’s post-genocide constitution specifically limited the presidency to two terms in office, rumors began circulating months earlier that Kagame wanted a third term in office. The RPF-controlled Parliament had approved an initiative allowing that change, which went to a national referendum vote in early December, in which 98.3 percent of voters agreed to amend the constitution.
The change also allows the possibility of two additional five-year terms, which means that Kagame could continue to rule – continue to write Rwanda’s narrative – until 2034, forty years after the genocide.
Shadows. Lessons. Warnings.