27 years since the Rwandan genocide — it is time to remember the past and acknowledge the present

By Brian Endless, PhD

Today, April 6th, marks a very sad day of commemoration. 27 years ago this evening, the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it returned to Kigali airport. This is the trigger that started the Rwandan genocide, as the call went out on Radio RTLM, also known as Hutu Power Radio, to “cut down the tall trees.” Over the next 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed as genocidal violence swept the country. The primary perpetrators were the Rwandan military and Interhamwe militias, comprised largely of Hutu youths. The genocide was horrific and became the fastest mass killing in history, with everyone in the country affected as friends and relatives were caught up in the violence. Tutsis were targeted by the military and militia because of their ethnicity. Hutu politicians and elites who were not a part of the Hutu Power movement were also targeted, along with any Hutus who were seen as supporters of peace with the Tutsis. And many others of both ethnicities were caught up in the violence that ensued; if you were unable to prove your identity, or unwilling to call out or kill Tutsis in your area, you might be killed.

Before going any further, I should perhaps note that I am called a “genocide denier” by the Rwandan government and those who support the narrative that government pushes about the genocide. Please reread the first paragraph and look for any signs of “denial,” and then continue. The problem is that I have read Rwandan history, have expertise in that country’s current events, and have spoken with many Rwandans who now reside outside of the country. I have talked extensively with people who survived the genocide, including many who lost loved ones. These people are both Hutu and Tutsi. And they all suffered loss. But President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan regime do not approve of the genocide history and reality that I have learned over time. And that is a crime worthy of arrest and possibly death if I ever went to Rwanda.

Because in Rwanda, the story is that only Tutsis died in the genocide. There were no Hutu victims, only Hutu killers and Hutu accomplices. And any discussion of the Hutus who suffered and lost their lives alongside Tutsis during that terrible time is illegal. But since I am not in Rwanda, I’d like to talk more about it.

In commemorating the genocide, I join many in the Rwandan diaspora in a fervent desire to acknowledge ALL of those killed — Tutsis and Hutus. This horrific event happened, and we do a major injustice to the Rwandan people if the history of the genocide is allowed to be dictated by one side. In addition, we need to talk about all of the killers, and that also goes beyond a simple “Tutsi victim, Hutu killer” dynamic.

Even the number of people who died in the genocide is a politcal question and we’ll never know the actual numbers of people killed. In my research the numbers are somewhere between 300–500,000 Tutsis killed of the 800,000 total dead between April and July. There were also another 100–200,000 killed from July-December after the genocide ended, almost of those Hutus killed in repraisal killings by the new Rwandan Tutsi military. In the Rwandan census of 1994, there were approximately seven million people in the country, with 14% of those being Tutsis. This equals more than 950,000 Tutsis, with approximately half of them killed in the genocide. While this is a terrible number in itself, if only Tutsis had been killed the group would be largely wiped out, with only 150,000 left after the genocide out of six million plus citizens. No one is suggesting that this is the case.

What we do know is that this genocide was a terrible culmination of hundreds of years of infighting among Hutu and Tutsi elites, with the vast majority of the Rwandan people as observers who were occasionally drawn into incredibly bloody conflicts. It began with Tutsi kingdoms before colonialism. Then the Tutsi kings and elites kept their power by working with subsequent German and Belgian colonizers. During these times, the majority (approximately 85% at any point in time) Hutus were subjugated and discriminated against in all walks of life. Power struggles between elites began in the late 1950s and culminated with independence in 1962, when a Hutu regime took over. Around 20,000 Tutsis were killed in the ensuing violence, and many fled into exile in surrounding countries. This included current President Paul Kagame, who as a young child fled with his family to Uganda.

Hutus ruled from 1962–1994, and the 1994 genocide was the culmination of a four year civil war that began when Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda. The RPF, many of whom were veterans of civil wars in Uganda, began slowly but made quick advances over time, and sadly the violence in this civil war included reports of atrocities on both sides.

And then the plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down. There is still some controversy over this in that the Rwandan government claims it was done by Habyarimana’s own party, but the past 10 years have seen numerous witnesses come forward who were involved in the planning and execution of the event, and who state that it was ordered by Paul Kagame and carried out by the RPF. Whether or not the RPF knew that a genocide would ensure, this was intended to light the fire of the civil war and allow the RPF to finish their conquest of the country. And the last 100 days of the civil war, the period of the genocide, were some of the bloodiest days of human history. In addition to the genocidal violence by Hutu military and militias, there were also many war crimes reported against Hutus as the RPF advanced toward Kigali.

This was a civil war and genocide driven by elites on both sides in an effort to take or keep control of the country, and 800,000+ mostly innocent people died for their efforts.

Since the genocide, Paul Kagame and his government have used their propaganda to create a new vision of Rwanda. A country that struggled through a genocide, and thanks to his leadership came out of the other side as a darling of development experts and the West. But these stories, bought into by western leaders and many in the press for years, have a terrible underlying reality.

Kagame did not create a Rwanda in which all people are equal and prospering. He rather recreated Rwanda in his own image, reverting to the old ways of governance in which Tutsi elites dominate the landscape, and not only Hutus, but also many Rwandan Tutsi survivors are discriminated against in jobs, in education, in law, and in practical reality every day. Economically, a small elite around Kagame control all business and investment in the country. The press is completely in the pocket of the administration, and any attempts at independent press work are quickly snuffed out, often violently. No one can challenge the RPF in any meaningful way at any level of politics, and those who try are harassed, threatened, sent to reeducation camps, imprisoned, or killed. Ordinary people see their lives controlled at every turn, with military outposts every few kilometers across the country, and local defense forces monitoring every town and village for the government.

The biggest difference between Paul Kagame and past Hutu authoritarian leaders is that Kagame is MUCH better at what he does. Scholars have noted that his goal is to create a society in which dissent is not allowed in any form, and he edges closer to achieving that goal every day.

Commemorating the Rwandan genocide is not just about remembering those who were lost. That is crucial and they should not be forgotten. But it also involves knowing the history of Rwanda, remembering the political circumstances that led up to the genocide, and acknowledging that Rwanda has not yet reconciled, and in fact has moved in a terrible new direction of authoritarianism, dictatorship and the human rights violations that come with it.

For those who watch the genocide commemorations from Rwanda, please remember that in addition to commemorating the dead, Paul Kagame, his government and his supporters are whitewashing the past, and creating a false myth of the present. Why? For power. The story of Rwanda as the African country with wonderful growth, the shining capital city in the land of a thousand hills, and a stable investment opportunity in Africa has a basis in reality. But more than that it has a basis in repression. It is a land with no free speech, no freedom of association, a completely captive press, and no ability to form political parties that oppose Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front. It is a country that changed the official language from French, spoken by most elites before the genocide, to English, spoken only by Ugandan Tutsis who took over after the civil war. This is eerily similar to language changes during Apartheid in South Africa. It is a country where anyone who speaks out against the government, whether political opponents or common people, is harassed, attacked, jailed, tortured, exiled and in too many cases killed. It is a country that seeks out, harasses and hunts down perceived opponents and critics in the diaspora, whether they are Rwandan or foreigners.

Just in the past half year, the repression includes the arrest of Yvonne Idamange, who announced that she was sick of holding in the truth, who began telling it like it is, and who would not back down no matter how much the regime bribed and threatened her. It includes the disappearance of poet Innocent Bahati, who was known for speaking out against the reality of Rwanda in his poems. And it includes the kidnapping, torture, arbitrary detention and show trial of Paul Rusesabagina, who has spent his life since the release of Hotel Rwanda telling the world the truth about the Rwandan government and its human rights abuses.

Paul Rusesabagina taught me a Rwanda saying about politics: in Rwanda, the dancers may change, but the song remains the same. The civil war from 1990–1994 is a period when the dancers fought and it culminated in the terrible genocide of 1994. And while the dancers changed, the song of authoritarian government and repression remains the same in Rwanda.

If we want to really commemorate the genocide, we need to not just remember the dead, but also recognize the current reality. For too long the world has supported the Rwandan government out of guilt over the genocide. The problem is, this ignores the fact that this government represses its own people, kidnapping and killing opponents to maintain its power. The world needs to call out this behavior and use external influence to force change. If we want to help the Rwandan people make “never again” a reality, the world community needs to speak up and to press the current Rwandan government to move away from repression and begin playing a new song.

#FreeRusesabagina is fighting for the freedom of the international humanitarian activist Paul Rusesabagina.