Posted on February 28, 2014

By Dr. Raleigh Bailey

This January I visited Rwanda.  The US has recently formalized plans to resettle close to 10,000 Congolese refugees over the next couple of years who are currently in camps in Rwanda. There are an estimated almost 100,000 refugees in Rwanda, most in refugee camps, and almost all from Democratic Republic of Congo. Having spent time in Cambodia in the aftermath of its genocide two decades ago, I was also keenly interested in how Rwanda is recovering from its genocide. I had an opportunity to visit multiple genocide memorials, meet local people two decades after the genocide, talk with UNHCR officials, and find some specialized studies of the genocide. The primary genocide museum also had exhibits on other genocides of the twentieth century, some of which spurred many refugees to come to North Carolina.

For 100 days in the spring of 1994 militia groups composed of young people from the majority Hutu population roamed neighborhoods and built roadblocks across Rwanda, slaughtering from 800,000 to a million people, targeting all members of the minority Tutsi people, mixed families,  and “moderate” Hutus who were believed to be friends with Tutsis. The militias’ crimes included torture, rape, mutilation, and forced group participation in the slaughter. All Hutus were expected to assist, and those unwilling to help were also targeted.  At least two messages went to the United Nations, warning of the uprising and requests for support to put the rebellion down. Field personnel said that it would be easy to stop it. Additional requests for help went to the US and France. The international response was too little and too late. The insurrectionists had almost no military weapons. They were mostly young men and boys with machetes who had been manipulated to believe that Tutsis were evil and needed to be killed in a blood bath. The only international action during the genocide was to bring in troops to evacuate expatriates. Analysts have noted that the small troop contingents that facilitated the evacuation were sufficient to stop the slaughter, but that was not their assignment. By the time the international community was focused on stopping the genocide, almost a million were slaughtered and hundreds of thousands more had fled the country.

Rwanda is a very small country in central east Africa, smaller than North Carolina but with a comparable population. It is on the continental divide, just below the equator, and dominated by tropical mountain rainforest. Located in the Great Lakes region, its western border is Lake Kivu, separating it from Congo. It is at the base of the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, where the first human life is documented. Rwanda has the highest population density of any African country, and most people are engaged in subsistence farming on steep mountainsides and in rich valleys. Some are cattle herders in the eastern savannah areas. The headwaters of the Nile River flow out of the east side of the mountains on a long trek through North Africa and into the Mediterranean. The headwaters of the Congo River go out the west side of the country into the Democratic Republic of Congo and on to the Atlantic Ocean. These rivers are too steep and small in their Rwandan headwaters for real river transportation.  Steep mountain roads are subject to regular landslides and ongoing repairs. There are no railroads and no sea ports.  Rwanda is suited for sustainable agriculture but hard to industrialize.
Rwanda’s legendary history identifies three tribes: the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. The tribal mythology is that the Hutus migrated from the Congo area and were mainly agriculturalists. The Tutsi were mainly pastoralists and migrated from east African plains around Ethiopia. The population was an estimated 80% Hutu, just under 20% Tutsi, and about 1% Twa.  The Twa, commonly known as pygmys, were the original hunter gatherers who lived deep in the forests.

The Hutu/Tutsi categories were not rigid ethnic distinctions; instead, they were economic. Tutsis who gave up their cattle and focused on farming began to be considered Hutu. Hutus who developed cattle herds became Tutsi. They shared the same language, Kinyarwanda, and almost all became Roman Catholics under colonialism. However, cattle became a basis for economic trade and those who were identified as Tutsi were more likely to become a merchant class. An ethnic stereotype emerged, even though not all the tribespeople fit the stereotypes. Tutsis were thought to be tall and light-skinned; Hutus short, stocky, darker-skinned.
The colonial occupancy began with the Germans in 1897, but was taken over by the Belgians after World War 1. The Belgians imposed tribal registration and required identification cards. In their efforts to develop industry in Rwanda, they also hired Tutsis as their managers to oversee forced native labor projects.  The Tutsis became the tax collectors for the Belgians. The native education system was targeted to Tutsis, and other forms of discrimination were imposed on Hutus.  By the 1950s the Tutsis had become the scapegoats for Hutu anger at colonial oppression.  As the African liberation movement began to sweep Africa, a Hutu liberation group was organized. Attacks on Tutsis began, and a couple of hundred thousand Tutsis fled to surrounding countries. By 1959, a revolution was underway, and the Belgians granted independence in 1961. The following decades were marked by conflicts between Hutu and Tutsi factions, military coups, and international efforts at stabilization.  Tribes were moving back and forth through Uganda, Congo, and Burundi, leaving as refugees and returning to try and liberate their side.  The unrest included the adjacent countries. By the early 1990s there was a militant Hutu controlled government in place with support from France.

The genocidal coup occurred in the spring of 1994, immediately after Rwandan president  Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over the capital city of Kigali, killing the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi and putting the vice president in control of Rwanda. That was the signal for the well- orchestrated coup.   Apparently weapons and strategies were already in place. In the preceding months, there had been intermittent killings and an ongoing radio barrage, a “hate radio” campaign, telling people to rid their country of the Tutsis, whom they referred to as “cockroaches.”

Tutsis coming from surrounding countries stopped the slaughter after about three months and established a new government. Though there continued to be strife and disorder, eventually a new post-genocidal Rwanda began to emerge.  International agencies provided aid and advice.
At this time, two decades later, the government is considered stable and with democratic goals. There are still human rights concerns, but an ongoing Truth and Reconciliation project is underway in villages to follow up on local atrocities. These procedures are not the same as trials. It is a matter of discussing on a personal and communal level what happened and who did what. The village can then decide as to any follow up needed. The instigators of the genocide, treated differently, have come under international indictment and have been charged in World Court proceedings. Those trials are only now just starting in France, where most of the genocidal leaders had fled.

As the new government seeks to move ahead, it has initiated some outstanding practices. It is against the law in Rwanda to label people by race, ethnicity, or tribe, or to organize people along those lines. Young people in school are taught to identify as “Rwandans.”  The post-genocidal government has made other dramatic changes as well. Motorcycle taxis, the main mode of transportation in the country, are required to be registered, and driver and customer are required to wear helmets. Anticorruption billboards adorn the streets. It is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  Strict ecology laws are in place to protect natural resources, especially the rain forests.  Ecology is important. Plastic bags are against the law, and streets are almost free of litter. The Twa tribe has been resettled in new villages near their traditional hunting/gathering villages in the rainforests. The government is helping them establish other sustainable economies in the new villages. Tourist attractions built around the national park rainforests target affluent tourists who pay large fees. The tourist facilities provide employment for local villagers and fees help to sustain the ecosystem. Tea plantations, public and private, are being developed near the rainforests to provide jobs and assure a sustainable economy. Mining is restricted. Though the country is very poor, the subsistence farmers, many who do not have electricity or running water, do have a sense of self-sufficiency and reemerging national pride. Even the poorest city dwellers work to remove the weeds from the cobblestone streets that the colonialists forced their parents to build a hundred years ago.

Sadly, Rwanda has refugee camps on three of its borders. Most of those refugees are fleeing ethnic related conflicts in adjacent countries.  Those tensions remain, orchestrated by warlords and funded by international business interests.  Rwanda is serving as an island of asylum in a sea of ethnic conflict. An NGO leader told me that international businesses and mining companies operating in adjoining countries don’t want to invest in Rwanda. It is not due to lack of infrastructure, he said. They say that it is too hard to bribe government officials here. That is a good thing.

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