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Rwanda's Recovery: When Remembrance is Official Policy

When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel movement led by Paul Kagame, captured control of Rwanda and halted the genocide in July 1994, it inherited not so much a state as a cemetery. In the preceding 100 days, 800,000 people out of a national population of seven million had been murdered, the majority by their neighbors and other civilians. Seventy percent of all Tutsis, the ethnic minority that had been the target of the Hutu génocidaires, were dead, along with 30 percent of all Twas, the smallest of Rwanda’s ethnic groups. Throughout Rwanda, roads, rivers, and pit latrines were clogged with rotting corpses. The infrastructure of the country—houses, roads, hospitals, offices, schools, power stations, and reservoirs—lay in ruins. Nearly all government workers—politicians, judges, civil servants, doctors, nurses, and teachers—had died or fled. Looters had emptied the banks, leaving the national treasury without a single Rwandan franc.

The genocide reverberated across central Africa. Two million Rwandan refugees, mainly Hutus, escaped into neighboring countries in one of the largest exoduses of the twentieth century, producing a humanitarian crisis in cholera-infested refugee camps across the region. The camps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) provided the conditions for Hutu militias to regroup and plot a return to Rwanda to finish the job of exterminating all Tutsis.

As this rebel threat expanded in the borderlands and thousands of genocide perpetrators roamed freely throughout Rwanda, there was no police force to ensure security. Small numbers of distraught RPF soldiers who had arrived to find their loved ones murdered and entire villages wiped out committed revenge killings. In the most prominent case, in April 1995, the RPF killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Hutu civilians in a refugee camp in Kibeho, in southwestern Rwanda.

Meanwhile, the Tutsi-dominated RPF began rounding up tens of thousands of genocide suspects and transporting them to prisons around the country. By the end of 1995, around 120,000 genocide suspects were languishing in jails built to hold only 45,000 inmates. The national atmosphere of anger and revenge—coupled with the threat of disease and the massive loss of agricultural labor—threatened another bloodbath.

Yet in the 23 years since the genocide, Rwanda has experienced no further large-scale violence. Instead, it has enjoyed two decades of peace, stability, economic growth, and rising living standards. More than three-quarters of the people originally imprisoned on suspicion of participating in the genocide—as well as 300,000 additional suspects identified after the initial roundup—have been reintegrated into their communities and live side by side with genocide survivors on densely populated hills. No other country today has so many perpetrators of mass atrocity living in such close proximity to their victims’ families. Although that might seem to raise the risk of renewed violence, most Rwandans instead have chosen to get on with life rather than settle old scores.

Understanding why they have done that requires examining the immense steps that Rwanda—at the national, community, and individual levels—has taken to deal with the genocide. One of the most striking features of Rwanda’s approach has been the state’s concerted effort to heal old wounds. Indeed, substantial government intervention has been the key to the country’s recovery—a point reinforced by comparison with neighboring Burundi, Congo, and Uganda, where the absence of systematic official responses to mass atrocity has allowed deep societal divisions and violence to persist. And yet by intervening so heavily in people’s lives, the powerful Rwandan state has sometimes hindered citizens’ attempts to truly come to terms with the past.


Beginning shortly after the genocide, with the RPF having transitioned from rebel group to ruling party, but accelerating after Kagame became president in 2000, the Rwandan government undertook a four-pronged strategy to heal the country. This comprised commemoration, civic education, socioeconomic development, and reconciliation through justice. Over the last 15 years, I have conducted more than 1,000 interviews with everyday Rwandans, including interviews every 18 months with the same 20 respondents from a variety of backgrounds—and across the ethnic divide—to understand how they view this effort and to gauge changes in their circumstances and perceptions. What these conversations have revealed above all is that the government’s top-down strategy has largely succeeded, allowing everyday Rwandans to deal with the effects of the genocide. But they have also shown that many Rwandans feel overwhelmed by the government’s barrage of post-genocide programs, leading to widespread fatigue and a desire to be left alone to address the past in more personal and local ways.

Most often cited in this respect is the annual genocide commemoration, a 100-day period of mourning commencing on April 7, the date the killing began. The accompanying ceremonies revolve around an annual theme that reflects the government’s current priorities and forms the centerpiece of Kagame’s speech at Amahoro Stadium, in the capital, Kigali. In 2013, for example, the commemoration theme was self-reliance—a core message of the RPF throughout the post-genocide period. More immediately, it was a call for citizens to contribute to a national development fund called Agaciro (named after the Kinyarwanda word for “dignity”), which the government had just launched to help cover the economic shortfall that resulted when international donors suspended aid to Rwanda over its backing of rebels in eastern Congo.

As part of its response to the genocide, the government has also leaned heavily on civic education, principally to construct a postethnic national identity of Rwandanness. Today, nearly every Rwandan adult has passed through one of the state’s ingando education camps. There, they learn about the main causes of the genocide, Rwanda’s abandonment by the international community in 1994, the importance of Rwandanness as a means to regain the sense of unity destroyed by the Belgian colonizers who ruled the country until 1962, and the centrality of punishment of the genocide perpetrators for future peace and reconciliation.

Many of these themes also feature in the government’s secondary school curriculum. For years, the government and school administrators were deadlocked over how to teach the causes of the genocide to the post-1994 generation. It took until 2008 for the charged subject to be taught systematically through a nationwide curriculum. And even so, as the Rwandan scholar Jean Léonard Buhigiro has documented, high school teachers across the country still struggle with the topic. They tend to skirt over some of its most controversial elements, including the role of ethnicity, whether the burden of responsibility should be borne by Hutu political and military elites or by the thousands of peasant perpetrators, and how to discuss Hutu victims (killed either during the genocide itself for harboring Tutsis or during subsequent revenge attacks by the RPF) without propagating the erroneous “double genocide” claim that the mass killing of Tutsis was followed by an orchestrated mass killing of Hutus.

Recognizing that socioeconomic inequality was a key driver of the genocide, the government also embarked on an ambitious development program, focusing on rural health care and education. Many of my Hutu interviewees admit that although they remain suspicious of the Tutsi-dominated government in Kigali, they have been pleasantly surprised by the RPF’s cross-ethnic development policies. From 2000 to 2015, Rwanda managed to cut its child mortality rate in half—the biggest reduction worldwide during that period and an accomplishment that UNICEF described as “one of the most significant achievements in human history.” Although rural Rwanda remains extremely poor, a far cry from the gleaming office towers and conference centers of Kigali, peasants tend to compare themselves to their neighbors. And from that viewpoint, Hutus see that the government has assisted them as much as it has Tutsis, helping redress some of the deep grievances that have bedeviled local communities for decades.Nearly every Rwandan adult has participated in most aspects of this government-led recovery process.

Perhaps the most ambitious—and most controversial—of the Rwandan government’s responses to the genocide was the prosecution of 400,000 genocide suspects in 12,000 community courts called gacaca, a process that took place between 2002 and 2012. These courts, which sat every week under trees and in village courtyards across Rwanda, heard more than one million cases and were overseen by lay judges who could hand down sentences as severe as life imprisonment (although most consisted merely of community service).

Underpinning the gacaca system was the belief that justice is indispensable to reconciliation, that without a public acknowledgment of crimes and the punishment of all levels of perpetrators, anger and resentment would fester and could lead to further mass violence. When the gacaca system was announced, international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch predicted that it would inflame tensions and fuel mob justice. The actual consequences, however, were a vital cross-ethnic dialogue about the causes and impact of the genocide and the successful reintegration of perpetrators who had served their sentences.


Nearly every Rwandan adult has participated in most aspects of this government-led recovery process. Its core messages—particularly the need to remain vigilant about ethnically divisive propaganda and the importance of delivering justice for past crimes—have sunk deep into the public consciousness and formed the basis for a more peaceful society. But Rwandans have grown exhausted from the constant summoning up of the traumatic past. In 2012, when the gacaca courts finished their work, the most common reaction among suspects and survivors alike was a sense of relief that the trials had finally ended. Many complained that the heavy schedule of government programs—including one day lost per week during the decade of gacaca trials—was keeping them from getting back to their farms to provide for their families and rebuild their lives.

The last five years, since the end of the gacaca courts and with the slowing of the ingando camps (as almost all of the population has now been educated), have brought some respite. The government has begun to tone down the annual genocide commemorations, holding fewer spectacular ceremonies in stadiums around the country in favor of smaller, quieter events at the community level. More broadly, it has started to shift away from a policy agenda designed explicitly to address the legacies of the genocide, toward one focused on modernizing the economy, integrating regionally, and reducing dependence on foreign aid.

As the government has stepped back, the population has been freed to address the effects of the genocide in less formal but equally powerful ways. Beginning in 2002, communities across the country formed dialogue groups aimed at discussing issues arising during the gacaca hearings. Often, these groups have been facilitated by churches, which remain a principal mobilizing force in a society that is 57 percent Catholic, 26 percent Protestant, and 11 percent Seventh-day Adventist. When the gacaca trials and the ingando camps were at their peak, these dialogue groups focused on the local causes of the genocide, debates over national versus ethnic identity, justice, and reconciliation. Today, they emphasize more immediate concerns, such as improving food distribution, protecting communities’ security, containing outbreaks of disease, and resolving family disputes. The shift shows that people have moved on from the past yet remain vigilant about the types of local inequalities and conflicts that have historically fueled mass violence. Indeed, Rwanda’s most popular radio soap opera, Musekeweya (New Dawn), listened to by millions of people across the country, now relies less on gacaca-related plot lines and has begun exploring broader issues of trauma, trust, and community-based conflicts, especially those concerning land.

Many communities have also formed economic cooperatives, incorporating both Hutus and Tutsis, to pool resources such as seeds or fuel. They have started these not only out of economic necessity but also in the hope that working together will start to mend historical rifts. This is a crucial development, because in the past, many Hutus viewed Tutsis—who were heavily favored under Belgian colonialism—as unjustly wealthy, and many who participated in the genocide did so to capture Tutsi land and livestock. As one leader of a cooperative of widowed potters in western Rwanda recently told me, “Among our members, we have people whose relatives were génocidaires and others whose relatives are survivors. What we have in common is during the genocide, we all lost our husbands and everything we owned. That unites us and motivates us to share what we have.” Or, as the head of a coffee-grinding cooperative in eastern Rwanda put it: “For reconciliation, words are easy. Actions are what count. Long hours performing hard work together tell you everything that’s in people’s hearts.”

Rwandans’ views on the impact of the genocide and the nature of their country today vary substantially. Nearly all the rural respondents I have interviewed, however, describe peaceful but still uneasy community relations. In tight-knit communities, perpetrators, survivors, and witnesses confront one another daily. They attend the same churches, send their children to the same schools, and plow the same fields. What they tell me is that the nature of these local relations is the ultimate gauge of the extent of reconciliation, rather than government indicators such as the Rwanda Reconciliation Barometer, a public opinion survey conducted every five years, which routinely reports that more than 90 percent of Rwandans believe their communities have fully reconciled. In some communities, people report that Hutus and Tutsis now intermarry at the same rate they did before the genocide and attend each other’s weddings and funerals as often as they did before. They also actively cooperate in subsistence agriculture, sharing seeds, food, milk, and labor when sickness or other misfortune strikes. In some communities, such simple deeds laden with meaning are widespread; in others, they are much less so.

Across all communities, however, another message resonates: despite continued trauma and complex local relations, no one expects a return to mass violence. Given how recently the genocide occurred, that is a remarkable development and bucks the trend of cyclical conflict elsewhere in the region. When prompted to explain this view, Rwandans tend to highlight two factors: the gacaca courts provided a release valve for people’s anger and resentment, and the reduction in socioeconomic disparities between ethnic groups has taken the sting out of historical antagonisms.


Inevitably, in a society recovering from such intimate and all-encompassing violence, major challenges persist. In a 2017 article, the Rwandan researcher Emmanuel Sarabwe reported that new forms of conflict are now widespread in the country, including domestic and sexual violence and intrafamily feuds. Many of these stem from the genocide (for example, due to the remarriage of women whose spouses were imprisoned as genocide suspects) and from the psychosocial trauma that is endemic throughout the population. Even though there has been a nationwide focus on addressing the direct harm of the genocide, these less visible legacies within households are often ignored.

What’s more, many Rwandans have grown increasingly concerned about the slow progress of democracy at the national level. Throughout the RPF’s time in power, the party has displayed little tolerance for dissent. Numerous opposition leaders and dissidents have been harassed, exiled, or assassinated.

As Kagame’s second—and, according to the constitution, final—term wound down, the government organized a petition to hold a national referendum in 2015 that would allow him to run for a third term. Ninety-eight percent of the electorate voted in favor of the measure, and in the presidential election held this past August, Kagame won nearly 99 percent of the vote. Because the referendum led to constitutional amendments that do not come into effect until 2024, Kagame could seek two additional five-year terms—potentially keeping him in office until 2034.

During the petition, the referendum, and the election, the government regularly intimidated voters and undermined opposition parties by infiltrating their ranks, harassing their leaders, and sometimes barring their registration. In a fair fight, the RPF would probably win presidential and parliamentary elections by substantial margins anyway, thanks to its successful record in promoting development and providing security—not to mention the population’s recognition that, historically, no change in leadership in Rwanda has occurred without major bloodshed. Even so, the RPF decided to use a range of heavy-handed tactics to guarantee its electoral success, an approach that has generated widespread resentment.

In the coming years, the major challenge for the RPF will be to balance the need for a strong state to provide security and prosperity—a difficult task in an increasingly volatile region—with the need to afford citizens more political and social autonomy. A greater sense of freedom would enable the population to more fully enjoy the fruits of the country’s post-genocide renewal while deepening the individual and community healing that can only happen in quieter, more private spaces. Rwanda’s impressive recovery from the genocide has stemmed from not just a highly coordinated government response but also the resilience and creativity of the local population. For the latter to flourish now, the government will need to give its citizens much more latitude to define their own futures.


© 2018 | Foreign Affairs


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