Rwanda has done much to reshape its national identity, but critics accuse the country’s leader of becoming authoritarian.
Events marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan conflict were initiated this week and will continue over the coming months, building up to the official day in April when events kick off around the country.
According to U.N. estimates, around 800,000 people were hacked to death by machetes in Rwanda over ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes during a 100-day period. And although the region remains troubled two decades on, Rwandans have made great strides to shed the kind of ethnic identities that once divided them.
Ask Rwandans inside or outside their country today whether they are willing to say if they are Hutu or Tutsi, and they will likely shy away from the question, responding simply that they are Rwandan.
Official mourning won’t begin until April 7, when the killing spree began in 1994, but officials gathered on Tuesday in Kigali at the genocide memorial where President Paul Kagame lit a flame at the site to commemorate the event that became a benchmark for humanitarian failure. The U.S. failed, the French failed, the U.N. failed — everyone failed Rwanda. The flame will travel around the country leading up to April, when activities will begin at the district, provincial and national levels.
Most of the architects of the genocide were tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up in Arusha, Tanzania, with support from the U.N. A further two million Rwandans were tried in local-level courts, known as “gacaca courts,” for their roles in the killings, with some two-thirds of the accused eventually being found guilty, according to U.N. figures.
Often those found guilty — some had maimed their own neighbors and left them for dead — had to profess their guilt and apologize in front of fellow villagers and those who survived. After that, they were allowed to move on.
A tiny central African nation, Rwanda doesn’t have the facilities or resources to jail the huge number of those found guilty, and the tactic of judicially-shepherded reconciliation among the population has proven to be effective.
Kagame led the rebel movement, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, that ended the genocide in June of that same year, and the RPF is now the ruling political party. He is one of the generation of rebels-turned-national leaders from the 1980s and 1990s — like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Ethiopia’s now-deceased ruler Meles Zenawi and Chad’s Idriss Deby Itno — who became or have become criticized for turning into exactly what they originally fought against: authoritarian rulers who suppress or violate human rights in their own nations.
And in the case of Kagame, of using the legacy of genocide to quash opposition and cover up for the crimes of his own side during the rebel insurrection.
Kagame, a Tutsi, has been accused in recent years of oppressing freedom of speech, creating a one-party state, stoking the seeds of chronic war by taking advantage of his eastern neighbor’s chaos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he has also been accused of plundering minerals and other natural resources, and going after his own aides that fall out of his favor who are then forced to flee abroad — some of whom have died under mysterious circumstances.
If the 20th anniversary commemorations of the horror that took place in Rwanda are going to have any credibility to them, then Kagame should sow the seeds of trust among his own people, many of whom fear what is now the country’s Tutsi-controlled government.
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