Remembering a genocide

Published : May 07, 2004 00:00 IST

In a church near Kigali on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the genocide, where the remains of 400 bodies were found in a mass grave in the last week of March. - SAYYID AZIM/AP

In a church near Kigali on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the genocide, where the remains of 400 bodies were found in a mass grave in the last week of March. - SAYYID AZIM/AP

Ten years after the genocide in Rwanda that killed more than 800,000 people, the international community has apparently come to terms with its failure to prevent the tragic event.

THE international community observed April 7 as "a day of reflection on the genocide" which claimed the lives of more than 800,000 citizens of Rwanda in 1994. The killings started on April 6, after the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprian Ntayamira was shot down as it was preparing to land at the Kigali airport. All on board were killed. The extremists in the Hutu tribe, which accounts for more than 85 per cent of the population of the land-locked country, embarked on a killing spree, targeting the minority Tutsis. (Habyarimana belonged to the Hutu community.) The massacre of Tutsis continued non-stop for 13 weeks, as the international community stood watching. On an average 8,000 people were killed every day. In some cases, the victims paid their killers to kill them in a "humane" way. Death by shooting was preferred to being hacked by a machete.

Churches and hospitals were turned into slaughterhouses as neighbour killed neighbour. The Catholic Church - most Rwandans are Catholics - did not exactly cover itself with glory. Evidence of the complicity of some clergy in the killings has surfaced. Significantly, since the genocide, many Rwandans embraced Islam. The few mosques in Rwanda were more hospitable to internal refugees seeking sanctuary than the many churches that dotted the country.

After the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government took power in July 1994, around 200,000 Hutus were targeted for revenge killing. The two groups have been at loggerheads since the time of the colonial rule. The Tutsis were favoured by Belgium, the colonial power that ruled Rwanda and Burundi. Both the countries, since independence in 1963, have witnessed serious bloodletting involving the two ethnic groups.

It was evident by the early 1990s that a major crisis was brewing in the Great Lakes region, centred mainly around Rwanda and Burundi. Tutsi rebel armies had already effected a regime change in Uganda, installing Yoweri Museveni in Kampala. A key commander of the rebel Ugandan forces was Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President and an important ally of the United States in the region. His guerilla army was preparing to oust the Hutu-dominated regime in Rwanda and capture power when the plane was shot down.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking at a memorial conference on the Rwanda genocide, acknowledged that "the international community failed Rwanda". He admitted that if the international community had acted promptly and with determination, it could have stopped most of the killings. In his speech, Annan recalled that a 1993 report by a U.N. Special Rapporteur had spoken specifically of "an impending catastrophe". Guns and machetes were being distributed in the preceding years in order to prepare for ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.

As the international community was commemorating the genocide, a new blame game seemed to have started. A French judicial investigation into the circumstances that led to the downing of the plane carrying Habyarimana concluded that the RPF fired the two missiles which caused the plane crash. French judge Jean Louis Brugiere has placed the guilt squarely on the shoulders of Paul Kagame, who was then the RPF commander. According to the Judge, Kagame had personally authorised the shooting down of the French-made Falcon-50 aircraft. Other reports have suggested that a Tutsi commando team in Kigali fired Russian-made missiles that had been captured by the Americans from Iraq in the first Gulf war and handed over to the Ugandans.

Kagame has dismissed the allegations. Speaking in Kigali on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the genocide, he instead accused the French government of siding with Hutu extremists who masterminded the genocide. He said that the French government had knowingly supported the genocide by arming the killers and even manning roadblocks. In response, the French Deputy Foreign Minster, who was in the Rwandan capital, cut short his visit. The French government dismissed Kagame's insinuations. However, the French and Belgian governments have done some soul-searching and admitted the shortcomings in their conduct in respect of Rwanda. The two countries had supported the Hutu-dominated government before the happenings of 1994.

It was the U.S. administration that pressured the U.N. Security Council against using the word "genocide" to describe the mass killings in Rwanda, when the issue came up for discussion in 1994. Under U.N. conventions, the international community has to act immediately to stop a genocide. But Washington was apparently not interested in the fate of innocent people in Africa. Finally, the U.N. only managed to send a small contingent of 400 peace-keepers to Rwanda in 1994. Moreover, while the Canadian commander of the U.N. forces Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire requested on several occasions for reinforcements as tensions were rising, the U.N. headquarters replied that the mission was over and that the forces should return.

The Tutsi rebels, when they were part of the Ugandan rebel army under Museveni, were the recipients of U.S. aid. Washington was fully aware that after capturing power in Kampala, the Tutsi forces would divert their focus to Rwanda. The Tutsi incursions into Rwanda had started as early as 1991. In October 1991, a Tutsi invasion force was able to move as close as 60 km near Kigali. The French troops stationed in Rwanda helped the Hutu-dominated government to fend off the attack. The U.S. State Department, according to reports that have appeared in the U.S. media, was already working closely with its man - Paul Kagame. Washington increased its support to Uganda and allowed Museveni to step up the supply of military hardware to the Tutsi army. There was a keen contest between Washington and Paris in the 1990s to increase their respective sphere of influence in Africa, especially in the Great Lakes region.

IMMEDIATELY after the genocide in Rwanda ended, the killings spread to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). More than a million Hutus along with extremist militias had fled to the DRC to escape revenge killings by Tutsis. Some Hutus had fled to avoid facing justice.

The Rwandan army, which was emerging as one of the best fighting forces in the region, went after the Hutu militias deep into the DRC, in the process unleashing a new civil war in the country. That conflict perhaps cost more lives than the genocide in Rwanda. Again, the West and the international community remained for most of the time idle spectators to the carnage and looting. It is now estimated that more than four million people were killed in the conflict in the DRC, which started in 1997.

Only after the Congolese parties to the conflict arrived at a settlement with the help of South African mediators did the U.N. step in with a small peace-keeping force. Until 2003, armies of more than six African countries were fighting in the DRC. Ironically, Museveni and Kagame found themselves on opposite sides of the firing line in the DRC. A clash of political and economic interests led to their estrangement. Today, the erstwhile comrades are barely on speaking terms.

WITH Kagame ruling with an iron hand, there is apparent political stability in Rwanda. In the elections held in early 2004, more than 95 per cent of the electorate is said to have cast its vote in favour of Kagame. However, the Opposition and international observers have said that the elections were far from being fair and free. All opponents of Kagame are being tarred as supporters of genocide. About 90,000 people accused of participating in the genocide are still crammed into jails; they have been living under inhumane conditions for the past 10 years. Prisoners who have confessed to their involvement in the killings have been released. Many of them have even been allowed to resettle in their land, side by side with the families of their victims.

The government is claiming that a reconciliation process is very much on track. However, there are complaints from the majority Hutus that the government has not bothered to investigate the killings of their compatriots by the RPF. The government has now banned the citizens of the country from identifying themselves as Tutsis or Hutus. The colonial government had started the practice of issuing identity cards on the basis of ethnicity. The records kept by the colonial administrators had helped the killers identify their victims when the carnage started.

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