Central Africa / Civil War / Contested History and Memory / Ethnicity

Rwanda 20 Years On: Rose-Tinted Reconciliation


By Martha Unity Flynn, University of Leeds graduate in Politics and International Studies

July 4th of this year marked the twentieth anniversary of the end of one hundred days of systematic and state-endorsed massacres that we know today as the Rwandan genocide. Twenty years on, this date not only commemorates the Rwandan Patriotic Forces’ (RPF) victory over the genocidal Habyarimana government but serves as a benchmark against which the success of the post-conflict period of reconciliation can be judged. An exhibition entitled ‘Rwanda 20 Years’ launched by the ICC-endorsed Creative Court group earlier this year has attempted to provide a degree of insight into the complexity of human relations following the legacy of such swift and harrowing violence.

The project, created by photographer Pieter Hugo, attempts to extol the forgiveness that has been rendered possible by the RPF government’s reconciliatory initiatives over the past two decades. Faced with an ineffective international tribunal, an over-burdened justice system and dwindling resources, the Rwandan state opted for a more creative and ‘home-grown’ transitional process: the Gacaca Courts. The system, which saw communities manage justice for their own genocidaires in open-air makeshift court rooms, has received significant international criticism ranging from denouncement of its deprivation of fundamental rights for the accused to its failure to provide sufficient protection for witnesses. However, as Hugo’s photo documentary attempts to portray, the simplicity of a process through which perpetrators are forced to seek pardon from and then provide reparations to the victims of their crimes has produced some fascinating results. Nonetheless, the degree to which the outcome can be seen to have fostered ‘reconciliation’, ‘justice’ or even ‘peace’ remains unclear (for the article about exhibition in New York times, press here).

Whilst much of the academic literature on the success of the Gacaca Courts in promoting national reconciliation views its successes as either politically-constructed or cosmetic in nature, the intimacy of Hugo’s images might suggest otherwise. Placing perpetrators and survivors together, often hand-in-hand, the photos are accompanied by quotes such as that of Cansilde Munganyinka who claims “I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbours.” Several extracts also hint at profound progress among participants in understanding the violence itself. For instance, Cesarie Mukabutera’s realisation that “we are all Rwandans…the genocide was due to bad governance that set neighbours, brothers and sisters against one another” suggests a true departure from previous ethnic division and an understanding of the Habyarimana regime’s primary responsibility for the outbreak of genocide.

Unfortunately, though both the images and the interview extracts might at first appear heartening, some of the quotations hint at the true of such reconciliation. Both Jean-Pierre Karenzi’s mention of his “being trained about unity and reconciliation” and Juvenal Nzambwita’s reference to having been “educated to know good from evil before being released” hint at the heavy-handed ‘re-education’ programmes enforced in both prisons and as part of ‘solidarity camps’ for children. In addition, Christophe Karorero’s allusion to the fact that “sometimes justice does not give someone a satisfactory answer — cases are subject to corruption” provides a stark reminder of the potential for imperfection in transitional justice processes and the sacrifices that survivors make in their pursuit of reconciliation.

However, it is only in looking outwards at the socio-political reality of modern Rwanda that one can fully conclude whether peace, justice and reconciliation have truly been served by the transitional model. RPF leader and Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s commitment to a World Bank and Northern government-endorsed programme of PRSPs has rendered him a star pupil among those nations bent on compensating the Rwandan people for their own inaction during the violence. In many ways, the ‘genocide credit’ which many claim maintains Kagame in his position of power seems unnecessary when it is considered that in recent years GDP has grown annually at a rate of 7-8%, premature mortality rates have dropped dramatically and life expectancy has doubled.

This progress, combined with the trappings of democracy and assuaged ethnic tensions, has led many members of the international community to overlook the insufficiencies of the Gacaca process’ legacy. As 56% of Rwandans still identified as ‘poor’ in a 2012 study and, despite policy that dedicates 30% of decision-making positions to women, female illiteracy remains devastatingly low, the progress of the RPF government in creating a peaceful and prosperous nation seems questionable. When one considers the dubious human rights track record of the Kagame government, who have succeeded in effectively legally prohibiting political dissent and discussion of ethnic discrimination as ‘divisionism, and the façade of national reconciliation appears all the more misleading. The mysterious assassination earlier this year of Patrick Karegeya, an exiled former chief spy of the RPF government, further riled activists who view Kagame’s almost dictatorial control over political opposition, the military and the media as contrary to a democratic and peaceful state. Comments only last month that “those who talk about disappearances” of missing Rwandans would be shot “in broad daylight” provoked even the US, a long-standing supporter of the Kagame regime, into action.

Despite this, the presentation of Hugo’s exhibition this autumn, within the walls of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, suggests that many are unwilling to let go of a more sentimental view of the Rwandan transitional process. And for Rwanda itself? Though it is undeniable that many communities have succeeded in fostering a degree of forgiveness and reconciliation amongst themselves, the country is far from peaceful. Continuingly high levels of poverty, one-party politics and violent rhetoric by the President himself are all too reminiscent of the stage that was set for the outbreak of genocide twenty years ago. If the international community is to hold true on its commitment to supporting Rwanda through these difficult years, a much more profound understanding of what constitutes peace, justice and reconciliation is necessary. Twenty years on, rose-tinted spectacles will not suffice.

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