20 years post-genocide: A society wounded by its past and present

Jun 20th, 2014 at 2:43 | By | Category: News analysis, Opinion, Top news

20 years since the Rwandan genocide atrocities and 24 years since the start of the Rwandan war, the Rwandan society -in and outside Rwanda- is still facing many challenges that must be addressed before any healing and reconciliation can properly take place.

itooamavictimBehind the much-talked-about faults that lie within the unfavorable political climate inside Rwanda, is a community that was torned apart and dispersed due to societal prejudice, hate and grief in an emerging multifactorial social crisis. Members of the Rwandan community have slowly become bitter because of different problems in our motherland and individual, often mournful, outcomes that these problems brought into our lives. In an attempt to understand and process all that has happened, some Rwandans tend to project personal grief on fellow compatriots and thereby enhance a society fragmented into groups of people who cannot mingle nor converse.

A fellow Rwandan from inside the country once explained how he was refused a job and complained that the reason behind his unemployment was that he was a Hutu. Another one, who has the stereotypical features of a Tutsi, was once expelled from a bar in Brussels and called out for an “inyenzi [cockroach or RPF militant]”. Yet another, a Tutsi girl who went to study abroad, did not feel at ease to share an evening glass with fellow Rwandans whom she knew were firm supporters of Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza.

Most of us Rwandans who have lived through a chapter of national violence in the country’s history hold feelings of anger, resentment, fear and injustice towards a group of people from our own society. Even the new generation, often innocent and blissfully ignorant of the social dynamics, inherits these negative associations in some ways. The reason why we are so fragmented is simple: we do not trust each other. A voice in the video of “Mpore, who are you?’’[1] captures this issue where it offers a description of “fear” among Rwandans which, according to the producers, “imposes mistrust”. The video, depicting victims of the tragedies that have taken place in the Great Lakes Region for the past 20 years, serves to remind our community that even though we have different life stories, in the end, we are all one. Yet, we cannot seem to get along. This is partially due to a shared past and its traumas, but it is also due to a transforming society that repeatedly breeds new conflicts based on the divisive principle of ‘’us’’ against ‘’them’’.

Everything is politics, but politics is not everything

One of the biggest causes for mistrust is Rwanda’s misfortune of dishonest politics since monarchy rule. Many national leaders have aimed at turning one group of Rwandans against another. Although historians disagree on the role of ethnicity and regional affiliations in pre-colonial Rwanda, it is fair to say that if ethnic tensions were present, they did not pose national threats to the extent of genocides and massacres. When our ancestors were invaded by the German and additionally the Belgian, however, ethnic groups were actively put against each other. The Tutsi kings continued this ideology.

When the first Hutu presidents came to power, the ethnic majority ruled and a part of the minority was silenced in bitterness. In the modern-day era of the RPF, the governmental leadership, similar to the old days, focuses on depowering the major ethnic group. A clear example of the regime’s strategies, next to the exclusion of Hutu victims from Rwanda’s national commemoration, can be found in the latest international program of “Ndi Umunyarwanda” in which all Hutu sons and daughters are expected to apologise[2] on behalf of their parents for crimes committed against the Tutsi during the genocide. Indeed, in modern day Rwanda, being Hutu has been equalized to being a genocide perpetrator or being linked with perpetrators in some way.

Yet, it would be unfair to elaborate on ethnicity alone, for many Tutsis have suffered greatly under the RPF as well. People the likes of Deogratias Mushayidi and the different members of the RNC who are exiled across the world demonstrate that Rwanda’s social crisis surpasses ethnicity and political affiliation. Not to mention the 20+ groups of mixed ethnicities that have sprouted worldwide as self-proclaimed opposition parties.

In summary, leaders have failed us repeatedly but bad politics is only one part of the story.


The other part is marked with unfortunate experiences in the past that have contributed to our perception of society. The ugly truth is that personal memories will not fade and collective memory refuses to be manipulated despite the RPF’s attempt to impose an official narrative of the Rwandan genocide.

In reality we and those who are dear to us have, in one way or another, been wronged in the last 24 years. At the moment, some are still being killed, kidnapped[3] or jailed both in and outside of Rwanda. These negative experiences increase the fractionizing of the Rwandan community because many victims cannot separate group behaviour from individual behavior and are in a psychological vicious circle of “he who is not with me is against me”.

For example, a person who has lost his/her family due to the RPF tends to categorize all supporters and members of the RPF as his personal enemies. Furthermore, a Rwandan who has been wronged by Interahamwe often still holds ill feelings towards all members of the former 1994 leadership and their offspring. As a result, many are socially condemned for carrying a surname that rings bells of the Habyarimana government. In a recent heated debate, on Twitter,  Tom Ndahiro –Rwandan Genocide Scholar & President Kagame’s Advisor and Olivier Nduhungirehe –Rwandan Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said promoters of the Mpore20 campaign are sons and daughters’’ of génocidaires. It is indeed a phenomenon to tag young Rwandans along politico-ethnic lines such as in this situation simply because their lastnames happen to correspond to lastnames of those who served under President Habyarimana’s government.

tweet-olivierHowever, in such thinking is a level of ignorance and misconception of diversity within Rwandan society. Apart from ethnic and generational differences, there are also numerous differences between the diaspora and those still living in Rwanda today in terms of social and political ideas regarding the motherland. If this fragmentation continues to exist, it will lead to a troubled future. K’ naan, a Somali singer-songwriter, described the five steps that lead to mindless violence in his song titled Tribal War:

‘’One: It’s me and my nation against the world. Two: Then me and my clan against the nation. Three: Then me and my family against the clan. Four: Then me and my brother with no hesitation go against the family until they cave in. Five: Now who’s left in this deadly equation? That’s right; it’s me against my brother. Then we point a Kalashnikov and kill one another.’’

Apart from creating unnecessary tension, the segregation also sets dangerous grounds for the rupture of violence.  Recently, Rwanda has been classified as one of the 25 countries worldwide currently most vulnerable to onset of mass killing[4]. Furthermore, by thinking in group-associated boxes, the individual is denied his existence and consequently fades to the background of social problems. Then, it becomes extremely difficult for independent minds to develop and dare to speak out.

Embracing diversity

The question then remains as to how further fragmentation may be stopped and how to regain a feeling of oneness. First, we must value self-expression and free thinking before we can elevate the whole of Rwandans. We must acknowledge the existence of historical, political, societal and psychological differences and acknowledge them. Until every Rwandan understands that they, and whatever assembly they belong to, are not the only victims of Rwanda’s tragedies, and that their story is not more important than their neighbour’s, Rwandan society will never shift from fractions towards the bigger whole of a reconciled nation.

kwibuka-20Secondly, instead of avoiding certain assemblies and keeping familiar circles tightly closed, we should rather make room for the individual and learn that it is okay to think differently. Only then can there be a platform for open dialogue in which the aim would be not to convince but to listen to the other. This will stimulate societal binding on a group level.

Although the idea of embracing our differences as individuals is different from the community-centered approach of our culture, it provides a clear starting point from which each Rwandan can redefine themselves and know where they stand in Rwandan society and why.

This year’s Kwibuka20 was titled “remember, unite, renew”, a theme well-chosen if it was not for Kigali’s current one-sided story. In addition to remembering together, each one should also remember for themselves and at the same time allow the other to remember. On the long-term, we will be able to renew ourselves as well as our society, for the sake of more cohesive generations of the day of tomorrow. As such, we put a stop to a vicious circle that has been separating us further and further and prevent other tragedies from happening in the future. For, as a Rwandan saying goes, “all Rwandans are Kanyarwanda’s children”.


Jane Nishimwe




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