By Eric Ngoga
In 1994, Rwanda, a small country in central of Africa, a tragedy unfolded. April 7, 1994 is a very important date in the history of Rwanda as it marked the beginning of a 100-day period of atrocities in which over a million of lives were taken in front as the international community looked on or looked the other way. This period ended with a victory by a rebel group and political party known as the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) that currently rules Rwanda since 1994. The RPF was and still is led and made up of predominantly people of Tutsi ethnicity, especially those in military ranks. After seizing power, the RPF led by Rwanda’s current president Paul Kagame did everything to use its new power to hide its crimes committed during a four-year war to seize power.
During these hundred days, Rwanda experienced ethnic based atrocities. It was clear that a genocide was occurring in Rwanda. However, at the end of this dark period, the international community along with with the new ruler of Rwanda Paul Kagame and the rebel turned government RPF party decided to focus on one part of the story: the killings committed against the people of Tutsi ethnicity by a militia under the name of Interahamwe made up of extremists of Hutus. For years, crimes committed by the RPF were ignored and nearly erased from the historical record.
For instance, after the genocide, an international criminal court mandated by the UN Security Council was created. It was known as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), tasked with judging crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda between January and December 1994. This included the 3-month period in which the genocide was committed. Every single person pursued and judged by this tribunal were from the Hutu ethnic group and were all aligned with the former government defeated by the RPF in July 1994. Anyone who was a high ranking official in Rwanda before 1994 was treated as a suspect and many were eventually indicted and tried at the ICTR. Those judged at the ICTR, were lucky as a number of them many were acquitted despite the court showing obvious bias in favor of the RPF and bowing down to the RPF whose high-ranking members should have been pursued for atrocities they committed between January and December 1994. At the same time, any intellectual or opinion leader in the Hutu community in Rwanda was targeted. Thousands of them were jailed without judgment for many years, while others were tried by traditional courts with no trained judges or lawyers known as Gacaca courts. After proceedings marred with false testimonies, many of the accused were sentenced to years in prison.
The atrocities committed in Rwanda in the spring of 1994 were recognized as genocide by the United Nations. But surprisingly, the Rwandan government has struggled, using all of its power and lobbyists to change the naming of these atrocities. At the beginning, these atrocities were called the Rwandan Genocide (Itsembatsemba n’itsembabwoko in the local Kinyarwanda language). But after years of hard work by the Rwandan government, these atrocities renamed to Genocide against the Tutsi. This way, the government of Rwanda is sure to erase the memory of Hutu people killed during this period. With the international community accepting this last move of the Rwandan government, it became easy for the RPF to use the genocide as a tool of oppression against anyone who would like to talk about the massacres committed against Hutu people or anyone talking about atrocities committed by the RPF. Of course, this makes sense as the people who committed these atrocities against Hutus are high ranking officers in Rwanda Defense Forces, a new name for troops of the RPF.
A quarter century has passed, and these crimes committed by soldiers of the RPF are kept under silence by all means possible. The primary tool use being the genocide which serves as a convenient blackmail against any voices raised to shine light on these crimes. Anyone who dares to mention that there was also a genocide committed against Hutu people by the RPF is labeled as a genocide denier or a revisionist. Those two labels come along with the accusation of harboring genocide ideology, a loosely defined crime that lands many in Rwandan prisons with lengthy sentences. This crime is used to control speech on crimes committed by high-ranking officials in Rwanda. The government of Rwanda and its lobbyist have managed to keep its narrative through coercion so that people who are not familiar with Rwanda simply believe this faulty narrative. It is as if in Rwanda the word genocide has become a trademark of the RPF and the government.
Genocide in a horrible crime against humanity that must be condemned by everyone aware of it. But in the case of Rwanda, the victims of the atrocities committed by the RPF are still waiting for justice. These victims and survivors are hoping that the international community will eventually act on common sense and acknowledge what is going on in Rwanda. The apparent peace and unity that we see in Rwanda is a military regime reigning with terror, led by soldiers who committed genocide. These soldiers are not afraid to kill to silence anyone who talks about their crimes. The world must act on their past crimes or they will continue to kill with no consequences.
After many years of watching the global community’s indifference toward their suffering, Rwandans found that no one else will come and tell their stories. No one will come and bring them hope for a better Rwanda where everyone can tell his or her story, which would lead to all of the perpetrators being known and eventually held accountable for their crimes. Thankfully, voices have started to rise, now more that ever, to say loud and clear that people of Hutu ethnicity were targeted and killed for simply being Hutu by the RPF soldiers. These people are making it clear that their intentions are to tell their stories without denying anyone else from telling his/her own story. The main intention is not to stay silent in compliance with the RPF government, which is doing everything possible to silence them and make them to live in hiding.
The government of Rwanda wants to be the main channel to tell Rwandan people’s history in a distorted manner so that it erases crimes committed by its officials and comes out looking innocent. The RPF keeps pushing a very simplistic view of the Rwandan community were some are bad and have to be supervised claiming that such people always want to kill as they hold genocide ideology while others are eternal victims and prey that have to be protected from their fellow countrymen and women. The narrative and blackmail the RPF government maintain that a genocide can happen anytime in Rwanda if it does not silence anyone who takes a stand against its propaganda, repression, and atrocities. The power of RPF lies in the fact that its crimes must be forgotten forever, and that everyone who talks about genocide in Rwanda uses its narrative which has been tailored to show the RPF soldiers as saviors during 1994; a major distortion of history.
But 26 years is a long time, and it is not possible to silence people indefinitely. While the government of Rwanda claims that talking about Hutu genocide is denial of the Tutsi genocide, a group of young Rwandans are rising up in defiance to give a different perspective about this. Theses young people prefess that “ijoro ribara uwariraye”, which translates to “the best person to tell his/her own story is the one who lived it”. These young people understand that everyone in Rwanda should have the right to tell their stories and a responsibility to let others also tell their stories. This very intelligent approach removes the RPF’s power, because universally, every Rwandan has the right to his/her story. Just as every human has a right to justice, every Rwandan has the right to have someone to talk to about his/her long journey of suffering and resilience (inzira ndende). Most importantly, every Rwandan is accountable in letting others tell their stories the way they lived and witnessed them.
Genocide is not a trademark, it is not just a word, it is not a governance tool, or even a simple thing that should be used without caution. Genocide is a tragedy, with a lot of victims, where survivors are very fragile because of the brutality of the perpetrators. The victims need to talk about their tragic stories to regain some confidence in themselves and in humanity again. Survivors need to remember their loved ones who disappeared under such terrible sufferings. The Rwandan government, with its strategy to silence people from the Hutu ethnic group from giving their testimonies is continuing a genocide against these people because one of the last steps in a genocide is denying that genocide. Awareness, accountability and justice for Hutu genocide is as important as the Tutsi genocide for the sake of the victims and survivors of these genocides; and to build a sustainable peaceful future. The victims of the Hutu genocide must be protected and are worthy of justice. The first step towards that is through an open space where they can talk about their stories. This way, after every survivor is heard, every victim humanized, and every perpetrator held accountable, we can claim NEVER AGAIN to genocide. The young Rwandans who have decided to make these stories known around the world through their testimonies in spite of the dangers must be commended and are contributing to a future where justice will be served and NEVER AGAIN made a reality.
Eric Ngoga is a survivor from Rwanda and a human rights activist.