Reclaiming ‘Nationhood’: The story of the Rwandan Genocide

By Lucy Phillips, on 8 April 2014

By Tania Mitra

RwandaThe harrowing accounts which arise from the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are hard to come to terms with – it is shocking to consider the atrocities that such an avoidable conflict has brought about. Between the months of April and June in 1994, close to 800,000 people were killed in what is now regarded as the worst episode of ethnic cleansing in the second half of the twentieth century.

Tracing the conflict back to its roots in 1916, a tumultuous relationship between two tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis, was engineered by the Belgians. Through their process of identification, intended to facilitate a policy of ‘divide and rule,’ the Belgians elevated the status of the otherwise culturally similar Tutsis to a position of superiority over the Hutus. Such favouring has given way to a history replete with distrust and violence, compounded by unequal access to resources. This fractured relationship erupted in mass murder in 1994. It was triggered when the plane of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Whilst in 2010, a report revealed that it was in fact Hutus that were responsible for the assassination, at the time, blame fell quickly on the Tutsis. Media propaganda helped catalyse this mayhem as Pascal Simbikangwa, an Intelligence Officer and key shareholder in state radio “des Mille Collines”, used it to mobilise the Hutus against the Tutsis.  This resulted in the systematic murder of hundreds and thousands of Tutsis, as well as more moderate Hutus. Besides mass murder, rape was systematically used as a weapon to perpetrate fear and pain of the worst kind. During the crisis, an attempt was made by the UN Peacekeeping Mission to contain the violence, but it was withdrawn soon after 10 Belgian Peacekeepers were killed in the conflict. Following this incident, the UN reduced its presence in Rwanda, and the International community took a back-seat.

Two decades on, the spotlight falls back on Rwanda – On 14 March, A French court convicted Pascal Simbikangwa, the former Rwandan Intelligence Officer, of complicity in genocide and in crimes against humanity. During the trial, the remorseless former spy chief, who uses a wheelchair, claimed he had not seen a single dead body. His conviction marks the termination of 6 weeks of trial where 20 psychoanalysts, historians, journalists and former United Nations employees were questioned, and 53 witnesses were brought to the stand, some of whom had travelled all the way from Rwanda to testify against Simbikangwa.

Whilst undoubtedly a step in the right direction, what is unsettling is the delayed and ‘compromised’ nature of justice which has been delivered 20 years after the ethnic pogrom. Despite being one of the chief accused in the instigation of the organised genocide, the limited availability of ‘proof’ tempered Simbikangwa’s role to being merely ‘complicit’ in the crime. Consequently, the sentence stands at only 25 years in prison.

Not only is the international community largely to blame for its inaction during the crisis itself, the response in the aftermath of the massacre, particularly that of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), has been far too slow. Such a slow response, as argued by Woods, has allowed the death toll to rise, whilst also making it harder to make prosecutions on such ‘historic’ crimes. Woods also reminds us that the scale of disaster in terms of human casualty, torture and devastation to property, can only be pronounced by those who survive such an enormous tragedy – it is thus the responsibility of those who survive, including the international community, to seek justice on behalf of those victims.

It is tragic to note that the history of violence carries with it certain historical, political and cultural undertones that are oft repeated. Key elements such as majoritarianism, minority rights, economic inequality, propaganda and the inability of the state to protect its people underlie conflict time and time again. Contrary to the ideas of communal fraternity and consensus suggested in Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, Woods notes that genocide advocating nationalists draw upon the relationship between genocide and nationalism to invoke self-determination and the assertion of rights – however, they do this in ways that significantly undermines the ability of minorities to exercise their rights and freedom. As Kedourie argues, nationalism can be seen as the ‘fanaticism of the will’ – it is often a cause of disorder and destruction, and the ideal of self-determination always leads to oppression.

Unlike ideology-based wars which hinge on winning ‘hearts and ‘minds’ and provide room for power-sharing, Kaufman suggests ‘ethno-nationalism’ works to polarize ethnic identities and propagate ‘exclusionary’ practices. Nationalism thus remains a highly contested concept, with implications that divide, alienate, and in worst cases exterminate the ‘other.’ As Gellner argues, this characteristic ‘othering’ can be explained by a ‘modernization gap’ between the rich and poor, both within and between countries. Markakis draws upon this idea of the ‘modernisation gap’ when he reflects on how in such an impoverished, unequal economy as Rwanda at the time of the genocide, ethnicity became the tool for social and economic differentiation – the two tribes were forced to confront each other in the competition for resources. Stretching this idea of ‘othering’ further, it also implies that revenge over a history of humiliation and repression could take the form of a larger battle to rid the ‘other’ from such privileges, and reclaim the suppressed ‘self’.

The scale of animosity between Hutus and Tutsis makes it baffling to reflect on the fact that the two ‘groups’ are not culturally dissimilar. In fact, most Hutus and Tutsis belong to the same religion and speak the same language, and kinship through marriage was commonplace. Hence, the transition from communal tension to extreme violence requires further explanation. Woods applies Gagnon’s explanation of the conflict in Bosnia here to underline how large-scale violence requires purposeful and strategic policies – as such, blame is placed on state actors and their propaganda machineries. Political leaders from both the Hutu and Tutsi side exaggerated perceived ‘ethnic differences’ and stirred old grievances using propaganda. For example, Hutu radio presenters often referred to Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’, fuelling anger, and setting in motion the systematic and organised mass murder.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the cyclical pattern of violence has continued in neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), where the displaced Hutus and Tutsis from Rwanda have re-grouped to fight once again.  Mass displacement has also put considerable pressure on the neighbouring states of Burundi and Tanzania. Whilst UN agencies have helped mitigate the severity of the situation through relief camps, prosecuting those responsible has proved to be a huge challenge. Such ethnic-based insurgencies have skewed regional relations between Rwanda and its neighbours, and peace still remains a distant prospect in this fractured nation-state.

To conclude, I feel compelled to mention the most agonising consequence of genocide – the countless victims of child brutality and rape who have witnessed, suffered and survived the ordeal. Today, Rwanda has over 100,000 children living in child headed households (CHHs), and hundreds of overcrowded orphanages. In addition to the traumatic memories of war, thousands of children have to cope with severe disabilities. Their immeasurable pain and suffering continues. It is in this context that Pascal Simbikangwa’s trial becomes relevant. Surely justice delayed is just justice denied?

Image credit: World Politics Uncovered