One of the moments I've most looked forward to in the early part of travel is visiting Rwanda. The genocide that the nation survived is a defining event in the modern era and, touching closer to home for myself, it was Canadian General Romeo Dallaire who led the UN effort here while maintaining a near solitary voice for further intervention - a call that was patently ignored until the genocide was over and nearly 1,000,000 people had died.
We're told that the genocide was the culmination of tribal conflicts between warring Hutus and Tutsis that stretch back far beyond European colonization. In reality, this is a bald faced lie designed to protect the conscience of the developed world while stopping us from understanding the true nature of the killings, and the integral role of the west in bringing them about.
The Germany was the first nation to first to colonize Rwanda during the late 1800s. At that time they found 18 distinct tribes living in relative peace. The labels "Tutsi", "Hutu" and "Twa" did not identify distinct tribes, but rather represented the social standing of individuals within tribes, much like the labels 'doctor', 'lawyer' or 'labourer' might describe a person's status and occupation today.
More importantly, there was nothing about this distinction that was fixed or hereditary, and an individual's standing changed with changes in their personal circumstances. Hutu would become Tutsi if their personal wealth increased through building larger herds of cattle, and a Tutsi who lost livestock through drought or disease would fall in status to Hutu.
This changed in 1932 when the Belgians gained control of the area. Seeing an opportunity to gain a more rigid control of the local population, the Belgians moved to make these distinctions permanent. Anyone who possessed 10 head of cattle at that time were declared
"Tutsi", and those with less were labeled "Hutu". These distinctions remained unchangeable and hereditary, and they were further reinforced by an identity card system that labeled each Rwandan according to their "tribal" status.
Through class distinction and bureaucracy, the Belgians ruled the colony through the Tutsis until the Rwandan independence movement began in the 1950s. At that time, the the Belgians found it to their political advantage to switch their allegiance to the Hutus. As the Hutus moved into power, Belgian support continued despite increasingly oppressive anti-Tutsi policies that included massacres, job quotas, limits on education, and an increasingly sophisticated and coordinated propoganda campaign. In the decades leading up to the genocide thousands of Tutsi died and 700,000 fled into Uganda and other neighboring countries to escape persecution.
By the time the genocide commenced in April of 1994, the doctrine of "Hutu Power" and the plan for the extermination of the Tutsis was well rehearsed and tightly organized. Between 1990 and 1993, Hutu extremists had initiated eight separate trial massacres in preparation for the launch of 'final solution'. During these warm up phases, the French government was fully aware of the situation and continued to guarantee loans to the Rwandan government for arms deals with French companies.
Near the end of the 1994 genocide Rwanda erupted in civil war. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Tutsi general Paul Kagame eventually took control of the country, but not before 100 days of slaughter and the death of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates.
But despite this violence, Rwanda has made a startling recovery.
After becoming President in 2000, Paul Kagame instituted new stability and national cohesion. Tutsi and Hutu class distinctions are now strictly forbidden. All citizens are now known only as "Rwandans". Assuming that mass violence is far less likely to be initiated by women, the new government has also mandated that 39% of representatives must be women, the highest level of female representation in the world. Corruption has nearly disappeared. There is a building boom occuring throughout Rwanda. And though understandably guarded, the people are open, friendly and welcoming, even though there is scarcely a soul who was not touched directly by the genocide. Equally startling is that there does not appear to be a scrap of litter anywhere in the country - a huge difference from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where old plastic bags collect like snow drifts.
The most striking aspect of the country is the national recognition of the events of 1994. Driving through the impossibly steep farms of Les Milles Collines (land of 1000 hills), there are countless signs marking mass graves and sites of wholesale slaughter. The look and feel of these memorials is ghostly and rarely do they mark a place where less than hundreds died. The most stirring of all is the Genocide Memorial in Kigale where more than 258,000 people been interred so far, including the parents of the young man who guided us through these memorial grounds. As new buildings go up around the country, more graves are constantly unearthed, and it will be decades before all of the phantoms are finally put to rest.
These are but a few words, and in truth it is impossible to capture the emotion and scale of what occurred here....even 13 years later.
Some readers well versed on the history of the region may point out that the summary above ignores the ethnic clashes between Hutus and Tutsis that took place in bordering countries, especially in neighbouring Burundi where several killings of Hutus occurred at the hands of Tutsi forces throughout recent decades. This omission was intentional.
After spending months reading the histories, and now after speaking to Rwandans first hand, I'm convinced that the story we hear in North America and Europe is one that has been purposely focused on so called "ethnic tensions" in order to spare our collective conscience from confronting our own responsibility. The distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis were consciously established, cultivated and maintained by western powers for their own political advantage. They knowingly ignored the threat of genocide, they armed genocidaires for their own profit, and when the killings began they did nothing to stop them.
If we truly want to stop such a thing from occurring again, our efforts need to begin by accepting responsibility for our role in the genocide. Otherwise it can, and inevitably will, repeat.
The question only is when.