Abroad in Africa -Genocide and Aftermath

Hey there folks. Haven’t written in a while, so I thought that you might want to see an article that I had published in my school newspaper.

“Well, the thing is, that probably no more than 500,000 people were killed.” John Floyd leaned forward, took another bite of his kung pao chicken, and attempted to explain why his client was not guilty of helping to incite the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

I listened with distaste and fascination while he spoke fast. The distaste came because I knew the facts-his client, Hasan Ngeze was the publisher of a newspaper that exhorted people to kill their neighbors. There is no question what the paper said, Ngeze was a brutal and clever person, one of the chief instigators of the genocidal regime. The fascination came because his version of Rwandan history was much different than I had learned before I arrived in Rwanda. At this point, I was not sure what to believe.

Here are the facts: on April 6th, 1994 a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down just outside of Kigali International Airport. Who shot it down was in dispute, but what is not in dispute is that this event triggered the fastest, most efficient genocide of the 20th century. That day, a far right military government of ethnic extremists, known as Hutu Power, took control of the country and began implementing their plan of eliminating any potential for letting the minority Tutsi group regain power in the government by ridding the country of all Tutsis.

The story began earlier than April, 1994, not in some shadowy pre-historic animosity. When the first colonizers arrived from Germany in the early 20th century, they found a country rigidly divided by class. Back then, the peasant Hutus and the aristocratic Tutsis did not consider themselves separate tribes. Instead, they were one nation with one history, religion, language and king. The Germans, and after WWI, the Belgians, a race steeped in science and psuedo-religious mythology disagreed. They saw the Tutsi as being a far superior race, born to rule and the Hutus as being little better than mules. Previously, the class system was fairly fluid, for instance a Hutu could move up to the rank of Tutsi. However, the Tutsis had no problem with the Belgians solidifying their rule. Two classes became two tribes, two ethnicities.

Along the way, Europeans began to notice certain physical differences between the groups. It was said that Tutsis were taller, lighter-skinned, and long, thin noses- unlike the short, darker, “flat-nosed” Hutus. The Tutsis were, indeed, almost European in appearance. Needless to say, this made them superior in the minds of the colonialists.

The system became entrenched. The Tutsis had unchecked power until the Belgians decided they had made a mistake. They were ready to pull out of Rwanda in the late 50’s, during the demise of the colonial system, and decided that the majority should have the power. So they turned it over in the revolution of 1959 and fled.

It is not surprising what happened next. The brutalized oppressed became the brutal oppressors. Tens of thousands of Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers were killed, and many more fled the country. Rwanda was ruled by a former journalist who relied on massacres to distract from his incompetence. He was eventually overthrown by Juvenal Habyarimana, a military man who stopped the massacres but did little to change race-based politics of Rwanda.

Meanwhile, the exiled Tutsis were plotting their move. After helping Yoweri Museveni overthrow the cruel regime of Milton Obote in neighboring Uganda, the exiles regrouped and invaded Rwanda in 1990. This plunged the country into a low-level civil war at the same time that it saw its economy plummet.

Many Hutus, with memories of oppression, were scared of a Tutsi victory. The ruling government, unpopular for its corruption even with other Hutus, latched onto this sentiment. They began planning the genocide. Their particular stroke of genius was to remove the distancing sanitation of the Holocaust. They wanted to get everyone involved in the killings. They accomplished this both by whipping people into a frenzied state of fear, and by using the army to neutralize anyone who thought differently. People were forced to kill. This way, they could divide the nation- killed and killers. If everyone if guilty, no one is. As the main radio station said during the genocide, “leave no one to tell the story.”

This would have worked- indeed, it is estimated that as many as 90% of all Tutsis were killed in 90 days- were it not for the victory of the Tutsi exile army. They routed the Rwandan army, routed the genocidal militias and took over the country. This was met with relief from an international community that had ignored them and a media that felt it had failed. The Tutsi government, led by strongman Paul Kagame, was given a free pass to clean up the country.

Here is where my story gets confused. Going into Rwanda, I had a very high perception of Kagame. There were stories of revenge killings here and there, and disturbing reports about the behavior of his troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but for the most part he was seen as a hero. What I learned from being in Rwanda, from talking to Rwandans, shocked me. The killings, I was told, were far more than has been reported. Indeed, many told me there has been a counter-genocide, a second genocide, or, in some cases, that the “real” genocide has directed against the Hutus.

John Floyd, the defense lawyer, emphasized this. He talked at length about the brutality of the Kagame government, which I’ve backed by further research. The confusion comes from the counter-genocide. Genocide is a tricky word, and in a police state nothing can be confirmed and nothing can be completely disproved. The truth is, no one knows right now exactly what has happened. Floyd says he does, but he has a clear agenda. (e.g.- my client was right to say the Tutsis were evil murderers)

It is easy to get caught up in the politics of murder and the semantics of slaughter, but too much of that sanitizes the issue, removes you from the actual horror. Thankfully, terribly, I got a chance to come face-to-face with death and to remove the sanitation. On the second day I was in Rwanda, I met two women who wanted to show me how they were getting on with their lives after the genocide. First, they had to come to terms with the death of their families-the government had finally given them permission to excavate the graves of their families. By graves, I mean deep holes where the dead were thrown to rot and the wounded were thrown to die. The site was in the backyard of a wrecked mansion, now overgrown with weeds and memory. I first looked in the now empty holes and imagined what I would feel if it was my parents that were left there. This is where I began to cry.

Everything leaves the mind. Legalities, semantics, politics. They slipped away as the women led me to the hot, sticky room of the mansion that was serving as the morgue. “Come and see my mother,” Angelica said. I looked at her determined eyes, through my teary ones, then followed her gaze to the floor. Forty or fifty bodies were lying there, some still in the position of their death, hands bound, faces grotesque with fear. I did not want to step in, but I needed to honor her mother and her memory.

After this, I was ready to go back to Arusha, Tanzania, the clean distant city where the genocide trials were being held at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda(ICTR). I was ready to go back to a city where I did not have to look at anyone and wonder if they were killers or if their families had been killed, or both. I was ready to go back to my job as a legal intern at the ICTR, to involve myself with the politics and semantics and legalities, but I could never look at anything the same way again. What I saw only strengthened my resolve for studying international criminal law. Indeed, I am, more ready than ever.