Rwanda arising from the ashes of genocide 30 years ago

Dan Munyuza
Wednesday 17 Apr 2024

The first lesson we learned as Rwandans was that we were on our own.

On April 20 Rwandans and friends of Rwanda in Egypt will gather to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi. The level of destruction during the genocide was total: over one million people slaughtered, basic infrastructure destroyed, collapsed state institutions, and traumatized survivors, among others. Rwanda has been rebuilding from scratch mainly by applying important lessons taken from the 1994 tragedy.

The first lesson we learned as Rwandans was that we were on our own. Months before the genocide, there were ample warnings that authorities in Kigali were planning a genocide. These warnings came from various sources, including the commander of UN forces deployed in Rwanda at the time, Gen. Romeo Dallaire. Gen Dallaire urged the international community to intervene and save lives. His warnings were ignored. When the killings started in April 1994, instead of intervening the most powerful countries refrained to use the correct terminology for what was happening in Rwanda. Using the word genocide would legally commit them to intervene.

As genocide intensified there was an urgent call to neutralize Radio Television des Milles Collines (RTLM), a private radio owned by the masterminds of genocide that was inciting the Hutus to kill Tutsis. However, these calls to jam the hate radio were ignored on the basis that it was too costly to do so and that jamming the station would undermine freedom of speech.

In the meantime, rescue operations by the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) continued, and the RPA eventually put an end to the Genocide.  The RPA also pursued and defeated the government forces that committed genocide, who fled Rwanda and crossed into the then Zaire (current Democratic Republic of the Congo) where they began to reorganize with the support of foreign powers and Zaire’s president at the time Mobutu Sese Seko. Over the years, they carried out insurgent operations aimed at destabilizing the new government and preventing it from restoring order. These attacks cost the lives of innocent Rwandan civilians that were working to rebuild their communities. By 1998, this insurgency was defeated, but the remnants based in eastern DRC began recruiting anew and today they have rebranded as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). They seek to finish the job of eliminating part of the Rwandan population. The FDLR constitutes a significant security threat for the Great Lakes Region.

The genocide also taught us the importance of unity. The genocide was an outcome of the deep divisions created amongst Rwandans by the colonial authorities that ruled Rwanda from the end of World War 1 to 1961. One of the reforms that the colonial authorities undertook was to assign ethnic identities to Rwandans based on their socioeconomic circumstances and on phenotypic markers. Those who were rich, tall and had long noses were assigned the ethnicity of Tutsi and groomed to be elites. The rest were assigned Hutus, based on the idea that they had Bantu features. These were racist ideologies that these authorities exported to Rwanda.

These divisive policies undermined the unity and social organization that had existed among Rwandans. In the lead up to independence, the colonial authorities made a turnaround and decided to create a Hutu elite and supported a new ethnic-based political mobilization.

Consequently, in 1959, Tutsis were killed in what the British Philosopher, Bertrand Russell, termed 'the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis'. Thousands of Tutsis fled in waves of exodus to neighboring countries of Uganda, Congo, Burundi, and Tanzania.

Ethnic extremism in Rwanda, characterized by regular pogroms, culminated in the genocide in 1994, which was seen as the “final solution” by the government that planned and directed the elimination of the Tutsi.

It is therefore not surprising that the first priority of the leadership of President Paul Kagame was to restore the unity of Rwandans. Every political choice that has been made since the end of the genocide has been about breaking with the past, placing national unity and a common Rwandan identity as the driving force of the country.

But for this unity to be sustainable, it was reinforced with accountability - the second spanner in the fulcrum of Rwanda’s reconstruction.

Thinking Big is the third. A divided Rwanda was infested with poverty. However, a united Rwanda carries the mindset that Rwandans are not destined to be poor. They are the masters of their destiny, ambitious, and choose to work together for a brighter future.

These principles and mindset changes have been taking root in Rwanda over the past 30 years. The young generation that has come of age and is taking over key responsibilities in the country has grown up with these principles, and they are determined to build on this firm foundation.

Genocide was a tragedy of enormous proportions. But Rwanda had arisen from the ashes. Rwandans are thriving, and this is a testament of what is possible when leaders work together with citizens to build institutions required to entrench good governance, with a focus on reconciliation, resilience, and inclusiveness.

We are grateful for the support and solidarity that friends of Rwanda have provided and continue to demonstrate in our journey of rebuilding, especially during this 30th  commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

*The author is the Ambassador of Rwanda to the Arab Republic of Egypt

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