Opinions

Land of a Thousand Memories

May 23, 2018
Saleem Vaillancourt
8 min read
Up to a million people, mostly Tutsis, were killed during the Rwandan genocide. The Memorial is a tribute to their memory
Up to a million people, mostly Tutsis, were killed during the Rwandan genocide. The Memorial is a tribute to their memory
Up to a million people, mostly Tutsis, were killed. The Memorial in Kigali attempts to tell their story
Up to a million people, mostly Tutsis, were killed. The Memorial in Kigali attempts to tell their story
The Kigali Genocide Memorial commemorates the Rwandan genocide with a permanent exhibition
The Kigali Genocide Memorial commemorates the Rwandan genocide with a permanent exhibition

Kwibuka means “remember” in Rwanda’s main local language and right now in Kigali, the hilly and almost dapper capital of the so-called land of a thousand hills, it appears on banners across the city. Rwandans are marking the anniversary of the genocide that swept across the country just 24 years ago; the anniversary runs April 7 to July 15, because it was over that period, in 1994, that up to a million children, women and men from the Tutsi minority, along with moderate Hutus, were killed by members of the Hutu majority government.

I can hardly believe that such a self-possessed city was once a place of rampant death.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial commemorates this tragedy, with a permanent exhibition detailing the how and the why of the “instant” genocide. One of its images says everything. A man’s legs are splayed down the hood and front wheel of a car, his torso, arms and head flopped in the driver’s seat. The entire corpse, previously a human being, bends on its waist like a scrap of trash on the rim of a bin.

Hutus and Tutsis lived peacefully together before Europeans arrived. But the Germans and then the Belgians decided that Tutsis were racially superior; they were favored by the colonizers, and over time Hutus were disenfranchized from many aspects of life. Differences between Hutu and Tutsi were further emphasized by identity cards and methods such as measuring nose lengths or cranial dimensions.

A History of Discrimination

A Rwandan friend of mine says that although the Europeans brought knowledge to transform material life, they took away the traditional values that had held this diverse group of tribes together.

Rwanda was freed from Belgian control in 1962 after a revolution deposed the Tutsi government. Hutus were now in charge; more than 300,000 Tutsis fled, becoming refugees in neighboring countries like Uganda. Extremist Hutus spent the next several decades discriminating against Tutsis to turn the Hutu mainstream against their neighbors and to encourage discriminatory practices. Education was limited, for example, and Tutsis could be denied government jobs and positions in the armed forces, among other forms of exclusion. By the late 1980s, many Tutsis had joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebellion in Uganda, and were becoming a powerful force.

President Juvénal Habyarimana’s Hutu government used the rebel advance to spread racist anti-Tutsi propaganda. But Habyarimana and the rebels called a ceasefire in 1992; after that, extremists on both sides got out of control. Tutsi militants assassinated the Hutu president of neighboring Burundi in 1993 and Hutu extremists began to prepare for a “final solution” against the Tutsis in Burundi and Rwanda.

The final spark was the 1994 assassination of Habyarimana. Rwanda’s post-genocide government says it was Hutu extremists who killed their own president – as part of a plan to provoke the genocide. Many Hutus insist that it’s a lie.

Rwandans may sometimes still disagree about what happened before April 7, 1994; but no one disputes that up to a million people, mostly Tutsis, were killed. Three-hundred thousand children were left as orphans and 85,000 of them had to become the heads of their families. Two-thirds of the population was displaced. One mental health worker I spoke to in Kigali estimated that, at a minimum, 25 percent of Rwanda’s 11 million people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The children’s room at the Genocide Memorial is where all these facts and statistics go to die. Everyone knows we’ve become numb to facts; and with other atrocities, such as the Holocaust, some choose to altogether deny the facts and vilify those who defend the truth. But apathy or denial are harder when you’re looking at a photo of Fidele, for example, aged nine in 1994, whose last word was “pray” before she was shot in the head.

Freddy Mutanguha, the Memorial’s director and a member of the Tutsi minority, was 18 at the time of the genocide. Six days after it began, on April 13, the Hutu militia came for his family. All but one of Freddy's sisters were killed in a “terrible way,” he said in an interview with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. A number of them were thrown alive into latrines to drown in human waste. His mother was a schoolteacher and one of her killers – because in the genocide, sometimes gangs of people killed a victim together – had been her student. Freddy's father’s body was never found.

Freddy’s mother had urged him to concentrate on his studies. She was known for always helping other people. Her own brothers had been barred from school beyond a certain level, because of their Tutsi background, but she was determined that her son would have a chance. I think Freddy’s mother must be at the heart of why he was appointed director of the Memorial, aged just 29, and chosen over other more senior candidates.

The Baha’is of Africa

I’ve traveled to Kigali to meet Freddy, and others in Rwandan civil society, as part of IranWire’s project to explore Iran-Africa relations. Iranians have also had their share of tragedies – especially since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Thousands of innocent people have been murdered and some groups, like the Baha’is, are treated as second-class citizens and even persecuted. But you might wonder whether it’s appropriate to talk about Iran’s traumas in a place that’s experienced one of the world's gravest tragedies since the Holocaust.

“Iran is a bit far,” Freddy says, when I ask him whether we can even talk about Iran in Rwanda. He is explaining why most Rwandans don’t know about Iran’s state repression of its minorities. Freddy already knows more than most here – particularly about the Baha’is. “It’s very serious,” he says. “There’s discrimination at the level of education, economic life. The Iranian government has a dictatorial system. They don’t want people to be free.”

But Freddy says that now is a “good moment” for more awareness within Rwanda of human rights issues around the world. And everyone I spoke to, from human rights activists to journalists to the local Baha’i community, said that Rwanda’s past makes its people sympathetic to problems elsewhere and that it’s right to make such connections. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, is currently serving as head of the African Union; and if the country continues to become more open, Freddy adds, “people will become more and more awake and elevated.”

Africa is home to hundreds of thousands of Baha’is – African Baha’is. Rwanda itself has about 2,000 Baha’is living in Kigali and the provinces.

Rwandan Baha’is were also caught up in the genocide. Baha’is fled to Uganda and elsewhere, as refugees, and some were killed because they rejected the militias’ racist ideology driving the violence. I met a local Baha’i one evening, and in a moment of unprompted generosity, he offered me his own genocide memories.

The situation was so totally insecure, he said, that militias were randomly throwing grenades into people’s homes. My friend discovered, at one point, that even his landlord was a Hutu génocidaire. “We won’t kill you, yet,” he was told. “We’ll wait for a victory parade and kill you then.” The Baha’is here live with these memories like everyone else – and they feel that projects such as the IranWire effort can be part of a “coming of age” moment for their homeland.

A “Suspended Genocide”

Freddy Mutanguha says that talking about the denial of basic rights in Iran would be “well-received” in Rwanda. “Rwandans understand the impact of not having human rights. We have survivors: people whose rights were completely denied.”

Rwanda’s openness to discussing the suffering of others – indeed, their insight that suffering in one part of the world is the same as suffering anywhere – is reflected in the design of the Genocide Memorial’s exhibition. “This memorial was the first in the world [to include atrocities and tragedies elsewhere],” Freddy says. “The Rwandans said that we need to be open, we need to talk about Rwanda, and we need to talk about other atrocities around the world, including the Holocaust, the Balkans” and other atrocities across Africa that are not even part of a basic education in the West or other parts of the world.

I hope Rwanda’s trauma is forever past. But in Iran the past could also be a prologue. Two hundred Baha’is were executed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution because of their faith. And in 1988 the country suffered its single most lethal atrocity when 30,000 political prisoners were massacred by the government. Two hundred, 30,000; small numbers compared to a million, but it could have been worse.

The Iranian-British scholar Moojan Momen, who has written extensively about the history of Iran's Baha'i community, argues that what happened to the Baha’is in Iran was a case of a “suspended” genocide. All the warning signs were there – state propaganda, perceived external threats, discriminatory laws – and only international pressure averted a new pogrom.

Iran may once more slip into the uncertainty. The protests earlier this year and sporadic demonstrations around the country have made the government and Iran's Revolutionary Guards feel more insecure. And when authoritarian governments are insecure they search for someone to blame. Baha’is and other minorities are the easiest scapegoats for the Iranian authorities – so the Islamic Republic may feel threatened enough to redouble its attacks on minorities.

Freddy thinks Rwanda can pay attention to Iran – that it can stand “alongside our Iranian and Baha’i brothers” – because he lives in a land that remembers.

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