Rwanda Talk

In March 2007 I gave a talk about Rwanda and it’s genocide to the Bangor & Ynys Môn Peace and Justice Group. This is it in its entirety – it is a written talk rather than a written article. If there are any factual errors please let me know.


In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. Martin Luther King

These words were a trigger behind the making of the film “Sometimes in April” – a low budget film written and directed in 2004 by Raoul Peck in memory of the Rwandese genocide – from which I will be showing you a few excerpts. This film was written as a gathering together of different people’s experiences and stories, so in that sense is a true story, but not a particular story about particular real people.

I’m not the kind of guy who can sit here and talk dispassionately or unemotionally about heartrending tragedies, which is much of the story of Rwanda and it’s people. Be warned: you will see some shocking scenes from the 2004 film “Sometimes in April” – not on general release in this country. So bear with me. What is the truth? I thought I knew but it is a minefield. It would be dangerous for you to sit and take my words as truth, so I am being careful – feelings run very high and it is hard to find historical truth – they keep re-writing it. I will intersperse the attempts at factual information with the stories of two people I know.

Will the talk be about the genocide? someone asked me. By way of illustration let me tell you something about myself::

I was born in 1954, the last of five, nine years after the end of WW II. My first three siblings were born during that war. When I was born there was still rationing. I grew up under the shadow of that war, it was often in family conversation, it affected my childhood and my perspective on life and my initial perspectives on Germans and Japanese and Russian people in particular.

Children growing up in Rwanda today, 13 years after the genocide of 1994, are very much in the shadow of it, even though they don’t want to be. There is a national genocide memorial which shown on TV at least once a year. There are churches still containing the skeletons – as a memorial. It affects the way they look at each other, their parents, and everyone else. Often it is the subject that is not talked about at home – tho’ the present government has tried to keep it on the agenda – either for reconciliation or other reasons. It affects the possibility or impossibility of hope or despair, of trust or mistrust.

The whole of Rwanda’s colonial and post-colonial history led to the genocide. Do you remember the words “never again” after the Jewish genocide in WW II? Since then we have had Cambodia, the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda, and now Darfur and I think the people of those places continue to be aware that at least some of the factors that led to those genocides happening are still there.

So yes, it is about the genocide. For a dispassionate start let’s hear from Bill Clinton when he went to Rwanda in 1998 to make some kind of apology for not doing anything about it when it was happening.

Clip One – Bill Clinton

So now you know and I can go home. Ok, what caused this to happen? A potted history. Or rather a potted minefield of ethnicity.

The area which now forms south-western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and (on the west) the adjacent eastern parts of that huge country Congo, have been inhabited for several hundred years by related Bantu peoples, some of whom became the Hutus in Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi. Alongside them are the earliest known inhabitants of the region, a group related to the people we know best as “pygmies” called the Twa. They were and are small in number as well as size, thus they have little political clout and tend to be ignored, but it is said that about 30% of them were killed in the genocide, too. The Hutus were and are an agricultural people by and large.

At some point, about 500 years ago, the Hutus were joined by people who became known as the Tutsis. These people apparently had more European like facial features, a taller average height and kept cattle as their main livelihood. They set up the Banyarwanda (or Rwandese) kingdom, with a king, or Mwami. Many say they were part of the dispersal of Nilotic peoples from Ethiopia who assimilated into the Bantu Hutus and adopted their language until you could hardly tell the difference. Let’s just say that over time, distinctions became blurred in the eyes of many people but by no means all. It is said you could become a Tutsi by owning more cattle, but you could still be a Tutsi even if you were poor and owning no cattle, as long as your parents were Tutsis. Certainly there was a lot of inter-marriage. Some say that the Tutsis were invaders who imposed a kind of feudal system on the Hutus. Others say that it was the colonialists who explained a working and non-exploitative system of division of labour which they found there, in terms of feudalism, which they could understand. There is by the way a large body of oral literature which I have not had time to study. Are the Hutus and the Tutsis distinct groups or are they not? – a troubling question.

From a European perspective, the Rwanda Kingdom ceased to be a legal entity with the signing of the Anglo-German Agreement in 1890, which formalized Germany’s claims to all the territories that would comprise its Deutsch-Ostafrika. However it continued de facto. European agents first started arriving in 1894, and by 1897 a nominal administration was imposed; however it was still not fully integrated into the apparatus of the German East Africa colony by the time these territories were seized by Belgian forces in 1916 – during WW One.

The terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 saw a formal renunciation of German claims to its African possessions, and the transfer of its East African territories into Belgian hands in the case of Rwanda & Burundi. By 1924 the Belgians would obtain international recognition for their control over the former Banyarwanda andBarundi kingdoms in the form of a League of Nations mandate known as Ruanda-Urundi. As was common elsewhere in Africa during the era of European domination, the Belgians relied heavily on the existing monarchic and feudal structures as proxies through which some degree of control could be exercised, whilst at the same time losing actual power. Sons of Tutsi chiefs were schooled for leadership positions in the administration. Promising Hutu young men tended to be schooled for the Catholic priesthood. Women were ignored of course (a woman is the same tribe as her husband). These factors are generally regarded as being the significant causes of post-colonial hatred between the Rwandese communities.

Clip Two – Early Colonial times

Ruanda-Urundi became a United nations Trust Territory by the same name after WWII, which existed until Rwanda and Burundi were created as separate independent states in 1962.

In 1959, after the setting up of a strong Hutu-based political party there was severe unrest which led the killing of hundreds of Tutsis and their first exile, largely to Uganda.

In 1961, following a referendum in which the majority Hutus voted to abolish the monarchy, a republic came into being and the last Mwami, Kigeri V was deposed and went into exile – he still lives in Washington USA, I believe.

Ethnic-based discrimination in both directions was said to be rife in this Hutu-led First Republic which lasted until 1973 under President Gregoire Kayibanda. There was a quota-system in schools and universities to ensure that Tutsis did not get opportunities beyond their percentage share of the population. Ethnic violence erupted again in 1972 resulting in more killings of Tutsis and their going into exile.

The Government of Juvenal Habyarimana from 1972 to 1994 pursued an active policy of discrimination against the minority Tutsis, whose administrative and professional dominance was gradually eroded, sometimes by force. National identity cards continued to state the tribe of the bearer. Refugees were not allowed to return. When I went to Uganda in 1984 Rwanda might as well have been at the other end of the continent for all we knew, and the border was officially closed (tho’ if you lived near it there was a certain amount of cross-border trade all the same). However the Rwandese refugees were in evidence every where, many of them apparently settled in Uganda, married with children growing up alongside Ugandans, learning English rather than French. I worked alongside one, “Enoch”, a water technician in training, he was the offspring of 1959 exiles who met and married in Uganda and a member of the “Re-awakened” Christian sect.

By 1990, the Habyarimana regime had been weakened by a number of factors – economic and financial crises, food shortages, increasing unpopularity of what was seen by many as a non-performing regime; there were demands for democracy from an elite no longer prepared to tolerate the widespread corruption and growing regionalism, as well as pressures for good old multi-party democracy from overseas. To revitalise its flagging popularity, it placed fresh emphasis on the question of ethnicity. During the next 3 years extremist Hutus who felt that Habyarimana was in fact being too weak on these issues, began to encourage a groundswell of action against Tutsis. Many of these were in the Rwandese Army, there were also disenfranchised youth and others who became the fearedInterahamwe bands of marauders, and many others. Arms imports increased, and Machetes (known locally as Pangas) were imported in far larger numbers than usual, supposedly for agricultural activity.

During the late 1980s the exiles in Uganda, many of whom had been in the National Resistance Army which brought President Museveni to power in Uganda in 1986 with his promises of “Fundamental Change”, set about forming their own army, the “Rwandese Patriotic Front/Army” (RPF/A) in order to liberate Rwanda and for them to be able to “return” to their homeland. including attacks by the Rwandan Patriotic Front. They recruited many non-soldiers from among their tribes people and I was as gob-smacked as anyone else when “Enoch” disappeared to join them a few months before the invasion in September 1990. This invasion was probably initially intended only to put severe pressure on the Government for positive change and in particular residence concessions for the exiles, but it’s progress was slow at first and served to increase the tendencies for anti-Tutsi-ism rather than anything else, though its progress was said to be ordered and popular in the areas where it began to take control. There was a peace agreement which was not implemented though a limited UN peace-keeping force was dispatched supposedly to oversee the implementation. There was also a French force in situ, the French government being somewhat in sympathy with the Habyarimana regime.

By 1994 I was in Kampala making a rather precarious living. My daughter was conceived at the end of February that year, so I had other things on my mind when the aeroplane carrying the Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda back from a regional summit was shot down on April 6th on the approach to Kigali Airport. Both Presidents died and the genocide was triggered by this. Whether it was shot down by the RPF, hard-line Hutus or other forces remains disputed but it is pretty certain that the genocide would have taken place anyway as they were preparing for it.

Immediately the slaughter of Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus began first in Kigali, then spreading to other parts of the country.

Clip Three – bodies on Yellow lorries

This is day One when 8000 people died and clearly the authorities were ready. By this time the UN peacekeeping forces were out of their depth, and the French were not helping, to say the least.

An evacuation of expatriates (ie Whites) was begun.

Clip Four – Evacuation of Whites

Meanwhile thousands of Tutsis and Hutus married to Tutsis began to try to escape. Another indication of the preparedness of the army and the Interahamweis the speed at which road blocks were set up to stop these people from escaping. The next clip is shown as a flash back from a person in prison in 2005 describing to his brother how he had tried to help the latter’s family to escape. Ten years later he finds out what happened to his wife and sons.

Clip Five – Roadblock

All over Kigali bands of soldiers and Interahamwe roamed likely places where they could find Tutsis and rid the nation of the curse of these Inyenzi – cockroaches as they called them – homes, boarding schools, wherever they could be found. They would try to separate the Tutsis from the Hutus – some Hutus refused to move away from their Tutsi colleagues.

Clip Six – Girls’ school dormitory

On day Two it is estimated that 10,000 women and children were slaughtered. By day Five about 250,000 people nationwide were dead. People who thought of themselves as good people killed others or failed to speak out. There was a mob-killing frenzy. Sometimes it was kill, betray, or be killed – where would you and I stand in that situation? Even the Church was involved – many took refuge in churches and Hutu priests were under extreme pressure to name Tutsis and sympathisers.

Clip Seven – Chaos and Betrayal in the Church

The young man I know as Innocent (name changed) was born in 1986 of a well-off tribally mixed family in a southern city of Rwanda. He did not even know his mother was Hutu. On April 16th, day Nine, he watched as his parents, older brothers and sisters were cut down with pangas, the killers spared him aged 7½ and his little sister, telling him that he must tell what happened. This was unusual and he has never understood why. In shock they went out and began walking. They were befriended by a Hutu woman who told the soldiers at a roadblock that they were her children, but his sister was taken from them. Not surprisingly there are gaps in his story, but like many he must have gone into hiding, perhaps in the marshes where there was cover and where they were eventually rescued by the RPF.

Clip Eight – Rescue from the Marshes

As the killing spread, many bodies were thrown in the rivers and found their way to Lake Victoria. Some were washed up on the shores of neighbouring countries. Some were eaten by fish as they decomposed. In Kampala people stopped eating fish, which had a big economic effect on that lakeside Capital and its people.

Meanwhile the international community lead by the USA and the UN continued to fudge and argue over what genocide means and whether any action could be taken. The UN condemned the killings in the strongest terms but refused at that point to use the term “genocide”. If they had done so they would have been required to act. By day 77 when the RPF was gradually taking over, more than 700,000 are thought to have been killed. By the end of 100 days of killing, the final tally was probably around 800,000. Estimates actually vary from 600, 000 to One million – we shall never know exactly but 800,000 seems to be generally accepted by the majority of people.

Innocent was taken into Catholic orphanage run by Italian nuns. He was taken from there after some months by his Hutu Uncle who was scouring the country for survivors of his family.

The RPF government initially under President Pasteur Bizimungu tried with some success to gradually bring order out of the chaos. The RPA were accused (probably accurately) of revenge attacks and killings against Hutus fleeing their advance. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus who had participated in the genocide, or just feared retribution, fled to neighbouring Congo, many also to Tanzania. Thousands of Tutsis from Uganda rushed to Rwanda to re-possess their national heritage, take over abandoned businesses, etc.. Bizimungu’s Government tried to begin reconciliation. New ID cards were issued to all residents with no tribal designation on them. Bizimungu was a Hutu, but it was strongman Paul Kagame, the leader of the RPA and vice-president, who held most of the reigns of power. Bizimungu was eventually toppled in March 2000 and later charged with various anti-government actions and imprisoned. Paul Kagame has been President ever since.

Clip Nine – Woman Testifying at International Tribunal

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was set up in Arusha Tanzania to bring to justice the leaders of the genocide, especially those from the former Government and armed forces, while the present-day government of Rwanda is responsible for prosecuting lower level leaders and participants. It has been a very slow process and many in Rwanda are impatient. Rwanda itself has revived traditional open-air Gacaca courts which are supposed to help in local re-conciliation as much as anything else but they are said by some to be misused by people wanting to settle old scores. Some of the people they deal with are in prison on genocide charges and others are people living freely, but accused for example when recognised by a returnee.

Clip 10 – Gacaca Court

Rwanda was involved in the War in DR Congo (then Zaire) in 1997 (which toppled the ailing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko) chiefly because it had interests in flushing out the Hutu extremists still residing there. That war is another subject altogether but another result of it was the influx into Rwanda of Tutsis known as Banyamulenge who had resided in Congo for about 100 years but had become unpopular.

President Paul Kagame keeps running up against the international community, particularly his old antagonist France over his record before, during and after the genocide.

In September 2002 Innocent’s Uncle and Aunt were murdered and he fled to Uganda where he was helped by a voluntary organisation providing shelter for Asylum seekers in Kampala, which I was a part of. At a particularly difficult point in that organisation’s progress he slipped though the net and landed in the street with malaria. I was asked to take him in on an emergency basis. He stayed off and on for 2½ years. Every year in April he becomes slightly unhinged in his mind.

Clip 11 – Sometimes in April

Last year in April Innocent ran away from his studies back to Rwanda where he was arrested and in all kinds of trouble because of his Uncle’s problems. 9 months later (February 2007) I heard from him in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where he has applied for 3rd Country re-settlement – which will probably take 2 years.

I met “Enoch” in Rwanda in 1996, settled and happy, still is as far as I know.

Rwanda’s future remains uncertain, but the economy has picked up considerably, though it is heavily dependant on coffee exports. There is so much more to be said, but I never want to be there in April.

A very useful article can be found at this address:

March 2007

© Nicholas Robert Jewitt and, 2007. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Robert Jewitt and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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