Hell and healing: Rwanda twenty years on – By Kris Berwouts


Drawing of the orphanage Yyundo, near Gisenyi, Rwanda (copy right Jeroen Janssen).

In the early morning of April 7, 1994 all hell broke loose in Rwanda. A few hours earlier, President Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down and crashed in the garden of his own palace. He was returning from a regional summit in Tanzania about the implementation of the peace agreement between the regime, based on the Hutu majority, and the Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who had grown up in the Rwandan refugee camps in Uganda and had started an armed struggle in October 1990. Habyarimana’s death triggered an unprecedented massacre of around one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The genocide ended when the RPF came to power in July 1994. Two million Hutus fled to Congo. Rwanda stabilized but the violence continued on Congolese soil and eventually led to what later was later called The Great African War.

The horror

Rose remembers it all too well, even though she was only six: ” We lived in Cyangugu, not far from the border with the Congo: my parents, my little brother and I. I even have memories from the period just before the genocide: noisy people waving machetes on the bus. And the political assassinations. One day, one such corpse was found just in front of our doorstep. When it became known that the President was dead, a Tutsi neighbour came to us: “This is the end, we all are going to die soon.” Not long after that, a militia man from the Interahamwe started to scream from behind the fence: “Be prepared, we will soon come to do our job.” “What job are you talking about?” father asked. “Finish your friend off. And your wife too!” Because my mother was Tutsi, my father decided to bring her as soon as possible to the Congo. That Tutsi neighbour was slaughtered the same day. His wife as well, but not before she was brutally raped. I was left alone with my brother, my father didn’t think it would take a long time. But then people attacked our house too. Someone tried to slash a machete into my head, but I parried the stroke with my arm. I was seriously injured but we were still alive. A neighbour rescued us: “Let those kids go. Their father is a Hutu, like us.” Four days later, dad picked us up and brought us to the Congo too. I stayed in the hospital for months. They first wanted to amputate my arm because it was entirely inflamed. Eventually they managed to save it. Father remained with me all the time. When I was finally better, we returned to Bukavu and joined my mother and my brother.”

Beatha was not in Rwanda when the genocide started. She had left the country fifteen years earlier. She was ten. Her father directed the administration of the municipality in Gisenyi. The family was Tutsi . “In those days, Tutsi children had hardly any access to secondary schools. I was a good student in primary school but there was no chance that I would have the opportunity to continue with my studies. Because I had a physical disability, it was not obvious what to do in life. Eventually my parents decided to send me to Belgium as an adopted child. I went to Bruges in 1979 and became part of a Belgian household. I kept in touch with my family in Rwanda. My mother came over a few times and in 1989 I returned to Rwanda to celebrate my brother’s wedding. Funnily enough I still understood Kinyarwanda but I couldn’t speak it anymore. Still, I was definitely coming home. The bond with my childhood was very strong.

A year later the war broke out. We didn’t worry very much. A lot seemed to happen, but very far away from Gisenyi. In May ’92 , my mother visited Belgium again for what turned out to be her last trip. She stayed until September 23rd. I wanted her to seek asylum but she refused categorically. “If I have to die, let me rather die at home.” Not that we thought there was an immediate threat, we still believed that the war was far away. But from then onwards, I called her every week.

In April 1994 the horror erupted. At first we managed to remain in contact by phone. By chance, most family members were outside Rwanda when it started. Only my mother and one of my brothers were there, and they were hidden by the neighbours.  He was the one we talked to, and he tried to reassure us. But on May 15th he called us to say somewhat cryptically that my mum and my brother had been brought away.   I heard he felt very uncomfortable and was choosing his words carefully. But we understood: it was all over. He had hidden them for three weeks, but eventually they were denounced by the house staff. Some family members considered accusing the neighbour of complicity, but I thought that was unfair: the man had taken huge risks, hiding Tutsis in his house. It’s been half a miracle that he has not been killed himself.

In 1995, I returned for the second time. That was a very alienating experience. So many people were dead. Six years before I found my classmates whom I used to hang around with, but they now were no longer there. When I came back to Belgium, I thought: “I’m through with Rwanda. This was the last time.”

Rose also returned in 1995: “We didn’t dare to go back earlier. Daddy was a Hutu; he had been a judge under the old regime. We were afraid that he would be persecuted by the new leaders. And that was exactly what happened. He spent a year in jail without being charged. Mum fought like a lion for her husband, just as he had done for her during the genocide. But no matter how small I was, I understood that the Tutsi part of my family had been killed by the Hutu regime, and that a large part of my father’s family had been assassinated by the new Tutsi regime . I lived in a world of orphans. In our household, there were eight of them, from both mum’s and dad’s side. All the parents had been killed.

I realized even then, at the age of seven, how unjust it is if one part of the community can mourn its dead, while a huge taboo is maintained over the dead of the other part. We were not allowed to talk about the victims of the army, as if only the victims of the Interahamwe had died. I grew up with that sense of injustice. The fault line ran right through my heart.”

A total makeover

I contact Marc Hoogsteyns, a Belgian independent journalist and documentary maker. As a journalist, he covered most of the violence in Rwanda and later in Congo from the field. He established personal relationships with nearly the entire RPF leadership since the days that they were rebels. Through his marriage, he has family ties within the Tutsi community on both sides of the border. He remains an independent observer, but he knows the developments and feelings within that community very well and has a lot of empathy with their perspective. Has Rwanda changed a lot, I want to know.

“The country has gone through a real metamorphosis. A total makeover, so to speak.  The basis of the culture has changed. Socially and economically Rwanda has improved a lot. In terms of education and health, for example, the results are spectacular. But as far as human rights and democracy are concerned, there has been very little change. It used to be a one-party state, and even though they do their best to embellish it, essentially it still is.”

I call Aloys Habimana. We have known each other for more than ten years. He was one of the leading personalities in Liprodhor, perhaps the bravest human rights organisation Rwanda has had. Several generations of their activists had to leave the country because the authorities reacted very strongly against their watch dogs and criticism. Aloys left too, but he later reappeared in other places. In New York, for example, where he held executive positions at the headquarters of Human Rights Watch. Today he coordinates the programs of the international human rights organisation, Front Line Defenders, in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Rwanda has indeed changed a lot in all these years, in the most diverse fields. There have been a lot of positive developments. The post-genocide leadership has been quite effective in transforming society, but the issue has been where it placed its priorities. We should not underestimate what a complex, nearly impossible task it is to rehabilitate an entirely destroyed country from scratch and to rebuild a society which is deeply traumatised. But I believe the first priority should have been to address past grievances, the root causes of conflict and genocidal violence. Have we solved the issue of refugees for instance? Today, more Rwandans than ever live abroad because they do not feel safe in Rwanda…”

Beatha also noticed the change. In 1995 she had returned from Rwanda, determined that she would never go back. In 2011 she went anyway. “There was a wedding. I did not want to go but they nagged me so long that I finally ceded. Once more it was alienating. Honestly, I did not recognize anything. The mentality and lifestyle had completely changed. There was no place for ordinary people. Everything was so clean. Fantastic of course, but I couldn’t find the poor. So many houses and land had been expropriated, but where did the people go? The ordinary people apparently vanished in the decor. I felt very uncomfortable about it. Anyway, I never regret that I went, though I am still convinced that it was my last time. Next year there is another wedding. I hope I will resist better to the pressure. I am not looking forward at all to go back to Rwanda. I simply want to stay at home.”

The whole truth

“The regime is very ambiguous about the division between Hutu and Tutsi,” says Rose. “For years and years, they explained to us that Hutu and Tutsi were categories that the Belgians had invented to silence and divide us and to maintain their control. It became a crime even to pronounce the words Hutu and Tutsi. They labeled you as a divisionist. You wanted to divide the community. Or worse, you became a nostalgic for the old regime and still adhered to the ideology of genocide. But now they come forward with their new program Ndi Umunyarwanda (“I am Rwandan). They want individual Hutus to ask for forgiveness on behalf of all Hutus, and individual Tutsis to forgive them in the name of all Tutsis. Even ministers are forced to do it. I must admit I can’t follow anymore. Do Hutu and Tutsi exist, or are they mere inventions?”

“Programs like Ndi Umunyarwanda now and the gacaca courts before… They all exposed one side of the story. They don’t help our country to move forward and they do not bring the people closer together. The citizens are aware of this. I really think the community participates in these programmes just because they are forced to; not because they believe they can help,” comments Alloys Habimana.  “Whichever way you look at it, every attempt to deal with the past which is not based on the entire truth has no chance to succeed.”

Time to bring in my last interlocutor, David Himbara. Himbara once was one of the closest collaborators of president Kagame. He left the regime and the country in 2010, together with other key people from Kagame’ inner circle of power, with General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa as their leader. It was an awful moment for the regime. All of a sudden the biggest threat did not come from its traditional enemies, the armed opposition in the Congolese bush or the opposition parties in Kigali, but from within. The regime was struggling to prevent its own disintegration.

Since then David Himbara has lead a public life as one of the most critical and best documented sources on Rwandan politics, but he has never joined one of the opposition parties in the diaspora: “Under the current regime in Rwanda  reconciliation is no option, because the climate is intoxicated.  Reconciliation can only be the result of a process in which two parties enter into a dialogue. Such dialogue cannot exist in a paranoid North-Korean style state that is afraid of itself.

But it is outdated to be obsessed by the Hutu – Tutsi issue. Rwanda is a violent state, but there is a strict policy of equal opportunity violence: we all get our fair share of the whip. Of course Hutu are marginalized today, they are barely represented in the institutions that govern the country. And when they are, it is not because they are elected but because they are appointed as window dressing. But does that make the regime a Tutsi regime? I don’t think so. Kagame juggles with individuals to mobilise the two groups against each other. It narrowed down the state from a one party state to a one man state.”

And what about the ordinary people, I want to know. “The repression and intimidation are organized to the level of nyumbakumi, the cell of ten households as the lowest level of government. The fault lines run through families. For example, my father was an old school Tutsi patriarch. I have thirty siblings. Several still live in Rwanda. Some even do not want me to call them. They fear that I could put them in danger. I basically want to say this: all society has vanished from Rwanda, mistrust is complete. It has turned Rwanda into a time bomb. ”

Marc Hoogsteyns is much milder in his judgment: “Rwanda is a beautiful country with many strengths and opportunities, but at the same time it is some kind of African version of Brave New World. People are afraid to talk. But they live more comfortably and safely than ever before, they enjoy high quality education and health care. They are very happy with that. The Tutsi community stands almost entirely behind Kagame and also most Hutu can live with it. They obviously don’t like the fact that they do not count on the political scene, but they can do what they want in all other spheres of live. They can study and do business etcetera. They can deal with the level of repression, because they know that countries such as Burundi, Congo or Kenya are not  the slightest bit more democratic. Honestly, if we would have known twenty years ago, just after the genocide, that Rwanda would achieve this in two decades, we would have signed for it immediately.”

Lessons from the past

So how should Rwandan society move forward from here, I ask Aloys Habimana.  In many ways, the country seems ready for the future, but how to deal with the shadow the past throws over today?

“The common people on the hills and in the suburbs have found a certain balance, a way to live with the past. For example, you see more and more mixed marriages. Time is the best healer. When people live in the same community for long, sharing their problems and successes and finding common interests, they end up finding a way out. There are opportunities that bring people together and consolidate social ties. Churches and charity organisations are trying to create such moments, often with some results. But the potential for violence did not disappear, it is only kept under the surface with much pressure and intimidation. Looking at what led to past waves of violence, you wonder if our leaders have learned anything at all from the past. This country went through the hell as a result of a policy of exclusion. The elimination of political opponents and critical voices in general. Greed. These still are important features of our political system. As long as we do not effectively deal with them, we will not get the risk of violence under control. The priority should be on consolidating responsible leadership and building strong institutions. They do not exist today. Leadership is the key issue. It’s not because you managed to silence everybody that you are effective. Decision making is an extremely top down process and the ordinary citizen is silenced, infantilized. It is most important that the space for public debate is opened up so that people can air out their grievances.”

Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until 2012, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.

This article was first published in Dutch in Mo Magazine (March 2014) and has been written with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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One thought on “Hell and healing: Rwanda twenty years on – By Kris Berwouts

  1. Kris is becoming predictable. You use testimony to fuel your theories. Let me tell you another story – that of many survivors who lost everything. And who now live across the way from the ones who robbed them of everything — who still have both the physical strength to till land and build a life. Those survivors make a daily effort to live. Not to work — just to live. No one can deny the people interviewed their sorrow but your article as always is one sided. You cannot change history. Also, the comment about the poor is quite strategic — proves Kris’ theory that Rwanda’s development is a facade. But the poor are there, just getting less poor every year. Also, who is anyone to judge Rwanda’s reconciliation — tell me where it has been done before…come on name on place where is has worked or even been tried. Case in point: Could SA be considered reconciled?

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