The Aftermath of the Unknown Genocide: Reconciliation Among Rwandan Refugees

Updated on October 23, 2018
Emily Cherub profile image

Emily was deeply moved by the testimony of a Rwandan Genocide survivor, and conducted research for two months to write this article.

Rwanda: A Forgotten Nation

In 1994, the government of Rwanda, a landlocked, poor African country, collapsed as racial tensions reached a climactic point. The ethnic group of Hutus began a genocide against the Tutsis. In just 100 days, the Hutu perpetrators had massacred 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi victims, killing “an estimated 10 percent of the Rwandan population” ("Rwandan Genocide"). Rwandans who fled to neighboring countries to escape the slaughter have been uprooted from their property, belongings, and community. A coup led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) overthrew the weakened, leaderless former government and ended the genocide, but the strain between the different ethnic groups of Rwanda still exists. Rwandans have faced the struggles of war and death, but the need for reconstruction of a government system, the continued displacement of refugees, and necessary reconciliation among the different ethnic groups of Rwanda are still prevalent problems in the stabilization of Rwanda.

Map of Rwanda

European Colonization: The Beginnings of Racial Tension

Rwandans “shared the same religion, language, and political culture,” for centuries, but perceive cultural differences between the different ethnic groups (“Rwandan Genocide”). While Tutsis were considered to hold “the highest social status,” the groups intermarried, lived in the same communities, and fought within the same army (“Rwandan Genocide”). However, European colonization changed the fundamental way in which the Tutsis and Hutus interacted with one another. Tutsis were given the majority of the political power, as they were believed to be “more closely related to Europeans than the Hutu[s],” even though the Hutus outnumbered the Tutsis (McKinley). This sparked animosity between the ethnic groups, and when the country was granted its independence and democratized, the majority group of the Hutus took control of the government.

Terror Tactics: Dehumanization and Militant Groups

As time went on, animosity between the ethnic groups of Rwanda continued to increase. The Hutu majority was wary of the Tutsis, and oppressed their rights to keep the Tutsis from regaining their former power in the name of reparations. The Hutu controlled Rwandan government disseminated false information regarding the Tutsis, claiming that they were all part of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a political group that sought to restore power to Tutsis (Bonner). The government, according to Ndahiro, “spread bigotry and hatred of the Tutsi” using propaganda that portrayed the Tutsis as cockroaches and snakes. The government also began training a militant Hutu group called the Interhamwe in preparation for a genocide against the dehumanized Tutsis (Bonner). The government gathered people for the Interhamwe “who had not been to school, who could not analyze” the situation (Bonner). These factors contributed to a great unrest in the country.

The Genocide: Murder, Rape, and Torture

The genocide began with the death of the then president, Habyarimana, who died in a plane crash under suspicious circumstances. Though there is no evidence to support or deny that the RPF were involved in the death of the president, they were blamed, and subsequently all Tutsis were blamed. The “genocide started happening the same night” that the president’s death was announced (Rein). Families turned on one another, and Tutsis fled or were killed. Even the Catholic church’s clergy in Rwanda was “deeply implicated in the social and political mindset that led to the genocide'' (McKinley). Murder, mutilation, and rape were all weapons of war during the one hundred days in which nearly a million Tutsis were massacred (“Rwandan Genocide”).

Between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people, which is 10% of the Rwandan population, were killed in the genocide

The Aftermath: An Unstable Government and Unresolved Issues

When the RPF usurped control of the government through a coup in which they forcibly took the capital of Rwanda, they were able to successfully end the genocide, but the effects were far reaching and devastating. Rwanda’s economy was in shambles, it’s people displaced, and the social conditions in which started the genocide had yet to be addressed (“Rwandan Genocide”). To begin the process of reconciliation between the ethnic groups of Rwanda, first there must be political justice. An international tribunal has been held to discuss the “war crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front” in their overthrowing of the previous government of Rwanda (Rein). Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, asserts that “all victims, regardless of the power of the alleged perpetrators, have the right to see justice done” (Rein). In the effort to avoid victor’s justice, the RPF must also face consequences for their actions, but this must be done without upsetting the relative stability of the elected government they have installed.

Paul Kagame, the leader of the RPF during the genocide
Paul Kagame, the leader of the RPF during the genocide | Source

A Shattered People: Reconciliation Among Rwandans

Reconciliation encompasses more than political justice, though. The social psychological culture of Rwanda is being changed. Rwanda is in the process of “incorporat[ing] its shattered people into what it insists can be a post-ethnic nation” (Manson). Ntigurirwa, a survivor of the genocide, says that Hutu and Tutsi “are racist and polluted identities” (Rein). For “12 years after [the genocide], Rwanda decided not to teach the history” of the genocide (Manson). However, “to reckon truthfully with the past,” Rwandans must be educated about the atrocities that occured (Manson). Rwandans are “learning to look at each other as not a Hutu person and a Tutsis person, but… just a person,” and slowly dismantling discriminatory policies, but it is important to remember the genocide because “if you don't remember, you won't prevent” a repetition of history (Curley, “Rwandan Genocide Remembered”).

Forgiveness and the Future

With these changes comes a long process of healing for Rwanda’s citizens. A survivor, Umunyana, explains that “it’s not until you graduate college or have a wedding. It’s then that you realize [that] there’s no one there to celebrate” (Curley). However, despite the mass loss of life, Rwandans are coexisting peacefully again. Perpetrators and victims are embracing forgiveness to be able to move forward into the future effectively. A perpetrator, Karenzi, recounts, “My conscience was not quiet, and… I was very ashamed” (Dominus). After being trained about unity and reconciliation, another perpetrator, Ndahimana, remembers feeling “unburdened and relieved” when the person he commited war crimes against forgave him (Dominus). It may seem beyond the human capacity to forgive those who have acted in such abominable ways as to make “the whole country like a mass grave,” but it is happening every day in an impoverished African country whose citizens are dedicated to continuing on (Rein). Ntigurirwa, a survivor, states that “genocide was horrible. But, it has also [a] unique story that we can learn from; that we can change, that we can make the world a better place” (Rein).

Jean Pierre Karenzi, a perpetrator (left) and Viviane Nyiramana, a survivor (right) pose for photographer Pieter Hugo after the genocide
Jean Pierre Karenzi, a perpetrator (left) and Viviane Nyiramana, a survivor (right) pose for photographer Pieter Hugo after the genocide | Source

Works Cited

Bonner, Raymond. “Rwandians in Death Squad Say Choice Was Kill or Die.” New York Times [New York City], 14 Aug. 1994, sec. A, p. A. 1. US Newsstream, Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.

Curley, Julia. “Survivor Recounts How She Narrowly Escaped Death from Rwandan Genocide at Cornell Hillel Event.” University Wire; Carlsbad [Carlsbad], 16 Nov. 2017, News sec. US Newsstream, Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

Dominus, Susan. “Portraits of Reconciliation.” The New York Times Magazine, 2014, Accessed 23 Feb. 2018.

Manson, Katrina. “Rwandan Genocide: Lingering Legacy.” The Financial Times Limited, 6 Apr. 2014. Research Library, Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

McKinley, James C., Jr. “Seeking Complicity in a Genocide.” New York Times, 10 June 2001, sec. 4, p. 4. US Newsstream, Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.

Ndahiro, Kennedy. "Dehumanization: How Tutsis Were Reduced to Cockroaches,
Snakes to Be Killed." The New Times, 13 Mar. 2014. The New Times, Accessed 8 May 2018.

Rein, Anthony. “Rwandan Genocide Survivor Shares His Story of Tragedy, Forgiveness.” University Wire; Carlsbad [Carlsbad], 6 Nov. 2016, News sec. US Newsstream, Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

“Rwandan Genocide.” Worldmark Modern Conflict and Diplomacy, edited by Elizabeth P. Manar, vol. 2, 2014, pp. 447-53. Gale Global Issues in Context, Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.

“Rwandan Genocide Remembered.” Tell Me More; Washington, D.C., National Public Radio (NPR), 11 Apr. 2008. US Newsstream, Accessed 12 Apr. 2018.

“Rwanda: Tribunal Risks Supporting ‘Victor’s Justice.’” Targeted News Service [Washington, D.C.], 1 June 2009. US Newsstream, Accessed 28 Feb. 2018.

© 2018 Emily Cherub


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