The UWC of the Atlantic Rwanda Summer Project 2009
Rina Kuusipalo, Finland (AC 08-10)
Rwanda. Google Images produces pictures of tragedy and corpses, some of the at least 800,000 Rwandans who were killed in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis and moderate Hutus, which left the whole world in shock, questioning how “never again” had once repeated. Yet this destruction was not what visibly plagued the Rwanda of 2009. There was no simple picture, of fly-ridden children suffering in the heat, to capture the enormous multitudes of the society. Beyond the sensationalism there lies the real Rwanda, a country of a thousand hills and, similarly, a thousand stories: some terrifyingly sad ones, but many more incredibly hope-fostering ones. This official “Heart of Africa” was where our Atlantic College Summer Project headed in early June. During our month there, our wish was to decipher for ourselves the nation and people beneath all those media riddles, and to leave behind something of use.
It was a country towards which, until arrival, I felt mainly useless grief, over those incomprehensible numbers. “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic,” as Stalin infamously said. I also felt great frustration over the West’s role in all that. But Africa has no use for my feeling sorry for it. What it needs is hope – and what it doesn’t need is being classified as “the dark continent”. So I was thirsty for emotions that could build things. But before you build things, you need to lay a foundation. Rwandans say: “Bury the dead, not the truth”. If one seeks to give justice to victims, to explain what led the Hutus to do what they did and to understand the culture of the present day there – then history is crucial.
The history, in as much of a nutshell as I think is appropriate for Rwanda, then goes as follows. After settling in with the original Twa people, or pygmies, Rwandans lived as one people for centuries, with one language, Kinyarwanda, with one religion, and with one culture, in their secluded location in the lush hills of land-locked Central Africa. Tutsi and Hutu were never ethnic distinctions; there was never a tribal conflict in Rwanda before the arrival of the white man, only in the late 1900’s, since its location had protected it from the slave trade. Tutsi and Hutu were, approximately, distinctions of rank or class in society: Tutsi originally meant a herdsman, and a Hutu meant a cultivator; later on as hierarchy developed, Tutsi came to symbolise someone of higher rank in relation to the state. Yet they lived like people do in any society with vaguely acknowledged class differences; they could intermarry or move into the other “class”, and no official record was ever kept.
That was, until Europeans came in the late 1800’s, in the boom of their racial science. They imposed their Hamitic ideals on Rwandans, a divide and rule regime, to lift the minority into power to make their administration easier. The Belgians began measuring their physical features, and placed the Tutsi in power because of their supposedly nobler looks. They distributed identity cards, so that anyone with over ten cows was from then onwards called a Tutsi (14%), and so were his descendants, and anyone with less, a Hutu (85%). Huge resentment amongst the Hutus built up: they were for example completely ruled out of public life and high positions, the Catholic-dominated schools taught them that they were less worthy than the Tutsi, and they were subjugated to forced labour. The Belgians told the Tutsis who disagreed with their role: “You whip the Hutu or we whip you”. Ethnicity, as an idea, was thus crafted and inflated to define the existence of any Rwandan from birth; a deliberate dual divide that was to prove its fragility.
After the Second World War, when Rwandan independence was dawning, the Hutus began a campaign of their own social revolution (backed by many Belgian Flemish who themselves had been the subjugated majority of the Belgian society), to strip the Tutsis of power. In 1959, for the first time in history, there was violence between groups that called themselves the Tutsis and the Hutus. This was reported in foreign press as “the age-old animosity” between Rwandan tribes. Years of conflict ensued, and Hutus had soon assumed complete power. From the very beginning of hostilities, the Belgians thought pragmatically, and were swift to switch to the Hutu side. Their armies in Rwanda never lifted a finger to stop the Hutu violence.
President Habyarimana, who had taken power as a dictator in 1973, and his government, led the anti-Tutsi policies in Rwanda, with the stern steering of Habyarimana’s affluent wife and her Hutu power clique, the akazu, and the Tutsis were now in turn deeply oppressed, like the Hutus had been. The 1990’s dawned with a dire economic situation and mounting political opposition against the autocratic rule. The Akazu decided to direct the Hutu dissatisfaction and malcontent towards the Tutsi part of the population in a stronger way. It was not an ancient ethnic feud, but the European-imported racial ideals served as the weapon for the elite clique to retain and gain power and wealth in Rwanda. Around the same times, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) came into existence, aiming for political reform of the dictatorial regime in Rwanda and the return home of Tutsis in exile, a group who had been fleeing the country since 1959 when the oppression began, and now made up one of Africa’s largest refugee communities in Rwanda’s neighbouring countries. The RPF included mostly Rwandan Tutsis whose families had escaped the persecution, amongst them the current President Paul Kagame, but it had also leading Hutu members. In 1990 the RPF tried and failed to invade Rwanda, but as a result, Habyarimana saw the chance to seek French support to solve the problem. The French were keen to include Rwanda in their Francophone community in Africa, and since President Mitterrand was a personal friend of Habyarimana’s, he readily dispatched troops to Rwanda, which were to become vital for the Hutu cause. The French also began dispatching and facilitating arms and staff for the government’s military campaign (allegedly Mitterrand’s son was an arms dealer in this), and so their direct assistance to the genocidal regime had begun. As soon as the foreign support was secured, the violent campaign against the Tutsis gathered momentum.
Already in 1992 a Belgian ambassador talked about the forthcoming “the extermination of the Tutsi” to his government; and countless other sources in Rwanda reported the ominous situation onwards, but the information, such as a very distressing report by an international group of human rights experts, was discarded in international media and even amongst UN officials. Rwanda was insignificant economically and didn’t interest many people, and overall, the conflict was assumed to be an ancient African tribal feud with both sides equally culpable, or the continuation of a civil war, and with nothing that could be done about it – the misinformation and lack of interest was so astonishing that this view held largely until the genocide was practically already over. The media in Rwanda, on the other hand, was now in full flame with akazu-controlled propaganda, and was distributing the doctrines of Hutu purity and the need to show “no mercy towards Tutsi”. The government’s conspiracy to begin full-blown genocide sometime soon was hardly a secret to anyone who stayed in the country at the time.
Therefore, a UN force was eventually sent to Rwanda, but with such a limited mandate and such few troops, that the General Dallaire, a Belgian who was leading the mission and would later become a harsh critic of the nature of foreign involvement in the genocide, said: “I spent most of my time fighting the heavy mechanical UN system, with all its stupidity”.
An astounding leak occurred, when a former member of the President’s security guard, nicknamed “Jean-Pierre”, contacted Dallaire with detailed information of the genocide plot, and warning that the trained forces would be capable of killing at a rate a 1,000 Tutsis in 20 minutes. He also knew where the arms were hidden, but would reveal this only if the UN granted him protection in return. The UN replied that its mandate didn’t cover this, and Jean-Pierre soon afterwards disappeared. Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary General, was also Habyarimana’s personal friend, and opposed further intervention in Rwanda at the headquarters. The UN was also still recovering from its tainted reputation in Somalia, and didn’t want any risks. Still, they all knew, as Dallaire put it: “The world powers were all there with their embassies… you can’t tell me those bastards didn’t have lot of information”.
Eventually, 6 April, 1994, President Habyarimana was killed, landing at the Kigali International Airport, and despite the lack of enough evidence, it was quite clear the akazu was behind it. This initiated the genocide. Habyarimana’s wife and family were the first ones to be flown out of Kigali by the French, before the campaign started. It followed “Jean-Pierre”’s predictions in its quickness and intensity. The scale of the Rwandan Genocide had not been seen since the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. Even though a CIA analysis had predicted in January that soon at least half a million people would die in hostilities in Rwanda, the United States strongly avoided calling it genocide, until only afterwards. This was because the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, which was designed to prevent something as devastating as the Holocaust from repeating, would have given a legal obligation for them to intervene.
With Dallaire frustrated by not being able to find support for his now almost completely withdrawn, reduced, and practically useless Unamir force, the RPF came to intervene on behalf of the Rwandans. Military experts have said on many occasions that had a few more thousand troops been deployed for the Unamir, and had the mandate been expanded to what genocide required, the genocide itself could have been avoided to a large extent. But none of this was done. Fortunately, this time the RPF intervention was more successful, led by Paul Kagame, and by late May they had more than half of Rwanda under control. Had it not been for the RPF, which effectively ended the genocide, one dares not even think of the consequences. However, the RPF mission distressed the French, who were still backing the Rwandan Hutu government, and in June, Mitterrand dispatched a force under the guise of a “humanitarian mission” but meant for military needs, to “break the back of the RPF”. On French secret arms deliveries to the genocidaires, Dallaire remarked: “I’ll have their planes shot down”. However, eventually the French troops felt so repulsed and deceived by their mission that it came to an end.
On July 4, the RPF took over Kigali. As the akazu propaganda of “devil-like” RPF fighters spread, enormous quantities of Hutu, also many who hadn’t committed any acts of genocide, fled the country. Several planners of the genocide were allowed out by France. A million Hutus crossed the border to Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the former genocidaires established refugee camps. There they preached the same anti-Tutsi ideology to the Hutus, who were imprisoned in the camps, and too afraid, due to propaganda and intimidation, to flee. After the international outcry post-genocide, humanitarian aid was directed at these camps, as they had heard that there were “refugees there”, and this irresponsibly distributed aid helped to arm the former genocidaires; and, to a large extent, created the conflict in DR Congo. Tutsis were killed in large numbers there in years to follow, until the RPF, again replacing the paralysed and misinformed international community, and this time with support of many other African states, intervened and restored masses of both Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, ousted the Zairean dictator Mobutu, and the country was again called the DR Congo. Zaire was a name given by Mobutu, a deeply corrupted puppet ruler who had originally been selected for the job by the United States during the Cold War, and it was a twist on the name the Portuguese colonists had used to call the river.
The genocide’s aftermath was thus not only almost a million people dead within a time period of 100 days in Rwanda, which accounted for around 75% of the Tutsi population there. It had also left a wide region of sub-Saharan Africa in further conflict (that was to be called “ancient” on many occasions once again). Rwanda faced perhaps the hardest conditions imaginable. It was officially the absolute poorest country on Earth ranked by World Bank. I had a lost harvest, which meant not only not enough food for the people, but also a lost season of coffee and tea, the main export crops, and an infrastructure laid to waste, from electricity and phone lines to staplers in offices. Wells that weren’t filled with bodies were hard to find. Killing hadn’t occurred in secluded concentration camps; it had taken place on streets, homes, hospitals, shops, schools, and many Catholic churches. The Rwandan Muslims had been the only religious group to refuse to cooperate in the genocide. The treasury was entirely empty and children living amongst each other without any adult numbered at 100,000.
Yet, as if through miraculous human will, people got up and began to rebuild the country. Rwandans from abroad rushed in, like a tide, bringing in enterprise and replacing material losses. Since so many had lost their entire social landscape, perhaps even their entire family tree down to their nieces and grandfathers, the need to find a purpose in life found refuge in taking care of others with a similar fate. We encountered such an astounding number of civilian initiatives aiming to make the community better, from grassroots charity to nationwide cultural waves. Yet unlike after the Nazi Holocaust, after which the survivors could emigrate to the United States, Israel – the Tutsis had to live with the Hutus, in the same houses, whether they wanted to or not.
Paul Kagame is an interesting case in this equation. Kagame is known for his intellect and calmness, and is treated as a hero by many in Rwanda. We found pictures of him everywhere, from private homes to the lobby of “Hotel Rwanda”. He is also open towards the West and supports free trade, for those concerned about African Socialism lifting its head – although social democratic ideas did seem to be quite popular amongst the Rwandan intelligentsia that we met. In a Rwanda Dispatch article from this June (originally from the Financial Times), Kagame called for “international trade and investment for Africa” – this, as opposed to foreign aid which has been losing its reputation lately. He also said: “We appreciate support from the outside, but it should be support that we intend to achieve ourselves… No one should pretend that they care about our nations more than we do; or assume that they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves… At the same time, as I tell our people, nobody owes Rwandans anything.” The Rwandans love him, too. Whoever I asked, members from all backgrounds, from upper-class boarding school graduates to lower income workers, everyone seemed to be very happy with him. “Taking into account the circumstances”, said a Tutsi who had founded an NGO in Rwanda after repatriating from the United States, “he has been incredible. The things he did were needed at the time, I think. It will take time here, after what happened; people are still living it in their minds. That’s what they forget. We couldn’t function perfectly overnight. But changes are happening all the time, people are working on it. There has been a lot of change.”
Economic development is of course slow after such conditions, and countless people do still live with less than a dollar a day. However, what we saw, even if time was limited, certainly shaped my views and gave many more layers to the story than that. What I had imagined before was what Google Images had displayed, what films like Hotel Rwanda had shown: destruction. But that was all gone. I can’t say it was as if it had never happened – people took care that there was a sign commemorating the “Jenoside Y’Abatutsi” at every street corner, or at least a ribbon coloured in purple, the colour of mourning in Rwanda. The fact is that it could have gone very wrong after the genocide, issues were not resolved to the slightest; Rwanda could be hell now – instead, it is a normal country, where one feels safe to walk on the streets after dark, as we often did, and children can run around and laugh freely – that in itself is already an achievement.
No one uses the terms Tutsi and Hutu publicly anymore either. Kagame told them not to – and that is where the Western press again scolded him, for “limiting the freedom of speech” – those precious words of ours. Yet what is the context? Hutu and Tutsi were given their ethnic meaning by Belgian racial scientists – Rwanda has all the right to call an end such remnants, which only spur further conflict. Above all, it has worked quite well. In the capital area, at least, one cannot distinguish in people’s public interaction any trace of the classification as Tutsi or Hutu. I was told the rural countryside lives in more segregation still. The people might also tell you what they were in private; obviously it lives vivid in the mind, the memories, those identities. Still, you could see they were trying to forget the memories; apart from the Genocide memorial sites, no one would normally bring up the topic.
Despite all the obstacles in Rwanda’s way, with no substantial natural resources and little land, what Rwanda has managed to do with what it has is astonishing. Kigali, the capital, turned out to be widely known as one of the safest capitals in Africa – with police men and women, sometimes armed with rifles, emerging at every street corner as dusk descended. Everywhere you looked, there were building sites since Kigali’s infrastructure was fundamentally in ruins as a result of the genocide. Cranes towered over future skyscrapers in the central business district, and little ingeniously improvised boutiques and shops littered the streets sprawling through the city. The vibrant culture welcomed us. We recorded a project song in a local recording studio, produced the do-it-yourself way, to meet the needs of aspiring national music icons. We attended church service on Sundays with our Christian-Muslim-atheist crowd, and joined in with a community that welcomed us indiscriminately and sang in unison, with a priest who translated for us his sermon and notifications on the church marriage counselling. We danced in salsa clubs and played football with children of all ages, who played barefoot with balls manufactured from plastic bags. That always puzzled me, the origin of those plastic bags. As it so happened, Rwanda had decided to ban plastic bags, and only supplied paper ones in stores, to combat pollution and climate change.
We also met an impressive bunch of local personalities. There was a 21-year-old Rwandan Muslim girl, who had become somewhat of a celebrity by becoming a radio hostess with her own programme, while simultaneously studying at university. Then there was the rap artist who performed in local rap battles and swore he would never leave his home country even if foreign record labels offered financially better deals. There was also a very chill group of fresh high-school graduates, who had founded their own youth magazine, the Blink, “to promote a reading culture amongst the youth of the country. There are many illiterate people here, and too few magazines. We also want them to learn English through this, that’s vital nowadays”. The youth makes up well over a half of Rwanda’s population. The magazine featured articles about people like Martin Luther King, “to set an example for the young, to show anything is possible”, about fashion and relationships, about the upcoming elections, and the people who were combating the brain drain in Africa. “You can’t just have foreign idols for the youth. You need to keep the educated people, the artists, and the youth, wanting to stay here. You have to give people who are doing things recognition for it; our magazine wants to give them that public recognition. You also have to show how much positive culture we have here.”
What has remained as the symbol of Rwandan solidarity for me, and of small-scale social cohesive development far beyond what I have seen elsewhere, was the community clean-up that we tried to attend one day, only to find out in embarrassment that we were too late for the actual clean-up part. However, they still invited us to attend the community gathering that followed, whereby all the members of that district, from university-educated lawyers to the very poorest ones, sat under the shade of a few trees in the heat of the day, and the elected community leaders began talking. They spoke in Kinyarwanda, so I couldn’t understand much more than the introduction of a water purifying powder to the people, but our project leader translated some of it. What this discussion, lasting for hours, encompassed, amongst other things, was the election of the new community leader, the management of the local water supply for which they had built a network, and the congratulations directed at the community on the successful one dollar per day project, which they had initiated to guarantee a minimum income even to the poorest community members. Observing this, I was reminded of reading about the ancient hill-by-hill administration structure in Rwanda.
Our input to that flow was miniscule. Still, it was much appreciated by the people we worked with. We once received prayers from a crowd of a hundred Rwandans in a church that was linked to a school where we’d worked. We had painted both buildings, and the priest told us we had fulfilled a prophecy by coming and giving them that gift of work. Obviously, it felt exaggerated since it was the absolute least we could offer, but his humbleness really impressed me. Before he and the organisation had started working in this area, where the school and the church were now – now a very decent area – it had been known as a criminal district, with foreign troops popping in for visits in the early 1990’s. Many of the children, they told us, were a product of this. In addition, we worked at a day care centre, which also hosted an orphanage, where we levelled the hilly ground, and cut, carried and put together goalposts, to build two football pitches and a volleyball pitch. As we were logging in the forest, the closest we came to danger happened when a cobra attacked some members of the group; but it soon was slain by a local man. We also could have never done what we did was it not for the constant support of Love to Love Ministry, a local NGO, and had our project leader, Innocent, himself a student, not lobbied us the project money at school, and organised everything for us in advance. Our nutrition also lived off the goodwill of the executive director of Love to Love Ministry, as he provided us with his home and kitchen to cook in every night, and he would sometimes cook traditional food for us too. All in all, I think the whole project group really enjoyed their time, and learnt so many things about the different aspects of Rwanda that they will keep coming back to us years and decades from now. So, just thank you to everyone involved with the project, and, most of all, thank you to Rwanda.
- United World College Student Magazine -