Amidst other prominent current news stories, it is easy to miss that this week marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Those familiar with the events which occurred in this small land locked country may detect a certain irony in my opening remark.
Indeed, one feature I did see on Newsnight was characterised by Jeremy Paxman doing his best impression of a colonial oaf by shouting at a Rwandan embassy official who politely refused to be drawn into an artificially constructed argument. Paxman then topped this with unspeakable rudeness by barking "Well, are you Hutu or Tutsi?" It's difficult to think of a more inappropriate or offensively posed question in the circumstances.
In 1994, Over 800,000 people were systematically murdered in 100 days of terror (thats 1 in 10 of the Rwandan population) while the rest of the world turned a blind eye.
Even when BBC journalist Mark Doyle made his reports during the first few days of the genocide, detailing the extent of the unfurling humanitarian disaster, the United Nations dismissed the event as a tribal conflict.
(Of course for the above quotation to find relevance, there is always a leader who has first abused the power in which people have trusted to him. History has given us plenty of those, and continues to do so).
Numerous opportunities to stop the killing were squandered, despite the UN having a force on the ground with a General (Romeo Dallaire) begging for a mandate to intervene. Astonishingly, the UN diplomatic response was to withdraw 2200 of Dallaire's troops, leaving a paltry and strategically vulnerable, 300 peace keepers with no authority. Later reinforcements of European troops (wearing the uniform of the United Nations) refused to help Rwandans escape, instead only evacuating other Europeans. This action effectively condemned untold numbers of the remaining Rwandans to death at the hands of the radical Interhamwe militia: Surely a travesty of all the high minded principles the UN purports to uphold.
Following the infamous 'Black Hawk Down' incident in Somalia, America did not want to commit soldiers to another 'African problem'. Likewise, Britain stalled deployment for reasons arising from the Balkans conflict. Diplomats across the UN prevaricated, talking semantics as to whether the situation in Rwanda could be classified as genocide.
Yet all the while the killing continued with sickening ferocity until the Tutsi led RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) counter attack secured the capital Kigali. Then at last, Lt.Gen Dallaire received orders to establish a ceasefire line.
Many people have since speculated, could the Rwandan genocide have been prevented? Possibly not. The interhamwe militia were highly effective in their aims during the first few days of the atrocity. However, what is certain is that had General Dalliarie's UNAMIR force been given prompt and decisive orders to intervene, many lives would have been saved.
I was very mindful of the events in 1994 when I accepted an assignment to lead the first schools expedition to Rwanda on behalf of World Challenge. By 2012 the country had become politically and culturally stable, plus the school for which I was leading (London Oratory School - LOS) already had well established links with some of our project hosts.
I had learnt and read a lot about the efforts in Rwanda to bring about reconciliation and resolution to the troubled past. But how could people, who had witnessed and been victims of such atrocities, come to forgive the perpetrators? Let alone once again live in the same neighbourhood.
Unbeknown to me, what I was about to experience something both profound and truly eye opening.
We arrived at Kigali airport in the early hours of the morning and were met by our in-country fixer Nyirigira Lord Hannington. A man every bit as colourful in character as his name suggests, Lord is a genuine Rastafarian. It later transpired that he is somewhat of a legendary guide for visitors to Rwanda, as when I returned to the UK the mere mention of his name drew bright recollections and happy memories from those who knew him.
Whilst in Kigali, Lord organised and escorted us on a city tour. Of course many of the landmarks we visited were associated with the genocide, but I thought it an important part of the expedition, both for me and the fifth formers, to understand how and why things happened in order to appreciate the underlying reason for our forthcoming community projects.
With a number of keen footballers in the group, a stop to walk around the national stadium was a highlight. Looking at the empty stands and well kept green pitch, it was hard to imagine the scenes of squalour and suffering when thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutus sought refuge there.
When in the city centre we had also paused at the Hotel Milles Collines, known to many as Hotel Rwanda as the centre point for the film of the same name. We also passed by the King Faisal Hospital, where doctor James Orbinski from Medecines san Frontieres struggled on treating people with terrible machete, grenade and land mine injuries. Having run out of medical supplies he was left with no choice but to perform amputations with a hacksaw in order to save lives. In 1999, Dr. Orbinski accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF.
Lord then took us to the Genocide Memorial. Inside, the information told of how traditionally there had been ethnic differences in Rwanda, with Tutsis occupying most of the positions of governance, which had been a source of simmering resentment among Hutus. The arrival of Belgian colonial ambitions, sought to use the Tutsis as a proxy ruling class. They did this by categorising Hutu or Tutsi ethnicity on identification cards, further en-flaming Hutu grievances.
As I walked past a glass case containing machetes and other weapons used by the Hutu Interhamwe militia, the display looked like many others I had seen in museums. But it was in the subdued light of the photos room that the human tragedy could be felt. In row upon row, column after column were the faces of the murdered. Their eyes in the ID photos seemed to stare out of the paper. Each one of these people was dead and we could only imagine the manner of their end.
There were rooms dedicated to remembering other acts of genocide. From the atrocities of the Nazis in world war two, the Herero suppression in German South Western Africa (now Namibia) in 1904-07, to more recent tragedies in Cambodia and the Balkans. It was at this point that Lord said he would meet us outside. I soon understood why he would only ever wish to read the accounts in the Rwandan childrens' room once.
Outside, I found Lord smoking a cigarette. We stood together, silently, in the memorial gardens. Surrounded by trees in flower, were several large concrete capped sarcophagi. Inside, were interred the remains of 250,000 souls.
Dom Bosco School
One of the principal reasons for our journey to Rwanda was for the LOS to renew its links with the Dom Bosco school in Kaborondo, Kayonza District. Usually it was a few sixth formers which travelled just to the school in their gap year. However, on this occasion it was fifth formers who had the opportunity, as part of a wider ranging expedition which would finish in Kampala, Uganda.
The Dom Bosco pupils, many of them borders, were nearing the end of term and so there was an upbeat excitement on our arrival. It was also a period of change for the school curriculum, with a transition from lessons taught in French to exams given in English. Clare, the LOS School Leader, had come prepared for this and together with Robyn, a teacher from Dom Bosco, they made lesson plans which both the LOS boys and myself could present to the pupils.
At first, classroom teaching, especially to the really young ones, felt a bit 'out there' and to be honest most of the time I was busking it. At the end of each session, I set aside the formal learning for a ten minute chat, where the kids taught me alot about football players in the UK premier league.
My final class of the week was with a group who were soon to leave school. I asked Clare for some ideas, she said I could try some singing. Clare had obviously never heard me sing nor was she fully aware that my musical tastes were more air guitar than adagio. I doubt whether anyone in Dom Bosco has ever heard a class singing Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and I'm fairly confident it will not happen again any time soon.
Twenty years on, their work continues to be of vital importance. The recent scenes during the service of remembrance held in the national stadium bear testament to this. Many of the congregation breaking down, totally overcome by their memories.
Unlike the United Kingdom, Rwanda does not have a welfare system for its citizens. For most families, especially in rural areas, the division of roles is still along traditional gender
lines. So genocide widows have a particularly hard time, raising children, providing food from their allotments and earning money. Consequently life is hard for their children who have to forgo their education (which must be paid for at secondary school level) in order to work. It is a cycle which perpetuates poverty.
The LOS team helped in a AVEGA sponsored community project to rebuild the dilapidated house of a genocide widow. We were based in the steep rolling hills of the Rwamagana agricultural district and our role was to assist local fundi (skilled builders). The house was constructed out of local materials; rock from a scratch quarry a little way down the hill and mud bricks from an improvised pit about 100 metres away.
The most challenging aspect of the task was that the nearest water source was about 250 metres away and there were no hoses or wheelbarrows available. So, with Jerry cans and old plastic cooking oil drums, our team carried what must have amounted to thousands of litres, along rutted and a dusty hillside trail, to a tarpaulin lined pit dug near to the workmen.
It was hot work. So we organised a shift rotation with staggered breaks so everyone had regular rests whilst keeping a steady supply of water to the pit. Mindful of the dangers of dehydration and heat exhaustion, I encouraged the team to do what they were able but not to push themselves too hard.
We gradually saw the house rise from
foundation to roof level. I was very proud
of what our small group of LOS boys and teacher had achieved in just a few days plus we had alot of fun and laughter along the way. Among all the schools expedition projects I have contributed to, this one stands out as the most significant and meaningful.
I am also happy for the donation from World Challenge that is helping in the construction of the house. I was also very thankful to the group from World Challenge which physically got involved in the construction work.
I did not expect a white person to fetch water, carry stones and bricks but they did it happily and willingly. I can’t express how happy I am. I used to have lots of sleepless nights because I had no shelter but I will now start to sleep like a log. My life and health will improve.
With the exception of the Virungas National Park, home to the mountian gorilla, Rwanda is not especially known for its wildlife reserves. In 1994 much of the game was shot out for food, either by desperate refugees, or in the case of Akagera National Park, by the advancing RPF soldiers having re-grouped across the border in Tanzania.
18 years on, we saw a healthy recovery of grazing animals, tope, zebra, giraffe, impala and colourful avian species such as the lilac breasted roller. The enigmatic shoe billed stork, reported to be nesting in the wetlands, remained elusive despite our combined efforts peering through binoculars. At the time of our safari, predator species were still to be successfully re-introduced. The one lodge providing overnight accommodation looked of its time, but was clean and we enjoyed the sweeping views whilst sipping sodas on the terrace.
Akagera is a national park in the ascendancy. With time and continued investment, it has all the potential to be a wildlife showcase of international repute. There are parallels here with Queen Elizabeth National Park, just across the border in Uganda. During the Idi Amin regime QENP suffered a similar fate, but has now bounced back to be one of Ugandas premiere wildlife watching attractions.
For me it was a superb experience to discover Akagera at this stage on its journey back to greatness.
There was a great deal of premeditation and highly organised planning leading up to the start of the genocide. Radio broadcasts de-humanised the Tutsi minority, labelling them cockroaches and calling for their eradication. Establishing the ethnicity of those to be murdered was made easy due to the national ID cards. But the killing itself was medieval with machetes, knives, clubs, screwdrivers. Weapons requiring the user to be in close proximity to the victim. Neighbour killing neighbour, friend killing friend, even close family members, requiring a kind of fury which is hard to contemplate.
But the most powerful story to arise out of the genocide is one of reconciliation. The war crimes trials held in Arusha, Tanzania did much to convict and imprison the principal figures and orchestrators of the genocide. On a local level, traditional Gacaca courts sought to blend punitive and restorative (victim centred) justice ,with lighter custodial terms given for those genocidaires who showed contrition and made reparations to their victims families; survivors who were often closely acquainted with the perpetrator. Other sentences made some genocidaires responsible for the financial welfare of the widows and orphans that their actions had created.
The Gacaca Courts were a bold idea following such a traumatic event. From the people I met in 2012, they do seem to have been at least partially successful in reconstructing a torn nation, bridging the post-genocide chasm that existed between Hutu and Tutsi.
Representing something much more, is the remarkable expression of forgiveness shown by many victims to those who have raped, maimed and murdered. I find this difficult to understand, or even articulate into words. What I do feel is that in the face of overwhelming darkness, people have searched for the good inside themselves and others. It is a example that the rest of the world could do well to observe.
I am Rwandanese
Concerned about inadvertently causing offence, one of the LOS boys asked me whether it was socially acceptable to speak about the genocide whilst in Rwanda. I said I thought it best to wait until the subject is raised by our hosts, or someone else first. What we actually found was that many people were eager to talk. Maybe not always about the events themselves, but more to emphasise that they were united in the pursuit of lasting peace.
On one of our projects, I passed some time with a workman who with touching sincerity asked me to
I left Rwanda, with deep impressions of people who simply wanted to get on with their lives, to make their way in this world, whilst at peace with their community. If tensions were to arise again, it could not be attributed to them, it would once more be started by just a few individuals and abuse of power.
Naturally, the pain of the genocide is still felt both personally and in the national consciousness. But for Rwandanese there is a want, even a aching need, to move forwards;
Not to be forever defined by those 100 days in 1994.
The following texts offer different perspectives and insights:
The solder: SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL - Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
The medic: AN IMPERFECT OFFERING - Dr James Orbinski
The civilian: AN ORDINARY MAN - Paul Rusesabagina
The untold story: I whole heartedly recommend Mark Doyle's account of UN Peacekeeper Capt. Mbaye Diagne "A GOOD MAN IN RWANDA" who's selflessness and uncommon courage saved 1000 lives. Romeo Dalliare described one of Capt. Diagne's interventions as
11 April 2014