Mass graves at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center (Photo by John Ryan)

Magazine Feature: In the nearly 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, domestic and international justice efforts have struggled to balance the demands for remembrance, criminal accountability and moving on. Our third in a series of articles examining transitional justice mechanisms for gross human rights violations.



The sky is overcast, with a chance of rain, as the celebration begins on Easter Sunday outside the church located about a quarter mile off the main road in Nyamata, a small town due south of the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, by a 50-minute bus ride. Drummers bang relentlessly as churchgoers exit under the scaffolding attached to the building and mingle outside. A nun smiles when asked for the location of the genocide memorial, pointing down the dirt road to a red brick building behind white metal gates.

There, a slight woman waits at the entrance of the former Catholic Church to give a tour to the only two visitors. She speaks in Kinyarwanda, with a few English words thrown in. Thousands of Rwandans came here in April 1994 to seek refuge from the genocide, but they were all killed when government and militia forces broke in – one of many scenes of mass slaughter and rape over a 100-day period in which the Hutu-dominated government and its followers sought to stamp out the Tutsi population, as well as those perceived to be moderates or sympathizers among the Hutus. The goal was to bring a permanent conclusion to the civil war against the Rwandan Patriot Front, or RPF, the mostly-Tutsi rebel group led by Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, whose forces ended the genocide by early July and assumed some control over what was left of the devastated country.

Clothes of the victims are stacked on the pews, and bullet and grenade holes mark the surrounding walls. The guide points to the altar, where the weapons of the genocide lay; she makes a gentle slashing movement with her arm as she points out the machete.

Outside, behind the church, a path leads to a set of stairs that descend into a catacomb with a narrow passageway running between thousands of bones and skulls, as well as dozens of coffins, stacked on wooden shelves. Many of the coffins measure just a few feet or so long. The guide makes the slashing movement again, this time with the explanation: “Babies, babies.”

A 15-minute ride by a moped taxi leads to a more rural area, Ntarama, with another church memorial where about 5,000 Rwandans had also sought protection from the genocide. Here, clothing hangs from the walls and rafters, while bones and personal items from the victims can be found at the ends of the building. A short distance uphill is a smaller structure. Inside, the guide, a somber woman who speaks in English, points to dark blood stains on the wall. She says that the children were killed here by being thrown and smashed against the wall.

The slaughter of children illustrates the horrors of the genocide and its enduring effect on the nation. This idea receives special treatment at the nation’s largest genocide memorial, the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, an impressive site with a museum and research center as well as gardens and mass graves of more than 250,000 victims. (The government estimates the ultimate death toll from the genocide at more than one million; academic works and advocacy reports more commonly estimate between 800,000 and 1 million.)

The museum’s “Children’s Hall” presents pictures of murdered children with descriptions of their life goals and personality traits along with the manner of their death: “hacked by a machete,” “burnt alive,” “a grenade thrown in the shower,” “shot in the head,” “stabbed in eyes and head,” “tortured to death,” “smashed against a wall.”

Karengera Ildephonse, who works at Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide, said the graphic nature of the memorials was important to refute those who deny or minimize the genocide.

“That is complete proof – the coffins of the children, the bones and clothes – of what happened,” Ildephonse, who is the commission’s Director of Memory and Prevention of Genocide, explained in an interview. “It’s not just talk, it is physical proof.”

He added that the process of memorializing is important for educational purposes, particularly for young Rwandans. Ildephonse gave an interview at the commission’s offices in Kigali on April 8, the day after Rwanda commemorated the 19th anniversary of the genocide as part of its annual week of mourning, which includes commemoration events in Kigali and in villages around the country. April 7, 1994, is remembered as the first full day of the genocide. On April 6 of that year, Rwanda’s longtime Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali, ending a tenuous peace between his government and the RPF; government forces and the Hutu militia known as the interahamwe started implementing the genocide within hours.

This year, Jean de Dieu Mucyo, the commission’s executive secretary, had criticized young people for their lack of interest in genocide memorial activities. In his televised speech to the nation on April 7, Kagame called for schools to teach the nation’s difficult history so that the youngest survivors and those born after the events better understood the genocide’s causes. That day, Kagame attended a memorial service at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and later participated in the “Walk to Remember,” an event organized by the commission and youth groups. The walk began at Rwanda’s National Parliament after all attendees had passed through an airport-like security screening and ended at Amahoro Stadium, the site of the nighttime memorial service. Most of the participants in the walk were Rwandans who appeared to be under the age of 30, with a scattering of Westerners who stood out by wearing sandals and shorts.

“This country belongs to them,” Ildephonse said of the Rwandan youth. “The country’s unity has to come from them. We encourage them to learn, to know why genocide happened, to prevent it from happening again, to fight the ideology of genocide.”

Memorials may seem a relatively uncontroversial way to acknowledge and redress past human rights abuses compared to judicial or quasi-judicial means such as prosecutions, truth commissions, reparation programs or reforms of public institutions – all of which have come to be grouped together as the common set of “transitional justice” mechanisms that post-conflict societies consider adopting. But they can be fraught with their own sets of complexities.

Both Rwandans and foreign workers in the country say that the memorial week brings an added weight and tension to the country, and it is not uncommon to hear people say that they prefer to travel during this time. Regardless of the time of year, outsiders are advised not to bring up the genocide or to ask about ethnic affiliations in conversations with Rwandans, which can sometimes complicate what would otherwise be normal questions about a person’s family life and history. (The U.S. government lists the present ethnic breakdown as 84 percent Hutu, 15 percent Tutsi and 1 percent Twa in a densely packed population of about 12 million.)

The goal of Kagame’s Rwanda is to leave ethnic divisions in the past and embrace the concept that “We are all Rwandans,” but ethnicity is wrapped up in the memorializing. The genocide memorial campaign is officially referred to as “The Genocide Against the Tutsi,” which to some observers contributes to an environment that does not fairly account for Hutu suffering. Ildephonse said, however, that the commemoration’s title is merely meant to be factual.

“Some Hutus did not kill and helped and protected Tutsis, and in fact some Tutsi assisted in the genocide, but the Hutus were not targeted as Hutus, but as sympathizers of the Tutsi,” he said.

The government has acknowledged that innocent Hutus were killed during the civil war, which began in 1990 when RPF forces attacked Habyarimana’s regime, and in reprisal killings by RPF forces during and after the genocide. However, the government is strongly opposed to any language or description of events that appears to equate Hutu and Tutsi crimes within a civil war context, or that could be at all interpreted as supporting the contention that “a double genocide” occurred — which the government views as a dangerous component of the denialism within the broader threat of genocidal ideology.

Beginning with its new constitution in 2003 and in legislation since, Rwanda has outlawed ethnic “divisionism,” minimizing or negating the genocide and, in a 2008 law, the propounding of a broadly defined “genocidal ideology.” The focus on genocidal ideology is not surprising, nor are attempts to regulate hate speech. In the years leading up to the genocide, newspapers and radio stations successfully distributed “Hutu Power” propaganda – such as the Hutu Ten Commandments, which dictated that Hutu associations with Tutsis were traitorous – that helped convince Rwandans to kill their neighbors and made the extent of the 1994 genocide possible.

But critics contend that the Kagame regime has used provisions against genocidal ideology to quell legitimate free speech and political opposition in ways that violate international rights standards. Hundreds have been prosecuted under the laws, creating an environment not conducive to discussing RPF crimes or in general criticizing the Kagame government, including any perceived favoritism of Tutsis in Rwanda’s post-genocide rebuilding. The Parliament has reportedly passed a revised version of the 2008 genocide ideology law to clarify the elements of the crime and the requirement of intent; it also reduces prison sentences. As of this writing, the law was awaiting Kagame’s signature.

Among the best-known genocide ideology cases involved Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader who attempted to oppose Kagame in the 2010 presidential election. She was arrested after a speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in which she called for official remembrances of Hutu victims and punishments for their killers; she was also charged with providing support to a Hutu militia group operating in the region. Rwanda’s High Court found her guilty of genocide denial and conspiracy charges, and it handed her an eight-year prison sentence that she is now appealing before the Supreme Court. (Rather famously, authorities also arrested Ingabire’s controversial American attorney, Peter Erlinder, though Rwanda freed him for medical reasons and he is now at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.) Kagame ended up winning that election with 93 percent of the vote; his second and last term under the constitution ends in 2017.

The opposing sides of the Kagame debate have been well established for some time: He is described favorably as a strong leader presiding over an unlikely success story, and unfavorably as an authoritarian leader of a repressive surveillance state. The U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report for Rwanda is replete with reports of arrests or harassment of political figures, journalists and human rights activists who have been critical of the regime, and murders and attempted murders of political opponents have gone unsolved. Kagame’s government has long had a contentious relationship with major international human rights groups, which have authored a range of critical reports and contended that would-be domestic activists have been scared into silence or into moving abroad.

Human Rights Watch, a regular critic of the Kagame regime, claimed in a recent report that the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights – referred to in the report as the last independent human rights group in the country – had been taken over by government supporters through a questionable board election. The report said the event was part of a larger pattern of efforts to silence civil society organizations through intimidation and infiltration. Critics like to point out that, while the government has cited a culture of blind allegiance to leadership as a cause of widespread Hutu participation in the genocide, it is unfairly resistant to criticism of its own policies.

Kagame nevertheless continues to receive praise around the world for his stewardship of Rwanda’s rebuilding and economic growth, even if relationships with allies like the United States have soured somewhat over the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC. In addition to its concern over genocidal ideology at home, Rwanda has long pursued Hutu extremists who fled the country during the RPF’s victorious campaign in 1994 and continued to wage attacks from the outside.

In 2012, the U.S. cut military aid on the belief that the Rwandan military was violating an arms embargo by providing direct support to the M23 rebel group, a mostly-Tutsi army in the eastern part of the country that opposes the DRC government and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, the Hutu militia in the area that has many former Rwandan genocidaires. Sanctions will also apply for the coming year now that the U.S. State Department has put Rwanda on the list of nations that recruit or support the recruitment of child soldiers, a tactic employed by the M23. Rwandan officials have repeatedly denied providing support to the rebels.

This year, the theme of genocide memorial activities – seen on signs hanging throughout Kigali’s remarkably clean and orderly streets – was “Striving for Self-Reliance.” Ildephonse said the idea was to encourage survivors to remember the past but also to “live positively,” to have a goal in life and not always wait for help “that might not be there.”

He added with a smile that it was an apt theme for the nation as a whole, as current events had suggested that Rwanda will not always be able to “rely on outside aid.” Even as Rwanda remains dependent on this aid, the government often takes a defiant tone towards critics from nations that failed to live up to their obligations under the Genocide Convention to intervene in the bloodshed of 1994. The cowardice and inaction that left Rwandans to die and the RPF to deal with the consequences is a fixture of the memorializing.

While the memorial events occupy a dominant space each April, they are not the primary means by which Rwanda and the international community have attempted to account for and document the genocide; that instead has belonged to a set of prosecutorial processes. In 1994, with Rwanda in ruins, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or ICTR, based in Arusha, Tanzania, to prosecute the most senior leaders responsible for the genocide. As Rwanda rebuilt its legal system, the domestic courts also began prosecuting genocide suspects – eventually thousands of them – who did not rise to the leadership level of those pursued by the ICTR. Facing an immense backlog of genocide cases, Rwanda then established a third system based loosely on the traditional dispute resolution process known as gacaca, which involves village-based trials conducted without the participation of lawyers or formally trained judges.

Ingabire’s comments highlight one of the controversies associated with all three tiers of genocide justice: None of them have prosecuted RPF crimes against Hutus. The Rwandan government has preferred to prosecute these crimes in the military courts, a process that critics contend has failed to account for the full extent of the army’s crimes.

Though it was the last system launched, with pilot phases beginning in 2002, the gacaca system became the dominant player in the post-genocide justice scheme, particularly as it relates to the lives of everyday Rwandans. These local trials discussing the crimes of the genocide became a part of the weekly life of virtually all Rwandans as survivors and perpetrators sought to rebuild their lives, often side by side. Regardless of the many criticisms levied at it, the gacaca system – which concluded last year with an astounding two million genocide-related cases processed, according to the government’s numbers – has earned its place as the most far-reaching accountability effort ever implemented for mass atrocities.


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