Thursday, April 3, 2014

Questions we ask in silence on the Rwanda genocide

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On one level, the horrors of the 1994 genocide demands that we keep off political debates as we solemnly remember our loved ones. Yet, genocide is fundamentally a political process. How to navigate the two challenges will continue to weigh down on most Rwandans as we enter the commemoration period.

There is one fixed truth: genocide was perpetrated by Interahamwe's and the Rwandan army against mostly Tutsi civilians and Hutu moderates. But I feel, for many reasons, we are still far from comprehending the circumstances around the killings. This is because some important factors remain largely ignored or completely unexplored.

These unknown factors have crystallized into questions that we contemplate about, even if silently so. As usual the the main commemoration event will be accompanied be a political event attended by leading political/ religious and economic figures in which Kagame will give the keynote speech. He will certainly us talk about what he refers to as Rwanda's miraculous recovery, that he is the one who has built a once troubled state into the "success" that it is. As he has done in the past, he might also use this occasion to caution his critics whom he believes are planning another genocide. "I won't allow it to happen", he will say.

But several important stories will be lost. A lot of dots will remain unconnected.

One question that definitely requires some reverse reasoning is the assassination of the Rwandan president and his Burundi counterpart. Who assassinated Habyarimana and would there have been genocide in the absence of Habyarimana's death? The RPF, which sees genocide as an culmination of a consistent policy of exterminating the Tutsi since 1958 will argue that this was bound to happen. However, many will not be satisfied by this answer. Regardless, the questions will slip away in deep silence.

Kagame's superiority complex is to some extent built around what he has done. But it is also built around this lingering silence around him. He has worked tirelessly to maintain a dauntless narrative that depicts him as a white knight. Could it be true that Kagame, as some of his closest colleagues have stated, ordered the plane of his predecessor to be gunned down? Why has the international community largely ignored this issue? Can we ever have a fuller understanding of the Rwandan event without identifying who is behind the "trigger" of the genocide?

But there are more puzzling and silent question with regards to Kagame's conduct before, during and after the genocide. Perhaps we have been blinded by guilt unable to ask any bold questions. However, can we learn any worthwhile lessons from a historical event that remains only partially understood?

20 years after the genocide, a fuller understanding of the it should aim towards demystifying Kagame and the RPF. This the only way to open room for a discussion on Rwanda's future and that of the great lakes region in general. We have a horrible past in which Rwandans have butchered each other on the basis of ethnicity, the important lesson is to build a more inclusive state. How can we evaluate this when one side claims unprecedented righteousness?

Lastly, is the role that the genocide memorials (and the annual commemoration) play in Rwanda's collective consciousness--to the extent that such a thing even exists. The issue here is that, depending on who we are, we remember differently. However, image-conscious Rwanda insists on a level of political conformity that is almost unprecedented anywhere. This same conformity privileges a certain narrative while killing diversity of memories. Who is being remembered and why? How does this contribute to the reconciliation agenda that Kagame claims to have achieved?

From my experience, the commemorations can be a sphere of humiliation for some. The event is understood through the duality of good and evil, focusing on the Tutsi survivors and the Hutu killers. How can such a narrative, repeated every year, contribute to nation building? This is one of those "silent" questions.

What I am saying is that the genocide commemorations inevitably create difference, which in turn imputes superiority and inferiority, guilt and innocence. This is further solidified through events that happen throughout the six weeks or so. The "voluntary" contributions that are offered by the impoverished masses to support survivors during this period further emphasizes this difference. It is an event for some (Tutsi survivors) and not an event for all.

What is amazing is that the above ethnic contestations happen within a background that denies the existence of ethnicity. Does the government of Rwanda honestly believe that people are stupid not to notice that you can't talk about "genocide against the Tutsi" while denying the existence of Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda? I suppose this is another question many of us ask but only in silence.

But the questions are endless...

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