Memory and denial: The Rwandan genocide fifteen years on
Author: Gerald Caplan
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/28/2009
Category: Special Report
April 2009 marks the 15th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda of most of its Tutsi population and of many Hutu who refused to embrace violent extremism.
Five years ago, the world marked the 10th anniversary of what almost the entire world regards as one of the definitive genocides of the 20th century. Perhaps it was somehow symmetrical that both the first and the last genocides of the 20th century took place in Africa. In 1904, soldiers representing Imperial Germany deliberately sought to exterminate the Herero people of Namibia, then the German colony of South-West Africa. Anxious to occupy the lands of the Herero, the German colonial army came precious close to achieving its grisly, racist goal. Before it ended, some three-quarters of 80,000 Herero were dead.
Exactly 90 years later, the racists were powerful Hutu extremists in Rwanda who conspired to annihilate the minority Tutsi people, largely to avoid sharing power and wealth with them. Like the Germans before them, the genocidaires in Rwanda were remarkably successful in executing their plot. Before they were defeated, about three-quarters of all the country’s Tutsi had been murdered, often in the most sadistic ways imaginable. Exact numbers remain unknown to this day, but it is possible that as many as a million Tutsi were killed in the 100 days of the genocide.
But very like South-West Africa, outside influences were key to events in Rwanda. Had European missionaries not invented an ideology that blatantly set Tutsi against Hutu, had the Belgian colonial government not institutionalised this false ideology, had the French government not offered all possible support to the Hutu government of Rwanda in the years immediately leading to the genocide, the genocide might never have happened. Once triggered, it was the Security Council, urged on by the United States, that refused to take a single step to stop the slaughter.
Before the 10th anniversary, the international movement known as Remembering Rwanda was motivated by a fear that the genocide was being forgotten by the rest of the world. That concern has proved premature. Rwanda is probably as well known today as any tragic event very far from western countries, and causing direct harm to none of them, can be.
Tragically, one of the forces that revived the memory of 1994 was the conflict that began in Darfur, western Sudan, in 2003. When the secretary-general of the United Nations commemorated the 10th anniversary of Rwanda in 2004, his cry was that Darfur must not be allowed to become ‘the next Rwanda’. And so Rwanda’s international role was finally crystallised: It was the latest acknowledged failure of the solemn, eternally repeated, never heeded, pledge of ‘Never Again’. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, Rwanda’s invidious distinction will be replaced by Darfur, and the international community will vow not to permit ‘the next Darfur’.
At the same time as Rwanda was being turned into symbol of betrayal by the international community, it was attracting the interest of western filmmakers. This entirely unanticipated phenomenon has also given the genocide a renewed lease on life, as it were. It is probable that more feature-length films and full-length documentaries have been made about the genocide than any other contemporary international crisis save Iraq or the so-called ‘war on terror’. Not all the films were of top quality and few bothered to show the critical and malevolent role of western influence in Rwandan history. The most popular film, Hotel Rwanda, the one that really dragged Rwanda into mainstream western consciousness, had as its hero a man who now trivialises the genocide. Nonetheless, his story, overblown as it may have been, combined with the others, has assured that the genocide in Rwanda is in little danger of being forgotten.
Yet at the same time, as in virtually every other genocide, denial is alive and kicking. Here is yet another common thread that binds the people that suffered through what many consider the three classic genocides of the 20th century – the Armenians, the Jews and the Rwandan Tutsis. The bitter and apparently never-ending fight against deniers, or revisionists, is a common cause among the survivors of all these genocides, one that will be highlighted in Rwanda in April 2009 as people from all over the world will gather to mark the 15th anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsi – Remembering Rwanda 15, or RR15.
If much of the world now remembers the genocide in Rwanda, the battle against those who deny that genocide is much less familiar though no less insidious than its Armenian or Holocaust equivalents. The persistence of Holocaust denial remains a reality everywhere in the world that anti-Semitism rears its head. In some countries it attracts elites. In the west it is the preserve of a lunatic fringe, and usually more an irritation than anything else. But there is always a well-earned fear that it could explode into something more ferocious, especially as anti-Semitism and opposition to Israeli policies sometimes become difficult to distinguish.
Denying the Armenian genocide is a decidedly more precise phenomenon. It exists only when attempts are made to recognise the genocide for what it is, either by resolutions of legislative assemblies or through education. And unlike either Holocaust or Rwanda denial, it is invariably orchestrated by the Turkish government and its acolytes, most of them on that government’s payroll. By a terrible irony of real politik, among the most steadfast collaborators of the Turkish government in its hardball efforts to prevent recognition of the genocide is its close ally Israel and some powerful Israel support groups throughout the western world. Whether Turkey’s unexpectedly vehement condemnation of Israel’s recent aggression against Gaza changes these equations is still not at all clear.
Rwanda is a different case. For one thing, in much of the English-speaking world, denialism has been very much a fringe phenomenon, largely peddled by a motley coalition. There are anti-American left-wingers who are perversely convinced that Rwandan president Paul Kagame, in their eyes the evil genius behind the conflict (they deny it was a genocide), was an American stooge. There are those who have ties of some kind with the defence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Sometimes these are the same people. They are still largely unknown to most English-speakers who have seen the movies, or admire General Romeo Dallaire (another American puppet, in the twisted view of the deniers) and have no reason to doubt that genocide actually was carried out.
Naturally the small band of leading deniers are well-known to the Rwandan diaspora community, which is not only wounded by the denials but fails to understand why their lies are given any media attention at all. At least as ominously, the deniers’ reach and influence has been spreading, metastasising like a malignant cancer, thanks to the anarchy of the blogosphere and to the embrace of the deniers’ arguments by a small but influential number of left-wing, anti-American journals and websites.
Google Rwanda and you’re quite likely get a deniers’ rant featuring the tiny band of usual suspects – French Judge Bruguiere, former UN Rwanda chief Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, Robin Philpot, former Australian investigator Michael Hourigan, American academic Christian Davenport – each enthusiastically citing the others as their proof that the entire so-called genocide was really an American imperial plot. That there is no evidence for this assertion, that every single reputable scholar who has studied the genocide has categorically disagreed with it, carries no weight with this incomprehensible band of true believers. At the same time, the harsh criticisms of the present Rwanda government by respected human rights advocates have unhappily provided a certain illogical legitimacy to the deniers’ pernicious cause.
Thanks to the reach of Hotel Rwanda, which has been seen by more people than all other Rwanda films combined, many ordinary English-speakers are likely to know of only one Rwandan, Paul Rusesabagina, and to believe him a hero of the genocide, a righteous man who saved Tutsi lives at great personal risk. That he now is the most prominent person in the world claiming Kagame’s rebels were as deadly as the genocidaires, that he insists Rwanda today is comparable to Rwanda during the 100 days, and that he openly works with known genocidaires and western deniers against the Kagame government, is still not grasped by his western admirers. That’s why the uncritical adulation in which he is held and his own fierce determination to spread his message makes him a serious threat that should not be underestimated.
In Europe and in French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, genocide denial is more mainstream. In large part this is due to longstanding ties between the pre-genocide francophone Hutu elite and assorted government and church officials in Western Europe and Quebec. But as elsewhere, deniers in these areas reflect a miscellany of motives. A number are former genocidaires themselves, some being protected by political and religious allies of the old regime, others walking free and peddling their poison. All of these Rwandans and non-Rwandans cherish a fantasy of someday reviving ‘Hutuland’ and the ‘demographic democracy’ that prevailed from 1959 to 1994, in other words, a Hutu dictatorship based exclusively on Hutu constituting a large majority of the population. Others have acted on behalf of the defence at the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). Some simply cannot abide Kagame and his inner circle of former Ugandans. A few are well-known non-Rwandan academics, taking every advantage to disparage the Kagame government while consciously cultivating a generation of Rwanda-hating Congolese. The harm being done will be felt throughout the Great Lakes region for decades.
So the final assault common to the classical genocides of the 20th century – the denial that it ever happened – continues to be an ugly shared reality for all those touched by the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi. The 15th anniversary of the final genocide of the 20th century and of the millennium provides an opportunity to unite all those affected by the three of them in a sustained and systematic counter-attack against deniers of all kinds.
It also moves us into the new century/millennium. It should pre-empt the many friends of the Government of Sudan from insisting, as the al-Bashir government routinely does, that the crisis in Darfur is very much the responsibility of its own victims.
Bio: Gerald Caplan has a PhD in African history He recently published The Betrayal