25 years on from the genocide, Rwandans like me are still being blocked from seizing the narrative of our stories

Apart from grief, what I struggle with most at this time of the year are the incorrect figures, the notion that the genocide came out of nowhere, and the absolution of Rwanda’s colonisers

Anas Mutumba
Sunday 07 April 2019 19:58
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Pictures of the Rwandan Genocide victims donated by survivors are displayed at an exhibition at the Genocide Memorial in Gisozi in Kigali, Rwanda 6 April 2019
Pictures of the Rwandan Genocide victims donated by survivors are displayed at an exhibition at the Genocide Memorial in Gisozi in Kigali, Rwanda 6 April 2019

1,070,014. This is how many people were slaughtered in 100 days, according to Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide. This is also the first point of misinformation I often see. Most articles still quote 800,000 as the figure and I always wonder where they get that from.

On April 6 1994, a plane carrying then-president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira both Hutus was shot down killing everyone on board. This was the flame that ignited three months of total horror as the killing continued at an alarming rate.

People dropped where they fell, literally cut down by machetes and other blunt instruments and those who had the means paid for a quicker death. Others survived by hiding in a pile of dead bodies or fleeing to neighbouring countries.

A fact not often quoted is that import licence applications examined between January 1993 and March 1994 show that 581 tonnes of machetes were imported into Rwanda. This was a calculated and planned execution as lists were drawn and militias trained.

The international community only came to rescue their citizens, the UN was ordered not to intervene and the world’s eyes were on another African nation. South Africa was emerging from apartheid with Nelson Mandela soon to be inaugurated as president.

The massacre came to an end in July 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by our now president Paul Kagame, gained control and established a broad-based transitional government. So how did it all begin?

This is a long and complicated history, misrepresented by western coverage, further feeding the belief that this was just a typical African tribal war.

This is evident with headlines such as that of the New York Times on 9 April 1994 which read: ”Terror convulses Rwandan capital as tribes battle.” Pre-colonialism, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa were Rwanda’s social classes and had nothing to do with how we looked (as the Belgians later defined us) but rather how much land we owned.

So though Tutsis, a minority, occupied the higher strata in the social system, a Hutu could become Tutsi if they gained a large number of cattle or land and vice versa. Germany took over in 1899 and lost possession after the First World War to Belgium from 1916 until the late 1950s.

The institutionalisation of social classes into ethnic groups was among what stirred up tensions to an extreme level, with identity cards stamped with Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. The genocide’s origins go as far back as November 1959, when hundreds of Tutsis were killed, with more in December 1963 and beyond.

Then of course there’s Operation Turquoise by the French in the early 1990s, which further intensified problems and did not do much to stem the perpetrators despite its purported success.

My family and I were in the neighbouring country of the Democratic Republic of Congo and I remember the tensions spilling over there as early as the year before. I remember my mum being pregnant with my brother and hiding under our living room table in our apartment as guns fired and fighting continued outside.

I remember my aunt arranging bodyguards to take my mum to the hospital to give birth to my brother. I remember this same aunt being put in prison a year later in Congo with both her children simply for being Tutsi.

Today marks 25 years since the start of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and things are very different.

Rwanda is the second safest country on the African continent, and ninth in the world according to the World Economic Forum. We are ranked sixth globally for gender equality, with women making up 61 per cent in parliament.

Though my football loyalties lie elsewhere, we are Arsenal’s first ever tourism partner. These are the statistics I want to be covered. These are the joys I want celebrated. The fact that my country held forgiveness tribunals in 1996 so that killers faced the survivors of the families and forgave each other.

This was beautifully portrayed by photographer Pieter Hugo’s series in 2014. When people meet me, once we get past the initial, “Are you sure you’re not Somalian/Eritrean/Ethiopian?” identity dance and they hear that I’m from Rwanda, the pity in their eyes is usually the same.

I love nothing more than to correct them and tell them we are so much more than our genocide. That there was a Rwanda before and there will continue to be a Rwanda after.

I think what I struggle with most at this time of the year, apart from the obvious, is how the wrong information continues to be disseminated. The incorrect figures, the notion that the genocide came out of nowhere, the absolution of Rwanda’s colonisers and how the French government and other nations to this day still deny any involvement.

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My current home country, the UK, still refuses to allow for the extradition of five men suspected of being involved. Rwandans should have more control of the narrative. We should be the ones consulted about our stories and we should be our own voice.

The further away we get from atrocities such as this the easier it is to forget and to fall back into old ways of thinking and repeating past mistakes. Our stories should be taught in schools and to the media so that we don’t end up with misconceptions such as this Reuters thread devoid of some key facts. We can prevent repetition with education and truth.

“The facts are stubborn, but so are we. We really have to be. Our nation has turned a corner. Fear and anger have been replaced by the energy and purpose that drives us forward, young and old. Nothing has the power to turn Rwandans against each other, ever again. This history will not repeat. That is our firm commitment. Nothing is required from those who wronged us, except an open mind. Every day we learn to forgive. But we do not want to forget. After all, before asking others to repent, we first have to forgive ourselves.” – President Paul Kagame.

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