Rwanda moves on – but scars from Genocide remain
Kigali : As Rwanda begins a week of official commemorations of the 1994 genocide today the last village courts set up to try those who took part in the killing of 800,000 Tutsis are preparing to shut down, closing a chapter in the long process of healing.
For the past five years thousands of Hutus have been brought face to face with survivors and their families in traditional tribunals. These have sentenced many of the killers to long terms in jail while promoting reconciliation among those who still live alongside their victims’ families.
The gacaca courts have dealt with almost 1.5 million cases and most of the backlog of those accused of taking part in the genocide has been cleared. There are fears, however, that some villagers are using this unique system of justice to settle scores with neighbours, and the Government wants any remaining cases to be tried in regular courts.
Rwanda has promised to preserve the evidence that has emerged from these informal tribunals as part of the effort to ensure that racist ideology and the genocidal mania it spawned is never again allowed free rein.
Documents and archives will be added to the main genocide memorial centre in Kigali and to those set up across the country on sites where men, women and children were maimed, tortured, raped, bludgeoned and hacked to death in a frenzy of killing that lasted 100 days.
Every year Rwanda commemorates the start of the genocide on April 7, the date when the pre-arranged plan to exterminate the Tutsi minority was triggered by the shooting down of the aircraft that was carrying President Habyarimana.
Young people will march today to the main national stadium on a “walk to remember”. The event has been organised by Peace and Love Proclaimers , a local youth organisation linked to the Aegis Trust, a British-based organisation that helped to set up the Genocide Centre in Kigali, where 250,000 victims are buried. The genocide will also be remembered at a service in Southwark Cathedral.
Despite progress in reconciliation the trauma still hangs over Rwanda. It is already distorting the presidential election in August, making it a sensitive and dangerous time.
President Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front — which swept in from exile in Uganda in 1994 to drive out the genocidaires — has laid down tough penalties for anyone attempting to exploit lingering suspicion between Hutu and Tutsi. Genocide deniers and apologists face criminal charges. Rwandans admit that this is a curb on free speech but point to the laws in Germany that make Holocaust denial an offence.
Human rights organisations accuse the Government of using the genocide as a pretext to bar those considering standing against Mr Kagame. Two weeks ago Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu exile who returned recently from the Netherlands, was detained at the airport when she attempted to leave. She has caused uproar by speaking of a double genocide and claiming that many Hutus were killed by returning Tutsi exiles in 1994. She claims that she is being silenced because of her opposition to the President.
Few doubt that Mr Kagame will be re-elected — the country has a healthy growth rate of 5 per cent and he has made progress in reconstruction, education and fighting corruption. However, he has been criticised for his secretive style of government and it is feared that any poll may be tarnished by the lack of any credible opposition.
The most sensitive issue is the legacy of the genocide. Most of the Government is drawn from Tutsi exiles who returned in 1994, and they are resented by many as a clique.
Mr Kagame has banned any official distinction between Tutsis and Hutus and insists that Rwandans must work together — but there is an ever-present fear that the animosities could be rekindled. Rwanda is small and crowded, vulnerable to tensions if land or the economy is squeezed.
And across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo still lurk the former interahamwe killers, a reminder of the tribalism and extremism that wreaked mayhem 16 years ago.