The Rwandan-American Community of the Midwest and the Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation hosted a Symposium on Genocide at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana on April 26 and 27, 2019. This year’s commemoration marks the 25th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda when an estimated 1 million people were killed over a 100-day period from April to July 1994.
The first session on Friday was titled “Genocide Awareness and Prevention” and featured a panel of four speakers. Jean-Marie Kamatali, professor of law and director of the Center for Democratic Governance and Rule of Law at Ohio Northern University Law School, addressed the ways colonialism incited conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi over the decades leading up to the genocide. According to Kamatali, before colonialization, the inhabitants of Rwanda fell into three main groups: Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. These were largely considered social classes until Rwanda came under German rule in the late 1800s. Colonialism brought with it ethnic theories based on differences in physical appearance like nose length and height, with the colonists viewing the Tutsi as racially superior and favoring them for roles in government. Then, in the early 1930s, the government introduced ID cards that labeled the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa as different ethnicities. These actions caused oppression among the Hutu who in 1959 staged a revolution and overthrew the Tutsi regime, causing many Tutsi to flee to neighboring countries. Hutus came to power and reigned for the next three decades, despite opposition from the Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF), led by exiled Tutsis.
During this time, the ideology of division became stronger, channeled through extremist media outlets that promoted anti-Tutsi propaganda like the Hutu Ten Commandments. What happened in 1994 didn’t happen by accident, Kamatali told the audience. It was a direct result of training and teaching that indoctrinated ordinary citizens with an ideology of genocide, leading to neighbors killing neighbors, family killing family, and friends killing friends.
Kamatali then discussed the definition of genocide: an intent to destroy a specific group of people. The actual destruction of the entire group is not required for it to constitute genocide. Likewise, there is no numeric threshold.
The second speaker, Marie-Rose Gatete, a CPA in Elkhart, Indiana, presented on the role of the United Nations (UN) and world leaders in preventing genocide, and the ways they failed in that role. “When you look at the case of Rwanda, it looks like the UN failed on all counts,” said Gatete. The UN had been alerted to the imminent threat of genocide in January 1994 by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire who had been sent to Rwanda with less than 500 soldiers for peace-keeping efforts, but his concerns over the following months were ignored. After repeated requests to intervene to stop the fighting and being told no by the UN, Dallaire finally defied orders and his troops, along with the RPF, were able to put an end to the genocide.
It’s only been in recent years, Gatete said, that world leaders have finally apologized for their inaction. United States President Bill Clinton expressed regret in 1998, stating he did not fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation at the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Canadian Stateswoman Michaëlle Jean both apologized in 2010 for their countries’ inaction, New Zealand diplomat Colin Keating, who was president of the UN Security Council at the start of the genocide, apologized in 2014, and the Catholic Church apologized in 2016 for the role its members — including priests — played in the killings.
The third speaker for Session 1 was Charles Rufuku, a science professor in Eklhart and former director of the SDA Mission Hospital in Rwanda. “There’s no way to talk about the genocide in our country without talking about colonialism,” he began, going on to discuss the history of exploration beginning with missionary David Livingstone in the 1800s, and the valuable resources like gold, ivory, and rubber he discovered that caused European interest in Africa to take root.
Rufuku also spoke to the difficulties of reconciliation between the Hutu and Tutsi. In the aftermath of the genocide, everyone considered the Hutu as the “bad guys” and the Tutsi as the “good guys,” said Rufuku. But labels like this are harmful, and instead we should point to the specific people who were victims and perpetrators, rather than blanket statements about groups. This is the first step toward reconciliation, he concluded.
Pamela Cronkright, an educator from Ottawa, Illinois, spoke fourth on the transformational journey learning about the genocide had been for her. When she was teaching a global studies course to high school freshman in 2009, she realized how little she knew about the genocide in Rwanda. She began learning all she could from survivors like Immaculee Mukantaganira who organized this symposium. Cronkright and Mukantaganira traveled to Rwanda together in 2013, where Mukantaganira introduced her to more survivors, and they visited the memorials scattered around the country to lay flowers on the mass graves.
Mukantaganira’s own daughters, Raissa and Clarisse, are not listed on any memorial; their bodies had never been identified. When Cronkright returned to her classroom in Illinois, she asked students, “What can we do to make this world better?” Her students wanted to raise money to build a memorial well to honor Mukantaganira’s daughters. It took three years to raise the necessary funds. When it was time to choose where to build the well, instead of placing it in the town where Mukantaganira and her family had once lived, she chose to build it in the town where the people who murdered her family lived. Speaking to her choice she told Cronkright, “If it’s not education and it’s not love, the story never changes.”
Cronkright concluded with a quote that is etched on the wall of the Memorial Centre in Kigali: “Si tu me connaissais et si tu te connaissais vraiment, tu ne m’aurais pas tué” (If you knew me, and if you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me).
A brief Q&A followed Session 1. The question that received the most discussion was asked by a young man from Uganda. He said when he first saw the symposium program, he was concerned because instead of saying “Rwandan Genocide,” as it is commonly called, it said “Genocide against the Tutsi.”
“I was a little worried because there are always two sides in a conflict, and there are also additional groups who are always affected and targeted,” he said. Gatete responded by reminding him of the definition of genocide Dr. Kamatali had provided earlier. Genocide is about the intent to destroy a specific group. In the case of Rwanda, the target was one’s identity as Tutsi. Anyone with an ID card that said “Tutsi” was marked to be killed. Though there were other victims including moderate Hutu and Twa, these individuals were killed because they were thought to be aiding the Tutsi or sympathetic to their plight. “The Tutsi were specifically targeted which is why we call it the genocide against the Tutsi,” said Gatete.
Kamatali responded as well, stating, “I really find it disturbing when someone looks at something like genocide and says there are two sides…when it comes to genocide it is very clear and has been established that what happened in Rwanda was a genocide against the Tutsi.” He continued saying that the elements of genocide that were discussed have to be separated from the other types of crimes that were also committed, like war crimes and crimes against humanity, which the killings of moderate Hutu and Twa would fall under. “Not every killing is genocide, so we have to be very clear. But when we are talking about genocide, there is no ‘two sides.’ The definition of genocide is the intent to kill in whole or in part a specific group and that intent was clear in this situation,” concluded Kamatali.
Articles on additional symposium sessions are forthcoming.
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
Image courtesy of racofmidwest.org.
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