It was supposed to be a period of reflection, the annual week of mourning Rwandans use to commemorate the 1994 genocide and pray that such a killing spree will never be repeated. But Hezron Imanirakiza had other ideas. While others were remembering the hundreds of thousands who were slaughtered, the 26-year-old called a radio talk show and delivered a chilling message. “We shall kill you again,” he said, indicating he was a member of Rwanda’s majority Hutu community.
The incident, in April, was isolated but, in a country where divisions between Hutus and Tutsis have been used to incite killing on an unimaginable scale, such a public statement was shocking and worrying. Seven months later, people still mention the episode when discussing the country’s reconciliation efforts, noting with concern that Mr Imanirakiza, who was arrested within days, was just 14 at the time of the genocide.
Reconciliation is the central plank in the government’s development plans. But the challenges are daunting. “We still have pockets of people who say there was no genocide,” says Fatuma Ndangiza, executive secretary of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.
The memories and trauma of the slaughter – orchestrated by the then-Hutu extremist government – are still fresh. The killings, planned in advance, were triggered by the shooting down of the aircraft carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the then Hutu president, on April 6, 1994. (It is still not clear who was responsible for downing the aircraft.)
As the violence began, Hutus, spurred on by government officials and hate propaganda, were incited, alongside militia and the army, to butcher their Tutsi neighbours using hoes, clubs and machetes. In some cases, spouses killed their partners.
The killing ended when Tutsi rebels led by Paul Kagame, the current president, captured Kigali in July and formed a government of national unity. Today, killers and survivors find themselves living side by side, a product of being in Africa’s most densely populated mainland nation. Hutus are estimated to account for about 85 per cent of the 8.5m population, Tutsis about 14 per cent.
More than 500,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days, and nobody was left untouched.
But Ms Ndangiza says “slowly by slowly” people are learning to come together, but acknowledges it is a process that will take years. The government’s efforts to hasten reconciliation include the setting up of civic education programmes and the building of rural estates where Tutsis and Hutus live together.
In 2001, it launched a form of traditional justice, known as Gacaca, in a bid to reduce the burden on overflowing prisons, accelerate the judicial process and reveal what happened in 1994. Under the programme a panel of judges elected from local communities investigates and tries those accused of taking part in the genocide. If defendants confess, they serve half their sentences doing community service. With investigations nearly complete, 717,000 people are due to face trials at 12,100 Gacaca courts, says Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, a senior Gacaca official. From the beginning of July to the end of September, 34,000 people were tried, most of whom confessed, she adds.
But it has not been an easy process – there have been reports of witnesses being killed or intimidated while some Hutus have complained of Gacaca being used to settle personal scores unrelated to the genocide.
There is still very little open debate about Hutu-Tutsi issues, and questions remain about whether genuine reconciliation is occurring. Prosecutions are focusing on the genocide and not killings committed by Rwandan Patriotic Front troops during the civil war that began in 1990, or reprisal attacks during and after the genocide.
“How can you talk about reconciliation if all of your family members have been wiped out and you can’t even say they have been wiped out, far less have any justice for them,” says Alison Des Forges, a Rwanda expert at Human Rights Watch. “And yet your family is expected to pay the full price for whatever crimes were committed against the other side. That’s not a basis for reconciliation.”
Still, the government insists the system is working, enabling survivors finally to discover the truth about slain relatives and allowing Hutus to prove their innocence or admit to their crimes in the hope the country can move forward.
“We want people to admit they have done bad things. We want people to make statements to survivors and to apologise,” says Ms Mukantaganzwa.
Another form of justice is taking place hundreds of miles away in northern Tanzania where an international tribunal, which began operations in 1995, is trying the masterminds of the genocide. However, it has been criticised for being too slow and too far removed from the victims – so far it has convicted 26 people and acquitted five and will have cost $1bn by the end of 2007.
In the long-term, Rwandan officials are putting their faith in the youth – more than 60 per cent of the population are aged 25-years or younger, and 44 per cent were born after the genocide, Ms Ndangiza says.
“If we can bring up this generation to be the agents of peace and reconciliation in probably 20 years from now we will have the guarantee of peace.”
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