Rwanda's latest ethnic cleansing.

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April 7 2004 6:18 PM

Rwanda's Latest Ethnic Cleansing

True reconciliation is impossible until everyone's suffering is recognized.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. While the world looked on unashamed, the Hutu Power movement went on a 100-day killing spree to exterminate the minority Tutsi population and any political opposition by moderate Hutus. It took a Tutsi-led rebel force called the Rwandan Patriotic Front to put an end to the killing and start the long, slow process of rebuilding this small African nation.

Over the past 10 years, the RPF—now the democratically elected government—has made incredible progress in Rwanda. It has established a government dedicated to "unity and reconciliation" whose rhetoric is high-minded and enlightened. Women make up a greater percentage of the Rwandan parliament then anywhere else in the world (they are required by law to fill 30 percent of all government positions). And security in Rwanda is impressive; I feel safer walking around the streets of Kigali at night than I do in my Brooklyn neighborhood.

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But once you start talking to people on the streets instead of just walking them, you begin to realize that over time the government's attempts to overcome ethnic hatred have gone from progressive policies—like the elimination of stigmatizing ethnic-identity cards—to repressive ones. The 2003 constitution officially outlaws any "divisionist" activity, and the RPF has used that vague word to exile political opposition, stifle criticism from within, and muzzle the independent press. The RPF tolerates few challenges to the party ideology—as the post-genocide re-education slogan goes, "There are no more Tutsis and Hutus; we are all Rwandans now."

If such social engineering could ever work, Rwanda—a country where insensate respect for authority has often been cited as a main reason why so many people could suddenly turn around and kill neighbors, friends, even family members—is the place. But in fact, ethnicity is as present as ever in Rwanda. If Rwandans don't use the words "Tutsi" and "Hutu," it's because they've found other ways of saying them.

Take, for example, rescapé—roughly, "survivor"—the widely used term for those who escaped the genocide.  Rescapé is reserved solely for Tutsis. In a recent interview in Kigali, my translator—without prompting—told a Hutu woman who had suggested that she herself was a rescapé that such a thing was impossible because she wasn't Tutsi.

She looked at him, and then at me, with a mixture of confusion and pain. She'd done time in the refugee camps, lost family members, fought off rape attempts, and was now dirt-poor after 10 years of supporting her husband in jail. In her mind, she was a survivor.

"But maman, survivors are only Tutsis," my translator explained once more—again without prompting.

Today, state-run Television Rwanda has been playing gruesome images of the genocide all day long. Machetes, spears, guns, rapes. It's meant to remind Rwandans of exactly what went on 10 years ago. But such images—though important—also serve to create an emotional blur that becomes impossible to see through.

The RPF uses the genocide in much the same way that the Bush administration wields the emotional power of 9/11 to justify its actions and paint its critics as unpatriotic. In Rwanda, if you question political oppression, if you criticize the widely disputed elections of August 2003, or if you inquire about the massacres the RPF itself carried out in western Rwanda and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of the genocide, you are labeled a génocidaire. Consequently, Rwandans are afraid to speak their minds.

And that's also true for the international community. When they should be criticizing Rwanda—for the outlawing of opposition during the elections, for example, or for the recent exiling of two editors from the country's most independent newspaper—world leaders instead continue to say mea culpa. And the RPF government—whose political savvy is remarkable—takes every chance it can to exploit this guilt. To some extent, today's commemoration—which cost the impoverished country a whopping $7.4 million—is not just a memorial service for the dead, it's also about shaming donor nations into increasing their giving.

For outsiders, the constant struggle is to figure out how much slack the RPF deserves. What happened in Rwanda was horrific beyond description, and what the government is trying to achieve—getting people who once killed each other to live side by side—is an absurdly difficult task.

Rwanda is a reserved nation, and it usually takes a long time to get people to talk about 1994. But it is much easier to talk when your version of history is the official one. That is, it is much easier to talk if you are Tutsi. By any estimate, hundreds of thousands of Hutus were victims of the genocide, but the most their family members are allowed to say is the phrase you hear from them over and over: "We suffered greatly."

Two weeks ago, a perfect example of the deep cleavages that continue to divide Rwanda emerged after France released a report linking current President Paul Kagame to the downing of the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994. (Who brought down the plane will always be the "who shot JFK" question of the genocide.) The RPF denounced the report and called for an inquiry into the French role in the genocide. My Hutu driver, on the other hand, declared, "Kagame shot down the plane? Yeah. Everybody knows that."

But even if "everybody knows that" (in other words, that's what most Hutus think), you'll never hear them say it in public. For the most part, they're keeping their version of the story to themselves.

And for many Hutus, the feeling that pervades the country today is one of exclusion—the national month of mourning is for Tutsis. The memorial sites are for Tutsis. The businesses are for Tutsis. The government is for Tutsis. Between 500,000 and 1 million people died in Rwanda 10 years ago. Most were Tutsis who were killed in a vicious act of genocide, and that cannot be forgotten. But the innocent Hutus who died cannot be forgotten, either.

And no matter how enlightened the government's rhetoric, it seems unlikely that there can be a real, lasting conversation about "unity and reconciliation" when 80 percent of the population feels they are not part of the discussion.

Michael J. Kavanagh spent the first half of 2004 reporting on Rwanda through a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism.