Eighteen years ago the world focused its attention on Bomb Alley in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina while the blood spilled on Machete Avenue in Kigali, Rwanda, flowed hidden from the international media spotlight.
On April 7, 1994, ethnic tension between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi reached its tipping point as Hutu Power engulfed Rwanda resulting the swiftest and deadliest genocide ever seen. In just 100 days nearly 20 percent of Rwanda’s population, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 lives, were lost and the nation whose cries of genocide were ignored by the global community was left to rebuild, heal, and reconcile all that had been cut away.
Each year since 1994, Rwanda remembers what the world tried to forget.
For most of us, the week of April 7 passes by on the calendar like any other. We awake only reflecting on the tasks of sending our children off to school, which of our favorite teams will play that night, or which happy hour to attend after work, but in Rwanda; every school, sporting arena, and entertainment facility in Rwanda is closed in observance of its national period of mourning.
Anne Mazimhaka, Creative Director of the think tank Illume Creative Studio, offers EBONY her personal experience as a Rwandan citizen and daughter of a refugee and her professional insight as a international human rights law practitioner and a transitional justice specialist to tell us how Rwanda is healing 18 years later.
AM: I lost family during the 1994 genocide, but I was not here. My immediately family went into exile and fled to Uganda during the first killings in 1959 and we returned to Rwanda in 1995.
EBONY: The first killings? History never addresses Rwandan deaths or a possible genocide prior to 1959.
AM: No, because the conflict happened before Rwandan independence and was never legally recognized as genocide. Rwanda was basically an invisible country when it happened. Being tucked away in the heart of central Africa — tiny and insignificant, no resources, and with nothing to attract Western attention is why so many people were killed between 1959 and 1994. What was really hard to fathom however is that the United Nations was here, and STILL genocide was ignored.
EBONY: What was it like returning from exile in the wake of Rwanda’s recovery?
AM: Returning to Rwanda the first time, a year after everything happened was exciting because my parents and grandparents were finally able to go home and yet scary the remnants of destruction were everywhere, even though by 1995, a lot had been done to reconstruct and rehabilitate the country. So it was a mixture of trepidation and wonder that eventually gave way to hopefulness.
EBONY: Could you talk more about that hopefulness?
AM: The best examples of hope come from those who suffered most. After the genocide, 85 percent of women that survived had been raped and/or sexually mutilated and witnessed their families’ slaughter. But even amidst this trauma, survivors focused on healing their pain, healing the pain of others, and on building a future for themselves.
EBONY: Rwanda has largely self-led its justice and reconciliation process for the survivors. How and why has this process evolved independently of the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda?
AM: The genocide destroyed our entire legal system. Our judges and lawyers were killed alongside Hutu intellectuals who were amongst the first targeted deaths. When I worked for the law reform commission we literally had nothing to work with, yet we had thousands and thousands of people accused of genocide. And although each the caseload was such that it would take literally 100 years to try every case, we had to come up with a new constitution, new organic laws that established administrative and legal systems.
EBONY: Those are the Gacaca Courts correct? Do you find the court system to be effective? Some international human rights advocates have expressed concerns that there is no legal counsel for the accused.
AM: The Gacaca process was a useful way to uncover the truth of what had happened and it forced those charged to reveal how things had been planned and carried out. I know a lot of human rights organizations did not approve of the way the courts were organized and it was not a system without flaws, but when you are facing such a dire situation where neighbors killed neighbors and families killed each other it was a necessary measure in order to deal with what had happened and in order to facilitate reconciliation.
EBONY: Former officials within Rwanda question if true reconciliation has happened such that perpetrators and survivor can go back to living side by side as they did before 1994. Do you think 18 years is enough sufficient time to heal a wound that deep?
AM: I think that critique is incredibly simplistic and fails to recognize the deep-seated complexities of the roots of the ethnic tensions. The roots are complex, as are the effects, which will undoubtedly linger for generations. Eighteen years later Rwanda has made incredible strides, but we have indeed only just begun. And, honestly, Rwanda’s biggest challenge is that we must realize that true sustainable reconciliation takes time. We have only just begun to re-build what was destroyed.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.