Genocide: The Taboo Topic
All the guidebooks and our UN security briefing all say the same thing: don't bring up the genocide. Everyone thinks about it, but no one talks about it, so avoid all allusions to it.
Of course, this can be really difficult. It's like trying to ignore the elephant in the room.
Some Rwandans have brought up the genocide of their own accord in conversations with me, saying that they returned 11 years ago. Sometimes they call it the genocide. Sometimes they simply call it "the war." It can be tough, though--I had to dance around the subject when I was speaking with a Rwandan woman on my plane. I told her how interested I was in Rwanda, and that I have been for years. She laughed and asked why. I wanted to say that it was because I wanted so desperately to do something to help the Rwandan people, even now. But that, of course, implied that it was because of the genocide. So I told her that I had read a lot and was fascinated by the people. It's true, but it's not the whole truth.
I also brought the Philip Gourevitch book "We Regret To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda" with me. I hadn't realized that I basically have to keep this book out of sight, because it's kind of rude to leave it around.
I was talking to a Ugandan yesterday, who expressed to me the Rwandans' frustration with the issue of the genocide--that they want to move on, but people keep bringing it up. When outsiders think of Rwanda, they don't think of the Virgin Mary's apparitions at Kibeho, or about the gorillas. They think of the widespread massacre. Ethnic labels have been removed from identity cards, so no longer is there a written distinction between the two main groups. I don't sense any overt tension between them here in Kigali, but I have been told that in Gisenyi, where there are a lot of Hutu returnees (many who fled because they were génocidaires--that is, people who committed or facilitated murder during the genocide), some still maintain genocidal beliefs.
For those who aren't familiar with the genocide, here is a brief and incomplete summary of events:
There are two main ethnic groups in Rwanda: the Hutu (majority) and the Tutsi (minority).
The Hutu generally have darker skin and wider noses. The Tutsi generally have lighter skin, thinner noses, and are taller. These are complete generalizations, as there are many exceptions to both, there is a lot of ethnic mixing, and to my untrained eye, I can't tell the difference at all. (I'm not about to ask anyone, either.)
The Belgians colonized Rwanda, and empowered the Tutsi minority because they were viewed as more European.
The Tutsis abused the Hutus. The Hutus were pissed about this but couldn't do anything. There were some violent clashes.
The Belgians picked up and left, and the Hutus assumed power. There were more violent clashes (Tutsis wanted power back, etc.).
A group of Hutu extremists, including the Rwandan military, staged a coup d'etat. It is presumed that they shot down the Hutu president's plane because he wanted to negotiate an agreement with Tutsi rebels.
After the president's assassination, Hutu extremists, the Interahamwe militia (similar to the Janjaweed in Sudan) and regular Hutus went on a killing spree, killing roughly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, the most effective extermination plan in recorded history.
The UN was relatively powerless, with few personnel and a limited mandate. The U.S., France, Belgium, etc. stood idly by (actually, the French armed the Hutus). It was the Tutsi rebel forces that retook the capital and ended the genocide.
Many Hutus, both génocidaires and innocents, fled the country, fearing retaliation. They are still returning. These are the people that I will be helping. I have the feeling that it will be a trying experience.
Please feel free to correct my account of the genocide if I have misspoken.