Monday, January 23, 2006

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hiya morgan,
ive just finished reading ur blog about the tutsi and hutu ppl. i love the history of what happened and it broke my heart learning about it a few years ago, i am only 16 but i still feel guilty for not noticing what went on in Rwanda in 1994 even tho i was only 4 going on to 5 and moving onto skool was my only issue. i hope to travel to Rwanda some day, but as for u take care and live life to the fullest.
Best wishes and thorts, Vickylee of New Zealand.

2/01/2006 6:05 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

Don't worry, I was in the same boat. My guilt for not having known or done more was what drove me to come here! It's been tough, but it's really been worth it.

2/04/2006 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok i'm like a year late for a comment but i have just discovered ur my question is:why,for u who seems to know very well rwanda and recognized that people who are coming back are "genocidaires" u focus ur help on them instead of helping their victims?(like widows,orphans,or women who have been contaminated by hiv due to rape by genocidaires)

1/23/2007 8:51 AM  
Blogger Morgan C. said...

It's a good question, anonymous...

Because not all the people I helped were genocidaires, and because some have been rehabilitated (many former combatants go through the Mutobo re-education program established by the government).

UNHCR's mandate is to help people who have fled from home from the moment they leave as asylum seekers to after they return. My job was, in part, to make sure that the returnees were established in their original communities. If they felt safer somewhere else, they would feel the urge to leave again, and the refugee problem continues. In addition, these returnees, if guilty, were able to face justice in the gacaca process.

So this is why I went out to interview returnees to see if they felt safe, if they had an income, etc.

Which is not to say that others don't help everyone else. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations and associations devoted to the support of genocide orphans, the indigent, and women, as well as the poor writ large.

3/26/2008 4:00 PM  
Blogger S Parsons R said...

So just to inform you, the French did not stand about. They created a demilitarized zone in order, so they said, to protect the fleeing refugees. They ended up protecting the Interahamwe and RGF forces, giving them a safe zone to rest in. It eventually became one of the most dangerous places during that time, and when France finally pulled out, the area was very unstable. Technically, they did not stand by, twiddling their thumbs! They did worse.

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