Why Rwanda is held up as a model for reconciliation, 26 years after genocide

Any talk of post-conflict reconciliation quickly turns to Rwanda. Post-genocide, Rwandans have moved forward but arriving at a collective truth has meant accepting the relationship between truth and fact is not always clear and straightforward.

Reconciliation has enabled Rwandans to close a chapter of their history and write a new one, says professor

Jean-Claude Mutarindwa, (R) a Hutu, and Daphrosa Mukarubayize, a Tutsi, pose on March 4, 2019, near a well-spring in the valley that separates their villages at the border of Kamonyi District. Unlike his brothers, Mutarindwa did not kill during the 1994 genocide, and that helped him lay the foundation for reconciliation. He was the first to ask for forgiveness, and Mukarubayize was the first to publicly give forgiveness, paving the way to gradually forge reconciliation between the two communities. (Jacques Nkinzingabo/AFP via Getty Images)

This is the first of a three-part series on genocide, truth, and reconciliation looking at how Rwandans collectively decided to move forward and rebuild their society after the 1994 genocide.

The killing began on a Thursday. It was April 7, 1994.

The scenes that eventually made their way to our televisions and newspapers alternated between long silent columns of people carrying whatever they could possibly carry hoisted on their heads and backs, and crowds of people sitting listlessly, frightened, in makeshift camps hoping someone — anyone — could tell them what was happening.

The accounts from those 100 days were jarring in the intimacy of the brutality: neighbour turning against neighbour, family members killing their own, school teachers outing their own students. 

The killing went on at an industrial pace and at the end up to 800,000 Tutsi were dead along with tens of thousands of Hutu. 

Two-and-a-half decades later, Rwanda still manages to hold on to the peace it forged for itself.

Confession as a way forward

The post-genocide RPF government imposed a reckoning from the top but it was also up to ordinary Rwandans to figure out how to carry on day-to-day.

The gacaca court system made use of a traditional dispute resolution forum to bring perpetrators face to face with victims and the broader community to confess and ask for forgiveness. Punishment ranged from prison time to community service but, importantly, it gave victims an opportunity to publicly speak their truth. 

This 2001 photo taken in Runda shows a Rwandan inmate looking away while residents gather on a hillside field to attend a gacaca judgement session where detainees accused of crimes allegedly committed during the genocide confront members of the local community. The gacaca trials were established as a vehicle of reconciliation in the country still torn, years after the genocide. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

Régine King was a university student who was home for the holidays when the genocide began. She's now an associate professor of social work at the University of Calgary. She initially sheltered with family and friends, escaping into the bush when men with machetes came around. Her group started out with 74 members. By the end there were only 14 people left.

"It took me a while to understand the whole notion of truth and reconciliation commission because even according to the gacaca it was something, for me, out of place because I believed gacaca, as I knew it, was a place you go to hear both sides. Then, someone facilitates that restorative justice where people can admit the truth as it happened and then they go back to normal. 

"But there was nothing normal about the genocide and there was nothing normal of going back. There wasn't anything to go back to. It took me a while to understand that the country is just searching for ways to move forward and that shaped what you would call the official narrative, that if we're going to live in the same neighbourhoods and have some taste of what it means to come back together, it had to happen in certain ways. It wasn't going to restore what was lost, it wasn't going to go back to what things used to be before, it was to devise ways forward."

Living with many truths

The gacaca system was not meant to be a fact-finding project, as such. The local trials were about one thing: confessions of Hutu perpetrators who attacked Tutsi people. Gacaca trials were not there to hear about Hutu to Hutu violence or government violence toward citizens.

Anu Chakravarty teaches political science at the University of South Carolina. She studied the gacaca system up close, as they happened, and says the confessions were motivated often by a guilty conscience but also by a desire on the part of perpetrators to make amends and start life over.

She points out that the facts of the genocide are well established. There is ample evidence and it is uncontested. But in the lives of individual Rwandans, there is also a personal experience of the genocide that also figures into reconciliation.

This 2018 picture shows victims' portraits displayed during an exhibition at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. According to the main association of the genocide survivors, Ibuka is a Kinyarwanda word for remember. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

"So you can imagine thousands and thousands of individual Hutu stepping up and talking about their own personal truths. I mean, that was some kind of reckoning. And so there's that level of truth where people understand that what they did to their friends and neighbours was absolutely wrong, that they were misled by their own leaders and that when push came to shove, their leaders escaped.

"And so Rwandans live with many truths, the fragments of many truths at this point in their everyday lives. The truth that they, I think, they abide by, and the truth that they rely on is that what they did was criminal. And I think there is an acceptance of that, there's an understanding of that, and a willingness to make amends to the extent possible as they move on."

'No people have a single memory'

The question of truth is taken up in various ways in Rwanda. There is, of course, the factual truth, the demonstrable truth. But there are the truths Rwandans tell themselves and each other that make up the collective memory of the genocide.

Isaie Nzeyimana is a professor of philosophy at the University of Rwanda. He notes that reconciling after a genocide may seem like an impossible task but it requires one to ask about what a possible future could look like. 

"I would say there's no difference between truth and facts, but rather there's a relation of correspondence between them. Facts are the objective face of truth and likewise, truth are the subjective face of facts. Our country started from this premise: What if reconciliation between Rwandans was possible? Rwandans then acting from the assumption that reconciliation was indeed possible shifted the general dynamic. The Rwandan reconciliation is a model to follow because it has enabled Rwandans to understand and close one chapter of their history and begin to write a new one.

The remains of nearly 85,000 people murdered in Rwanda's genocide were laid to rest on May 4, 2019, in a sombre ceremony in Kigali, a quarter of a century after the slaughter. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

"There is no one memory, there are memories. There is no one commemoration, there are commemorations. No people have a single memory and it is dangerous to reduce people to a single memory. Think of building vertically instead of horizontally. This is dangerous because if one memory fails your society, your people have no other resources to rely upon," says Nzeyimana.

"Sometimes I think it's something of a trap to always bring people back to their past and always letting the present and the future escape them. However, it's true, the past is a chapter we must recognize, but the present and the future are two other chapters."

Guests in this episode:

Régine King is an associate professor in the faculty of social work, University of Calgary.

Isaie Nzeyimana is a professor of philosophy at the University of Rwanda.

Anu Chakravarty is an associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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