"I understood that I hadn't understood anything"
On the first of April the Brussels « Bozar » Center for Fine Arts held a litterary conference titled « Rwanda, twenty years afterwards ». Three African writers who'd written books about the terrifying 1994 rwandan genocide were invited to speak at the invitation of Bozar and NGO « CEC » about the limitations of language when applied to such an event. The answers were straightforward.
« I understood that I hadn't understood anything », said Boubacar Boris Diop from Senegal, speaking of his experience in Rwanda four years after the large scale massacres which killed over 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a hundred days starting from April 1994. « I listened to people and couldn't understand ».
Véronique Tadjo from Ivory Coast said something similar : « Some things cannot even be told, you have to express them in a different way ». That is why her, Diop and rwandan writer and playwright Dorcy Rugamba have tried to write, all three in different ways, about the genocide.
Rugamba, who has lost many of his family in the killings, says : « Memory is not faithful, it crumbles into pieces, we had to set it into place, for it was an ideological, a political crime, and that is the main thing to remember, it was not about « tribal » or « ancestral » hatred ». B.B. Diop confirms it : « genocidal logic is a logic of unwritting, of mutilating ». The three say that fiction is a way of giving back their identity to the dead. But memory can prove to be something quite divisive.
« The dead are not dead »
For this meeting was part of a wider trend of events that are designed to not only commemorate the genocide but also to soothe the wounds of an African country mirred in polemic. Projects such as London-born South African artist Bruce Clarke's « Upright men » are to be exhibited on an international level, with for instance Clarke's « Upright men » symbol to be projected on the 7th of April on the facade of the United Nations in New York.
Yet the memory of what happened then is still a matter of controversy, even within some countries of the European Union. In France, which has been repeatedly criticized in and outside of Africa for her role before and after the genocide, a court condemned to twenty-five years of jail on March 14 a captain of the former presidential guard, Pascal Simbikangwa. Simbikwanga's trial, which was the first trial held in France of a rwandan genocide-related crime, made headlines, as it has also been seen as a way for Paris to ease the tense relationship it has with Rwanda, whose ruling FPR party has often accused France of having protected officials of the genocidal hutu regime .
The trial took place as both a French TV show and a radio program were forced to remove from broadcast, under public and official pressure, segments that made fun of the rwandan genocide.
Aid, development and war
The memory of the genocide is also at the heart of the European Union's relationship to the little central african country. Public aid to development in Rwanda in 2006 was of 585 million US dollars, which made up for 24% of the gross national income, and half of the government's budget. The European Commission was the second biggest aid giver in 2007, giving over 85 million dollars.
Rwanda is effectively speaking a foreign aid showcase : it has come back from the brink of destruction in 1994 to become one of Africa's increasingly numerous economic success stories, its capital, Kigali, undergoing a real estate boom and the growth rate of the country being on average of 8,1% per year between 2001 and 2012. Reconciliation as been one of the main official goals of the new FPR regime of president Paul Kagame : ethnic censuses or mention of ethnicity on ID cards have been forbidden, though some rwandans still complain of discriminations. Even former Belgian foreign affairs minister and former European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid Louis Michel declared his support in February for Kagame's regime : « I can only be impressed by the headway that has been made, by Rwanda's economic and social successes ».
But some have accused president Kagame of authoritarianism, and say that Rwanda's FPR party is effectively in charge of the country, leaving no space for others, and of using the memory of the genocide to shut down opposition. The recent brutal murder of Patrick Karegeya on New Year's eve in South Africa, Kagame's former chief of external intelligence who had fallen out with his president, has soured not only Rwanda's relationship with South Africa, but also with one of its main aid givers, the USA. And it has been shown by a 2012 report published by the UN that Kagame financed rebellions in neighbouring Kivu, the eastern mineral-wealthy DR Congo region whose natural wealth has kept on flaming one of the bloodiest wars since the end of World War II.
And in Brussels ?
Even in Brussels the shockwave of what happens in central Africa can sometimes be acutely felt : the Matongé riots in 2011 are one such example, when Congolese expatriates, furious at what they saw as foreign-backed poll manipulations in the DRC presidential ballot, started demonstrating in Ixelles neighbourhood. Possible cases of police brutality inflamed the demonstrators and two weeks of riots started, in which some rwandan people were targeted and much of the area around chaussée d'Ixelles suffered considerable damage.
Despite taking place 6000 kms away from Brussels, the 1994 genocide has had far reaching consequences : European Union involvement in a far-flung country, indirect stakes in a war that has shattered the whole eastern half of the DR Congo, French embarassment and polemics, a role in the 2011 riots in Brussels, but most of all, it has broken more than lives, it has broken memories.
One of the writers invited at Bozar, Dorcy Rugamba, recounts how he came back to Butare, his native town : « I went back to Butare, that I know as my own shadow, but I didn't recognize it. It was full of unknown faces. Half the people had been killed, the other half had fled to Congo ».