Rwanda and the E.U : commemorating a genocide's divisive memory

Article published on April 29, 2014
Article published on April 29, 2014

Events commemorating the 1994 rwandan genocide have been underway all over the planet for nearly a month now, and are scheduled to continue for the hundred days that the genocide lasted. Rwanda may seem a far-off land, but the legacy of the genocide has implications for Europe and europeans, as its shockwave continues to be felt.

"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 ».