24 April 2014

Rwanda: The Peace That Was Not - Rwanda 20 Years After the Genocide


It is 20 years since the genocide. The former rebels who 'liberated' the country now preside over Rwanda. But everywhere one sees evidence that the freedom they sought as rebels remains out of reach for the general population. An equal and just Rwanda is needed

I woke up on the morning of 7 April 1994, from a fretful slumber. I managed to walk to the gate of my house. I had to know if there were any other houses left standing. What were all of those screams I heard throughout the night? What would happen now that the President was dead? I was benumbed with fright, but I made it to the gate. I had to know what was left of our neighborhood.

In the blanket of darkness I heard explosions, structures crumbling, and gunshots; my body jerked wearily with every sound. Still more blasts, more shouting, and even more screaming. Death roared steadily outside, and moaned eerily in the distance. My family huddled together hoping to pool our collective courage to give us strength and protection to make it through the night. Miraculously, we did. I can't remember who first spotted the glint of morning light, or which one of us was the first to stand and walk without buckling at the knees.

I reached the gate of my house and peered out meekly. The usually bustling street was dead with silence. There was no one outside; it was strange and unsettling.

In the days following, I lived through the same events, each night worse than the last, and each morning scarier than the previous. I prayed to live through the night. Each morning realizing that I lived, I feared what I would find--who did not make it, who turned on who, who died, and how. Each day,I found, became longer and longer than the last. When it was not the bombs and gunshots that I feared from the raging war, it was the weapons wielding extremist Hutu militias - drunk, and hungry for blood. I will never forget the bloodthirsty militias or the horrified screams of their innocent victims. With each day my family and I mourned more neighbors and friends. We feared it was only a matter of time before the militias came for us or the war reached our doorstep.

It is ironic that the Rwandan genocide happened at the heels of a peace agreement signed by the former Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front--led by current Rwandan President Paul Kagame. The purpose of the peace agreement was to quell the four-year war that had ravaged Rwanda.

In 1990 the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, led a rebel group with the stated goal to seek liberation from the previous dictator, who was eventually assassinated when his plane was shot down. The goals of the rebellion were multifaceted, but among them were freedom for Rwandans and democracy. For four years, rebels fought with the government. Despite their expressed noble and ambitious goals, the rebels committed massacres against civilians. Hundreds of thousands of the frightened populace fled from their homes, away from the rebels, telling stories of the horror they had experienced. Whole villages were wiped out; communities were invited to meetings, and then bombed. Individuals were tortured, sometimes strung up on trees by their entrails; and on and on came the stories of rebel-sponsored terror. This is why a peace agreement was signed before the genocide.

As a child, I found these stories confusing. Why would a liberating army attack civilians? And why would they soil such a noble mission by causing terror?

Once the genocide began, the war resumed. While militias were on the hunt for innocent people, the militaries fought their wars with heavy weapons, and used our bodies as shields and collateral. They transformed our land into fields of terror. An estimated one million people lost their lives, in the midst of the most confusing, convoluted, and horrific violence I have ever witnessed.

It has been 20 years since the genocide began. The former 'rebels' now preside over Rwanda; and the freedom they sought as rebels remains out of reach for the general population. As with the government before them, there is no shortage of exclusionary and discriminatory legislation; independent journalists are jailed, exiled, and if foreign, banned from entering the country. Critics and opposition party members face the same restrictions, sometimes even losing their lives for speaking out. Human rights activists are in constant fear of targeted attacks. Genocide survivors are silenced over compassionate pleas to recognize everyone's humanity. All of this is in addition to the current Rwandan foreign policy of invasion and proxy reign of terror in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Rwanda's invasions of DRC in 1996 and 1998, greatly contributed to the towering death toll of six million civilians.

Even after 20 years, the horror and terror of the genocide is undeniable. The work for peace and reconciliation must continue. And the struggle for an equal and just Rwanda is as urgent as ever.

Alice Gatebuke is a Rwandan genocide and war survivor, Cornell University graduate, and a human rights advocate. She can be reached at alice@aglan.org



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