Why Rwanda's ethnic divisions have surfaced again

The conviction of Paul Rusesabagina on terror charges has divided Rwandans
This photo taken Thursday, March 27, 2014, shows the church in the village of Nyarubuye, eastern Rwanda which was the scene of a massacre during the 1994 genocide and is now a genocide memorial. Rwandans gathered in the nearby town of Kirehe Thursday to watch the arrival of a small flame, symbolic fire traveling the country as Rwanda prepares to mark 20 years since ethnic Hutu extremists killed neighbors, friends and family during a three-month rampage of violence aimed at ethnic Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, the death toll of which Rwanda puts at 1,000,050. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) *** Local Caption ***  Rwanda Genocide Flame.JPEG-0300e.jpg

In 2004, a moving Hollywood film, Hotel Rwanda, seared the horrific 1994 genocide onto the public consciousness. The actor Don Cheadle, who earned an Oscar nomination, played Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager during the massacre who saved nearly 1,200 Tutsis from slaughter by hiding them in the Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

For nearly 11 weeks during the spring of 1994, Rusesabagina kept Hutu forces at bay, negotiating with every contact he could think of, from the UN to the genocidaires.

“Paul Rusesabagina managed to do the impossible to save our lives at the moment when others were massacring their own children, their own wives,” wrote Thomas Kamilindi, a Rwandan journalist.

But Rusesabagina’s glory would soon be shattered. Last week, Rusesabagina, a vocal critic of Paul Kagame, was sentenced by a court in Kigali to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges. Prosecutors had initially sought a life sentence on nine charges, including leading an illegal armed group. Rusesabagina has admitted membership in the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), a Brussels-based opposition group, but denied responsibility for violence carried out by MRCD’s armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN).

In this photo taken Thursday, March 27, 2014, Mike Nkuzumuwami stands by the rows of human skulls and bones that form a memorial to those who died in the redbrick church that was the scene of a massacre during the 1994 genocide, and which he helps to look after, in the village of Nyarubuye, eastern Rwanda. Rwandans gathered in the nearby town of Kirehe Thursday to watch the arrival of a small flame, symbolic fire traveling the country as Rwanda prepares to mark 20 years since ethnic Hutu extremists killed neighbors, friends and family during a three-month rampage of violence aimed at ethnic Tutsis and some moderate Hutus, the death toll of which Rwanda puts at 1,000,050. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) *** Local Caption ***  Rwanda Genocide Flame.JPEG-04e3e.jpg
KIGALI, RWANDA - APRIL 07: Prisoners listen during a Genocide commemoration ceremony on April 07, 2019 at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, Rwanda. The prison holds many perpetrators of the genocide still serving their sentences after being found guilty. The country is preparing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed over a 100-day period.  (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

Rusesabagina’s father was Hutu, his mother Tutsi, but because of patrilineal customs, he is considered Hutu.

The trial has highlighted the bitter ethnic divisions that still remain in Rwanda, despite Kigali’s public efforts to mend society after a conflict that left 1 million people dead.

Over the past decades, Mr Kagame has had an extraordinary transformation – from soldier to statesman to reformer. Under his rule, ethnic designation – which played a major role in the brutal genocide – had been eliminated from identity cards and public dialogue. An impressive system of transitional justice based on grass-roots courts known as Gacaca, attempted to bring perpetrators of heinous crimes to justice. More importantly, Rwanda is frequently hailed as a post-conflict poster child, far surpassing other conflicts of the 1990s such as Bosnia, which remain locked in ethnic tension.

Mr Kagame’s presidency has been impressive in terms of environmentalism, literacy, women’s empowerment, lifting poverty, installing an impressive healthcare system and putting Rwanda back on a regional and international stage. Mr Kagame has been called a hero, a strongman, a benevolent dictator.

Under his rule, Rwanda has flourished, though critics highlight extreme pressure on journalists and political opponents. Supporters of Mr Kagame say this is essential to reduce ethnic hatreds but human rights organisations disagree. In response to his rule, hard-liners in exile began to form Hutu Power, which called for a return to Hutu governance.

And this is the legacy of Rwanda. A stable country led by Mr Kagame, “freedom fighter” after a horrific genocide, but a new school of revisionist scholars and journalists who claim otherwise. Back in 1995, the infamous Gersony Report, written by a freelance human rights investigator, claimed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the resistance group led by Mr Kagame during the genocide era that has since become the ruling party, was responsible for post-genocide politically motivated attacks in the south of the country. The report claimed that 35,000 Hutus had been killed. Although human rights experts accepted its findings, it was rejected by the UN and never finished.

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Rusesabagina had originally been a Kagame supporter, but slowly drifted into Hutu political parties, aligning himself with their ideology

Then in 2018, a Canadian journalist, Judi Rever, published In Praise of Blood, which essentially alleges war crimes by the RPF during its rise to power in the 1990s. She argues that the Tutsi-led RPF war crimes should also be labelled “genocide” – a highly controversial accusation. The book is widely criticised as unreliable and sensationalist, but it has nonetheless contributed to changing the conversation in the West about the current Rwandan government’s record.

Rusesabagina had originally been a Kagame supporter, but slowly drifted into Hutu political parties, aligning himself with their ideology. Some believed he would challenge Mr Kagame in his role.

In some respects, Rwandan politics is now divided into genocide-deniers, who claim more Hutus died than Tutsis in 1994 – and those who say the genocide ethnically cleansed the Tutsi population. Hutu Power in exile wish to see the end of Mr Kagame’s reign, and continue to fund small militias along the border.

In a video posted on YouTube in 2018, Rusesabagina called for armed resistance, saying change could not be achieved by democratic means. The year before, Mr Kagame had won re-election with 99 per cent of the vote.

Both Belgium, where Rusesabagina took up residence before the US, and the US have criticised the trial as an attempt to silence critics of the increasingly repressive government. Rusesabagina's family says they expected this verdict, and he will appeal.

But the trial has opened up painful wounds in Rwanda that many thought were healing: ethnicity, past grievances, revenge. It has been called a battle for the soul of the country. But most of all the trial and conviction of Rusesabagina sends a clear message to opponents of Mr Kagame. Last Tuesday, Mr Kagame gave his remarks at the UN General Assembly. He spoke of Covid-19, global solidarity, vaccine distribution and the values of organisation. At the end, there was a brief mention of “genocide deniers” but there was no mention of Rusesabagina, who is still remembered by his supporters as the hero of the Hotel des Milles Collines.

Published: September 28th 2021, 9:00 AM
Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni teaches human rights at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and is a columnist for The National