Rwanda: Lest We Forget

Sixteen years after the campaign of mass genocide in Rwanda, the aftermath of this grave tragedy is still ongoing. On Tuesday March 2, the widow of assassinated President Juvenal Habyarimana was arrested by French Police on an international arrest warrant issued from Rwanda. This came only a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy was visiting Rwanda on a diplomatic mission to mend fences with President Kagame, who has been previously accused to have been involved in the genocide, although he has vehemently and continuously denied this claim. The French president admitted France made errors in judgement before the genocide and that the international community made mistakes.

There is an extensive history and background to the conflict and war in Rwanda which spans decades. Colonization, foreign interests and geopolitics are key factors that began in the 1800s, and much of the results lead to ethnic unrest and dire poverty in the region. President Kagame was in London , for a ceremony welcoming Rwanda into the Commonwealth, along with 53 other countries. Rwanda, a former colony of Germany and Belgium, was admitted to the Commonwealth last November, despite having no official link or past to the British constitution or colonial history.

The onset of the mass killings began in 1994 when the President Habyarimana's plane was shot down by a missile outside of the Kigali Airport. Hardline ethic Hutu supporters of the President then launched the apparently pre-planned massacres. To this day, investigators from several different countries and agencies have yet to solve the crime. Who was ultimately responsible for the assassination? It remains a mystery with various factions citing different groups, countries, agencies and persons involved. Agathe Habyarimana, the President's widow, fled Rwanda after the attack. While main stream media did report the civil unrest and war in Rwanda, it came to the world as mere whispers. The screams of the thousands of those who were slaughtered and killed went largely ignored by the international community. No one dared characterize what was happening in Rwanda as genocide; instead words like anarchy, civil war and ethic violence were used. Tragically, it wasn't until much later that the world learned the truth about the atrocities in Rwanda.

Currently there is no international treaty or law between France and Rwanda allowing extradition to occur. France has shielded many other defendants accused of crimes against humanity fearing that a fair trial would be nearly impossible. Agathe has been denied political asylum in France, but she continues to reside in Paris and is out on bail for the time being. The current President welcomed Agathe's arrest and hopes that she will either be tried in France or Tanzania where the UN backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is based in Arusha. France has extradited suspects to the ICTR in the past but Agathe's lawyers say that her arrest was about politics and diplomatic relations; and besides, it was the French military who originally flew her out of Rwanda to safety. It remains to be seen whether Agathe Habyarimana will face a trial for crimes against humanity and participating in genocide and whether there is real evidence to suggest her guilt. So far, very little details of her alleged involvement have been released.

Not only did the mass killings and conflict affect Rwandans, it also had a devastating effect on surrounding countries like Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Uganda, drawing them into the conflict. About 2 million refugees fled to these countries only to face more deadly violence and extreme poverty in an effort to drive them back into Rwanda. The Rwandan army supported Congolese Rebels against the Kabila government and officially pulled out the last of its troops in 2003. After much internal political struggle, corruption and military coups, and with changing governments, Rwanda is still very traumatized by its past and continues to face grave human rights issues and political unrest in the region.

In 1995 a UN appointed international tribunal began charging and sentencing people for the Tutsi-Hutu atrocity. Some 36,000 prisoners were arrested and had confessed to taking part in the genocide. By 2003, the International Criminal Tribunal was established to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during war. The convictions of political and military leaders was meant to deter others who might commit this crime and is also said to bring justice to the victims. Yet over the past few years, victims and advocates have cited many problems with this process, everything from corruption to unfair accusations and a lack of compensation and support for women and child soldiers. By 2005, most of the prisoners were released as a solution to severe over-crowding. In 2007, more than 60,000 suspects have since been released along with another 8,000 prisoners. Over-crowding of correctional facilities was again cited as the reason.

The ICC extending ICTR's mandate until the end of 2010 and has also hired more judges. Experts believe it will require two more years to complete the lengthy legal process. There have been countless investigations, convictions, and accusations. Last Tuesday's arrest is yet another development in the aftermath of the genocide. Around a half billion dollars has already been spent on this process.

What should we know about Rwanda? We should know that because of a long history of French and Belgian involvement and influence, including colonization, the issuing of ethnic ID cards, the crash of commodity prices and economic ruin has all led to this severe humanitarian crisis. It certainly didn't happen overnight, and it is because the world is largely uninformed about Rwanda that this has been allowed to continue. Victims are still suffering from the trauma; many have lost most of their families and were brutally victimized by people they once called friends and neighbours. Many feel there has been little justice while others feel that having the ICC involved is centre to their healing. Many Africans believe that retributive justice is the only way to stop another genocide from reoccurring. Rwanda is still very much in dire need of healing.

For several decades, Africa has succumbed to oppression and slavery while the rest of the world continues to consume items like diamonds, chocolate, coffee, tin and a wide array of natural resources. We donate to charities and NGOs, yet still we see no substantial progress. Many Africans live in a situation in which an exploitative socio-economic system rules the world, and the danger of widening wars of conquest and other more sophisticated means of subversion in search of resources, markets and geopolitical advantage is heavily prevalent. This combined with a lack of cultural understanding and harmony along with a male dominated society means more struggle for countries like Rwanda.

Africa to me, is the heart of the world and it beats loud and strong for freedom. To support Africa and countries like Rwanda we must start holding our multinational corporations and governments responsible. No longer should the innocent be pitted against each other in desperate attempts for power, only to succumb to further violence and poverty. Africa is a beautiful and breathtaking continent that has long suffered due to the West's need for natural resources and profit-making. I believe peace can be achieved, but capitalist interests and the conflict it helps foster means the struggle for autonomy and power in Africa will continue.

After World War II, the world sought to never forget what genocide and ethnic cleansing meant. The United Nations, the Security Council, international banks, multinational corporations, and all governments CAN make a change for the better. Though it  may seem a world away to many industrialized and democratic countries, exploitation cannot continue. There is much to be learned about the devastation in Rwanda, and much we can begin to do for and with Africa. Lest we forget.


Shah, Anup. “Media, Propaganda and Rwanda.” Global Issues, Updated: 25 Oct. 2006. Accessed: 02 Mar. 2010.

BBC News Timeline: Rwanda

Global Policy Forum

Transitional Justice and DDR in Post Genocide Rwanda

Africa, Genocide, Human Rights, Rwanda, United Nations, ICC