Global Policy Forum

Hutu and Tutsi Ask: Is a Unified Rwanda Possible?


By Ian Fisher

New York Times
April 6, 1999
Igali, Rwanda -- There is a stone jail with six windows on a rocky hill in eastern Rwanda. All but four of the 221 prisoners are charged with crimes related to the genocide, the very logical madness, that broke out five years ago this week, when one group of Rwandans tried to annihilate the other.

One of the prisoners is Felix Ndayambaje, a man in his early 20s who has confessed to raping his neighbor. "I have confessed because I was still young when I committed that act," he said. "I have confessed so that I may ask for forgiveness." A few miles away Salviana Mukagatare, 30, crossed a dirt road through a banana grove. A triangular scar -- three chops from a machete -- runs from below her right eye to her ear. Her right hand, chopped twice, is a limp claw. She is the only member of her family to survive the massacres in her village in April 1994. "Forgive?" she asked. "No, I can't."

Five years after an event of singular evil, Rwandans are still playing out a quiet drama -- person by person, village by village -- of regret, forgiveness and at times defiance. But while the wounds are still fresh, as people re-imagine themselves and each other after such horror, much of the change here since 1994 seems for the good, if tenuously so.

Hutu and Tutsi are again living side by side, as they did for centuries. Rwanda is largely peaceful. Last week, the Tutsi-controlled government held local elections, the first in many years.

Wellars Rwagasore, a 45-year-old farmer in Nyarubuye district, in the east, did not vote only for members of his own ethnic group, the Tutsi. Of eight positions, he chose four Hutu, from the group that rose up and killed at least half a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu who stood in the way. "The government says to live together and be reconciled," he said. "We have to forget it."

Yet hope sits alongside a fair share of pessimism. Many say Hutu and Tutsi are still far apart in their hearts. Intermarriage, once so common it is hard to tell who is who, is now rare. There are still some 125,000 genocide suspects in jail, and they are dying from AIDS or tuberculosis faster than they can be brought to trial to bring some sense of justice to both sides.

In many ways, the ethnic conflict has shifted its battle ground to the war in eastern Congo, fought largely between Rwandan soldiers, mostly Tutsi, and the Hutu militias that carried out the killings in 1994. And while the government has won support from outside nations for working to reunite the two groups, it faces criticism for growing corruption and sometimes uneven distribution of property and jobs.

In an interview last week, Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, who led the army of exiled Tutsi who took power in 1994, admitted to some of the worst of the accusations, including reports that his soldiers had killed civilians in their fight against Hutu extremists. But overall, he contended, the government has done its best to root out excesses and recreate Rwanda. "After five years, there is a long way to go," said Kagame, 41, the vice president and the nation's real political power. "We can't overcome this complex situation in five years."

Some critics wonder how long the government can keep its mandate, which rests on its having defeated the Hutu powers that planned and carried out the killings. But there is no question that the events that began on April 6, 1994 -- when the plane of the Hutu President, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down and the organized massacre of Tutsi erupted -- still seep into every corner of life. Esther Mujaway, 40, is one of only a few dozen counselors in Rwanda. Two pictures hang on the wall of her home in Kigali: one of her husband, Paul, reclining in a field; the other of her and Paul drinking beer through straws at their wedding. Paul was killed on the road outside the school where he taught. She helped start a widows' support group.

"In the beginning it was easy," she said. "People let you talk. Now they tell you, 'Five years -- you should be getting on with normal life.' But for you it never stops." By any measure, Rwanda remains a traumatized country. It has not even cleared all its human debris. Bits of leg bone, a child's sandal poke out from the rubble in two rooms on the church grounds in Nyarubuye, where 10,000 were killed.

But the question is: Exactly what is happening with all that trauma? The government has emphasized again and again that people must overcome the trauma and unite (even if such a program is aimed partly at the government's own survival: Tutsi still represent only about 15 percent of the population). And there is a sense here that people are trying to unite by telling similar stories about 1994.

From top Tutsi officials to Hutu opposition politicians to farmers who scrape a living from sloping plots, an official version has emerged: It was the Belgian colonists who divided Rwanda, issuing identity cards that marked Hutu or Tutsi according to the colonists' own ideas about race. They favored the Tutsi, seen as tall, fine-featured cattle-drivers, over the Hutu, seen as short, rough cultivators. At independence in 1959, the Hutu staged a revolution against the Tutsi monarchy and hundreds of thousands of Tutsi died.

In 1994, this version goes, it was malevolent Hutu leaders, worried about losing power to Kagame's Tutsi guerrillas, who exploited that division and drove thousands of Hutu to kill their neighbors. This narrative, accurate in its basic outline, justifies the government's policy of directing punishment at those who organized the killings, arguing that many ordinary Hutu were caught up in a calibrated hysteria. It also gives ordinary people -- Hutu and Tutsi -- a way to live together again without blaming each other directly.

"What happened was due to our leaders," said Jean-Pierre Kabuto, a 36-year-old Hutu who was briefly arrested after the massacres but has gone back to his native village in Kibungo. "For us, we had always shared everything." These days, both ethnic groups talk of "genocide," though that word pins guilt firmly on the Hutu. The words "Hutu" and "Tutsi" are heard only in whispers or tones of apology.

"We're all Rwandans," said Jean-Baptiste Michombero, 26, a Hutu living in a village of mixed ethnic groups built by the United Nations in Kibungo, near the Tanzanian border. "We all have the same feeling in our heads -- Hutu, Tutsi, Twa," the 1 percent of Rwandans who are Pygmies. "It is not words only." But this version does not say much about what remains deep inside most Rwandans: whether reconciliation has truly taken root. In scores of interviews, Rwandans seemed eager to embrace the theory of unity. But when it came to specifics -- the dead family, the husband in jail -- the picture looks less hopeful.

"The problem I have is to live with the wives of the killers," said Ms. Mukagatare, the Tutsi woman who nearly died from machete wounds. "The women are against me, seeing me survive alone without any family. Even the children tell me I should have died." She paused and looked around at the children who stopped to listen. "I'm even afraid of these children's parents," she said.

At the U.N. genocide trials in Tanzania, some defense lawyers argue that there was no genocide, that it was not an organized effort to erase any ethnic group. While few people in Rwanda argue that publicly, the idea remains divisive, and many Hutu are angry about the number of Hutu killed, both when Kagame's group, the Rwandese Patriotic Army, took control in 1994, and in the army's continuing battle against Hutu extremists. "What about Hutu being killed?" asked Theogene Munyanshogoza, 47, a Hutu farmer in Nyarubuye. "Why were Hutu being killed?"

Andrew Karas, field coordinator in Kibungo for the International Rescue Committee, a American organization that has built houses, schools and water projects with the United Nations, said Rwandans are trying hard. "But I think they are really aware of this tenuous relationship," he said. "I have staff come to me saying, you know, Andy, if something happened tomorrow, you wouldn't even recognize the people around you, the transformation that would take place. "Enough people have convinced me that this is a real turning point."

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