The Complexities of Remembering: 20 Years After the Rwandan Genocide

Leaders of remembrance group Ibuka released balloons at a ceremony to honor the memory of those killed in the Rwandan genocide. Photo: Emma Hurt for LJP.

Leaders of remembrance group Ibuka released balloons at a ceremony to honor the memory of those killed in the Rwandan Genocide. Photo: Emma Hurt for LJP.

PARIS- 20 years ago this spring Rwanda experienced the fastest and most efficient genocide in history. In addition to the indescribable human and emotional cost, it took a tremendous toll on the country’s economy. Rwanda has made great strides since 1994 and has restored its economy to pre-genocide levels. It is the only country in the world where women represent a majority in its Parliament, and according to Transparency International Rwanda remains among the least-corrupt nations on the continent.

However, almost two-thirds of the nation’s population is under the age of 25 and does not personally remember the genocide. So today the challenge for Rwanda, and the world, remains: how to continue to move past this awful history while ensuring it will never be forgotten.

Last week across the globe, remembrances took place marking the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide on April 7, 1994. Notably, in a stadium in the capital city of Kigali, Rwandans themselves held solemn commemorations to remember and to educate. The program featured a theatrical depiction of the narrative, from its historical origins in the country’s Belgian colonization, to the abandonment by the UN and other peacekeepers, to President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Army’s successful defeat of the genocidal government.

During remarks by a survivor, several women began wailing uncontrollably, overcome by grief. Despite the need to educate and the need to remember, for many the horrors of the event remain fresh.

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon were present, among many other dignitaries. Conspicuously absent though were any representatives from France; another difficult yet more diplomatic dimension of this need for remembrance.

Just before the commemoration, President Kagame told the weekly Jeune Afrique that France and Belgium played a “direct role…in the political preparation of genocide and participation in its execution.” France reacted defensively and canceled the planned attendance of Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira. The French Ambassador to Rwanda was then barred from attending.

Alain Juppé, French foreign minister during 1994, responded on his blog, “It is unacceptable to lay blame on France. I call on the president of the Republic and the French government to defend without ambiguity the honor of France, the honor of its army, the honor of its diplomats.”

The relationship between France and Rwanda has been uneven since the genocide. A French parliamentary report did admit some of France’s involvement in arming and equipping the Hutu government, but the nations have never had an open discussion about it. Many of those responsible for the genocide are suspected to be living in France, and the first trial in a French court was only recently held, of Pascal Simbikangwa (who was sentenced to 25 years in prison, although he plans to appeal.)

Rwanda severed diplomatic ties in 2006 when a French judge accused President Kagame of ordering the plane carrying former Hutu President Habyarimana to be shot down. Since then, the two countries had been hesitantly mending relations, highlighted by former President Sarkozy’s visit to Rwanda in 2010 and Kagame’s reciprocal visits to Paris. The events of this past week represent a set back in this reconciliation process. It remains unclear how the two nations will move forward, but the resultant tension is profound.

Around 100 people gathered in remembrance of the genocide on April 7 at Paris’ City Hall. The service featured speakers from the genocide remembrance group Ibuka and leaders of the Shoah Memorial in Paris, and ended in a symbolic release of purple balloons.

As an Ibuka representative proclaimed, they are now fighting “the battle for memory.” This fight for memory is on many levels. The diplomatic relationship between France and Rwanda suggests one of them. The need to educate young Rwandans is another. But perhaps the largest battle is that for the global memory. At the time, the Rwandan genocide went largely unnoticed and the international community did little to stop it. More than anything, commemorations like this continue to try to ensure that the world remembers, so that, as the Ibuka speaker concluded, “never again.”

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