Rwanda: Memory And Denial – The Genocide Fifteen Years On

Gerald Caplan
April 8 2009

Kigali — April 2009 marks the 15th anniversary of the genocide in
Rwanda of most of its Tutsi population and of many Hutu who refused
to embrace violent extremism.

Five years ago, the world marked the 10th anniversary of what almost
the entire world regards as one of the definitive genocides of the
20th century. Perhaps it was somehow symmetrical that both the first
and the last genocides of the 20th century took place in Africa.

In 1904, soldiers representing Imperial Germany deliberately sought
to exterminate the Herero people of Namibia, then the German colony
of South-West Africa. Anxious to occupy the lands of the Herero, the
German colonial army came precious close to achieving its grisly,
racist goal. Before it ended, some three-quarters of 80,000 Herero
were dead.

Exactly 90 years later, the racists were powerful Hutu extremists
in Rwanda who conspired to annihilate the minority Tutsi people,
largely to avoid sharing power and wealth with them. Like the Germans
before them, the genocidaires in Rwanda were remarkably successful in
executing their plot. Before they were defeated, about three-quarters
of all the country’s Tutsi had been murdered, often in the most
sadistic ways imaginable. Exact numbers remain unknown to this day,
but it is possible that as many as a million Tutsi were killed in
the 100 days of the genocide.

But very like South-West Africa, outside influences were key to events
in Rwanda. Had European missionaries not invented an ideology that
blatantly set Tutsi against Hutu, had the Belgian colonial government
not institutionalised this false ideology, had the French government
not offered all possible support to the Hutu government of Rwanda in
the years immediately leading to the genocide, the genocide might
never have happened. Once triggered, it was the Security Council,
urged on by the United States, that refused to take a single step to
stop the slaughter.

Before the 10th anniversary, the international movement known as
Remembering Rwanda was motivated by a fear that the genocide was
being forgotten by the rest of the world. That concern has proved
premature. Rwanda is probably as well known today as any tragic event
very far from western countries, and causing direct harm to none of
them, can be.

Tragically, one of the forces that revived the memory of 1994 was
the conflict that began in Darfur, western Sudan, in 2003. When
the secretary-general of the United Nations commemorated the 10th
anniversary of Rwanda in 2004, his cry was that Darfur must not be
allowed to become ‘the next Rwanda’. And so Rwanda’s international
role was finally crystallised: It was the latest acknowledged
failure of the solemn, eternally repeated, never heeded, pledge
of ‘Never Again’. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future,
Rwanda’s invidious distinction will be replaced by Darfur, and the
international community will vow not to permit ‘the next Darfur’.

At the same time as Rwanda was being turned into symbol of betrayal by
the international community, it was attracting the interest of western
filmmakers. This entirely unanticipated phenomenon has also given
the genocide a renewed lease on life, as it were. It is probable that
more feature-length films and full-length documentaries have been made
about the genocide than any other contemporary international crisis
save Iraq or the so-called ‘war on terror’. Not all the films were
of top quality and few bothered to show the critical and malevolent
role of western influence in Rwandan history. The most popular film,
Hotel Rwanda, the one that really dragged Rwanda into mainstream
western consciousness, had as its hero a man who now trivialises
the genocide. Nonetheless, his story, overblown as it may have been,
combined with the others, has assured that the genocide in Rwanda is
in little danger of being forgotten.


Yet at the same time, as in virtually every other genocide, denial
is alive and kicking. Here is yet another common thread that binds
the people that suffered through what many consider the three classic
genocides of the 20th century – the Armenians, the Jews and the Rwandan
Tutsis. The bitter and apparently never-ending fight against deniers,
or revisionists, is a common cause among the survivors of all these
genocides, one that will be highlighted in Rwanda in April 2009 as
people from all over the world will gather to mark the 15th anniversary
of the genocide of the Tutsi – Remembering Rwanda 15, or RR15.

If much of the world now remembers the genocide in Rwanda, the battle
against those who deny that genocide is much less familiar though
no less insidious than its Armenian or Holocaust equivalents. The
persistence of Holocaust denial remains a reality everywhere in
the world that anti-Semitism rears its head. In some countries it
attracts elites. In the west it is the preserve of a lunatic fringe,
and usually more an irritation than anything else. But there is
always a well-earned fear that it could explode into something more
ferocious, especially as anti-Semitism and opposition to Israeli
policies sometimes become difficult to distinguish.

Denying the Armenian genocide is a decidedly more precise
phenomenon. It exists only when attempts are made to recognise
the genocide for what it is, either by resolutions of legislative
assemblies or through education. And unlike either Holocaust or Rwanda
denial, it is invariably orchestrated by the Turkish government and
its acolytes, most of them on that government’s payroll. By a terrible
irony of realpolitik, among the most steadfast collaborators of the
Turkish government in its hardball efforts to prevent recognition of
the genocide is its close ally Israel and some powerful Israel support
groups throughout the western world. Whether Turkey’s unexpectedly
vehement condemnation of Israel’s recent aggression against Gaza
changes these equations is still not at all clear.

Rwanda is a different case. For one thing, in much of the
English-speaking world, denialism has been very much a fringe
phenomenon, largely peddled by a motley coalition. There are
anti-American left-wingers who are perversely convinced that
Rwandan president Paul Kagame, in their eyes the evil genius
behind the conflict (they deny it was a genocide), was an American
stooge. There are those who have ties of some kind with the defence at
the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Sometimes these are the
same people. They are still largely unknown to most English-speakers
who have seen the movies, or admire General Romeo Dallaire (another
American puppet, in the twisted view of the deniers) and have no
reason to doubt that a genocide actually was carried out.

Naturally the small band of leading deniers are well-known to the
Rwandan diaspora community, which is not only wounded by the denials
but fails to understand why their lies are given any media attention
at all. At least as ominously, the deniers’ reach and influence has
been spreading, metastasising like a malignant cancer, thanks to the
anarchy of the blogosphere and to the embrace of the deniers’ arguments
by a small but influential number of left-wing, anti-American journals
and websites.

Google Rwanda and you’re quite likely get a deniers’ rant featuring
the tiny band of usual suspects – French Judge Bruguiere, former UN
Rwanda chief Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, Robin Philpot, former Australian
investigator Michael Hourigan, American academic Christian Davenport –
each enthusiastically citing the others as their proof that the entire
so-called genocide was really an American imperial plot. That there is
no evidence for this assertion, that every single reputable scholar who
has studied the genocide has categorically disagreed with it, carries
no weight with this incomprehensible band of true believers. At the
same time, the harsh criticisms of the present Rwanda government by
respected human rights advocates has unhappily provided a certain
illogical legitimacy to the deniers’ pernicious cause.

Thanks to the reach of Hotel Rwanda, which has been seen by more people
than all other Rwanda films combined, many ordinary English-speakers
are likely to know of only one Rwandan, Paul Rusesabagina, and to
believe him a hero of the genocide, a righteous man who saved Tutsi
lives at great personal risk. That he now is the most prominent
person in the world claiming Kagame’s rebels were as deadly as the
genocidaires, that he insists Rwanda today is comparable to Rwanda
during the 100 days, and that he openly works with known genocidaires
and western deniers against the Kagame government, is still not
grasped by his western admirers. That’s why the uncritical adulation
in which he is held and his own fierce determination to spread his
message makes him a serious threat that should not be underestimated.

In Europe and in French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, genocide
denial is more mainstream. In large part this is due to longstanding
ties between the pre-genocide francophone Hutu elite and assorted
government and church officials in western Europe and Quebec. But as
elsewhere, deniers in these areas reflect a miscellany of motives. A
number are former genocidaires themselves, some being protected by
political and religious allies of the old regime, others walking free
and peddling their poison. All of these Rwandans and non-Rwandans
cherish a fantasy of someday reviving ‘Hutuland’ and the ‘demographic
democracy’ that prevailed from 1959 to 1994, in other words, a Hutu
dictatorship based exclusively on Hutu constituting a large majority
of the population. Others have acted on behalf of the defence at
the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). Some simply
cannot abide Kagame and his inner circle of former Ugandans. A few are
well-known non-Rwandan academics, taking every advantage to disparage
the Kagame government while consciously cultivating a generation of
Rwanda-hating Congolese. The harm being done will be felt throughout
the Great Lakes region for decades.

So the final assault common to the classical genocides of the 20th
century – the denial that it ever happened – continues to be an
ugly shared reality for all those touched by the Armenian genocide,
the Holocaust, and the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsi. The 15th
anniversary of the final genocide of the 20th century and of the
millennium provides an opportunity to unite all those affected by the
three of them in a sustained and systematic counter-attack against
deniers of all kinds.

It also moves us into the new century/millennium. It should pre-empt
the many friends of the Government of Sudan from insisting, as the
al-Bashir government routinely does, that the crisis in Darfur is
very much the responsibility of its own victims.

Gerald Caplan has a PhD in African history He recently published The
Betrayal of Africa.