The world has seen many murders. But in all the death and suffering, one crime stands out for me: the Rwandan genocide. Not because of how many people died – there have been plenty of mass killings throughout history and in terms of death toll, events like the Holocaust or Mao’s regime far surpass the Rwandan genocide. Nor because of how brutal the murders were – humanity’s capacity for extreme cruelty is hardly a new idea for society. What makes the Rwandan genocide so unique is that in a world of a thousand cuts, this cut healed, and it healed so well and so quickly.
The genocide of 1994 was the consequence of a campaign of hate carried out by the Hutu government against the Tutsi minority. The division between Hutus and Tutsis was originally a tribal one: Hutus were farmers and Tutsis raised cattle. Tutsis were a far smaller group – they made up only 15% of the population. However, by the start of 1994 this division had also become an ethnic one. This was the result of European colonialists redefining what it meant to be a Hutu or Tutsi by considering facial features, wealth and lineage in the hope that dividing Rwandan society would make it easier to control it. Tutsis were the favored group, and whether it be an arbitrary choice or because they looked more like Europeans, this created a sense of injustice and therefore hostility. When a Hutu majority government was elected and started to implement anti-Tutsi policies, civil war broke out between the government and Tutsi rebel groups. The escalation of tensions eventually led to the genocide.
Between April and July, circa. 800 000 Tutsis or moderate Hutus were slaughtered. The government had planned for maximum efficiency – strike teams were trained to be able to kill 1000 people in less than 20 minutes, Tutsi targets were identified and then distributed to militia groups prior to the genocide and thousands of machetes were imported for use by the militia. A common practice was to wait for civilians fleeing the massacre to congregate in churches for safety and then lob grenades inside. Tutsis were raped, mutilated, impaled, buried alive and/or thrown in rivers to drown, to name just a few atrocities.
Evidently, there are many reasons for Hutus and Tutsis to hate each other in the modern day. Their hostility has deep century long historic roots and the civil war and genocide should have bred a generation bent on revenge and returning the cruelty. Since the majority of the population participated in the genocide, either as perpetrator or victim, Rwanda should by all rights be a failed state, with the hundreds of thousands of killers in prison for life and the victims so scarred physically and emotionally as to never able to participate in society again. Hutus should be viewed on par with Nazis or radical Zionists. And yet, they aren’t.
When a group of Etonians visited Rwanda during the Long Leave of Michaelmas 2018, we heard many people give their testimonies as to what happened during the genocide. And lo and behold, we saw a woman covered in huge scars, her hand cut off by a machete and her first born murdered sitting next to the man who had done all that to her, having tea and a normal conversation with him! We met a lady who had been 13 during the genocide, every relative killed, who was raped and then thrown into a toilet pit where she stayed for 3 days whilst it was being used, call the police chief who had organized the killings in her area ‘friend’. Forgiveness and reconciliation had occurred, as both perpetrators and victims agreed to drop their differences and become not Hutu or Tutsi, but Rwandan. A deal was made that killers who confessed their crimes and repented would only serve half their jail sentence, with the rest being community service. So, Rwanda healed and rebuilt instead of dwelling on the past.
Now don’t get me wrong. Objectively, do the killers deserve forgiveness? No, probably not. If somebody cut my hand off and killed my kid would I spend the rest of my life trying to get revenge? I’m not proud of it, but probably. The argument can be made that the killers were let off too easily – indeed the business man responsible for importing all the machetes to Rwanda never went to jail at all and is now living out the rest of his life incognito in Belgium. But in their suffering, the victims of the genocide discovered wisdom: forgiveness is not a favour to your enemy, but liberation for yourself. By forgiving one who has wronged you, you aren’t necessarily admitting defeat, but acknowledging and then relinquishing the hold hate has on your heart, allowing you to move on with life. So, was there justice? No, but if there had been, Rwanda would be in ruins. Instead, its citizens decided ‘an eye for an eye’ is not always the best way to lead your life, and consequently Rwanda is not a failed state, but a reminder to all people to let go of your hate.