Kigali Skyline

Rwandans try to move beyond images of genocide

By Father Bill Pomerleau

Pastor, Our Lady of Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield

Editor’s note: Fr. Bill Pomerleau was recently on a “working vacation” in East Africa, where he is reporting on places and people with ties to the Diocese of Springfield.

KIGALI, Rwanda —  Friday, July 1

The Belgians, who ruled Rwanda from 1922 to 1962, called this small nation “La Petite Suisse” because its steep hills reminded them of Switzerland.

And compared to their larger, more turbulent colony of Congo, it may have seemed a peaceful place.

But the peace would not last.

When German colonizers arrived in this then-remote region of central Africa in 1887, they “discovered” two highly organized, hierarchical kingdoms called Rwanda and Burundi. A minority group, called Tutsis, tended to own more cattle and have more influence, while the less influential who worked the land were called Hutus.

Historians today agree that the social divisions here were based on social class, rather than ethnic divisions, since residents of both nations always spoke the same language, and shared the same culture.

La petite Suisse

But the colonizers found it difficult to believe that these pagan Africans could develop societies that resembled medieval Europe. They falsely theorized that the ruling class were descendants of “Hamatic” Ethiopians who had lost their Christianity as they intermarried with inferior Bantu people.

At first, those who owned more than ten head of cattle were classified as Tutsis. But soon, the Germans and Belgians were obsessed with distinguishing the two “peoples” by supposed physical characteristics. Colonial officials measured the foreheads and noses of residents to classify them as either Tutsi or Hutu.

The Belgians, themselves divided by conflicts between their own French-speaking Walloon and Dutch-speaking Flemish social groups, issued Rwandan identity cards bearing the Tutsi or Hutu classifications in 1932.

The seeds of conflict were planted.

Rwanda identity cards

Rwandans point out that the western idea of a centuries-old “ethnic” rivalry here is a myth, or at least an over-simplification of a complicated social situation. Inter-marriage between Tutsis and Hutus was common.

But no one here denies what happened here in 1994, when a Hutu militia and its supporters instigated a mass killing of Tutsis and sympathetic moderate Hutus. 

While there is some debate about the exact number of deaths, the displays at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and most independent observers believe that over one million people, out of a population of 8 million, died in the genocide known to most Americans through the film “Hotel Rwanda.”

The Hotel Mille Collines has re-opened under a new Rwandan owner.  Its former manager, Paul Rusesabagina, is a controversial figure here, with critics claiming that he used his best-selling book and Hollywood to exaggerate his heroism during the genocide.

President Kagame

Rusesabagina, who recently moved to Texas after living in Belgium since 1994, is an outspoken critic of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi militia leader. International human rights organizations say that Kagame has begun to suppress the political opposition here, while some Hutus fear that the old divisions that lead to the genocide may return.

But thanks to the help of the international community, there have been dramatic efforts to move beyond Rwanda’s recent history.

It took 40 years for Berlin to complete is Holocaust Memorial; its counterpart in Kigali opened on the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

The memorial grounds include mass graves where over 250,000 genocide victims from across Rwanda have been interred.  New remains are added as they are found in shallow graves, latrines, and other locations.

Inside the building housing a museum and research center, one stark room contains several hundred photos of victims.  Another contains display cases with human skulls and bones. 

During our two-hour visit, we saw African and non-African visitors cry as they moved through the exhibits.

But today’s Rwanda has more than memorials.

By African standards, its capital city of Kigali is very modern.  There is new construction everywhere, and advertising is now more likely to be in English, rather than French.  English which is now talk along with Kirwanda in the schools, is linking Rwanda to its eastern neighbors in the developing East Africa Community, while French seems more linked to the its Belgian past and its troubled neighbor Congo to the west.

The few Rwandans we met who did not speak either European tongue could understand Kiswahili, the language of trade across eastern Africa.

Mass graves in Rwanda