Ciaran Wrons-Passmann, Director of the Ökumenisches Netz Zentralafrika (ÖNZ)

Jean-Baptiste Bizimana, Coordinator of Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI)

Rwanda between reconciliation and regional war

30 years after the genocide against the Tutsi
22. April 2024
maxime niyomwungeri | unsplash

April 7 marked the beginning of Kwibuka30, the period commemorating 30 years of genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. On this day, world dignitaries gathered in Rwanda’s capital Kigali to mourn the victims and renew their commitment to prevent mass violence. Many descendants of survivors of the genocide still live with trauma. At the same time, there is a real risk that the conflict around the armed group M23 escalates into a regional war.

In 1994 approximately 800,000 people, largely Tutsi but also moderate Hutu, were killed in just 100 days after the plane carrying Rwanda’s then-president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down on the night of April 6. It was only after the current ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), took control of Kigali in July that the killing ended. In the meantime, genocide perpetrators fled across the border to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, then called Zaïre) along with up to two million civilians who were fleeing from the RPF. While many of the civilians soon returned to Rwanda, genocide perpetrators started carrying out raids across the border with Rwanda. The newly created Rwandan army then took the conflict back to the DRC, engaging in two major wars (known as the Congo wars) which not only resulted in the establishment of a new political system in DRC but also a cycle of violence that plagues the region until today. In the past Rwanda has played an ambivalent role by repeatedly and sometimes directly supporting armed groups in the eastern DRC. Rwanda’s involvement was and is mainly driven by security concerns, but – since the Second Congo War – geopolitical and economic interests play an important, if not decisive role.

Rwanda’s trauma at the individual, community and regional level

Despite Rwanda having made remarkable socio-economic progress in the last 30 years, Rwandan society remains deeply affected by the consequences of genocide. While according to the 2020 Reconciliation Barometer significant progress in national reconciliation was made, there is still a long way to go in terms of individual and community resilience.

At the individual level, a significant part of Rwandans is still living with trauma. According to a 2018 study by the Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC) 20.5% of the Rwandan population was suffering from mental health problems, including depression, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among genocide survivors, the percentage is even higher with 52.5% suffering from mental health problems. 16.5% of young people born after the genocide were suffering from transgenerational trauma. Today, this situation remains largely unchanged. Young descendants of genocide survivors bear the scars of their parents' tragic past.

According to the experience of Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI), a Rwandan association that assists victims of the genocide, many descendants of genocide survivors experience panic attacks, sadness, flashbacks, severe anxiety, and unusual nightmares, especially during the commemoration period. Many also have a penchant for addictions. Unfortunately, most of them do not understand what triggers them and do not seek adequate help. Specialists thus recommend genocide survivors to talk to their children about their trauma so that they understand their triggers and symptoms. Indeed, many genocide survivors are still either reluctant or unable to share their painful stories. They are not aware that trauma can be passed on from one generation to another. However, despite their lack of knowledge of what exactly happened, descendants of genocide survivors consider themselves survivors as well as they also feel the burden of the suffering of their parents and relatives. Given this situation there is an urgent need for parents to sensitise their children to their trauma and to destigmatise therapy and mental health.

Young people whose parents committed the genocide also suffer the consequences of their parents' actions. They are afraid of how other people look at them and are deeply frustrated. They usually express feelings of unease and fear of being accused of crimes they did not commit. That’s why inclusive and protected spaces for expression and discussion among young people as well as intergenerational dialogue on the past are greatly needed.

At the collective level, communities are still struggling to find durable solutions to persisting challenges. Thus, communities are facing conflicts surrounding the process of restitution of looted or damaged property as well as unresolved grief due to bodies of genocide victims not yet being recovered. Moreover, communities have to deal with what is referred to as “genocide ideology”, domestic violence, and issues related to the reintegration of released prisoners into their families and communities. Women are the most likely to suffer from these problems and in many ways bear the burden of the consequences of Rwanda’s tragic past.

At the regional level, there is a real risk of a regional war – involving not just the DRC, Rwanda and their proxies, but possibly also other countries like Burundi. In the latest round of regional conflict, Rwanda has sent troops to fight alongside the "March 23 Movement" (M23). M23 is an armed group that took up arms against the Congolese government in November 2021 for the second time in 10 years and which purports to defend the interests of Congolese Tutsi. While the Rwandan government denies supporting M23, it does take issue with the DRC fighting against M23 in collaboration with the "Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda" (FDLR). FDLR is an armed group that is made up of remnants of genocide perpetrators. For the Rwandan government this collaboration is proof that the DRC’s government is not serious about regional security. For the Congolese government M23 pursues Rwandan interests which are said to be of an economic nature.

What’s next in the Great Lakes: war or peace?

The situation is marked by mutual hostility: the Congolese government is stressing the plight of the victims of the M23. The Rwandan government is emphasising security concerns and the discrimination of Congolese Tutsi. In this situation there seems to be no easy way out. Given the hostile rhetoric used by all parties to the conflict, the military build-up, and the involvement of more and more foreign troops – including most recently from Burundi –, it cannot be excluded that the conflict escalates into a regional war. To prevent this from happening, there not only needs to be a ceasefire but real peace negotiations in which the conflict parties’ and the affected populations interests are taken into account adequately. In order for this to happen international mediation efforts need to include members of civil society from all countries affected by the conflict.

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