On Sunday April 22nd, Rwandans woke up to the news that four mass graves were discovered containing thousands of victims of the Rwandan genocide. This discovery of these graves forces the country’s 11.92 million citizens to once again address one of the most horrific events on African soil.
The Rwandan genocide
The horrific Rwandan genocide occurred during the end of the Rwandan Civil War, which began in 1990 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, crossed the Ugandan-Rwanda border to oust then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s government. Colonial rule in Rwanda came to an end in 1959, and the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis ensued thereafter. The Hutu-led government forced many Tutsis, who later joined the RPF, to flee to Uganda. While in Uganda, not only did the RPF members help President Yoweri Museveni ascend to power but also created contingency plans to defeat the oppressive Hutu government.
The Rwandan genocide began on April 6th, 1994 when a plane conveying President Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down by unknown assailants. Hutu extremists quickly blamed the RPF for the attack. The death of the President, a native Hutu, ensured the death sentence of thousands of mainly Tutsi Rwandans. Within 100 days, through orders given by Hutu political elite, over 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus had been killed and buried in mass graves similar to those recently discovered. The genocide resulted in the annihilation of approximately 70 % of Tutsi and 30% of the Pygmy Batwa populations.
The mass graves
The mass graves are located close to the Kigali Genocide Memorial where approximately 250,000 victims are buried. The location of the mass graves is also close to where a Hutu-manned roadblock was established. According to the genocide survivors organisation, Ibuka, they suspect 2000 to 3000 individuals to be buried in those four mass graves. Post-Rwandan genocide, people built houses, toilets and other household structures on the site, unaware of the mass graves underneath. Once the mass graves were discovered, many survivors congregated at the mass graves to find out whether their loved ones are among the discovered bodies. So far, Theogen Kabagambire, an Ibuka official, stated that only 363 bodies have been exhumed from two mass graves.
The discovery of the mass graves comes just two weeks since Rwandans came together to commemorate the anniversary of the genocide. The unearthing of such graves brings up many difficult questions. The deputy director of the Simon-Sjjodt Center for the prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Naomi Kikoler, stated that the discovery of mass graves 24 years after the atrocious events raises the question of whether there are other mass graves and why people haven’t disclosed their locations. In an interview with the Associated Press, Grace Mukanagazwa, a genocide survivor, agrees with Kikoler’s sentiments and added that “those who participated in the killing of our relatives don’t want to tell us where they buried them. How can you reconcile with such people?”
Additionally, the discovery of the mass graves also is a reminder of the fact that there are still people who participated in the genocide, many who fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and later to the West, who have not been punished for their participation. In fact, earlier this month, Philippe Hategekimana, a former Rwandan policeman, was arrested in Cameroon on suspicion of involvement in the genocide. His arrest came just less than a week after French magistrates specializing in crimes against humanity issued an international warrant for his arrest. It is believed that Mr Hategekimana fled to France after the genocide, where he gained French citizenship and changed his name to Philippe Manier.
Following the creation of the Interim Rwandan government in 1994 following the end of the genocide, Rwanda is viewed as the darling of the international community. Genocide credit, the idea that the international powers are more likely to overlook atrocities committed by a country that has suffered an atrocious event due to the guilt of not interceding quickly enough, largely explains the way international powers and international organisations deal with Rwanda. Genocide credit coupled with the international community’s satisfaction with their perceived success of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and Gacaca court proceedings has allowed Kagame to create a minority-led dictatorship. The praised successes of the Gacaca courts, which are hailed as a great example of African solutions for African problems, has been called into question by scholars such as Sarkin, A Corey and SF Joireman who have argued that the courts have been used to prosecute Kagame’s potential adversaries. The law states that anyone who was found guilty by the judges, who had connections with the Rwandan government, cannot run for any political office. Therefore, if the official investigation launched by the government leads to arrests, it is more likely driven by politics rather than justice.