It is now 16 years since the genocide in Rwanda claimed close to one million lives in a country dominated by two ethnic groups; the Hutu and Tutsi. Last week ceremonies were held in Kigali and Kampala to remember the fallen victims. GERALD BAREEBE attended the function in Uganda:-
“The warning signs were there, and preparations for it were deliberate but nothing was done to stop it from happening,” a visibly frustrated Rwandan Ambassador to Uganda, Mr Frank Mugambaje, told a crowd which had gathered at Kasensero for the commemoration of 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Last week the Rwandan embassy in Uganda ferried mourners from Kampala to Kasensero in Rakai District where bodies of nearly 11,000 genocide victims that floated more than 100 miles downriver were buried. These bodies were thrown into Rwanda’s Nyabarongo River, which feeds into the Kagera River.
In 1994, residents of Kasensero retrieved and buried the bodies along the shores of Lake Victoria in a tranche of six large makeshift mass graves and numerous smaller graves. Some of the graves were made of concrete; others were shallow and covered only by shrubbery.
Rwanda’s dark history of genocide, which started in April 1994 and lasted only 100 days, left 800,000 Tutsi and some moderate Hutus were slaughtered.
Even for a country with such a turbulent history as Rwanda, the scale and speed of the slaughter left its people reeling.
Since the genocide, Rwanda’s efficient, imaginative and relatively incorrupt government has acquired many admirers, especially from the west who are impressed by its efforts to play down differences between Hutu and Tutsi, its encouraging investment climate and how it is plugging money into development that has spurred the country’s economic development significantly.
Mr Isaac Musumba, Uganda’s Minister for Regional Cooperation who was the chief guest at the commemoration, was quick to point out this. He praised the regime in Kigali for having achieved a lot in streamlining co-existence, mutual cooperation and economic recovery since 1994.
“With what you have achieved, you should not tolerate or condone any kind of speech that promotes hatred. These are crimes against humanity which should be fought,” Mr Musumba said.
“Uganda and Rwanda are like siblings who have a lot in common. We have stayed together, lived together and intermarried. What affects you affects us too.”
Rwanda was also praised for having introduced the policy of reconciliation in its system of education camps, or ingando, where students and other young people attend courses in military training and Rwandan history.
MP Matthias Kasamba, a member of the committee that is working on permanent burial sites for the genocide victims in Uganda, said the genocide must be documented to provide the young generation with clear information of this dark history.
“This burial centre becomes a living testimony especially for young people who did not see what happened. My message today is that; let it never happened again. And for us leaders, it is a serious leadership challenge because it is us who engineered and re-engineered it,” Mr Kasamba said.
Many activities were organised to mark the genocide day. They included marching by students and other members of Rwandan Community at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, music, dance and drama, and finally a genocide documentary eclipsed the function.
For over five years now, thousands of Hutus have been brought face-to-face with survivors and their families in the local tribunals. These courts, or gacaca, as they are locally known, have sentenced many individuals who participated in genocide for long terms in jail, although many Rwandans accuse them of being too lenient, perhaps as they struggle to promote reconciliation among those who still live alongside their victims’ families.
Despite progress in reconciliation, the trauma still hangs over the country. Analysts say it could affect the presidential election due August, 2010.
President Kagame, who led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which swept in from exile in Uganda in 1994 to drive out the genocidaires, has put down tough penalties for anyone attempting to exploit lingering suspicion between Hutu and Tutsi.
This has attracted a lot of criticism from the pro-democracy activists, especially from the west, who fear that this is a calculated move to curb on free speech.
Praised for turning around Rwanda’s economy from grass to grace, Mr Kagame used the national commemoration in Kigali, to criticise Rwanda’s foreign critics for trying to dictate what his country wants.
He was quoted by Rwanda’s New Times to have said that the country’s past history has helped it to know better what it wants more than anyone else. According to President Kagame, what happened in 1994 was a result of bad national and international politics which will not happen again because Rwanda has learnt from its past.
“The convergence of bad national politics and bad international politics resulted into what we commemorate today,” Mr Kagame was quoted to have said. “We have no power to change bad international politics, but, we as Rwandans have the power to change bad politics of our country and that is where we should concentrate.” “As we pray and as we express our sorrow and sadness, we also have to come out with our heads high and raised and with absolute commitment that we can shape our future - a better future that our people deserve and it is within us to achieve.”
He accused foreigners, who, under the pretext of human rights and freedoms, meddle into Rwanda’s politics by propagating claims of abuse of rights, lack of political space and freedom of expression among other blatant lies about the government.
“These fellows abuse people. They abuse me. They draw cartoons, they call me Hitler. I’m not bothered at all. I just hold them in contempt, that is all,” Mr Kagame is quoted to have said. “You are even free to abuse people, and you turn around to complain that you have no freedom to express yourself!” Mr Kagame added.