Rwanda 20 Years Later

This spring students in HIS/POS324G Human Rights in International History have joined me in contributing to a course blog — responding to readings, continuing in-class discussions, and commenting on current events. While access to that blog is limited to members of the course, I thought I’d share this morning’s post: which I wrote both in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and as a kind of Good Friday reflection.   (Chris Gehrz)

This month the small African country of Rwanda is marking the twentieth anniversary of one of the most brutal, rapid genocides in history. In barely 100 days, 800,000 Rwandans died in April-July 1994 — nearly 20% of the entire population, including as many as three in four of the country’s Tutsi ethnic group. (In addition, tens of thousands were maimed and remain “living records” of this terrible episode in Rwandan history, as this New Republic photo essay memorably demonstrates.)

The official commemoration has not been without tension. France did not take part in an international commemorative ceremony in Kigali, after Rwandan president Paul Kagame (who ended the genocide in 1994 by leading a Tutsi invasion from Uganda) renewed his accusation that the French had helped train the Hutu militia largely responsible for the slaughter.

And Kagame’s own government has received mixed evaluations, as The Guardian pointed out:

Paul Kagame
Paul Kagame – World Economic Forum

Kagame has won praise for pulling his country out of the worst spell of violence the world has seen in decades. His government has advanced women’s rights, economic development and health care. But critics say progress has been marred by the government’s authoritarian grip on control with many government critics and opposition members killed.

Human Rights Watch says civil and political rights in the country remain severely curtailed. It has condemned attacks on Rwandan government critics in exile.

In its own report for the anniversary, HRW was largely admiring in its conclusion: “Twenty years on, significant progress has been achieved in bringing some of the perpetrators to justice, both nationally and internationally. The combination of national and international action to end impunity for the genocide in Rwanda has also marked a turning point in the development of justice for international crimes more broadly.” Nonetheless, it called for reforms of the country’s justice system, “with a view to further strengthening its independence, and to enable those who suffered serious miscarriages of justice—whether defendants or survivors of the genocide—to seek a review of their cases within a reasonable period.”

Whether there is indeed “justice after genocide” will be an open question for us to explore at the end of April and into early May. We’ll consider systems of retributive justice, but also at more “restorative” approaches that rest on a mix of truth-telling, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

As we enter the Easter weekend and look for hope in the shadow of the Cross, I thought I’d close with the story of Steven Gahigi. Over fifty members of his extended family died in 1994, but Gahigi became a Christian pastor (about 94% of Rwandans are Christian) with a unique flock: convicted génocidaires in Rwandan prisons. (130,000 of them at the peak in 1998; now 36,000.) In Tim Townshend’s recent CNN story about such pastors (and the larger problem of whether there can be forgiveness for genocide), he shares Gahigi’s story of being called to this remarkable ministry:

Rwandan genocide memorial
Rwandan genocide memorial – Creative Commons (ConfigManager)

He had a dream about a mob beating Jesus as he hung on the cross. A voice told Gahigi, “Those people beating Jesus are the ones Jesus helped. They killed your countrymen and your family, but you can help them.”

When he woke up, he was crying.

“I cried all night, but when the crying stopped, I felt light and love,” Gahigi said.

He believed then that he had the power to forgive and to help others forgive. He began preaching reconciliation, and he sought out the prisoners who killed his family.

“That was Jesus’ mission,” Gahigi told me. “To forgive the sins of all men.”

After Kagimi’s story (also told in 2011 by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries), Townshend observes that “Christians believe God has already forgiven them, atoned for their sins in the crucifixion of Jesus. But that concept must be strained by genocide.” Do you think there can be forgiveness or redemption after a “radical evil” like genocide? Is there justice for such crimes? (Are justice and forgiveness interconnected, or in opposition to each other?)


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