Featured image: Graffiti by Kurema, Kureba, Kwiga, a public-arts social enterprise in Rwanda.
By Deena Mousa
In recent years, media outlets have been filled with images of wave after wave of refugees from war-torn countries seeking safety – on rafts aimed for far away shores, or filing seemingly-endless asylum requests. Footage of these refugees is frequently accompanied by scrolling headlines on the dire state of their homeland. We have become all but numb to those images. They’ve inculcated a belief that refugees are merely objects of their circumstances – numerous, faceless, and suffering. That they are without agency, waiting for our help. This view ignores the resilience and diversity of experience present within those fleeing their homelands. If there is a place where that is on display most clearly, it is in Rwanda.
Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa have lived in Rwanda since the 16thcentury – where a small kingdom ruled by the Tutsi minority clan persisted until the arrival of European colonialists. During this time, social differences between Hutus and Tutsis were present – Hutus grew crops, while Tutsis typically farmed livestock – but identification as one group or the other was fluid. While physical appearance corresponded somewhat with affiliation, the difference between the two groups was not always immediately apparent because of intermarriage as well as the common culture and language. They were considered one people.
In tracing tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, one must begin with colonialism. Ruling over Rwanda, Germany – and later Belgium – assumed that ethnicity could be clearly distinguished by physical characteristics and then used the ethnic differences found in their own countries as models to create a system where Hutus and Tutsis were identified by physical characteristics and labelled with identification cards. They pursued a policy of indirect rule that strengthened the hegemony of the Tutsi ruling class and the absolutism of its monarchy.
Following independence, Tutsis remained a symbol of colonial oppression for the Hutus – who won the country’s first elections in 1961 easily due to their much larger population. The regime that followed was staunchly Hutu nationalist, and violence between Hutus and Tutsis became commonplace.
As violence and discrimination escalated, Ugandan-based refugees-turned-rebels that called themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fought back against the government from 1990 to 1993. By early 1994, many Hutu extremists had decided that the real problem was Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. They began organizing armed paramilitary gangs and training them to prepare to wipe out Tutsi civilians. When then-President Habyarimana was killed – by rebel Tutsis or by more extreme Hutus – Hutu ethnic supremacists saw it as a green light to begin their planned extermination campaign.
The next day, April 7th1994, the killing began. Hutu militias went neighborhood to neighborhood slaughtering Tutsis with guns and machetes. The militias were horrifyingly efficient, using a radio station to coordinate the beginnings of the campaign around the country and to tell people where “the graves were not quite yet full.”[i]
The day after the genocide began, the Tutsi rebel group RPF, led by Paul Kagame, launched an offensive aimed at toppling the Rwandan government. In about one hundred days, the RPF defeated the government forces. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in that span.
Kagame’s regime faced no shortage of challenges in putting the country together after the violence it had faced – not to mention more practical challenges, like creating a nation that could withstand the influx of returning refugees. To this day, media outlets debate whether his Rwanda is a success story or just another authoritarian state.
There, however, the refugee controls the government, rather than fleeing from it. They are political agents in the most acute sense. Having returned to their homeland, they shaped their country’s destiny – steering it from an ethnic cleansing to a climate-conscious hub for entrepreneurs. That is the legacy Rwanda has operated under for the past twenty-five years. It reflects in not only the practical realities of how the country is governed, but also the political conscious of the nation. What is, in most cases, the forgotten narrative has become the dominant one – taught in all schools by law. Reflecting on what the RPF means for how we see refugees, this may be one of the most profound affects Rwanda can have on public discourse and on common conceptions of what it means to be a refugee.
Deena Mousa is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.