Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Wednesday, 8 April 2009 13:33 UK

Rwanda's ghosts refuse to be buried

Fifteen years after the start of the Rwandan genocide, the country is still battling with its demons, author Gerard Prunier writes for BBC Focus on Africa magazine.

Machetes from the Rwandan genocide
Machetes were used to slaughter many thousands of people

The ghosts still wander in the hills above the Great Lakes, both in Rwanda itself and in the neighbouring Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Like most ghosts, they are very much alive.

They are the survivors of a horror they will never manage to forget - those the Rwandans call "bapfuye buhagazi" or "the walking dead".

These are the girls who had abortions after being raped by the interahamwe (the Hutu militia which carried out the killings), the widows, the mothers who saw their children slaughtered before their eyes, the children who grew up after seeing their parents die, the killers haunted by remorse and the killers who feel no remorse at all.

The ghosts are also the bystanders who pretended there was nothing they could do, the innocents later unjustly accused of murder, the guilty perpetrators who fear discovery and those who are known and who are blackmailed, the Hutu refugees who never came home and who still live in DR Congo, the Tutsi refugees from the Congo who fled the massacres there and who still linger in Rwandan camps, the madmen and the broken women.

In many ways, the perpetrators of the genocide have succeeded.

They have managed to encase the whole country in a gigantic airless bubble where everybody pretends that life goes on but where, in many ways, it actually stopped on 7 April 1994.

Skulls from the Rwandan genocide

6 April: Rwandan Hutu President Habyarimana killed when plane shot down
April-July: An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed
July: Tutsi-led rebel movement RPF captures Rwanda's capital Kigali
July: Two million Hutus flee to Zaire, now DR Congo

The perpetrators have never apologised. In fact, no truth and reconciliation commission based on the South African model has been offered to them, where the real perpetrators are actually present and can be cross-examined.

The substitute is the largely artificial structure of the gacaca courts - set up by the Rwandan government based on a system of community justice.

Here the perpetrators and innocents are mixed together.

The denunciators themselves are often guilty and those who attend seem more interested in staying on the good side of the present regime than on actually delving into the dark labyrinths of the past.

The perpetrators have also imposed their ethnic logic on the new regime - described by some as a dictatorship - where any mention of the word "Tutsi" or "Hutu" is strictly forbidden by law.

This means that any lucid examination of the relationship between Tutsi and Hutu before, during and after the genocide is now impossible.

It is like discussing an infectious disease without being allowed to use the words "germ" or "contagion".

Rwanda is now locked into an ideological straight-jacket providing a relentless and official interpretation of history from which all shades of meaning have been sanitised.

Belated atonement

Which brings us to the second lot of ghosts - those who live far away from the Great Lakes in the Western world.

Guilt has kept the West fixated on the genocide:

• Guilt of the Belgian colonisers who were vaguely suspected of having contributed to this mess through their old colonial policies

• Guilt of the French government which had supported some of the worst excesses of the Hutu regime beyond the normal limits of political alliance

• Guilt of the Americans who had refused to use their capacity for military intervention when it was called for

• Finally guilt of the international community when the United Nations compounded its initial blindness by displaying a massive case of multilateral cowardice.

In response, and much like in the case of the Holocaust in Europe, there has been a pronounced move towards belated atonement in the West.

The result has been predictable. Governments from London to Washington have rallied to the new regime of President Paul Kagame without looking too closely at its behaviour.

A backlash of this is a rancid wave of revisionist literature - casting doubts on the scale of the genocide - that has begun to wash ashore, particularly in France and French-speaking Africa.

Pursuer of truth

The tragedy of this situation has been perfectly embodied in the life of the late Alison Des Forges, a campaigner who died in February in a plane crash in the United States.

Aison Des Forges in 2005
Alison Des Forges raised awkward questions for Rwanda's regime

Des Forges was a specialist in the history of Rwanda whose mission to the country with Eric Gillet of the International Federation for Human Rights in 1992 had drawn attention to the Bugesera massacres. These killings were a dress rehearsal for the horror to follow in 1994.

Later she proved to be one of the most relentless pursuers of truth about the genocide, eventually producing Leave None to Tell the Story - an exhaustive compendium on the massacres published by Human Rights Watch.

At the time she was criticised by some vocal elements for being a Tutsi stooge, particularly when she testified at the UN war crimes tribunal in Arusha.

But she later began to look more closely at the record of the new government.

During the course of this she discovered that the 1994 Gersony Report - which the UN had initially commissioned to reassure Rwandan refugees that Mr Kagame's new regime was innocuous - had in fact been telling the truth when it spoke of 30,000 Hutu deaths attributable to the "good guys" in the immediate aftermath of the genocide.

This led her to explore the shrinking political space in Rwanda, the choking of human rights and the increasingly authoritarian bent of the now exclusively Tutsi regime.

She talked to the government's new opponents (some of them moderate Tutsis) and chronicled the massive violations of human rights that were taking place in the name of political normalisation.

She was denounced by the new regime as a "genocide sympathiser" and accused of prejudice and factual manipulation. Shortly before her death she had become persona non grata in Kigali.

One film about Rwanda shot shortly after the genocide is called The Dead are Alive. Such is the power of what happened there that nobody can ignore or exploit the genocide unchallenged.

This the Rwanda survivors know and a number of observers like Des Forges knew.

The ghosts of Rwanda refuse to be buried.

Gerard Prunier is the author of From Genocide to Continental War: The 'Congolese' Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa

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