“People Never Talk”: Imposed silences and narratives – the challenges of reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda

In the field of conflict and peace studies, Rwanda often stands out. Not only was the hundred-day genocide extremely bloody and destructive but José Kagabo describes the massacres as a “genocide of proximity” because perpetrators, including ordinary citizens, turned against friends, neighbours, colleagues, and even family members. Today, both groups live in close quarters and this does not come as a choice. As one Rwandan explained, the reality of life on the hills demands coexistence: “(…) we don’t have any choice. If we don’t live together the genocide will start again.”[1]



            Almost twenty years after the 1994 genocide that killed almost one million Tutsis (and Hutu moderates), how strong are the divisions between the two communities? Would you be able to live next the man or woman who killed your family members?  In post-conflict countries, dealing with broken relationships between antagonistic parties is a central challenge. But it has been also described by conflict resolution scholar Bar-Siman-Tov as “probably the most significant condition” for sustainable and stable peace. The Rwandan government, now led by President Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), has taken a multifaceted approach to solve ethnic divisions and achieve sustainable peace. The singularity of the Rwandan approach is an interesting case of state intervention in post-conflict reconciliation. But what does reconciliation mean after genocide? To rebuild mutual ties, how does one deal with the contentious past and ethnic divisions, and address human rights violations? Obviously, reconciliation is context-dependent – there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all peace-building mechanism. It entails not simply tensions and setbacks, but certain reconciliation practices can also have contradictory effects.

            In terms of economic growth, the Rwandan government has made important progress: with an average annual growth rate of 7.7% in 2012, the country is embracing various development plans and investing in new technologies as it seeks to become the “Singapore of Africa”. International donors and foreign affairs analysts describe the country’s reconstruction as a “success story” and see the RPF-led government “as one of the more efficient and honest ones in Africa.” Yet is economic development sufficient? War continues in the minds of individuals long after formal and structural arrangements have been instituted. The 2010 presidential elections were marred by repressive government measures and several cases of violence committed by a rising number of dissenters. While it is too early to make concrete conclusions about the country’s future, several pre-genocide trends and tensions seem to be perpetuating in post-genocide Rwanda.

            To achieve unity and reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutus, the post-genocide Rwandan government has not only insisted on holding perpetrators accountable, but has sought to change the way Rwandans perceive themselves, the past and the causes of the genocide. Rwanda’s history has long been manipulated by those in power in order to create divisions. It is therefore now argued that a truthful history will benefit justice and reconciliation. To do so the state has sought to control narratives around Rwandan identity and ethnicity, as well as the history and memory of the genocide. The state has imposed a canonical narrative, an official “truthful” account of Rwandan history in order to undermine dualistic ethnic identities and forge a collective Rwandan consciousness. The regime portrays pre-colonial Rwanda as a harmonious society shattered by Western intruders (colonizers) and divisive national politics and discourses (Hutu leaders). In the end, the RPF intervened to stop the genocide when no one else would. In a way, the state is re-educating Rwandans about their past. While there is truth in the way the regime portrays Rwanda’s past, as Catherine and David Newbury rightly argue, “it is politics that makes ethnicity important (…)”.[2] While Rwanda’s attempt to move beyond ethnic identities is highly welcomed, I would argue that the regime’s the history as told by the government remains subjective. This meticulous narrative management and selective remembering based on practices of imposed silences, actually tend to perpetuate ethnic categories by creating ethnicized, dichotomous categories of victims and perpetrators. It also prevents the emergence of constructive dialogue essential to reconciliation. By silencing alternative voices, power also remains in the hands of a small government and military elite. Eventually, this can have risky effects on ethnic consciousness and reconciliation. While security concerns justify restricted civil rights in democratizing post-conflict societies, as institutions and leaders shape public discourse and identities, power-sharing, representation and social justice are nonetheless crucial to reconciliation.


             Furthermore, while the official discourse promotes unity, in practice, other government narratives and practices have silenced critics and alternative experiences deemed threatening. The government’s claim to reveal the truth should be questioned as post-genocide judicial mechanisms (including the traditions Gacaca courts), the genocide ideology and divisionism laws, as well as memorials and commemorations have been manipulated and politicized to control what is officially remembered and forgotten. For example, many reconciliation policies focus only the genocide committed by Hutus against Tutsis, thus blotting out from national memory human rights violations committed by the RPF against genocide suspects, Hutu civilians during the genocide while defending Tutsis, and contemporary abuses committed against legitimate critics.  In Rwanda, the perceived lack of social justice combined with feelings of exclusion, victimhood and fear of being accused – wrongly or justly – perpetuate mistrust between communities and prevent a reassessment of identities. These government practices as well as surveys conducted among Rwandans, show that ethnic consciousness and tensions remain present. The heavy-handed control over public debate has led one Rwandan to state that “it is the fear that stays in people’s head.”[3] Another one stated “keeping quiet over an existing problem does not provide a solution.”[4] Authoritarian, top-down practices and rigid control over public debate and discourse can be detrimental to reconciliation as dialogue around ethnicity and the genocide is repressed. This could make the ground rife for renewed conflict. My aim here is to say that there is a discrepancy between the government’s original strategy/discourse of unity and what it does in practice.

              Reconciliation is a long-term process – it is too early to say whether the country will relapse into conflict. Yet, one Rwandan recently asserted that “[…] people never talk because it brings back bad memories and problems. We pretend in does not exist.”[5] Such a statement seems enough ground for concern and, as Rwanda tries to break away with its violent past, a new and participatory approach should be endorsed. It may be time of to talk instead of silencing, or peace on Rwanda’s hills will remain pretended.


[1] Buckley-Zistel (2008), ‘We are pretending peace: Local Memory and the Absence of Social Transformation and Reconciliation in Rwanda’, in Phil Clark and Zachary D. Kaufman, eds., After Genocide Transitional Justice, Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Reconciliation in Rwanda and Beyond (London: Hurst Publishers), p.138

[2] Newbury, Catherine and David (1995), ‘Identity, Genocide, and Reconstruction in Rwanda’, Paper prepared for the Conference on Les Racines de la Violence dans la Region des Grands Lacs, Parlement Europeen, Bruxelles, 12-13 Janvier 1995, pg. 16

[3] Longman, Timothy and Rutagengwa, Théoneste (2004), ‘Memory, identity and community in Rwanda’, in Eric Stover and Harvey M. Weinstein, eds., My Neighbor, My Enemy. Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)


[4] Freedman, Sarah Warshauer, Deo Kambanda, Beth Lewis Samuelson, Innocent Mugisha, Immaculee Mukashema, Evode Mukama, Jean Mutabaruka, Harvey M. Weinstein and Timothy Longman (2004), ‘Confronting the past in Rwandan schools’, in Eric Stover and Harvey M. Weinstein, eds., My Neighbor, My Enemy. Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)p.258

[5] Buckley-Zistel, Susanne (2006b), ‘Remembering to forget: chosen amnesia as a strategy for local coexistence in post-genocide Rwanda’, Africa, 76 (2), p.141


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