Sexual Violence and the Rwandan Genocide: Kagame Stands in the Way of Healing

The UN is striving to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence and one of the key steps to achieving this lofty goal is to get an understanding of the scale and repercussions of rape and sexual assault during war.

A particular case in point is Rwanda where, 25 years after its brutal genocide, thousands of young adults are still unsure of who their fathers are. Why? Because their mothers were raped during the orgy of violence that accompanied the mass killings.

After Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana (an ethnic Hutu) was killed when his plane was shot down on the 6th April 1994, all hell let loose. In the conventional telling – one propagated by the ‘liberating’ forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – 800,000 Tutsis and ‘moderate’ Hutus were murdered in the following 100 days by extremist Hutu forces. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped – some multiple times.

By the end of the genocide there were mass graves everywhere

Of course, with anything so horrific there is complexity to the story. Whilst Tutsis were the majority victims of the genocide, they were by no means the only ones. There is good evidence to indicate that ‘extremist’ Hutus, too, were massacred by forces loyal to the RPF.

Since 1994, the RPF has ruled Rwanda virtually unopposed. Current President Paul Kagame has been the leader since 2000, the de-facto ruler for the six preceding years. Kagame is a darling of the international community for bringing stability to Rwanda so quickly after the genocide.

Whilst a not inconsiderable feat, this has come at a cost to many ordinary Rwandans. RPF loyalists and the urban elite have prospered. The rural poor have stayed poor. What’s more, they are under constant surveillance from a vast network of government employees and volunteers, who are required to report on any sign of dissent or transgression, however minor.

Kagame has become increasingly dictatorial

Kagame has been steadfast in his denial that the RPF were responsible for any atrocities during the genocide, repeating that they used violence only to halt the extremist Hutus from wiping out the Tutsis. But his subsequent pursuit of the fleeing Hutus into neighbouring countries (particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo) after the genocide (the Génocidaires) suggests otherwise.

Now a dictator in all but name, Kagame’s intransigence further scuppers the hopes of thousands of Rwandans from ever being able to identify their birth fathers. For how could it be a Tutsi when the violence of the genocide was only perpetrated by one ethnic group, namely the Hutu?

The majority of Rwandans rely on the land for their subsistence and income: few have seen real benefits during Kagame’s tenure

The events of 1994 transpired with such an unprecedented rapidity that nobody will ever know the whole truth. Much will have been lost in the bloodshed and the mayhem. To deny survivors some respite in their long-term suffering is avoidable, yet Kagame persists. With the support of the world behind him, he has been allowed to create a corrupt and authoritarian regime that would not be tolerated elsewhere.

If the UN is to succeed, it must start calling to account recalcitrant leaders such as Kagame. Without the pressure to reform his historical narrative, the pain of the Rwandan genocide will, for many, persist indefinitely.

Further Reading

Thomson, S. Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace (2018)

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Japan’s Historical Amnesia: the Uncomfortable Void of World War Two

There are numerous reasons to visit Japan; the culture, the temples, the food, the scenery, the people. Of course, there is also the fascinating history and, prior to travelling there, I was intrigued about how one particular period would be remembered.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

Japan’s role in World War Two (WWII) needs little introduction. An opportunistic aggressor, the Imperial Army rampaged through Southeast Asia, upsetting British colonial forces at every step. The attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 stunned the world and the invasion, and subsequent occupation, of China and Korea made the Japanese synonymous with barbarism.

Article 9 of Japan’s American-constructed post-WWII constitution renounces the right to wage war.  Despite some revisionist calls, it is still generally accepted by the vast majority of the population, perhaps a tacit understanding that this is a just punishment for wartime aggression.

Visit museums and other cultural centres in Japan itself, however, and there is little discussion of such painful memories. The pre-occupation is, somewhat understandably, with the devastation of the atomic bombs and their deadly aftermath. The peace museums at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively convey the numbing annihilation. It is hard to catch your breath walking past exhibits of fire-shredded clothing, molten glass and steel, the harrowing images of unimaginable injuries and the desolate moonscape of the razed cities.

No wonder that the Japanese are among the most pacifistic nations in the world. They have seen the worst of war. But unlike the Germans, who acknowledge the crimes of WWII with open public monuments such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the Japanese internalise their shame.

Officially the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

Even at Hiroshima and Nagasaki there is limited discussion of why the Allies decided to deploy the atomic bombs, even if there is no suggestion that it was an act of unprovoked aggression. At the Museum of History in Osaka, on the other hand, WWII is barely mentioned. This vitally-important industrial city was reduced to ruins by Allied bombings. Yet a single exhibit of an American incendiary bomb is the only indication that something happened between the years of 1931 and 1945, a period glossed over as ’15 years of war’.

Osaka after the bombing; reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Most astonishing, however, is the Yushukan Museum at the notorious Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Housing an impressive collection of personal possessions and paraphernalia relating to the country’s military past, the narrative (at least in English) absolves Japan of any responsibility for WWII (or other wars for that matter). The invasion of China was caused by local nationalists, the assault on the Pacific a few years later was necessary because of Britain and America’s monopolisation of the region’s natural resources. How could Japan survive without a patriotic assault on its ‘inferior’ neighbours?

Yasukuni Shrine was built in the 19th century to commemorate Japan’s war dead. In addition to thousands of ‘innocents’, it enshrines convicted war criminals, including Japan’s wartime leader Hideki Tojo. As such, it is a nationalist bastion amidst the traditional sea of pacifism. Whenever a Japanese politician visits the Shrine, China and Korea go up in arms. I had never previously understood this response from afar. Could they not let sleeping dogs lie? Well no…not if a museum of such prominence denies any complicity in these countries’ darkest hours.

Entrance to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

I have never been an advocate for eternal shame. I do not believe that a country’s politicians should continually apologise for their predecessors’ actions. This does not allow progress.

But to not acknowledge misdeeds, to fail to offer any comprehensive statement of remorse, to engage in school textbook revisionism more reminiscent of a dictatorship than a leading democracy, naturally invites criticism. The Jewish Museum in Munich does not shy away from the Nazi-inspired Holocaust. I encountered no such open dialogue of the ‘Rape of Nanking’, the ‘Bataan Death March’ or Unit 731 in Japan.

Japanese propaganda vans driving through Ueno, Tokyo

It is often said that the Japanese people harbour a collective ‘war guilt’ that has dictated the country’s post-war development (i.e. a focus on economic development over international engagement). There is no reason why this sentiment should be maintained in perpetuity. Indeed, as very real threats emerge on Japan’s periphery, namely a rising China and a nuclearised North Korea, the country must change its outlook.

In order to satisfy its former enemies (and allies) that a Japanese re-engagement with the world is a positive development then surely a more public introspection of its wartime past is first necessary?  For all the horrors of the atomic bombings, Japan’s actions in the preceding years made this tragic conclusion almost inevitable. After decades of silence, it will now take a bold step to concede this reality.

A warship in port at Nagasaki: the Japanese military still retains a muted role in global affairs

P.S. I should add that the above does not detract from the unbounded pleasure of visiting Japan and meeting its people.