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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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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