Recently I visited my daughter, who is working for the year in Rwanda. For most people, if they have heard of Rwanda at all, it is due to the genocide that took place just a quarter century ago. Our visit was focused on my daughter and the country today, not the genocide, but the genocide is impossible to ignore. Today, only 25 years later, Rwanda has made great strides toward moving past the genocide and in doing so has established a model of coexistence that could be instructive to Israelis and Palestinians.
Historically, Rwanda had been settled and dominated by an ethnic group, the Hutu, who were primarily agricultural. Somewhat later, another ethnic group, the Tutsi, who were primarily herders, migrated into the region and came to dominate the Hutu. Some compare the structure of pre-modern Rwandan society to that of medieval Europe, with the aristocratic Tutsi ruling over the serf-like Hutus, even if there was some comingling and social movement in both directions. When the Germans arrived at the end of the 19th century and began to assert colonial control, they did what many empires have done all over the world: They began by ruling through the existing king and his ruling class, which in this case meant the Tutsi.
During World War I, the Belgians took control. As their power grew after the war, they continued to work with the Tutsi and favored the Tutsi in education and jobs in the colonial administration. Belgian rule continued and exploited Tutsi domination over the Hutu, but it didn’t create it. After World War II, as the decolonization movement swept the world, the Hutu elites began advocating not only for independence from Belgium but also freedom from Tutsi domination. As Rwanda moved toward independence in 1962 and then as a new state, communal tensions became violent, with riots and massacres on both sides. However, as the minority, the Tutsis generally got the worst of it. All societal forces led to emphasis of identity, and to repression of or resistance to the other group. Virtually no serious efforts were made toward reconciliation or mutual understanding.
This episodic virtual civil war culminated in the genocide of 1994, when masses of Hutus, in an organized campaign, systematically killed an estimated 1 million people in just four months. The vast majority of the victims were Tutsi, but Hutus who defended Tutsis were also killed. Ultimately, a Tutsi rebel army gained control of the country and of the government. Their successors remain in control today.
You might expect to hear that the Tutsis turned the tables on the Hutus, or that the two groups remain locked in bitter enmity today. But that’s not the case. In just one generation, the leaders of Rwanda seem to have forged a unified society, where Hutu and Tutsi identities have become a new Rwandan identity, and the past is acknowledged but doesn’t dominate the present. What dominates the present is building a better society for the future.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a real gem. Besides the main exhibits about Rwanda, it also includes small exhibits about other recent genocides, including the Holocaust. It also wisely cautions that, although different genocides may share some features, each is unique in important ways. In the section describing the origins of the Rwandan genocide, it seemed to downplay the centuries of Hutu-Tutsi tensions and to emphasize the role of the Belgians in building upon those enmities. However, the exhibits certainly don’t shy away from the horrid nature of the actual genocide and its aftermath, imparting two messages consistent with the government’s strategy for healing Rwandan society: first, that the results of letting hatreds go unchecked are so horrible we can never let that happen again, and second, that Hutus and Tutsis shouldn’t hate each other for the genocide and all that preceded it — the real culprits are the foreigners, the Belgians, who conveniently aren’t there anymore. Through this strategy, the government shifts the blame away from groups in its society toward an outside, third party, enabling its citizens to move beyond the hatreds of the past.
Later, when talking to a former senior government official, I asked him how Rwanda treated the genocide in its educational system. He replied, “Not very extensively,” in part because people in the government couldn’t agree on how to present it. I thought that was consistent with the museum’s strategy of trying to minimize ethnic tensions by deflecting history. Some might argue that they are abrogating their responsibility in the educational system, but I think it might be the most practical way to let the society move forward at this time while everything is so fresh.
I couldn’t help thinking about all of this in light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m not suggesting that the situation in Rwanda is the same as the situation in the former British mandate, but I do think there are valuable lessons to be learned.
Focusing on past horrors and injustices, whether real or exaggerated, simply can’t help peoples or their leaders make peace and build some form of mutual coexistence. Both sides have to have some willingness to let go of the past, and perhaps blur it in some cases, in order to focus on humanizing the other and building a better future. Under any circumstances, it is extremely difficult for victims, perpetrators, their relatives and their descendants to live in close proximity, and it is impossible to do so if the governments, the media and the educational systems are constantly reminding everyone of crimes and injustices, and keeping the hatreds and the fears ever fresh and alive.
Unfortunately, that is not the path of government or most societal leaders in Israel, the Palestinian territories and their respective diasporas, who virtually all focus on grievances and blame, ancient history and recent events. Moreover, the structure of Jewish and Arab societies, geography and security concerns limit the opportunities for the two peoples to interact directly in meaningful ways, and to get to know each other as neighboring human beings. Programs or policy changes that might facilitate more interactions get short shrift from political leaders on all sides. Instead, the political leaders mostly focus on grand political solutions for the endgame without doing anything to make any final resolution at all feasible.
Rwanda’s watchwords are pragmatism and looking to the future. In the Middle East the watchwords are ideological purity and remembering the past. We could all learn something from Rwanda. pjc
Jim Busis is the CEO and publisher of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.