Creating a Rwanda for Rwandese

Himself a near victim of genocide, Rev. Rutiyisire, Vice Chairman of the Rwandan National Unity and Reconciliation Commission tells Chandani Kirinde how a country and its people are recovering from the wounds of a brutal war.

Rev. Rutiyisire: ‘We are educating our children for peace’ building a generation that understands each other’. Pic by Athula Devapriya

It was just 17 years ago that the world witnessed the genocide in Rwanda, one of the worst seen in modern times. While the rest of the world saw the images flash across their television screens, Rev. Antoine Rutiyisire lived through the nightmare, witnessing unimaginable scenes, as nearly a million people were massacred in a short span of 100 days.

But, both Rev. Rutiyisire, who is the Vice Chairman of the Rwandan National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and his country have since then chosen to learn from the mistakes of their past, that led to the genocide, and ensure that the Rwandese peoplze learn to live as one nationality, using a process of unity and reconciliation which did not attempt to forget the country’s gruesome history, but instead, analysed it to ensure that there is no repetition of such bloodshed.

Rev. Rutiyisire who was here on a brief visit as the Chief Guest of the Eighth Graduation Ceremony of the Colombo Theological Seminary, spoke to the Sunday Times on Rwanda’s reconciliation process, some of which is relevant to postwar Sri Lanka.

“We have seen countries which have gone through wars where, once the war is finished, they say life is normal, and sit back and relax. But it is really not normal. They have to go back and see for themselves, as to why they had a war in the first place,” Rev. Rutiyisire said.

He and his family were minutes away from being victims of genocide, but were saved miraculously. Hailing from the Tutsi tribe, the majority of whom were victims of the 1994 genocide, Rev. Rutiyisire, along with his wife and young son, were holed up in their home in Kigali on April 7, the day the killings began, awaiting certain massacre by Hutu militias who had been let loose on a hapless population, in a State-engineered, systematic massacre of the Tutsis.

However, they were miraculously saved by the intervention of some foreign troops stationed there, which resulted in them walking nine hours, to get to the safety of camps set up for their fleeing countrymen in the north of the country. The genocide continued between April and July, but even while in the camp, he was convinced that revenge and hatred would never reconcile his people, but would only lead to more suffering for the people.

“When we returned home, after the government was overthrown by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, there was death and destruction everywhere. I was not a preacher then, but I had started reading many books on different subjects, including the Bible, and I started telling people that the only way forward was through reconciliation.”

While the traditional village level courts known as gacaca were entrusted with the task of seeking the truth, justice and reconciliation between the victims and the perpetrators, the Unity and Reconciliation Commission, of which Rev. Rutiyisire was a member from its inception in 1994, was set up to plan out the long term strategy to reconcile the people, and ensure that there is no repeat of the brutal past.
One of its main roles was to help the population analyse the country’s history, and see where things had gone wrong, and propose solutions for lasting peace building.

It would also address the laws that had been in place right along, and identify those that were discriminatory and caused injustices and segregation, and then propose to the government their transformation. The Commission also had the task of monitoring religious and civil society institutions, to ensure they don’t sow the seeds of division in Rwanda again.

“It’s a constitutional commission, and its mandate will be as long as we feel we need it. We still feel we need it. It has created a forum where people can talk.” The Commission recommended and successfully changed the country’s Constitution, its national anthem and its flag.” All the symbols of division were taken out, because we wanted to create a country where people were equal. It has been difficult for some to accept to change, but it is happening gradually,” he said.

Removing the legal and constitutional impediments that divide people has been easier than dealing with their emotions. “Peace is there, but what is going to take us a long time to build are the hearts of the people. The appearance of peace is usually just on the surface. Emotions last longer,” he said.
He compares negative emotions to landmines planted on the path to the future. “You plant a landmine and its stays in the ground. Someone can come around in 10 years and step on it and it will explode again.”

He says, a good example of latent negative emotions erupting is that of the Serbs and the Croats, who have had simmering tensions since the 13th century, which exploded with full force only in the 20th century.

“When people refuse to solve problems systematically, its postponed insecurity.” Rwanda now focuses on its children to take the healing and reconciliation process forward. “We are educating our children for peace. All schools have in their curriculum and programmes what we call SCUR (School Clubs of Unity and Reconciliation) where children meet, talk and share experiences, so that we build a generation that understands each other.”

All students, before they start university education, also attend a solidarity camp where they spend a month analysing the country’s history, economy and other issues. “They take up the position that this is where things have gone wrong in the past, and if they become a leader in the future, these are some of the things they have to avoid to build a better future,” he said.

However, in Rwanda, the most crucial role is played by the government. “If the government doesn’t do it, it will never happen. The government is like the driver. If it drives in the right direction, we can get there. If the government doesn’t drive the process, everything else will fail. For us, the government piloted the process,” he said.

The Constitutional amendments also ensured that there was no political bickering on issues of national importance. “We needed all our energies to be focused on rebuilding the country. So we didn’t want people pulling in different directions. Hence, a forum of political parties was created, where we agreed to disagree, but political parties are not allowed to be destructive.

“We challenge people for constructive solutions. If you disagree, we challenge them to show us the constructive solution. It has also been made punishable by law, to identify one as a Tutsi to a Hutu or a Christian or a Muslim. Our Constitution was changed, where we put nationality and citizenship above ethnicity, above religion, above everything else. We are creating a Rwanda for Rwandese,” Rev. Rutiyisire said.

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