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Rwanda and the Eu : commemorating dissonant memories of the genocide

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Default profile picture Matthew Lye

Many events commemorating the Rwandan genocide of 1994 have been organized across the globe for nearly a month now and must continue to take place throughout the hundred days that the massacres lasted. Rwanda can seem like a distant country, but the legacy of the genocide has implications for Europe and Europeans while its shock wave continues to be felt.

"I understood that I had understood nothing"

On April the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, the "Bozar" organized a literary conference entitled "Rwanda, twenty years later". Three African writers who have written books on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda were invited by the Bozar and the NGO "CEC" to talk about the limitations of language when applied to such an event. The answers were candid.

"I understood that I had understood nothing,” said Boubacar Boris Diop from Senegal, speaking of his experience in Rwanda four years after the large-scale massacres that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in one hundred days starting in April 1994. "I listened to the people and could not understand".

Véronique Tadjo from the Ivory Coast said something similar at the same time: "Some things cannot be said, you must express them in a different way ". That is why she, Diop and Rwandan writer and playwright Dorcy Rugamba have all tried different ways of writing about the genocide.

Rugamba, who lost many of his relatives in the killings, said: "Memory is not reliable, it becomes fuzzy, you have to fix it, because this was an ideological and political crime, and this is the main thing that we must remember. It was not "tribal” or “ancestral” hatred. BB Diop confirms: “genocidal logic is the logic of unsubscribing, of mutilation." All three say that fiction is a way of giving back their identity to the dead. But memories can be uncomfortable.


This meeting is part of a series of larger events set up not only to commemorate the genocide but also to heal the wounds of an African country caught up in polemics. Projects such as "Upright Men” by the London-born, South African artist Bruce Clarke must be exhibited in many countries. Because of this Clarke’s work was projected onto the front of the United Nations in New York on 7 April.

However, the memory of what happened is still controversial, even in some countries of the European Union. In France, which has been regularly criticised in Africa and further afield for its role before and after the genocide, a court sentenced Pascal Simbikangwa, a former captain of the Rwandan presidential guard, to twenty-five years in prison on 14 March. The Simbikangwa case, the first of its kind in France for a crime relating to genocide, made ​​headlines for being seen as a way for Paris to improve the strained relationship between the French and Rwandan governments, of which the ruling party, the RPF, has often accused France of having protected senior officers of the genocidal regime.

The trial took place while a television programme and a French radio programme were forced to take sketches mocking the Rwandan genocide off air, under the pressure of public opinion and several institutions.


The memory of the genocide is also at the heart of the relationship between the EU and the small central African country. Official development assistance to Rwanda in 2006 was 585 million USD, this represents 24% of gross national income, and half of the government budget. The European Commission in 2007 was the second largest aid donor, with $85 million.

Rwanda, as such, is a model of development assistance so to speak: on the brink of disaster in 1994 it became one of the leading examples of a success story on the African continent between 2001 and 2012, when its capital, Kigali, was in the middle of a property boom and the country’s annual growth averaged at 8.1% per annum. Reconciliation was one of the main objectives of the new official RPF government of President Paul Kagame: ethnic censuses or the reference to ethnicity on identity papers were banned, although some Rwandans complain of persistent discrimination. Even former Belgian Foreign Minister and former European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel declared his support in February for the Kagame regime: "I can be nothing but impressed by the progress made, by the economic and social successes of Rwanda."

But some quarters have accused President Kagame of authoritarianism, and say that the RPF party effectively controls the country, leaving no room for others, and uses the memory of the genocide to silence the opposition. The recent brutal murder of Patrick Karegeya on New Year's Day in South Africa, who was the former disgraced head of foreign intelligence under Kagame, has strained relations not only between Rwanda and South Africa but also with one of its major donors, the United States. It was also shown in a 2012 report published by the UN that Kagame has supported rebellions in neighbouring Kivu, the eastern and mineral rich province of the DR of Congo, where the abundance of raw materials fed one of the bloodiest wars fought since the end of World War II.


Even in Brussels the shock of what is happening in Central Africa can sometimes be felt: the Matongé riots in 2011 are an example, when Congolese expatriates angry at what they perceived as foreign interventions in the presidential elections in the DRC, began to demonstrate in the district of Ixelles. Possible cases of police brutality then aggravated protesters and two weeks of riots began, in which Rwandans were targeted and much of the area around the chaussée d'Ixelles was damaged.

Although it took place 6,000 km from Brussels, the 1994 genocide had many consequences: EU involvement in a distant land, an indirect part in the war that ravaged the eastern half of the RD Congo, the embarrassment of the French and polemics in Paris, a role in the riots of 2011 in Brussels, but more than anything, it destroyed not only lives but also memories.

One of the guest writers at Bozar, Dorcy Rugamba, tells how he returned to Butare, his hometown: "I ​​went to Butare, which I know like the back of my hand, but I did not recognize it. It was full of unfamiliar faces. Half of the population was killed; the other had fled to the Congo."

Translated from Le Rwanda et l'U.E : commémorer la mémoire discordante d'un génocide