According to researcher Gretchen Baldwin, ethnic tensions are maintained in Rwanda during the country's annual commemoration of the 1994 genocide. Pictured: Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the opening of the 28th edition of Kwibuka in April 2022. Source: Flickr.


Researchers criticize Rwanda's commemoration period: 'Worried about large-scale violence'

After the genocide in 1994, Rwanda has been praised by the outside world for its, above all economic, recovery. But new research shows several disturbing aspects with the country's annual commemoration period. Rwandans are forced to remember the genocide in exactly the ways of thinking that caused the genocide - that one ethnic group is superior to another, according to researcher Gretchen Baldwin. And Hon believes that it is a way for the government to retain power. 

- I couldn't have married someone from the other clan, says a young Rwandan woman whom Uttvecklingsmagasinet interviews. 

She has not been asked whether she is Tutsi or Hutu. Rwandan President Paul Kagame banned people from talking about ethnicity after the 1994 genocide. But it's clear anyway. She has attended the best private schools in Rwanda and is now studying at a reputable American university. And when she talks about Rwanda's reconciliation process, she says that she cannot forgive "what they did to us" - even though she herself did not live during the genocide.

- I owe it to my family, my relatives, not to forget.

It is called survivor nationalism, according to researcher Gretchen Baldwin. She has done research about Rwanda's annual genocide commemoration, Kwibuka, which literally means att remember. The commemoration period begins on April 7, which is an official public holiday in the country, and lasts until mid-July. For 100 days, as long as the genocide lasted, the population must be reminded of the atrocities every year.

The program Ndi umuyarwanda, which means we are all Rwandans, was launched in 2013 to promote popular reconciliation in the country, but it has criticized by researchers. Reforms like this also stand in contrast to the fact that in 2008 the government changed the official name of the genocide to "1994 genocide av Tutsis".

The name change was recognized by UN Security Council 2018. The UN then emphasized that the name change would not undermine the fact that Hutus were also murdered. Among others, the United States criticized the name change for doing just that, but did not vote against it. The argument from Rwanda was that the new name "leaves no room for ambiguity", and that in this way it can prevent new genocides around the world.

- He [President Paul Kagame] really has control over the narrative, says Gretchen Baldwin in an interview with Development magazine.

Caption: It is quiet in Kigali during the first week of the 100-day Kwibuka commemoration period. Photo: Andreas. Source: Pixabay.

During the 100 days of Kwibuka, Rwandans are divided into survivors, by implication Tutsis, and perpetrators, by implication Hutus. Ethnic tensions are thus maintained through the regime's coercive one-sided narrative of the genocide, according to Gretchen Baldwin and other researchers.

Gretchen Baldwin's interviewees, who are all Tutsis and survivors of the genocide, share a sense of increased insecurity during the period of remembrance. They told about desecration of graves, attacks on farm animals and also about physical violence.

- I am worried that physical violence, large-scale violence, will break out, says Gretchen Baldwin.

During Kwibuka, large posters are put up all over the country with the very ethnic names that are otherwise forbidden to use, says Gretchen Baldwin. Another deviation she discerns during Kwibuka from the rest of the year is precisely that conversations about ethnicity are reserved for the specific commemoration period from April to July.

Gretchen Baldwin asked her interviewees what would happen if people felt they wanted to process their trauma during a different time of year.

- I was basically told that it does not occur. And that's not how trauma works, she says and continues:

- I think commemoration is a process that is never quite finished, especially not traumatic mass assaults.

Grief and guilt are inherited

At the same time as survivor nationalism is strong among Rwanda's youth, Gretchen Baldwin emphasizes that intergenerational trauma, i.e. trauma that is transferred from those who have been exposed to subsequent generations, is real and important. Both grief and guilt are inherited.

West must be able to keep two thoughts in his head at the same time, thinks Gretchen Baldwin. On the one hand, we must be able to take responsibility for to we didn't do enough to prevent a brutal genocide in a former European colony. On the other hand, we must be able to criticize the regime, she believes.

– Colonial guilt (colonial feelings of guilt, ed. note) is still super important, but it's also paternalistic to say we can't criticize [the regime] because [the country] used to be a colony,” she says.

Effective surveillance society

When Gretchen Baldwin wrote a news article in The Washington Post about Kwibuka's repressive design and how Paul Kagame uses Kwibuka to maintain power, she was accused of being a genocide denier by The New Times, Rwanda's state-controlled newspaper.

Rwanda is an effective surveillance society, according to Gretchen Baldwin and several human rights organizations. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty sharply criticizes the Rwandan regime for human rights abuses.

During Gretchen Baldwin's travels through Rwanda, she encountered people who believed there was a government spy in every village and that their phones were tapped.

- It doesn't matter if it's not right, but as long as they think they're there, it works, she says and continues:

- It is a brilliant surveillance state in that way.

The inevitable question becomes, is there an optimal reconciliation process? According to Gretchen Baldwin, reconciliation is so closely intertwined with memory and subjectivity that it will always be contested on a macro level.

- That is one of the most sensitive political issues I can think of, she says.

Gretchen Baldwin emphasizes during the interview that Kwibuka is not problematic itself. However, the commemoration period is a political tool for Paul Kagame to maintain power. Kwibuka's current design therefore blocks survivor nationalism, which is dangerous because only certain narratives may be included, she believes.

- It is an existential threat to long-term peace, she concludes.

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