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An archive is good; study centre will answer genocide questions

Tuesday April 13 2021
Genocide memorial.

Victims pictures are displayed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, on April 7, 2021. PHOTO | SIMON WOHLFAHRT | AFP

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

April 7, 2021, says a post on the United Nations website, “marks the 27th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, one of the darkest chapters in human history.

“More than one million people — overwhelmingly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu, Twa, and others who opposed the genocide — were systematically killed in less than three months. On this day, we honour those who were murdered and reflect on the suffering of those who survived”, it says.

Perhaps more needs to be done. Every year the genocide keeps presenting new questions, about old realities.

After the Patriotic Army/Front launched their return-to-the-homeland campaign in October 1990, amidst the chaos of the early days, then New Vision Editor-in-Chief William Pike, BBC Swahili correspondent in Kampala Abdi Hussein, and I tried to get into Rwanda and ended up mostly roaming the border.

One early evening we got to a camp of Rwandese refugees who had fled the reprisals of the Kigali government troops and its allied militia. Several of them had machete and axe wounds. I didn’t see much beyond the violence of it, until the genocide broke out in April 1994, and the machete and axe became the weapon of choice of the extremist militia.

Clearly, the infrastructure for a grim “democratised” killing involving thousands of ordinary citizens, was already in place years before it was unleashed. It’s only recently that revisiting the photos from that episode revealed something else. There were also quite a few children, mostly girls, who had the machete cuts. However, there were hardly any boys who had similar wounds — in part because there were few boys.

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Why was that the case? What happened to the boys?

I also revisited other photographs taken days before that by a group of Ugandan and foreign journalists who had entered Rwanda through the deserted Kagitumba border point. They ventured a distance inside, until they came over a hill and, in the distance, saw what were government troops driving to retake the border post.

Fearing they would be in big trouble, they started running back, hoping to cross back to the Uganda side before the soldiers caught up with them. Only a few of them were fit enough to make it before the soldiers got to them. Then a strange thing happened: the Rwandan troops demanded that they be photographed when they were looking their best. They put on their best poses, and regaled the journalists with stories of the wrath they had visited on “the enemy”.

We have seen it elsewhere. Some soldiers don’t want to labour in obscurity. They are proud of what they do and want the pain inflicted on “the enemy” and other actions displayed so they can get the glory.

Could it be that the genocidaires wanted the world to see their work?

France just announced it will open an archive for the period covering the 1994 Rwandan genocide after a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel accused French authorities of supporting violence and failing to protect civilians. The time seems right too not just for an Africa-based archive, but a genocide study centre. Perhaps it will help answer in some profound way, these questions that keep presenting themselves.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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