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Deciphering the Narrative of Rwandan Genocide

How to Move Forward Justly for Refugees

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April 16, 2014

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on April 16, 2014.

By Galya Ruffer

This is an anniversary that defies celebration and a history that is unravelling still. While we may never understand the full truth and be able to right all wrongs, the dangers of the international community standing behind a singular narrative of the genocide can be seen in the ongoing crisis of Rwandan refugees.

Twenty years ago this month, Hutu extremists started a genocide in Rwanda that continues to haunt the countries that failed to intervene. Operating from a position of guilt, the international community created an official narrative of the genocide that effectively continues to fuel the ongoing crisis and failed justice in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

While an estimated 800,000 -- a majority of them Tutsi -- were killed during the genocide, 1.8 million Rwandans, Hutus and Tutsis fled into the neighboring countries of Tanzania, Burundi and Congo. Although many returned, there are still an estimated 65,000 Rwandan refugees living in exile.

These refugees maintain that they are victims of a "second genocide" committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front as the military advanced to stop the killings in Rwanda and later when the RPF continued its campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The release in the fall of 2010 of a long covered up UN report documenting the Front's systematic and widespread attacks against Hutu refugees who had fled Rwanda into neighboring Zaire (now the DRC) gives new credence to their claims.

Author and journalist Peter Gourevitch wrote in 1998, "Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality, even if you have to kill a lot of them to make that happen." The international community, in suppressing the UN report in order to confirm one official account of the genocide confirmed and legitimized President Paul Kagame's authoritarian rule today.

To be sure, the consolidation of Kagame's power has played a major role in allowing Rwanda to more forward and become an economic success story. But this success requires the international community to overlook the high price of silencing the opposition.

I opened a chain of emails this week about Rwandan operatives trying to abduct a Rwandan Hutu who had received refugee status in Uganda. In most cases, the Ugandan police are able to intervene and detain the refugee until the situation can be resolved.

But, in some cases, the refugees have been tortured or killed.

I heard these stories firsthand in the summer of 2012 as I met with Rwandan refugees in Nakivale Settlement and Kampala in Uganda. It was part of a training organized by the Refugee Law Project to build awareness in the refugee community regarding their rights pending the invocation of the Cessation Clause. Although Kagame pushed for invocation of the cessation of refugee status under the legal principle that the situation in Rwanda that warranted refugee status, i.e. genocide, has now ended, push back from the Hutu refugee population and reports of persecution of Hutus in Rwanda put a stop to efforts to end their status.

The refugees spoke of a failed process of international and local justice that should make us think twice before using international courts to prosecute people in places that we really know very little about. From the time the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established, the focus was exclusively on the prosecution of Hutus. This was in spite of testimonial evidence that the RPF carried out a large number of killings during the genocide itself and later both in Rwanda and across the border in Congo.

The refugee I read about in the email chain sought protection in Uganda. He had been arrested after the genocide in 1996, released in 2007 and Gacaca Courts sentenced him to six years and two months in prison under the charge of failing to save people during the Genocide.

He has served his time for his crimes. But he cannot find a home as backlash against the refugees makes that impossible.

Just last week, in the Netherlands, human rights lawyers lodged a complaint against Kagame for enforced disappearance and genocide (in response to an extradition request.)

As abductions of Rwandan refugees are trending leading the UN to call for an investigation into the "disappearance or abduction" of three Rwandan refugees in Uganda, we need to step back and examine the broader picture of testimony and international justice.

The problem is that in the case of mass atrocity, justice is mired in uncertainty. Documentary evidence of individual culpability does not exist and we need to rely on individual testimony.

How do we know what we know? And what is the role and value of testimony in post-genocide Rwandan justice?

The director for education, research, publications and planning at the National Human Rights Commission of Rwanda Claude Niwe-Rukundo years ago offered critical advice. As I was at the Kigali International airport in December 2011 en route home from monitoring the elections in the DR Congo, he emphasized how sensitive research is in Rwanda and the importance to not only know what you want to research, but by what method you go about doing the research. He advised knowing who to speak with to get the "right" answer.

No one questions whether the genocide against the Tutsi did happen or that it was wrong. The question is whether the international community can invoke law and use the medium of courts to justly confront such atrocities without compounding their legacy with even more injustice.

A popular Rwandan t-shirt after the genocide read "Bury the dead, not the truth." What we need today is a new approach to justice in post-genocide Rwanda, "Bury the dead, let live a thousand truths." As Kagame seeks to suppress opposition, an internationally administered testimonial project that would allow Rwandan refugees, Hutus and Tutsis to speak their truths might enable greater society healing and way home for Rwandans in exile.

- Galya Ruffer is director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University.