America is in a state of pandemonium, but where is it leading? To a future of greater democracy, mutual understanding and respect, or to authoritarianism and institutionalized discrimination?
I grew up in Rwanda and fled to the US after the 1994 genocide. I now live in Tennessee but travel all over the world. I’m worried not only because of the militarism and violence that erupted in response to peaceful demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd, but also because I’ve seen how repression settles over a country, and how autocrats force a population to accept the iron fist.
I was 14 when gangs calling themselves Interahamwe, mainly of Hutu ethnicity, began massacring people, mainly ethnic Tutsis, at road blocks, in cities and in villages around Rwanda. It was a horrible, terrifying orgy of killing that has left a lifetime of trauma and nightmares for millions of Rwandans including myself. We fled north from the capital Kigali crammed with countless others on the back of a pickup truck. At one roadblock my mother and I were identified as Tutsi, dragged away and forced at gunpoint to begin digging our own graves. This was one of the many near death experiences I survived during the genocide in Rwanda.
When I came to the US, a large number of people seemed to have heard about the Rwanda genocide, but much of what they knew was mistaken. For example, not all Hutus were killers. Far from it. Our lives were saved, again and again, by brave Hutus who came to our rescue, expecting nothing in return. They sheltered us in their homes, ferried us to safety in their vehicles and pleaded with and bribed our captors to release us on that fateful night at the roadblock.
Many Americans are also mistaken about the supposed heroism of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the largely Tutsi rebel force that battled and eventually defeated the Interahamwe, and took over the country after the genocide. The true story is not a simple parable of good vs evil. The RPF was led by Tutsi refugees who had been forced to flee Rwanda in the early 1960s after Hutus, who had suffered generations of discrimination rose up against them. Most RPF fighters had grown up in Uganda, and longed to return home, but successive Rwandan leaders refused to let them in. Finally, in the late 1980s, the international community began pressuring Rwanda’s then leader Juvenal Habyarimana to allow them to return, but by then, it was too late. The RPF, armed, trained and supplied by Uganda, was determined to take over Rwanda by force.
By October 1990, the UN Refugee Agency had conducted a survey of Tutsi refugees, to determine how many wanted to return to Rwanda, but the RPF pre-empted these preparations by invading Rwanda and setting up bases in the northern mountains. Few accounts of the genocide mention this, but they began committing vicious, unprovoked massacres against unarmed villagers, mostly Hutus, almost at once. I know this because thousands of people fled the area for the capital Kigali, and a few of them stayed in a property we owned, right across the street from our house. The stories they told were chilling—RPF rebels would take over an area, call everyone to a meeting and then encircle them and throw hand grenades and shoot into the crowd. They’d descend on children lined up for water at boreholes, and once raided a hospital, killing all the patients. Our lodgers witnessed family members being buried alive in pits. For three and a half years, as the RPF advanced, new waves of refugees would arrive in Kigali with ever more gruesome stories. Then, in February 1993, my beloved godfather was among the thousands of people fleeing a particularly brutal round of massacres. He and his family stayed with us in Kigali for months. The RPF had killed so many people in his area, he told us, that the roads were clogged with bodies, making it nearly impossible for vehicles to pass. Although little emphasized, similar atrocities were reported in Alison des Forges landmark Human Rights Watch study, Leave None to Tell the Story.
Hutu/Tutsi tension had existed for generations, but the RPF’s October 1990 invasion escalated hostilities to fever pitch. For the next three and a half years, the RPF would massacre people along their path rendering the areas they occupied ghost towns. Then the government army would fight back and the security forces would arrest and torture suspected civilian RPF collaborators. In early 1992, the Interahamwe and other political gangs began to form, ostensibly to protect politicians, but they ended up committing acts of wanton mayhem, usually against Tutsis. Each wave of violence and counter-violence would increase in amplitude, like a tidal wave rushing to shore, driven by Hutu chauvinist rage and RPF assaults that seemed calculated to provoke that rage.
Throughout this period, the RPF was supplied by Uganda, which in turn received generous foreign aid from the US and other Western nations. But it’s not as though Washington didn’t know what was going on. In January 1994, a confidential CIA report predicted that if tensions weren’t somehow reduced, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans could die in an explosion of ethnic strife. This is documented in the Statement of Alison Des Forges submitted to the Hearing before the Subcommittee on International Relations and Human Rights of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 105th Congress, Second Session, May 5, 1999, p 52. By April, genocide was all but inevitable.
When I got to the US, I was surprised to find ethnic tensions here too. My family settled in North Nashville, a poor rundown African-American neighborhood surrounded by housing projects. Because I needed to learn English, I was sent to a special public school in Greenhills, one of wealthiest parts of Nashville. I often wondered why there were no police patrols there, as there were around our neighborhood, but it was only when I began driving that experienced the sharp end of this. I can’t recall how many times I’ve been pulled over and searched for no reason at all, not only in Tennessee, but also in Arizona, Kentucky and Illinois. Over one long weekend, I was pulled over and searched three times in four days. On the two occasions when I was stopped for an actual traffic violation—once for speeding and once for not having my lights on–the police behaved as though they were landing a violent criminal. I was yanked out of the car with guns pointed at my head, and surrounded by police sniffer dogs. In New York, I was stopped and frisked as I got off the subway. I’ve had friends pulled out of their cars and beaten with batons; one was jailed because his license plate flew off, and I had to bail him out.
I guess it’s odd that even though I’d survived the Rwanda genocide, I didn’t really take to heart the ethnic dimension of what was going on until 1999, when I read about Amadou Diallo, the 23 year old Guinean immigrant who was shot 41 times by New York police as he reached to pull out his wallet. When the officers were acquitted, I posted enraged blogs about the case on BlackPlanet, an old Social Media platform. Others, I believe they were white, accused me of “spreading hate” for posting pictures of those officers, but after that, I knew what was happening.
Years later, when George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, I vowed never to miss a rally wherever I was when such an injustice occurred. I went to Ferguson after the police who killed Michael Brown weren’t even charged. I helped start the Nashville chapter of Black Lives Matter and have taken part in multiple racial justice campaigns and protests against police brutality in Nashville and other cities. To my amazement, our peaceful movement was met with a counter movement of neo-Nazis, who actively promote separatism and violence and baselessly, accuse us of doing the same.
Now these tensions are boiling over, and I’m worried but determined to see change for the better. As the world watched the Rwanda genocide unfold 26 years ago, Western leaders searched desperately for a solution to make the killing stop. Ultimately, they endorsed the takeover of the country by the RPF’s leader, Paul Kagame. At the same time, they bolstered their support for Kagame’s brutal patron, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Both men remain in power today, governing like dictators. In Rwanda, Kagame’s political opponents have been imprisoned for years, simply for expressing their views; in Uganda, they are routinely tortured. In both countries, less well-known regime critics have a mysterious way of being killed, disappearing or “committing suicide” as was the recent case of famous Rwandan gospel singer Kizito Mihigo. Government informants posted in communities in both countries ensure that anyone who’s too vocal in criticizing the regime is threatened and silenced. This terrifying system of control is far more effective in silencing dissent than any electronic surveillance system the US National Security Agency could possibly devise. It’s funny that when I, or other external critics of the Rwandan regime call out its criminal behavior in blogs and speeches, agents and supporters of the regime accuse us of “spreading hate”—just like the trolls who responded to my posts about the Diallo killing by the police in NYC.
Washington has always preferred the appearance of stability –at virtually any cost—over freedom. This is why the uprising in response to the killing of George Floyd and all the other victims of American police brutality move me to the core. My hope is that the protests will finally bring about systemic changes in American policing and dismantle structural racism in this country. But I also hope the struggle will expand ever outward, to embrace that of African peoples who, despite the passing of colonialism and the end of the Cold War, remain under the yoke of Western militarism, which, at home and abroad, pretends to uphold the cause of liberty, while insulting the very idea of it.
We are all different. There is no universal black identity, but in the words of Malcolm X, who traveled widely in Africa and dreamed that peoples of color everywhere would one day join forces against racial oppression, “we have a common enemy.”
Claude Gatebuke, a Rwandan genocide survivor, is executive director of the African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN) @shinani1