By Brett Steinberg, Staff Writer
Professor Mathilde Mukantabana, an ambassador of Rwanda, spoke at the University of Connecticut yesterday about Rwanda overcoming a violent history and being faced with falling into despair or rebuilding.
Mukantabana spoke about the troubled past of Rwanda and the three month long genocide, which killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Rwandans. Her speech, and the panel discussion that preceded it, was in commemoration of the genocide committed by the then Hutu majority against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu. “They soaked our country in blood and destroyed the essence of what our country stood for,” Mukantabana said.
Everyone in the roughly 10 million-person nation was affected, including herself. Focusing her energies on spreading awareness and support for the future of Rwanda “was a way to heal my wounds,” she said.
A theme that weaved its way throughout the speech was the importance of understanding history, learning from it and passing that acquired knowledge and wisdom to the next generation.
“It’s always good to remember,” Claude Muhinda, a Rwandan and current resident of Massachusetts who attended the speech, said. Muhinda went onto say, “It’s important to remember people who were lost because if we don’t, it will be erased for future generations.”
According to Mukantabana, there were clear signs of threatening developments in Rwanda decades before the genocide within the civil war broke out. There were the beginnings of widespread propaganda by the ruling party, who controlled the media, which dehumanized and demonized the Tutsi people.
There were also waves of killing and effort to drive the Tutsi people out of the country before the genocide was in full effect. “They (the Hutu extremists) completely lost their moral compass,” Mukantabana said. Ethnic cleansings took place in 1963, 1966, 1972, 1973, 1990 and 1992 before the full genocide began, in which it was not condemned and “perpetrators were rewarded,” according to Mukantabana.
Ultimately, the Tutsi people were stripped of their citizenship and became enemies who, if killed, their murderers would be celebrated.
“You need to understand it before you can prevent it,” Mukantabana said, speaking on the genocide, “Genocide ideology is alive and well.” She spoke about the dangers of denial and misinformation.
“The world stood as a witness (to the genocide)” Mukantabana said, but she talked about the dangers of even those in the scholarly community not traveling to Rwanda themselves and quoting the same people over and over again in their own work.
When talking about how easy it is for people and the media to rewrite history, Mukantabana referenced a recent BBC incident, in which they put out a documentary entitled “Rwanda: The Untold Story,” that had some fact errors in it, according to Mukantabana.
“I see the danger,” Mukantabana said, regarding news organizations like BBC—“when people try to rewrite the history without correcting the evidence—and we are in the midst of doing that—if all of us don’t denounce it, 20 years from now we can find the people who were victims” in danger or being the danger itself due to misinformation.
Mukantabana claimed that at least 36 scholars denounced the documentary as not being completely truthful to what happened. Still, she said she believes the closest one can get to the truth is through the testimonies of victims. “There’s no victors in the narrative, but there’s the truth of the victim, it’s there,” Mukantabana said.
Mukantabana has served as a diplomat since July 2013 and has graduate degrees in history and social work. She is the executive producer of the documentary “Rwanda Night,” in which the plight of the victims of the genocide is highlighted.
The Rwandan genocide lasted around 100 days from April to July in 1994, but its impact is still felt today.
“Within 3 months, the country had lost more than a million people…many people thought the country was destroyed beyond anything,” Mukantabana said. She went onto say, “We could have stayed in a state of despair…we pulled ourselves from the ashes and revealed our nation…we found courage.”
Rwanda has made widespread reform since the tragedy, according to Mukantabana. There were two choices after such destruction—fall into despair or maintain hope and fight for a more prosperous future.
When the war ended, 3.5 million refugees were able to make it back into the country—even people who committed crimes, according to Mukantabana. Rwanda’s best hope for a future is unity among all sects within the nation.
“This is a good thing to be doing every year,” attendee Marcel Mweze, who visits Rwanda often and was invited by panel member Parfait Gasana, said. “We forgive, but not forget so it never happens again.”
Mukantabana repeatedly acknowledged the fact that Rwanda’s government, policies, justice system and overall reforms are not perfect, but are a far improvement from what was before and that it will continue to evolve.
When speaking on reinventing Rwanda as a unified nation, she said, “Together as one people and one nation—it’s a time for honest reflection and a commitment as our shared humanity as people.”
Mukantabana spoke not only of the importance of national unity, but of the international community when injustices are committed. “The task of fostering hope is in the hands of all the people in the room—I ask you to continue with us,” Mukantabana said. “This is part of the healing process.”
“It’s important to be thinking about these instances,” Brendan Kane, an associate director of the Humanities Institute at UConn who attended the event, said. He stressed that we cannot lose track of the tragedy that occurred and of new progress made through the current Rwandan efforts.
Although it’s been “an uphill battle,” according to Mukantabana, she made very optimistic goals for Rwanda in 2020. Her vision consisted of—agricultural transformation, private-sector development, human response development, infrastructure development and regional integration.
She highlighted the creation of “NURC”—National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, which has since set the agenda for people to create programs to help the country. It is to ultimately promote unity within the country, create an identity for all under the idea of “Rwandanness,” and to empower citizens to thrive, according to Mukantabana.
Rwanda’s plan of action is to enact homegrown initiatives to find solutions to problems such as malnourishment, education (which has 23% of the national budget), the justice system and a free media among other aspects of the country, according to Mukantabana.
“Now is the new Rwanda, the past is over, now is the new page,” Mweze, who is visiting Rwanda again next month, said.
As much as the annual commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda is a bleak, yet paramount reminder of the brutal and tragic history of Rwanda, Mukantabana made it a point to touch upon on how the country, and their world allies, can grow in the future.
“You are here today because you subscribe to the idea because you dare to dream that our collective voices can become a reality,” Mukantabana said.