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Rwandan Genocide Survivor Theobald Gakwaya Lectures at Hamilton

Rwandan Genocide Survivor Theobald Gakwaya Lectures at Hamilton

Theobald Gakwaya, a Rwandan genocide survivor, lectured with the aid of a translator at Hamilton College's Science Center Auditorium to a large group of students and faculty on the issue of Rwandan genocide on September 18. Gakwaya was a minister to the Rwandan government for one year and has since dedicated his efforts to human rights issues. Calling the genocide in Rwanda the "great humanitarian disaster of the contemporary world," Gakwaya spoke about the social, political and economic history and problems surrounding the political and ethnic upheaval between the Hutus and the Tutsis. He told the audience that the Rwandan conflict has brought the whole area of the great African lakes onto the brink of war with an estimated five million people dead: two million Rwandan and three million Congolese.

Gakwaya gave a brief history of the events and conditions of Rwanda before the toppling of the monarchy in the mid-twentieth century. He explained that for about five centuries the Tutsi aristocracy enslaved the Hutus, who comprised the majority of the population. Around 1950, several Hutus began writing on the social injustice in Rwanda, fostering the Hutu Awakening. The Hutus raised international awareness of the Rwandan ethnic struggle and addressed the UN on the issue. However, as Gakwaya stated, this action caused problems within the nation. Tutsi King Mutara III denied the Hutus' request for social justice and reaffirmed the myth behind the Tutsi's claim to power.

In 1959, the tension between the Hutus and Tutsis resulted in violent conflict. As Gakwaya explained, the Hutus gained power, toppled the monarchy, and created the Republic of Rwanda. Although four political parties formed and the country attempted to institute democratic pluralism, one Hutu party soon held all the power. Many Tutsis fled to neighboring countries, including the King and his entourage, who created the Rwandan Patriotic Front and instigated a revolt in 1964 that resulted in civil war and lasted until 1967.

Gakwaya said that the corruption and regional favoritism of the government caused serious unrest during the period leading up to the 1994 genocide. Around this time, the U.S. sought a bridge to establish influence in South Africa but knew that in order to gain more control, the U.S. would need to diminish France's power in Africa. As part of this neocolonial conflict, the U.S. encouraged Africans in the region to build armies and provided them with weapons.

Gakwaya explained that the civil war in the 1960s "awakened the demons of ethnic hatred" and pitted both ethnic groups against each other. The Hutus gained support by telling other Hutus that the Tutsis intended to enslave them again, and the Tutsis gained followers by stirring up the desire to regain their previous power. Although the psychosis of war raised each group's suspicions of each other, Gakwaya told the audience that the social bonds of the Rwandan nation that had coexisted for so long should have been strong enough to prevent the genocide that ensued.

Nevertheless, Gakwaya explained, the assassination of the Burundi and Rwandan presidents on April 6th 1994 acted as a trigger for genocide. Within a day after the deaths of the presidents, the Hutus began killing the Tutsis, believing that the Tutsis killed the leaders. As a counterattack, the Rwandan Patriotic Front organized a force to enter the capital and free Tutsi troops, but the force that initially appeared to support liberation quickly became an occupational force. Many Hutus fled to Zaire as refugees, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front destroyed many of the refugee camps, killing thousands of innocent people.

Gakwaya told the audience about some of his experiences in Rwanda during the genocide and civil unrest. He served as the vice president of the Christian Democratic Party in political opposition to the Rwandan president, and upheld the idea that the cause of the upheaval rested in bad governance. His party was founded on the Church because he thought that Christianity and the Bible offered solutions to the corrupt ways of the government. A Hutu himself, Gakwaya recalled how his own people distrusted him and endangered his life because they thought he was a traitor aligned with the Tutsis. He spoke of hiding for his life in the brush separated from his family and related how his house and all his possessions were destroyed after the assassinations of the Rwandan and Burundi presidents.

Gakwaya remarked that he does not believe that the genocide has really stopped: there are lulls in the violence, but then the conflict restarts with each side gaining better weapons and strategies that are more flexible. He noted the shameful failure of the UN and U.S. to help and criticized the international community for allowing the military leaders in Rwanda to wreak destruction. He told the audience that countries like America fund the Rwandan Patriotic Front, allowing it to support a venerable police state in the region. By placing no pressure on the group to start democracy, Gakwaya said that the U.S. is instilling anti-American sentiment and may soon see a situation in Africa similar to the current situation in the Middle East. He warned that 1994 genocide is very likely to reoccur unless Rwanda is forced to enter into dialogue with its neighbors.

-- by Laura Oman '

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