My friend nervously scanned the paved open-air courtyard. His eyes rested for a few seconds on a nearby table, where three affluent-looking men in suits sipped beers. He glanced into a shadowed corner at a young couple out on a date, then at a group of foreign missionaries gathering for an early dinner.
Dusk had just passed the way it does in equatorial Africa, suddenly, leaving us in darkness as waiters scurried about with matches to light candles. Satisfied that no one was listening in, my friend leaned close to whisper, “Of course, everyone knows who is Hutu, who is Tutsi. We just don’t talk about it. We can’t talk about it.”
There are many things you cannot talk about in Rwanda. You cannot talk about ethnicity because this little central African country was nearly destroyed by tribal enmities just sixteen years ago, when extremist Hutus killed around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate members of their own tribe in just three months. The killers used machetes, hoes, axes and guns to perpetrate one of the most efficient mass slaughters in human history.
Paul Kagame, the country’s de facto leader since marching into Rwanda at the head of a Tutsi rebel army in the summer of 1994, calls himself a Rwandan. The words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” have been erased from identity cards and excised from open conversation. But still, everyone knows.
There are laws against “divisionism” and “genocide ideology” that prescribe jail terms for tribal talk. One Western diplomat in Kigali told me these were “thought crimes.” The laws are intended to prevent the resurrection of deadly ethnic politics, but it is also a very pragmatic concern for Kagame, whose Tutsi ethnic group accounts for only around 15 percent of Rwanda’s 10 million citizens. Critics complain that the laws are used to block opposition politicians and stifle dissent.
There are two things you can—indeed must—talk about in Rwanda. The first is the genocide. Seemingly every town has its own genocide memorial, mausoleums with neatly arranged rows of skulls and bones on wooden shelves. They are eerie places, and impossibly moving. The second is that Kagame and his troops halted the genocide and have shown a single-minded determination to rebuild the country ever since.
Last month a draft United Nations report was leaked that questions this dominant discourse, forcing Rwandans to confront something else that cannot be talked about in Rwanda: what happened in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo after the genocide?
For seven months a team of researchers from the UN’s Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights consulted documents (more than 1,500 of them) and interviewed witnesses (over 1,200) across Congo’s vast territory. They concluded that Kagame’s own troops were responsible for a litany of atrocities and massacres after the Rwanda genocide was over. Some journalists, human rights activists and others have long argued that Rwanda’s invasion was a “counter-genocide,” but never have the allegations been leveled in such detail, and by an international body like the UN.
As Kagame’s army advanced southward through Rwanda in 1994, the Hutu killers fled to neighboring Congo, hiding among more than a million refugees in squalid camps along the border. From there the genocidaires reorganized, rearmed and restarted cross-border attacks on Tutsis. In 1996 Kagame ordered an invasion to hunt down the killers.