UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon, Rwanda's president Paul Kagame and others await the lighting of a flame that will burn in memory of those who died in 1994. Photo: Getty
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If a genocide on the scale of Rwanda happened in Europe, would we stand idly by?

Twenty years after the genocide, Rwandans are finding ways to reconciliation. But it’s too soon for the nations and institutions that failed to help to forgive themselves.

The twentieth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide is upon us, a moment which has prompted several reflections upon that horrific event. A prominent theme among these retrospectives has been that of forgiveness: of how the victims of this slaughter are laying aside their grievances with the perpetrators so that, together, they can forge a better future for their country. Their efforts at reconciliation, captured powerfully by the photographer Pieter Hugo for the New York Times, have framed much if not all of the discussion about the frenzied murder of almost a million people. However, perhaps they should not.

Hugo, in the article accompanying his images, contends that forgiveness, in this context, is not merely a matter of the victims being supremely enlightened: it is a practical necessity. “These people can’t go anywhere else,” he observes. “They have to make peace…Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” The article then proceeds to feature the moving accounts of how these Rwandans managed to find hope amid horror. Towards its close, there is a quote from Laurent Nsabimana, a perpetrator, who says of his victim – Beatrice Mukarwambari, whose house he raided and destroyed – that “her forgiveness proved to me that she is a person with a pure heart”. For her part, Mukarwambari is the model of grace. “If I am not stubborn,” she says, “life moves forward. When someone comes close to you without hatred, although horrible things happened, you welcome him and grant what he is looking for from you. Forgiveness equals mercy.” (My italics.)

There is a great beauty in allowing this sentiment – that “forgiveness equals mercy” – to become the dominant narrative of the Rwanda genocide. Yet there is also a great danger. It seems that two main human instincts, when faced with unremitting bloodbaths such as Rwanda – and, most recently, Syria and the Central African Republic – are to grasp any positives from the situation, or to turn away. The first tendency, to seek a happy ending, can sometimes strike a discordant note; it gives the impression that injustices are approaching resolution, even though many of the conditions which enabled them are still firmly in place. Moreover, it may also place pressure to forgive on those survivors still shattered by trauma.

The second tendency, to turn away, is perhaps more damaging still. Part of this attitude comes from a feeling of helplessness; that what is happening is too distant and complex for us to do anything useful. Yet part of it has more uncomfortable roots. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general whose inability to prevent the genocide drove him to early retirement and depression, has been unequivocal on this point. In a conversation with Ted Koppel in June 2002, Dallaire identified the chief underlying issue as “racism, the fundamental belief that exists that all people are not equal, [which] is going to slaughter millions for years to come.”

Dallaire went on to contend that “even today, after the very delayed effort in getting into Sierra Leone where I’ve been recently with war-affected children, I believe today if some outfit decided to go into Rwanda and eliminate the 320-odd blue-back mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey paid with her life to protect…there would be today more of an effort, more of an involvement by people just like you and me and many others than there would be if they’re slaughtering them again by the thousands in that same country.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, the former general was similarly forthright. “The ones I hold accountable for not understanding and not rising above self-interest to a level of humanity where every human counts and we’re all the same are: the British, the French, and the Americans. Self-interest, political posturing, image dominated their decision processes in regard to Rwanda. ” (My italics.)

Dallaire’s dialogue with Koppel raises searching and awkward questions for global institutions – questions which, if we merely regard the Rwanda genocide as a lesson in forgiveness, those institutions can conveniently evade. Questions such as why, given that $3bn found its way to Rwanda very soon after the bloodletting ended, Dallaire was not able to raise $200m for the troops that he believed necessary for its prevention. In 1994 he identified a clear course of action, as well as the resources – some 5,000 troops – that in his view would have stemmed the tide of killing. Yet, time and again, he was frustrated by considerations that were nakedly political, if not racial. His experiences at the hands of bureaucracy were by turns frustrating, infuriating and heartbreaking. As one government representative told him: “My country was assessing whether it will come in and the government believes that public opinion, the people, could handle for every soldier killed or injured an equivalent of 85,000 dead Rwandans.”

It is impossible to imagine such a ruthless calculation taking place today if a massacre of this length and scale was occurring in the heart of Western Europe. It is impossible to imagine a scenario in Western Europe where, as was the case in Rwanda, the UN would go to 69 countries who had previously pledged military assistance and come away without a single soldier. Not one. Given this vast indifference, the appropriate mantra seems not so much to be “Never Again” as “Forever Again”. This is why, while we applaud Rwandans for using reconciliation as a tool to move forward with their lives, we must be more watchful of those nations and institutions sitting shiftily in the background, furtively and prematurely forgiving themselves.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

Photo: Poppy McPherson
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“We have lost our birth place”: the long, slow persecution of the Rohingya Muslims

Mohammed Ilias was a school teacher. Then the government dismissed Muslims from their posts. 

The first time the Myanmar army came to his door to ask about the militants, in early August, Mohammed Ilias, a softly-spoken Rohingya teacher in his mid-forties, invited them in. “My little child welcomed them into the house,” he said. “They said: ‘The teacher’s child is very good. Very nice. He’s welcoming us! How well-behaved he is!’”

Maybe it was the kindness of his son. Maybe it was luck. But that day, Ilias wasn’t among the hundreds he said were rounded up in the village of Doe Tan in Maungdaw township, for interrogation about the new Rohingya insurgency. “At least 400 of them they took to the schools and tortured very badly,” he said.

The next time the soldiers came to Doe Tan, they were on a rampage. Insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked dozens of police posts two days earlier, on 25 August. In response, homes were set alight and shots fired indiscriminately, Ilias said.

His eyes welled up with tears. “In that gunfire, one of my elder sisters – 75 years old – died in her home,” he said. “I decided: ‘They killed my sister. They may kill us.’” That day, he left the village with his wife and six children, carrying only a piece of plastic to use as shelter on the road.

The chaos that has engulfed Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state over the past three weeks, pushing an estimated 400,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, has awoken the world to the plight of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority estimated to number around one million.

Soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists are accused of slaughtering civilians and razing villages in a campaign of indiscriminate violence, terrifying in its intensity. But to Rohingya like Ilias, this is the culmination of a lifetime of persecution. It is only the latest brutal chapter in a story of oppression that has deprived an entire people of freedom, education and opportunities over the course of generations.

“They have been torturing us for years,” say many of the Rohingya now living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The events of August were the final straw.

In the muddy, cramped camp outside the port town of Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi fishing port close to Myanmar, where many of the Rohingya have sought refuge, Ilias sat with his hands folded on his lap. He wears a black watch on his left wrist and a brown checked longyi, the sarong worn by Burmese men. “My name is Mohammed Ilias. I am 46,” he said quietly, beginning his story.

He was born in 1972 to a well-known and respected family, he said. His grandfather, Abdul Aziz, was an influential local leader who had been decorated by the British for fighting alongside them in World War II. During the colonial era, the British had encouraged migration into Rakhine from neighbouring Bengal, supplementing the existing Muslim population.

At the time of Myanmar’s independence, in 1948, the first Prime Minister, U Nu, recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group. Families who had lived in the country for at least two generations could apply for a green card granting them full citizenship. Abdul Aziz was among them. “My grandfather had a card which was green,” said Ilias. “Green like the colour of leaves.”

But in 1962, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup and introduced sweeping new rules governing national identity. The 1982 Citizenship Act, which excludes Rohingya from a set of accepted races, effectively rendered them stateless.

The junta began issuing Rohingya with temporary registration certificates, or “white cards” that made them “residents” rather than citizens. “My family had so much status, so much honour,” said Ilias. “My grandfather was like a king. He helped the British. He got a green card from the Myanmar government, so why would we take the white card?”

Before Ilias’s father died, when his son was still small, he expressed a wish that at least one of his children follow in his footsteps. But it was becoming more difficult for Rohingya to access decent jobs. They were barred from higher education. “He told my sister: ‘Somehow, please make a teacher from my family,’” Ilias recalled.

Ilias couldn’t go to university, but he managed to get a job at a state-run school, teaching maths and science. It didn’t last long. “After that Myanmar decided not to take Muslim teachers,” he said. “They forced us to resign and took lots of Rakhine people into the schools for teaching.”

He continued teaching informally, he said, sometimes taking payment from parents but more often working for free. But few Rohingya in the village could see the benefits of sending their children for an education rather than to work as farmers or labourers, he said. “Our children were getting an education but they can’t do anything,” said Ilias. “They can’t get a government job. If you are an educated man, but you can’t do anything to earn money, how can you cover the expenses for your family?”

To make ends meet, Ilias ran a small shop in the village. But getting supplies required hiring Rakhines to bring them. Even farmers relied on Rakhines to bring fertiliser for their fields. Relations between the two communities had been tense for years but worsened dramatically after outbreaks of communal violence in 2012.

And then, in 2015, voting rights for Rohingya were withdrawn ahead of the anticipated election in November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. But it was quickly apparent that advocating for Rohingya was not on her agenda. In late 2016, ARSA militants launched their first attack on police posts.

The ensuing months in northern Rakhine, the center of the new insurgency, were fraught. Imams – accused of lending religious legitimacy to the violence – and community leaders like Ilias were suspect.

In early August, the military called a meeting with educated Rohingya in Doe Tan, Ilias said. They were told to sign a paper promising the tackle the insurgency. “It was a paper given by the military, like a peace contract,” he said.

But the militants attacked again on 25 August and soldiers were soon back in Ilias’s house. They saw bottles of medicine – used to stock his shop, he said – and accused him of treating ARSA fighters. “You are not a teacher, you are a doctor for ARSA,” they told him.

“There were four or five of them,” recalled Ilias. “They pushed me to the ground, then with the pliers they took away my nails. They beat me with a bamboo stick.” 

He was saved when a commander recognised him and reprimanded the soldiers. “I saw you, you are a teacher in the school, you are not a bad man,” Ilias recalled the commander saying. “He was just trying to convince me to give information about ARSA. But actually I don’t know about ARSA. How can I give him any information without knowing?”

After fleeing the village, leaving behind the body of his sister Basuma, who he described as a pious and well-liked widow, Ilias heard the whole area had been looted and razed. “The wealth was gone, the houses empty, no people... Then they started to burn from the outside part of the village. They were burning our houses for three days at least,” he said.

The United Nations’ top human rights official has called the recent violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Auu Kyi, on the other hand, has attracted international condemnation for failing to speak out. She decided not to attend the UN General Assembly this week, and has limited her comments to saying she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict. 

“You start systematically weakening a maligned group in order to make their existence either so fragile that they leave of their own accord, or to ensure they fail to put up much of a struggle when a military operation such as this gets underway,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.

Like many Rohingya, Ilias spent years finding ways to work within a system that ground him down. Now in Bangladesh, which has reluctantly accepted the new arrivals but has said it plans to keep them in camps, he is staring into an uncertain future (he was photographed for this article, but from behind, as he did not want to show his face for fear of retribution). “We have lost our homeland. Our birth place,” he said. “We are now here in Bangladesh but we don’t want to make any trouble. We don’t want to be destroyed, like waste.”

Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist reporting on South East Asia, mainly Myanmar