By M.A. Student Megan Witt

On February 8th, in substitution for their weekly Capstone class, the Masters of Human Rights students traveled to the Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda in Northwest, D.C. Prof. Saunders chose to visit the embassy in honor of St. Bahkita’s feast day, one of the patron saints of the program. They were welcomed by Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana and her wonderful staff. Ambassador Mukantabana is the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Rwanda to the United States of America and a non-resident Ambassador to Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. The Ambassador has an impressive career history including a position at Consumnes River College as a professor of History and the Co-founder and President of the non-profit Friends of Rwanda Association (F.O.R.A). 

To begin the presentation, the Ambassador gave a brief background of the history of Rwanda. It is commonly known as “the land of one thousand hills,” and is comparable to the size of the state of Maryland. It is a landlocked country bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi. However, the Ambassador prefer to say they are land-linked, as she is adamant about uniting the division on the continent of Africa that she attributed to the lasting effects of colonization. She also explained the lasting effect of colonization on Rwanda specifically, and its role in leading up to the genocide of 1994.

In 1899 Rwanda came under the rule of the German Empire, but this ended after their defeat in World War I. It then became a Belgian colony through a mandate of the League of Nations. While Germany and Belgium ruled over Rwanda, they chose individuals they knew would collaborate with them to be in governmental positions and did not encourage Rwandans to rule themselves. This left a great void in their government when Rwanda gained independence in 1962. Belgium also created great division by racializing the different groups that lived there, the Hutu, Twa, and Tutsi. Belgian civil servants encouraged a view that the Hutus were the legitimate rulers over the Tutsi minority. This narrative left a lasting division that would become detrimental to Rwandan society. 

After years of political turmoil and tension, Rwanda’s first president Gregoire Kayibanda was the driving force in the rise of the Hutu Emancipation Party and the revolution. He came into power after a coup in 1961, which was approved by the Belgian government, and created a provisional government made up entirely of Hutus. In July 1962 when Rwanda gained independence, it was already in the middle of a revolution. Fearing for their lives, thousands of Tutsis began fleeing the country in 1964. Years later, in 1994, the situation worsened when a plane was shot down, allegedly by Hutu extremists, but this was never confirmed. The next day the Prime Minister, who was an advocate of unity between the Hutu and Tutsis, was assassinated. This led to the installation of a Hutu extremist government on April 9th. For the next several months a genocide of unfathomable violence took place. 

It is estimated that one million Tutsis were murdered between April and July of 1994, and more than two million Rwandans fled the country to find safety. The Ambassador described the tragedy from a first-hand account. She said that no institution was left untouched, even as deep as each family. At this point, many Hutu and Tutsis were married and very intermingled in their communities. She described that there was division even between husbands and wives, in-laws, and friends. She told a tragic story of a Hutu man who sent his children and wife, who were Tutsi, to live with his parents where he thought they would remain safe. However, his own brother murdered his wife and children despite their relationship. 

After the genocide, there was a great desire for revenge and justice from the citizens of Rwanda. In order to stop the cycle of violence that would continue, those in charge of rebuilding the country were determined to build peace. Their first step in doing this was the creation of Gacaca courts, where they brought those responsible for the genocide and those who participated in any way to justice. In doing this it strengthened the country’s trust that they did not have to take justice into their own hands and that the government would hold individuals accountable, so the citizens of the nation could focus on healing. They chose three pillars to guide their peace-building mission; unity, accountability, and thinking big. 

Rebuilding the communities was a large focus of the rebuilding as well, in prioritizing subsidiarity they were able to truly hear what the nation needed. They created the Umushyikirano which encourages a national dialogue of problems that communities may face and gives individuals an opportunity to be heard. Additionally, they enacted Imhigo which are reports written by each community to ensure they are creating goals to improve their community and enacting procedures to meet the goals. It holds community leaders accountable while giving communities the opportunity to work together and collaborate on innovative solutions. These are just a few of the many steps Rwanda has taken to bring peace back to its nation.

Rwanda is now a thriving country that helps other nations in Africa avoid experiencing a similar situation they did in 1994. They continue to evolve their laws and programs to meet the needs and desires of their citizens. Their perseverance and strength in the face of an unimaginable catastrophe is truly inspiring, and a witness to the fruits that can come from truly listening to and uniting the individuals of a nation through subsidiarity.