Features | Forgiving the unthinkable

After witnessing reconciliation in Rwanda first-hand, Sarah Flatto comments on Canada’s recent action – and inaction – in bringing refugee genocide perpetrators to justice

When I arrived in Rwanda at the start of a nine-week internship this June, traces of the 1994 genocide were nowhere to be found. I went to Rwanda under the impression that defining ethnicity as either Tutsi or Hutu had somehow become obsolete, since public use of these terms is being phased out. I expected to encounter darkness in the eyes of a population traumatized by the unthinkable. I expected to find tangible remnants of destruction and despair.

But I didn’t. There were no bloodstained sidewalks, no cratered buildings, no empty villages. Most of the people I met in Rwanda were quicker to smile and laugh freely than I am. The friendliness and energy of the Rwandan people who shaped my experience of the country complicated my initial judgments.

Between 500,000 and a million people were massacred in just 100 days during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The crisis is now often considered to be one of the worst incidences of human cruelty fueled by political and ethnic extremism, and is a notorious case of the failure of international peacemaking.

Canada, and especially Quebec, have had important ties to Rwanda for many years. Quebecois scholars have taught in Rwanda, at the reputable National University of Butare, and many Rwandans have traveled to Quebec to study and work. Native Montrealer Roméo Dallaire was the force commander of the United Nations Mission for Rwanda. His memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil, recounts his experience of the genocide. After his calls for increased troops and logistical support were rebuffed by the UN, he watched in vain as the situation steadily worsened.

Canada’s link to Rwanda is particularly important when it comes to welcoming immigrants. The Canadian government has purposefully pursued a policy of multiculturalism since the 1988 introduction of the Multiculturalism Act, an unprecedented declaration of openness and tolerance. The act has, in part, provided for the continuing influx of immigrants searching for freedom in Canada. But what are the limits of multiculturalism? To what extent can individuals seek asylum in Canada when they are escaping punishment for serious crimes? Under Canadian and international law, a person can attain refugee status “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.” In addition, there is a special “designated class [of people] in need of resettlement” who may not necessarily meet the strict criteria of refugee status. Currently, applicants from Rwanda are part of this designated class.

The more time I spent in Rwanda, visiting massacre sites and speaking to more and more people, I began to notice footprints of the genocide everywhere. As I grew closer to the Rwandans with whom I was working and living, I began to understand the profound emotional after-effects of the genocide. Many survivors have been driven from their homes; or, being unable to live in proximity to their family’s killers, have established new villages almost wholly composed of other survivors. This self-segregation has, to an extent, prevented these communities from healing from the past decade’s traumas. It has also reinforced mutual hatred between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus, passing the animosity to new generations. Conversely, in other neighbourhoods, both victims and perpetrators have reconciled, and live peacefully – they shake hands in the street and sit near each other in church.

I didn’t believe this initially. I can’t bring myself to forgive people who hurt me or my friends, so I found it incredible that these Rwandans were able to forgive the people who murdered their loved ones and destroyed their lives. P., one of my Rwandan friends who is the sole survivor of his family, told me gently, “The ones that don’t forgive also kill themselves.” Another friend, E., watched his five siblings and father get hacked to death. E. was cut on the head and left for dead, but somehow survived. He spent two years recuperating in Italy before returning to Rwanda. Now, he is fluent in Italian and takes any chance he gets to invite his acquaintances over for home-cooked Italian food. With every story I heard, I was repeatedly confronted with the message that if someone is not at peace with others, they cannot be at peace in their own minds – and vice versa. The Rwandans I met were willing to forgive personal grudges that might have otherwise led to more violence.

Despite the forgiveness that has been fostered on individual and community levels, those who were perpetrators of the genocide should be brought to justice for their crimes.

Canada took a step in the right direction by placing Désiré Munyaneza on trial in 2007 for crimes against humanity committed during the 1994 genocide. He was denied refugee status in Canada by the Immigration and Refugee board under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that refugees cannot seek asylum in Canada if they are charged with crimes against humanity. Five other men who have been formally charged with genocide crimes in Rwanda are living freely in Canada, and as many as one hundred other proven leaders of the genocide are at large in other countries. The Rwandan government should be able to assume legal responsibility for the condemnation of criminals Pierre Clestin Halindintwali, Gaspard Ruhumuliza, Evariste Bicamumpaka, Lon Mugesera, and Vincent Ndamage, who all helped rally their friends and neighbours to perform mass murders.

Objectively speaking, these men could fit under the legal category of refugee or designated class – they are not safe from persecution in their home countries. But the social and humanitarian implications of their past actions must be considered; a public indictment and trial is not a violation of their human rights.

The concept of international law in and of itself is one of dispute, debate, and subjectivity. However, the perpetration of genocide should not be subject to jurisdictional nuances or oversensitive multiculturalism that will let it slip through the cracks. Such responses to the Rwandan criminals-at-large have the potential to bring relief and justice to those still suffering from the implications of the genocide. It is almost inconceivable that in an age of accessible information and facilitated communication – especially given that both their names and acts have been published in newspapers – that these men are still able to escape from the past. Just as bottom-up approaches to progress, the likes of which are pervasive in Rwanda, are effective in peace-building and trauma rehabilitation, top-down approaches cement a paradigm for accountability.

The line between tolerance and complacency, appreciation and deference, understanding and apathy, is almost impossible to navigate constructively. Yet that does not relieve the Canadian government of its moral duty to locate and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity. These men deliberately deprived others of lives and liberty; their uninhibited freedom is an insult to a million lost souls and those who survive them.


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