Death is as natural to all human beings as life itself. Regardless of one’s station in life or nationality, race and geography, it’s common to all.
Because it’s inescapable, death tends to unite people in most societies regardless of political or other differences. In some nations it’s even celebrated.
In Mexico, for example, death is celebrated. Every year, Mexicans, regardless of their other differences, honour their dead with a festival known as the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, marked on November 1. It is unlike any holiday, where mourning is exchanged for celebration.
In daily life in most nations, when death occurs, citizens tend to be polite to the departed. Instead of attacking their weaknesses and differences in life, they eulogize their successes as a mark of respect and common mortality.
For the Rwandan case, however, death is so divisive that few are left to rest in peace without excessive judgment and vilification especially when, in life, were involved in shaping public discourse; which, historically has tended to divide the country along two extreme narratives informed by political differences that never seem to meet on anything except vilification and a nation promoters of both narratives purport to love.
The divisiveness surrounding Rwanda’s dead was again on display this past weekend. On Saturday morning, news began trickling through on social media that Esperance Mukashema, a well-known figure in Rwanda’s exiled community, had passed-on.
The vitriol that followed, and still continues, cannot be printed in these pages. While she has been praised by exiles and even given an award, back inside Rwanda, some anonymous social media accounts operators have called Mukashema “a devil”. Social critic and self-styled genocide researcher Tom Ndahiro shared a post that says Mukashema will “not be missed by anyone except interahamwe and ibigarasha”.
In the context of the facts, “interahamwe” are the militias that roamed Rwanda’s villages in 1994 killing Tutsis. However, the term has taken on a new prominence, used to refer to anyone who the authorities in Rwanda consider as questioning the official version of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. As for ibigarasha, it is a term coined by President Paul Kagame in a speech in 2011, to refer to his former comrades, now exiled and fighting his government. Since then, it has become a loose appellation used to vilify anyone perceived to be critical of government or harbor ideas similar to those promoted by former Kagame allies.
Esperance Mukashema came to prominence due to regular interviews on the BBC and VOA Greatlakes services that air in Rwanda. She had managed to leave Rwanda in the late 2000s to Belgium, and repeatedly claimed that the RPF rebels killed her son Richard Sheja when in June 1994 they attacked a compound of the Catholic Josephite Brothers’ Order at Gakurazo in Gitarama, currently Muhanga district. Mukashema claimed her son was deliberately targeted, followed up by killing of many other people inside the facility.
The exact factual details of what happened at Gakurazo may never be known. While Mukashema’s version of events is loudly advanced by exiles and some individuals accused of taking part in the genocide against Tutsis, the ruling party in Rwanda has its own version of what transpired there.
In media interviews, paragraphs of books and all appearances, a genocide survivor herself, Mukashema claimed that after the genocide, she settled in Kigali where her family property was confiscated. Mukashema alleged that she was “ordered” to stay silent about what happened at Gakurazo. Other than forget her son, Mukashema says she opted to leave Rwanda. She has made some of the most outrageous claims about the tragedy that befell Rwanda in 1994.
As recognition for her outspokenness, Mukashema was awarded the so called ‘Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize’ set up by supporters of Ingabire Victoire, the government critic in Rwanda.
One would expect, like it is in most societies, that when Mukashema’s death was announced, there would have been restraint in respect for the dead and, in the process, an outpouring of sympathetic messages of homage. Unfortunately, in Rwanda, individuals’ view of her is shaped, not by common mortality, but by what divides us, politically. If you are not Rwandan, you only need to type ‘Esperance Mukashema’ into Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to probably make up your mind.
And this approach to death isn’t new
When Rwanda’s last monarch King KigeliV Ndahindurwa Jean Baptiste died in the US in October 2016, it opened another page of despising and praising a Rwandan in death. Though an ensuing legal battle was settled and the former monarch was buried at a private family funeral in Rwanda in January the following year, Kigeli’s passing brought both extremes of our political divide into the public sphere.
On one hand, Kigeli’s demise was described by one extreme as the final confirmation that the monarchy abolished in 1959, which had “enslaved Hutus” for centuries before, will never return. The official version inside Rwanda today is that the events of the time weren’t a revolution as they were marked by persecution and massacres of Tutsis leading to exile and, eventually the 1994 genocide. As confirmation of that, the Independence Day July 1, which followed the monarchy’s end, has since 1994 been turned into a day when public offices are closed, but no national celebration to mark it. That instead happens 3 days later on July 4, Liberation Day – marking the day in 1994 when the RPF took over Kigali and ended the genocide.
Kigeli lived desperately in the US state of Virginia, surviving largely on government handouts.
In September 2019, Gen Sylvestre Mudacumura, the reclusive commander of the Rwanda FDLR militia was killed. Accused in Rwanda of personally taking part in the 1994 genocide, his militia is believed to be an extension of an ideology that is determined to exterminate Tutsis. The media inside Rwanda was flooded with praise for the operation that killed Mudacumura. Government officials lined up on social media to celebrate the news. One minister shared a list of six names with a red sign on each, accompanied by “To be continued”.
Outside Rwanda, especially in Europe, Mudacumura was mourned as demise of a “liberator”. Public prayers were organized at which rallying calls were made for recruits to join “our children in Congo’s bushes so that Mudacumura’s legacy doesn’t die away”. On social media, glowing tributes were published of Mudacumura.
Since March this year, a book ‘Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad’ has had a review in most global media outlets that matter. It tells the story of Col Patrick Karegera, former head of external intelligence in Rwanda. The reception the book has received on either side of Rwanda’s extreme divides does not need any more text from The Chronicles.
Just for a piece of the pie, when Karegeya’s death became public a day after New Year’s Day in 2014, Rwanda’s defense minister at the time called Karegeya a “dog”. Karegeya was one of those for whom President Kagame coined the term “ibigarasha”.
Here in Rwanda, February 11, 2021 was a sad day. Lt Gen Jacques Musemakweli, the Inspector General of the RDF, died at a Kigali hospital. At his funeral, though he didn’t attend, President Kagame sent a tribute that said Musemakweli had “worked tirelessly and selflessly” for the country. Many posted his photos as their social media profile pictures. They told of his liberation credentials.
On the other side however, Musemakweli’s death was celebrated. Some exiles who were in government before 1994 accused him of ‘killing Hutus’, like they do with all officials who were in the RPF rebel movement. Days followed of barrage on social media and blogs of exiles where they ran allegations against him, many of which appear to be based on conspiracy theories.
April 6 or April 7?
Every year, since 1994, when April is approaching, the world has become accustomed to remembering the victims of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis. April 7 is officially recognized in Rwanda and by the UN as the day when, in 100-days, Tutsis were mercilessly massacred.
However, in European capitals, processions and prayers are held on April 6 as homage to former Rwandan leader Juvenal Habyarimana, killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali. This extreme side of Rwanda that marks this day has argued for the past 27 years that crimes were committed against Hutus.
Since 2016, Burundi, in a geopolitical jibe at the Rwandan government it accuses of orchestrating a failed coup in 2015, has been commemorating April 6 as remembrance for the former Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira who died in the same plane with Habyarimana. In essence, the Burundian political establishment believes it is hitting back at counterparts in Rwanda by undertaking such moves.
To complicate an already bad situation, the US and UK came out early last year with official positions that oppose the reference to the genocide as the “1994 genocide against the Tutsi”. This seems to have further emboldened Rwanda’s extreme sides.
There is no substantive facts proving that maintaining the artificial battle line waged between the two narratives in Rwanda’s discourse, is official policy. However, some actions by some key officials leave no doubt. In late 2019, a video surfaced on Facebook purported to have been a forum of AERG, the association of student genocide survivors, being addressed by President Kagame’s Security Advisor Gen James Kabarebe. The closed-door event had taken place July 16 that year.
Gen Kabarebe, a former defence minister and army chief, told the youngsters that they need to organise to protect the achievements of the liberation, otherwise the children of those defeated in 1994 were vigorously organizing. He said they were emerging best in schools in the Southern Africa region. Kabarebe said those who had been defeated had gone on to control economies in Southern Africa as they had become wealthy, which they intend to use to take the country back.
Though Gen Kabarebe didn’t use the words “Tutsi” and “Hutu”, which labels are a criminal offense when uttered to refer to Rwandans under Rwandan law, the tone and choice of words that Kabarebe deployed leave little to imagination.
These cases highlighted, of responses to Rwanda’s dead are a very small tip of larger iceberg. The list of those whose deaths have opened cans of anger and praise, cannot be exhausted. It includes non-Rwandans as well and social media plays host to these two diametrically opposed narratives on a daily basis.
To sustainably develop, the nation may not only need to reconsider how it treats its dead, but will also need to reconcile the two narratives.