If you were born in the 1980s, you may have a recollection of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. From April 7 to mid-July of that year, the Hutu committed a mass genocide against the Tutsi, an ethnic minority in the country, killing approximately 800,000 people. The result was international condemnation and the creation of the International Criminal Court for those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
This Wednesday, Vassar hosted Burundian diplomat for the UN in New York City Dr. Levi Rukundo and survivor of the Rwandan genocide Iggy Ryangoma, to speak about their experiences regarding the atrocities in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Rukundo, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology, specializes in the resilience of children exposed to trauma, terror and war, and applied positive psychology. Rukundo is also the founder of the non-governmental organizations Regard a L’Enfant Traumatise, which takes care of orphans in the Great Lakes region of Africa, Trauma Healing and Integration Services, which works with traumatized refugees in South Africa.
Ryangoma, a graduate of Berkelee College of Music, is the father of four talented young musicians who form the family band The Magical Bunch. Ryangoma suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and credits his recovery to his family.
Rukundo’s talk focused on the UN reaction to the Rwandan genocide, citing them for gross inaction in the face of incredible horrors. His message was simple: “I want peace, security and truth through global exposure to these issues.” The UN has been widely criticized for the passive role it played in the Rwandan Genocide. In the award winning movie “Hotel Rwanda,” which is based on events that occurred during the genocide, UN Colonel Oliver, played by Nick Nolte, has the telling lines, “We’re here as peace keepers, not peace makers.”
This image became especially haunting when Ryangoma provided his own explanation of the genocide. He explained, “They started the war using children who had been trained for three days and given AK-47s and sent into towns. It’s something that the rebel armies will do to debilitate the opposition. They sent in children to fight men who only know how to fight other men. The men didn’t know what to do.”
Rukundo explained the United Nations rhetoric in the ongoing violence in the region. As he said, “We have to say no when people try to inject hatred between ethnic groups. We have to teach love. The UN works on the minds of people. They will elevate some groups and this destroys other communities and traditions.” He went on, “Other ethnic groups are characterized as killers and are thus cast as people who need to be killed themselves. We have found these manipulations in the media, in official speeches, by individual speakers in the UN.”
Rukundo went on to imply that the UN was too entangled in the politics of the region. He said, “In Burundi they are starting to demonize the president of the republic until they conspire to kill him. They will say that certain kinds of people are planning to destroy another ethnic group. They make lies to make all this real. They go all over the world making conferences just trying to destroy these societies.” This kind of rhetoric, Rukundo argued, was in part responsible for other uprisings including the Arab Spring, the reporting of which, Rukundo said, was distorted, “Quaddafi was not a dictator as it is printed today.”
Ryangoma said that in his own experiences, the media could cause harm in its portrayals. “A few hours before I came here there was a group of Hutu refugees that has been attacked from five different positions. The media does not pick it up,” he said. “They are Hutus when the media machine puts it out there … They made a word mean killer (Hutu), they lose their human status.”
Towards the end of his time, Rukundo circled back around to his original message, calling for countries to work together and citing the ongoing crimes in the region that are regularly overlooked. “Refugees from Rwanda are burned alive in many other African countries. How can we just keep quiet in the face of such atrocities? The United Nations sees this but they do nothing,” he said, adding, “We have to work with countries, UN, refugees, everyone, to find a common ground to see if we can solve these waves of atrocities.”
Ryangoma explained that Rwanda had not begun as a country marred by war. “The narrative that was given about Rwanda was written before the first bullets started flying on Oct. 1, 1990, that’s the day the war started. Before that they were talking about how they wanted to be the Switzerland of Africa.”
Ryangoma brought humor into his lecture, bringing in quotes from “Rush Hour 2” to expand on his understanding of how the conflict began. “Behind every big crime there’s a rich white man waiting for his cut,” he said, adding, “I have gone back to try to piece things together after leaving Rwanda.” Ryangoma went on to determine exactly who was behind the beginnings of the turbulence in that region of Africa, from Rwanda to South Sudan. “What’s been going on in central Africa?” he said, “The characters causing these events are still out here today.”
The rich white men, in this case, are a group of four Washington insiders, the names of whom Ryangoma at first seemed reluctant to divulge for the sake of peace. He finally did mention former American State Department envoy to Sudan Roger Winter and member of the U.S. Agency for International Development Brian D’Silva. “Those of us who have seen the fires they set still burning today, we finally understood,” Ryangoma said. “They sat in an Italian restaurant drinking beers, gave themselves tribal names and came up with the plan.”
The messages of Rukundo and Ryangoma were well harmonized throughout the lecture. More than anything, they both desired peace and safety for all. They both conveyed a great love for the Great Lakes region of Africa and appeared to carry the weight of the regions troubles. In the end, however, the most striking similarity was their distrust of the formerly imperialistic nations that seemed to have started it all, then stood by and watched.
There is an explanation for the ongoing genocide in the Great Lakes region that the two men care deeply about, Rukundo thinks its a larger force: “Cyclical violence in the region is the devils work to finish off the people there. This part of Africa has the greatest natural riches in the world. There is a mighty invisible hand behind all this, a hand that uses the world.”