Rwanda – Ethnic War, Refugees and Repatriation

Rwanda is a densely populated small state in the Great Lakes region of Africa where it meets East Africa in the Great Rift Valley. Because of the elevation, the climate is more temperate than tropical. Rwanda became known around the world in 1994 when, at the end of a civil war between Tutsi and Hutu, the Akazu Hutus led a genocide that murdered 800,000 Tutsi ad moderate Hutu in 10 weeks. Where Israel/Palestine has a population of about 12 million, half Jews and half Palestinian, Rwanda has a slightly larger population of 12.5 million. The land size is just over 12,000 square km., about twice the size of the Palestinian territories; the combined Israeli-Palestine territory is slightly over 20,000 sq. km.

Rwanda is also akin to the Israel/Palestine in its experience of decades of civil strife between ethnic groups, in this case between Hutu and Tutsi. There are two major differences, however. The two ethnic groups speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, have the same cultural practices and are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. In contrast, the Palestinians and Israelis speak different languages, Arabic and Hebrew, have very different cultural practices, and belong to two different religions – largely Muslim with some Christians on one side and members of the Jewish faith on the other. The main difference is in the proportions of the two groups. Hutus constitute 85% of the population while Tutsis are 14%. Yet since 1994 and before 1969, Tutsis dominated the political realm even though, since the military victory of the Tutsi-led invasion or return and the end of the genocide, Rwanda has advertised itself as consisting of a single national group , a unitary state.

In the 35-year interregnum when the Hutu rose from a subjugated group to rulers between 1959-61 and 1994, the Tutsi were persecuted. In the civil war which overthrew the Tutsi monarchy in 1959, 550,00 Tutsis were forced to flee the country over the next two years, mainly into Uganda (200,000) and Burundi (245,000). The Tutsi in exile demanded a right of return but were denied. About half of them supported the use of violence as a means of return, but a serious defeat in 1963 ended that effort for 27 years until a Tutsi led army, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded from Uganda.

The victory of that RPF followed the genocide of 800,000 domestic Tutsi and moderate Hutu. It was followed by the exodus of over 2,000,000 Hutu refugees (the figure is usually grossly exaggerated) who mainly fled into the Congo. They did not demand to return. In fact, they were kept from making any such demands by the defeated Hutu Rwandan army that induced or forced many to flee. They only returned two years after the end of the war when the new Tutsi dominated army invaded Uganda in reprisal for guerilla attacks and decimated the remaining old army. Hutu refugees then voluntarily or under pressure marched back into Rwanda.

Thus, in both movements, the Tutsi return in 1994 and the Hutu return in 1996, there was no return as a matter of right but a return under force of arms. The new Rwandan government had set out on a policy of forging a single predominant nationality and leaving the Hutu/Tutsi divide in the ashes of history. Further, one cannot find a case of refugee return as a matter of right but only when accompanied by a victorious army.  (Cf. Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation) How can there be rights with no instances of those rights?

Whether refugees return by right or under force of arms, there remains both the issue of restitution and reintegration. Given the goal of replacing the Hutu/Tutsi divide with a common citizenship and primary identity, how is that achieved. Rwanda set up ingando camps, really reeducation and indoctrination centres to alter the way Hutus had been taught to view Tutsis. While in the camps, the returned refugees wear military uniforms of the Rwandan army, live together and participate in shared activities. The government calls them solidarity camps engaged in civic education to facilitate reintegration. Among the very wide variety attending such camps, those that interest us include ‘old caseload’ and ‘new caseload’ returnees, ex-FAR soldiers and demobilised rebels (adult and youth ex-combatants), but also provisionally-released prisoners and those serving ‘alternative sentences.’

Andrea Purdekova from Oxford University in her 2008 article, “Repatriation and reconciliation in divided societies: the case of Rwanda’s ‘ingando’,” and in her 2011 Refworld article, Rwanda’s Ingando camps: “Liminality and the reproduction of power,” described the purpose of the camps initially as raising awareness of being a Rwandan (rather than a Tutsi or Hutu) and reinforcing solidarity through self-help. The re-education programs also took on the provision fo military training as a mode of politicization of the diaspora experience and transforming it into a new nationalism.

Can one imagine Palestinians attending an IDF-run reeducation camp intended to inculcate an Israeli identity in Palestinians, or PLO-run camps in which Israelis are persuaded to adopt a Palestinian identity, all in the promotion of one version of a unitary state or another? The promoters of the one state solution do not envision such a project. Jewish Israelis do not expect Palestinians to identify fully with the state and Palestinian promoters of one Palestinian identity for Jews and Palestinians do not go as far as envisioning Jews in the settlements and in Israel attending such reeducation centres.

Yet without a strategy of consolidation of a uniform identity (inspired by Maoist principles), no construction of a unitary state will succeed in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis will enjoy equal citizenship. The dreams of Peter Beinart, or Salem Barahmeh, Amjad Iraqi and Dr. Yara Howari from an opposite angle, will remain fantasies. Can you envision Howari indoctrinating Jewish Israelis into the conviction that Zionism all along was a colonialist enterprise and that it is incumbent on those Jews who want to remain and live in Palestine to identify as Palestinians? Even more than that, the culture of the camps accent discipline and respect of authority. For Israelis? The proposers of the unitary state do not even stretch their imaginations into a government-employed strategy of social re-engineering that would be required on a large scale.

Even with all the experience and thought given to re-education, the activities of an ingando are known to be fraught with suspicion and distrust even when the focus is on the next generation. Parents feared their children would be killed. The primary challenge of a re-educator is to overcome that fear in order to “open the reality of the country,” build confidence among people, and, most importantly, build a sense of national unity. Further, in spite of the rhetoric of such lofty goals, the real underlying purpose is to clean minds, detoxify them and substitute a new way of perceiving things. Old beliefs and previous ideologies must be erased and minds reoriented and “sensitized.” Without such a process, creating a unified identity is viewed as impossible. The view is that, unlike Israel, one needs a consensus to build a nation – and that is clearly articulated in the views of the Palestinian opinion leaders I featured. The PLO needed to speak with a single voice. The question is how a democracy and respect for multiple viewpoints can be erected upon such a foundation of re-education and the desire for a unified vision.

The Israeli culture encourages debate and difference as indicated by the dissidents I have highlighted. Bringing citizens into “accord” and stressing that “convergence is unity” would seem to be anathema to the Israeli spirit. The idea that one needs consensus to build a nation is inherently not a democratic foundation. Yet how else can one bring such different cultures that so distrust one another into sharing a common citizenship, the same ideas about history and, in the Palestinian vision, a common national identity? In fact, such ideological brainwashing encourages a repressed distrust even as it is advertised as getting to sort out differences and “see things the same way.” Instead of ethnic cleansing at one extreme, you have mental cleansing at the other end of the spectrum.

All this is just to say that neither Peter Beinart at one end of the unitary state thesis and Palestinians at the other end have thought out the implications of what they are recommending as a movement towards a unitary state. The Rwandans learned that a government of unity promoting a single overarching nationality requires abandoning certain attitudes and beliefs, creating a convergence of knowledge and opinion, and adoption of consensus on key topics such as history and government policy. Such an effort is incompatible with democracy. Yet the two-state solution seems to be dead-ended. A confederate state would simply institutionalize the distrust between the two peoples.

What then – simply accept that nothing can be done to advance a reconciliation agenda? I suggest that a program does suggest itself, one that does not try to sort out the polity for each group or the geographical boundaries of each nation’s state but recognizing that Israel is already a binational state and making it work. Launch a program to ensure that all Israeli citizens genuinely and more fully have equal rights. There should be no excuse for second class citizenship. Encourage Palestinians to develop their own communal sense of a national identity with the requisite instruments to advance such identification while remaining loyal to the Israeli state.

Further, instead of moving towards an Israeli identity for Jews, move to strengthen their Jewish identity both in Israel and the diaspora. That would mean making knowledge of Hebrew an expectation for all Jews. That would mean ensuring that Jews share a broad sense of their own historical literature and the route the Jewish nation has traveled over the centuries. That would mean strengthening much further the identification of all Jews with a state of Israel, a country in which they can feel unbridled pride.

Finally, it would mean respecting and treating with dignity Palestinians who are not citizens even as one tried to ensure one’s own nation’s security.

A stronger democracy, not a weaker one. A stronger Jewish nationalism, not a weaker one. And a stronger respect and recognition for the collective and individual rights of others who are not citizens of your own state. Be a better citizen of the world and allow time to find a path out of the political dead end of the present.


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