Confronting Denial in Rwanda

Jean-Damascene Gasanabo, Director of Research and Documentation with the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (which goes by its French acronym, CNLG)
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On October 1, Jean-Damascene Gasanabo gave a talk titled “Confronting Denial” concerning the Rwandan National Commission for the Fight against Genocide which was hosted by the Genocide Studies Program at the MacMillan Center. Gasanabo is the Director of Research and Documentation with the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (which goes by its French acronym, CNLG), an organization that has partnered with Yale and other universities, and is focused on the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The CNLG’s mission is to prevent and fight against genocide, and to overcome its consequences.

In Rwanda, there is a commemoration period from April 7 to July 3 that CNLG helps to organize in villages throughout the country. Since the genocide happened across the country, not just in one area, there are more than 240 genocide memorial sites across Rwanda. The CNLG is currently working with UNESCO to have the memorial sites recognized as world heritage sites. The process involve filing documents, research, and working with committees in Africa and Europe. It is a two-year process, and by next year they will know whether they have been accepted or denied as world heritage sites.

“How can we know what’s really happening in this country?” Gasanabo asks.

There isn’t enough staff to go to each village for interviews and archival work. Instead the CNLG found an innovative solution: asking ministries, local officials, and company heads to find out what happened in their area during 1994, so they can trace the effects of the genocide. The CNLG prepares the materials and documents, and then the local administrators fill them out. This attention to finding out the truth in terms of the genocide is even practiced at the highest office. The CNLG holds a national conference during which the president of Rwanda meets to discuss genocide and human rights issues, which Gasanabo says is especially important for the youth.

Although there is virtually no money to give to survivors, the CNLG makes a substantial effort to track survivors, meet with them, and try to understand their problems. These problems include education for young people, health related issues, health insurance and accommodations. Gasanabo says the mission is to listen to survivors, and the Ministry of Health is working on conducting important research and monographs on the consequences of genocide (emotional and physical trauma), working with children born of rape, and female rape victims. The CNLG has worked with Aegis Trust to scan 45 million pages of documentation from the local-level, post-genocide gacaca trials (see below), for digital storage and eventual index into a searchable database. At the Murambli memorial, where thousands of skeletons have been on display for several years, the CNLG is working on finally interring most victims, while preserving the victims’ clothing, as well as 20 bodies, 9 children and 11 others, for coffins in an exhibition room for visitors.

Gasanabo posed two further questions: “After the genocide how can you ask people to reconcile? Can you ask someone to reconcile with your neighbor who killed your father?” There is a general call for national unity, and the work of the reconciliation committees to bring people together, but also give space for people to talk. That’s why Gacaca courts are important, they allow the judges and the community to listen to the perpetrators and the survivors, which could be seen as giving closure.

After the genocide, the judicial system was in peril. More than 130,000 people were convicted of genocide, and that was just the beginning. From 2002-2012, there were two million cases in gacaca trials, which are a community system of justice based on Rwandan tradition.

“It’s a Rwandan solution to a Rwandan problem,” he says.

The CNLG takes the assurance of accurate depictions of the genocide seriously. In fact, if an individual wants to make a film about genocide they must apply for a grant and sign a contract. There have already been bad experiences concerning people filming in Ghana, and then using the film to deny genocide. He says even the actor Morgan Freeman had to get a grant. He equates the message of “See something, say something” found in American metro systems, to the system used in Rwanda. Citizens are encouraged to report incidents of genocide denial to the police, a prosecutor general decides if it is genocide denial, and if it is, it is sent to the CNLG. Article 10 of the Rwandan constitution vows to fight genocide, and eradicate “ethnic, regional and other divisions for national unity,” and Rwandan law criminalizes negation, minimization, justification of genocide, and violence against genocide survivors, while prohibiting the granting of a visa or permit of residency to genocide deniers.

A big step in the international circle is a recent change to French law in 2017. Article 24 was amended to prohibit the denial of internationally recognized genocide, which includes the Tutsi genocide, and threatens a penalty of one year imprisonment and a 45,000 euro fine. Also, in January 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted draft resolution and recognized the 7th of April as an international day of reflection on the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The addition of “against the Tutsi” gives Gasanabo and Rwanda hope that there is a serious possibility of an international commitment to accurately depicting the genocide.

Sharing a Paul Kagame quote he likes, he says that Rwanda has found itself in a difficult position, but will get itself out of it in a revolutionary way. He says that reconciliation, and understanding will take some time, but he emphasizes that the Rwandan people are a resilient people, and they will learn to live together.

Written by Amanda Thomas, Saybrook ‘21.