Rwanda and Burundi: Twins in Central Africa

T O W A R D S  T H E  C E N T R E  of the great African landmass lie the small landlocked nations of Rwanda and Burundi. Although they differ in a number of ways, the countries are often described as ‘twins’. But why is this? Their landscapes are undulating, lusciously green and heavily cultivated. Although small in size, they are two of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Both speak complex Bantu languages: Kinyarwanda in Rwanda and Kirundi in Burundi. They suffered the pains of colonisation and ethnic antagonism at around the same time, culminating in the genocides against the Tutsi in 1994. Over the last twenty years, however, there is evidence to suggest that these ‘twins’ have begun to separate. Rwanda, having clawed itself out of a shallow grave, has become a Central African haven of peace and progress. Burundi, on the other hand, has experienced bouts of political upheaval and civil war, and remains one of the poorest – if not the poorest – countries in the world.

Colonial Legacies

Prior to colonisation, Rwanda and Burundi (or Urundi, as Burundi was then called) formed two powerful kingdoms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the two territories were merged into German East Africa, along with Tanganyika (the mainland of present day Tanzania). After the defeat of Germany in World War 1, German East Africa was divided between Britain and Belgium under a League of Nations mandate. Britain took over Tanzania, and Rwanda and Burundi became part of Belgian’s colonial empire, known as Rwanda-Urundi.

The Germans and the Belgians could not help but notice the extent to which the inhabitants of Rwanda and Burundi were both linguistically and culturally homogenous; yet, at the same time, they noticed how the societies were split into three distinct ethnic groupings. The relationship between these groupings was intricate, characterised by a high degree of fluidity and flexibility: they were socially mixed, intermarriage was common and it was possible for individuals to move from Hutu to Tutsi or Tutsi to Hutu, if their social circumstances changed. Predictably, the Germans did not recognise the complexities of these relationships, and proceeded to pigeonhole the peoples of Rwanda and Burundi into three categories: the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa.

The racist colonialists of Europe considered the Hutu and the Twa to be at an early stage of human evolution. The Tutsi, on the other hand, were perceived to be intelligent, self-disciplined, physically attractive and – this is key – superior to the Hutu and the Twa. (Indeed, a Dominican priest once proposed that the Tutsi had originated from the Garden of Eden.)

Unsurprisingly, these stereotypes deeply affected the groups’ collective self-image and societal worth. They caused the ego of the Tutsi to inflate, and the ego of the Hutu to descend vertiginously into a pit of spiteful inferiority. Fundamentally, it produced a fissure within the bonds of society based on ethnic categorization. It was these early distinctions which acted as a spawning ground for the genocidal ideology that would come to define politics in Rwanda and Burundi.

Post-colonial Mayhem

Belgium finally removed their colonial shackles on July 1st, 1962, when Rwanda and Burundi were granted their independence. In Burundi the Tutsi minority retained power after independence, whilst in Rwanda a Hutu-led revolution abolished the Tutsi monarchy. A politics of ethnicity had begun to infect the public consciousness in both nations.

The first significant massacre of the Tutsi populace in Rwanda occurred in 1959, after the death of the Tutsi king, Mwaami Rudahigwa. Subsequent massacres occurred in 1962, 1963, 1967 and 1972, causing a mass exodus of Rwandese Tutsis into neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. It was not until April 7th, 1994, however, that a final solution to the Tutsi “problem” was implemented.

In just one hundred days, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu community lost their lives in the most efficient episode of mass killing since the desolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are simply no words to describe the horror unleashed in that fateful season of blood. Rwanda, along with Srebrenica, Auschwitz and Cambodia, will forever be remembered as a nadir of twentieth century human endeavour.

Burundi also experienced a cluster of massacres after independence, two of which have been described as genocide by the United Nations Security Council: the 1972 slaughter of Hutus by the predominantly Tutsi army, and the mass killings of Tutsis in 1994 by the wider Hutu population. It is estimated that over 100,000 people lost their lives during the violence of 1972 and a further 300,000 people in the massacres of 1994. The numbers killed in the Burundian genocides pale in comparison to Rwanda, but they are still colossal and deserve considerably more attention than they have received in the international press.

When Twins Grow Apart

As mentioned above, Rwanda and Burundi share much common ground, in terms of their history, geography, culture and language. However, over the last two decades, these twins of Central Africa have begun to go their separate ways.

That fateful spring of 1994 saw the rotting of the Rwandan tree, and the dying of its leaves. The Habyarimana regime had been allowed to pump lies, fear and junkyard propaganda into society for over thirty years. And a class of lumpen, uneducated, losers was bred: ready and waiting for the occasion when saturnalia and frantic destruction made itself known. By the end of July 1994, Rwanda was lifeless, its people barely registering a pulse.

The Rwanda of 2014 could not be more different. The roads are now smooth, buildings are being constructed, business is thriving, the land is cultivated and (slowly but surely) people are lifting themselves out of poverty. According to the Government of Rwanda, the rate of GDP growth increased from 2.2% in 2003, to 7.8% in 2010, peaking at 11.5% in 2008. The Rwandan parliament is comprised of 64% females (a world record, by the way). Smartly dressed police officers and soldiers stand guard at intersections. The Internet connections are amongst the best this author has experienced in Africa. But, most importantly: many, many Rwandans are now happy.

Once a people characterised by tribal divisions, the Rwandans have demonstrated that they can transcend their differences and – regardless of the comparisons one could make – build a nation of which anyone would be proud. Over the one hundred days following April 7th, 2014, they will be commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. This is understandably a very hard time for many Rwandans, especially for “survivors” of the genocide. However, it is also a time to celebrate the extraordinary journey of reconciliation and reconstruction upon which their country has embarked.

Burundi, unfortunately, has not experienced the same level of success. In Rwanda the civil war stopped very soon after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the administration currently holding office – overthrew the Hutu-power regime responsible for planning and perpetrating the genocide. Burundi, on the other hand, remained in a state of simmering civil war up until 2004.

The economy of Burundi has grown at a much slower rate than Rwanda’s as a result of this protracted conflict. According to the World Bank, in 2012, Burundi was the second poorest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita. Only the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo stood further from the threshold of modernity.

The current president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, was democratically elected in early 2005 in what was generally considered to be a free and fair election. The country has since enjoyed some longer periods of relative peace. Over recent months, however, political tensions have escalated, leaving many observers concerned about the future of the country’s fragile peace and democracy. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Government officials, police, and the youth league of the ruling party have obstructed opposition party meetings and disrupted demonstrations and other activities.”

In March 2014, violence broke out between police forces and members of the opposition party, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD). In retaliation, the incumbent regime, the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), suspended the MSD for four months and charged 70 people with inciting and carrying out violent attacks. HRW assert that many of these arrests were arbitrary and unjustified. After just a single day of trials, 21 people were given life sentences and a further 26 people received a variety of other jail terms.

Recent developments have been even more concerning. Paul Debbie, a top UN official, was ordered to leave Burundi on April 17th this year after a report was leaked claiming that the CNDD-FDD had been providing arms to youth gangs ahead of the 2015 general election. According to the report, the Imbonerakure (Kirundi for “those who see far”) militia group, the youth wing of President Nkurunziza’s party, have received training and arms from the government. The similarities to the Interahamwe (Kinyarwanda for “those who stand together”) militia group equipped prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide are extremely worrying.

The Burundian government deny the accusations. “I can assure you that any action to bring about war in general and to commit genocide in particular, cannot be tolerated,” said Prosper Bazombanza, the Vice President of Burundi, in a late-night radio interview. He demanded that the UN either retract the report or provide substantive evidence in support of its claims. Nonetheless, the Burundian government has refused a UN call for an independent investigation into the report’s accusations.

Burundi has traditionally taken pride in a strong civil society and an independent media. The CNDD-FDD is doing its best to remove these freedoms. If Mr Debbie’s suspicions prove correct, it seems they are willing to achieve this goal through the most depraved of means: by arming and training civilian death squads. The Government of Burundi has tried and failed to silence the voices of dissent before, although this does appear to be their most determined effort yet. As Rwandans remember, unite and renew during the Kwibuka 20 commemoration ceremonies, is it possible that Burundi is at risk of regressing back into the chaos of twenty years ago?


The histories of Rwanda and Burundi were inextricably linked for many hundreds of years: their verdant topographies are barely distinguishable from one another; Kinyarwanda and Kirundu, their respective languages, share more commonalities than differences; both were colonised by the Germans and the Belgians; they celebrated independence together in 1962; and, finally, the two countries found themselves at the brink of total annihilation in 1994.

Over the proceeding two decades, these twins of Central Africa have trodden different paths. Rwanda has begun to put a past of tribalism and mass slaughter behind it, in favour of cosmopolitism and economic growth. Burundi, disappointingly, seems to be taking more steps backward than forward. The government is clamping down on dissent, arresting opponents on trumped-up charges, thus threatening Burundi’s hard-won democracy ahead of the 2015 elections. It will take more than luck to stop this beautiful country joining South Sudan and the Central African Republic on the list of failing African states. It will, if Rwanda has taught us anything, take time, energy and resources. But then again, if Rwanda has taught us one thing, it will be well worth our while.

Fergus Simpson

Kigali, 6th June 2014

(Published at:


A Week to Remember

S A N D W I C H E D  B E T W E E N  F O U R countries towards the centre of the great African landmass lies the small nation of Rwanda – a country of hills, rivers, cows and smiles. At its epicentre you will find the city of Kigali: a clean, calm, temperate municipality and Rwanda’s capital since independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1962. All over the city, as if from nowhere, new buildings have begun to spring up that would not look out of place in London or the South of France. You can almost feel the air vibrate with the rhythms of progress. At every street corner and across the front of every church there are banners emblazoned with four words and a flame: the flame represents Rwanda’s hard earned peace and the words read, “Kwibuka 20: Remember, Unite, Renew.”

I took a night drive with my new friend Christopher Mugabo, a middle aged Rwandan who had kindly agreed to show me his fair city. I watched as he looked out with immense pride at the bright lights of progress shining across Kigali’s undulating landscape. Then, in near perfect English, he said to me, “Kigali, today, is a city of hope, a city of economic development and a place of peace; however, the things that are most different from the time before are the smiles you see on people’s faces and the laughter that you hear in people’s voices.” In Rwanda, the time before represents all history that occurred prior to April 7th 1994, the time before represents all history that passed before the apocalypse.

I have come to Rwanda to join its people in remembering the twentieth anniversary of the genocide that engulfed the country in the spring of 1994. Over the last week I have been in Kigali, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what happened here and where this country now finds itself in the modern world.

But who are the Rwandans? They now number approximately twelve million and occupy an area of only 26,338 km2 (an area only slightly larger than Wales). On arrival in Rwanda and its twin Burundi, the first explorers could not help but notice the extent to which the inhabitants were both linguistically and culturally homogenous; yet, at the same time, they were struck by the way in which society was divided into three different ethnic groupings: the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa.

All three shared the same Bantu language – Kinyarwanda – (Rwandan’s do not suffer the problem of Babel) and had lived side by side in relative peace prior to colonisation. The Hutu, who made up 85% of the population, tended to practice arable farming and dominated the peasant classes. They were generally short and stocky, with a physical aspect typical of the Bantu people. The Tutsi comprised only 14% of the population, practiced mostly pastoral farming (many were wealthy cattle herders), and were often extremely tall with sharp facial features and an aquiline nose. The Twa were very few and very poor, they made up just 1% of the population, were of pygmoid origin and often lived as hunter-gatherers in the forest.

The European colonialists did not view the Hutu and the Twa to be much advanced than the great apes of Western Rwanda. The Tutsi, on the other hand, were perceived to be intelligent, self-disciplined, physically attractive and – this is key – superior to the Hutu and the Twa. (Indeed, a Dominican priest once proposed that the Tutsi had originated from the Garden of Eden.) Unsurprisingly, these stereotypes had a deep affect on the groups’ collective self-image and societal worth. It caused the ego of the Tutsi to inflate, and the ego of the Hutu to descend vertiginously into a pit of spiteful inferiority. Fundamentally, it produced a fissure within the bonds of society based on ethnicity categorization. It was these early distinctions, imposed by Belgian and German colonisers, which acted as a spawning ground for the genocidal ideology that would come to define Rwandan politics.

The first significant massacre of the Tutsi populace occurred in 1959 after the death of the Tutsi king Mwaami Rudahigwa. Clusters of killings were committed over the next four decades, causing a mass exodus of Rwanda’s Tutsi community into neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – a predominantly Tutsi-led guerrilla force – invaded Rwanda from Uganda in October 1990. A ceasefire was signed on the 29th March 1991, although the Tutsi population continued to be terrorised by spouts of violence. It was roughly around this time when the Rwandan army began to train and equip a civilian death squad known as the Interahamwe (“those who stand together”), and the fanatical Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM) began its broadcasts of hate. The cogs of genocide had been oiled and were slowly beginning to turn.

On the night of April 6th 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali, acting as the casus belli for a carnival of cruelty that was send Rwanda back into a state of nothingness that would have impressed even a Pol Pot or a Stalin. In just one hundred days, the genocide claimed the lives of between 800,000 and 1,000,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu community. The United Nations, the United States and the rest of the world watched with indifference as the fabric from which Rwandan society had been woven was violently torn to pieces. At this point in history, Rwandans will tell you that they had no friends. Mothers killed children and children killed mothers, teachers killed pupils and pupils killed teachers. There are simply no words to describe the horror that occurred in that fateful season of blood.

The humbling of the Hutu-power regime and their psychopathic death squads finally took place in July 1994. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of Kigali and began to purge the préfectures of Interahamwe and soldiers still loyal to the incumbent administration. After decades in exile, over 750,000 exiled Rwandans, mainly ethnic Tutsi, were able to return to the verdurous hills of their homeland. Whilst abroad this swathe of émigrés acquired a host of skills and qualifications. They have since been key a component in the rebirth of the Rwandan nation and spirit. From this point onwards, Rwanda started upon the epic voyage of reconstruction and reconciliation that has made it the Central African haven of peace and relative prosperity that it is today.

My flight arrived in Kigali airport on the evening of April 5th 2014. As soon as I enter the main foyer of the airport, a friendly young man asks if he can help me with my bags. I accept his offer, somewhat reluctantly. Though I had no reason to be concerned – my bags are delivered to the taxi rank free of charge and I am bid farewell with a welcoming smile. I manage to shout down a taxi in less than five minutes and touch down at the door of my hostel in a punctual quarter of an hour.

The first thing that you notice upon arrival in Kigali is the exquisite cleanliness of the place: no cigarette butts; plastic bags are banned; congestion is minimal; the roads are scrupulously maintained; streetlights line the pavements; police keep a watchful eye out for troublemakers. The sense of peace and security is comparable to that of any European city. This is not the scene with which one expects to be confronted in a city that was, just twenty years ago, the epicentre of the most efficient episode of mass killing since the desolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After checking in at the hostel, I wonder, out loud, where was the nearest bar. “Bar?” says the receptionist. “The Englishman needs a bar!” A tall, elegant Rwandan lady takes my hand and walks me to the hostel door. “Go straight, take the first left, walk for about ten minutes and you will get to Sundowners. Its the best bar in town.” I voice my concerns: it is already dark, it is my first time in Kigali and walking does not seem the most appealing of options. She retorts, “You English, you are silly scared, Kigali is safe, just like London, trust me”. Not totally reassured, still shell-shocked by her loveliness and unsure of where I was heading, I take her advice and march off into the night.

As advised, I arrive at the watering hole in good time, without hassle. Rwandan music videos play on a big screen towards the back of the bar. Young men and women chat and hold hands, lounging away the warm evening over cold beers and sodas. James Bagabo, a student studying civil engineering in his mid twenties, enters with his girlfriend. They find a quiet table where the light is good and settle down with their course books. They quiz each other throughout the evening.

Two men invite me to come and sit with them. Their names are Pius and David. Pius is a DJ and David runs a taxi company. “Thank you for coming to Rwanda at this difficult time. You are most welcome”, said Pius. I would hear encouraging comments of this nature throughout memorial week. The Rwandans want the world to know what happened here, but they also want people to know what their country is like now and where it is heading. Both Pius and David had returned to Rwanda from Uganda after the RPF put an end to the genocide. They arrived with nothing and have since managed to forge a satisfying and comfortable existence in their native capital. More fundamentally, both of them are now happy. The enterprising spirit present in both Pius and David is positively palpable throughout Kigali: nearly everyone I spoke with has plans to start their own business or study at one of the country’s numerous universities. Believe me when I say Rwanda does not need or want your sympathy. Rwanda wants your support and it deserves your respect.

Genocide memorial week starts every year on 7th April and begins in Amahoro (meaning “peace” in Kinyarwanda) Stadium in Kigali. Early, sometime before 8am, I enter an enormous queue at the entrance to the stadium. On this day tens of thousands of Rwandans have come to remember the dead and to stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who survived the killings of 1994. This year, being the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, there are a number of high profile attendees, including Tony Blair, Ban Ki Moon, Paul Kagame, William Hague, Thabo Mbeki, Yoweri Museveni, Mary Robinson, and many other heads of state and national delegates. A variety of speakers took to the podium throughout the day, but two moments stand out as worth recounting in more detail.

It was during the testimony of Fidele Rwamuhizi, a “survivor”, that I first heard the screams. The testimony was delivered in Kinyarwanda. Fortunately, Joseph Bizimungu, a proficient speaker of English and student at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, was seated next to me and offered to translate. I will not relay the traumas to which Fidele had been exposed; I will just say that the level of cruelty was unimaginable. As he spoke, various members of the audience began to cry. The tears spread through the crowd as wave. The tears then evolved into mixture of maniacal wailing and shouting. “Please, please don’t kill me. Forgive me. I am sorry. Have mercy.” Security guards carried some of the worst affected members of the audience out of the stands. It was as if these people were reliving the moment when the Interahamwe first came to dispose of them and their families. I have never witnessed people so traumatised as this. These chilling displays of emotion serve as a stoic reminder that the effects of the Rwandan genocide will be felt for many years to come.

The second moment of significance was the speech of Rwanda’s existing president, Paul Kagame. Throughout the week of remembrance I have had many discussions with Rwandans about their president and his party, the RPF. Despite the criticisms that have been levelled against the man, I have been left with very little doubt that the citizens of Kigali love their president. As soon as he set foot on the podium, flickers of excitement shot through the crowd. William grabbed my hand excitedly, “Mr Fergus. Listen closely. This is the man that saved Rwanda. This is the man that stopped the genocide.”

Kagame spoke clearly and slowly, with perfectly punctuated rhythm, switching from Kinyarwanda to English and back again with ease. The man is a world-class orator. The beginning of the speech was relatively innocuous, but it was not long before the president’s polemical skills were on full show. He excoriated the international community for its insouciance in 1994. The rhetorical attack aimed at the French – for their uncompromising support for Habyarimana and their intervention on the side of the genocidaires during Opération Turquoise and their failure to apologise for all of the above – was particularly fierce: “People cannot be bribed into changing their history. And no country is powerful enough, even when they think that they are, to change the facts. After all, les faits sont têtus.” He stressed that Rwanda had three main goals in the coming years: to be together, to be accountable and to think big. At the end of the speech the crowd’s admiration for their dear leader was volubly plain. Even for a sceptic such as myself, who has numerous qualms about the evolution of Rwanda’s contemporary political landscape, it was hard not to feel a jolt of respect for the man who has clawed a nation back from the precipice of hell.

Over the week preceding the ceremony I visited several of the memorial sites in and around Kigali. The largest and most famous of these is Kigali Genocide Memorial. At this site there are a number of mass graves that collectively house the bodies of 250,000 people. Huge concrete slabs demark the area in which the dead now rest, adjacent to which a wall is being painstakingly inscribed with their names. Inside the museum an exhibition guides visitors through the annals of Rwandan history: from colonisation, to the ideology of Hutu-power, to the 1994 pogroms against the Tutsi, to peace and reconciliation. The curators are at pains to personalise the victims: one room is adorned with the smiling faces of the deceased; the bones of the victims are displayed in another; their despoiled clothes hang in the next. Kigali Genocide Memorial is certainly not for the faint of heart; however, nothing could have prepared me for what I would witness at the Churches in Ntarama and Nyamata. Even now, when I look back at my notes, I shiver.

During the killings of previous decades it had been possible for Tutsis to take refuge in the churches that dot Rwanda’s hills. That all changed in 1994. Scores of priests sided with the fanatics and offered up their houses of God as factories of death. The churches of Ntarama and Nyamata are both located around 25-30 kms South of Kigali and witnessed some of the most barbarous massacres during the genocide.

I reached the first church, Ntarama, at around 10am. Here 5,000 people lost their lives. The frayed garments of the dead line the pews and drape the walls, whilst their bones sit silent at the back. The killers had reserved a room towards the side of the church – in some crazed gesture of selectivity, perhaps – for the murder of children: their bloodied brains still stain the walls a sickly brown. The instruments of execution laid out at the front of the church include a machete, a dagger, a hatchet, a club, a hoe and… a long, sharp wooden stick. My guide, Jean Claude, informs me that this was used to murder women – only after they had been gang-raped! The stick was inserted into the vagina and pushed upwards through the body until it burst out violently through the victim’s head. (Trust me, dear reader, I do not wish to share with you facts of this nature; I merely fear that euphemism would only add to the defilement of the deceased.)

The second church, Nyamata, is just a five-minute motorbike ride from the first. The scale of the slaughter that occurred here far exceeded that of Ntarama: between the 10th and the 12th of April 1994, around 45,000 people were killed inside the church and its surrounding compound. The church itself, although considerably larger, is much the same as Ntarama: bones, clothes and weapons are littered throughout. Outside the church I find scores of families weeping. They are standing near what looks like a large white step. As I walk closer it soon becomes clear that this is, in fact, the surface of a vast subterranean crypt.

At its centre is a staircase, descending down deep into the grave. As you enter, the nostrils are assaulted by a deep, turgid musk – the reek of death. Coffins are stacked in neat rows, draped in purple and white. Each contains the remains of around fifty persons. As I walk through the grave, colossal shelves of bones become visible – femurs, skulls, pelvises – that once formed the frames of thousands of people. I turn to my guide for reassurance. He is not there. I panic. I run. My head finally rises back into the land of the living and I stagger out into the sun. As a cool blanket of relief covers my sweat-sodden skin, I regain a modicum of calm. But where is Jean Claude? I look out to the trees that surround the grave. Ah! There he is… He is staring at the floor. He is silent. He is still. He is crying. (I would later find out that Jean Claude had lost his father in the massacre at Nyamata.)

That fateful spring of 1994 saw the rotting of the Rwandan tree, and the dying of its leaves. The Habyarimana regime had been allowed to pump lies, fear and junkyard propaganda into society for over thirty years. And thus a class of uneducated losers was bred: ready and waiting for the occasion when saturnalia and frantic destruction made itself known. By the end of July 1994, Rwanda was lifeless, its people barely registering a pulse.

The wounds of genocide are everywhere in Rwanda, and in many ways are still horribly fresh, even after the passage of twenty years. Nearly everyone has lost friends and family to the genocide, and it is clear that much of the population continues to suffer some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Lost victims of the genocide are still unearthed today: it seems digging will remain a profession in Rwanda for some time. And – it must not be forgotten – many of the architects of the genocide continue to live comfortably in France, whilst the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (the FDLR) – the scabs of the ancien régime – remain at large, although diminished, in Eastern Congo. Genuine reconciliation will only occur when these thugs and tyrants are brought to justice.

In the meantime, the Rwandan people – the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa – continue upon their extraordinary journey of reconstruction. The roads are now smooth, the landscape cultivated and (slowly but surely) people are lifting themselves out of poverty. The Rwandan parliament is comprised of 64% females (a world record, by the way). Smartly dressed police and soldiers stand guard at intersections. Their Internet connections are amongst the best this author has experienced in Africa. Once a people characterised by tribal divisions, the Rwandans have demonstrated that they can transcend their differences and – regardless of the comparisons one could make – build a nation of which anyone would be proud. But, most of all, as my new friend Christopher Magabo was so determined to stress: many, many Rwandans are now happy. Twenty years ago countless brave men and women paid with their lives to protect the lives of others. Today, there is a ticket with your name on it. The ticket is to Kigali, Rwanda and you need only pay with cash.

Fergus Simpson

Kigali, 18th April 2014



When to Use the ‘G’ Word

I N  T H E  C E N T R A L  A F R I C A N  R E P U B L I C  (CAR), a society long depressed in poverty, but one nevertheless characterised by ethnic and religious tolerance, is convulsing: belching out chunks of unprocessed sectarian hate. Fighting has displaced over one million people and an additional 2.2 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Lynch mobs – lascivious, juvenile, ultra-violent – terrorise the population. They wield machetes, hatchets, daggers, homemade rifles and other crude instruments of death. Villages have been deserted – their inhabitants either dead or taking refuge in the surrounding bush. In the cities, people eke out an existence in camps, churches and mosques, having fled their homes. A handful of French and African Union (AU) troops is now the only thing preventing the 100,000 emaciated bodies huddled around M’Poko airport in Bangui, the capital, descending into an orgy of death. It is important to note that all of this has taken place in one of the least economically developed countries in the world. According to the United Nations’ (UN) Human Development Index, there are currently only seven countries further from the threshold of modernity than CAR.

In March 2013, Michel Djotodia and the Seleka (meaning ‘alliance’) rebel group predominantly made up of Muslims from the North of the country violently seized power from the incumbent regime of Francois Bozize. The Seleka are believed to have recruited militiamen from neighbouring Chad and Sudan, including members of the notorious Janjaweed Arab militia responsible for the perpetration of genocide in Darfur. Although soon after taking power Mr Djotodia officially disbanded the Seleka rebel group, the ex-Seleka militiamen have continued to terrorise the people of CAR. Villages have been looted; houses have been burned; unimaginable numbers of women and children have been raped; food, seed stocks and farming tools have either been stolen or destroyed. In a country where the administrative state has collapsed to the point of non-existence, it comes as no surprise that all of this has occurred with almost complete impunity.

Terrorism and mass slaughter have a radicalising effect upon people of all classes.  CAR is anything but an exception to this rule. A vigilante group known as anti-balaka have carried out revenge attacks against ex-Seleka and their suspected supporters. The anti-balaka forces are composed of villagers who have taken up arms to defend themselves from Seleka and soldiers loyal to Mr Bozize, the former president. According to the Human Rights Watch report ‘They Came to Kill’, in Bossangoa, the capital of Ouham province, the anti-balaka have ‘killed several hundred Muslim residents, burned their homes and stolen their cattle’. There is even video footage on the BBC website of an anti-balaka fighter explaining rather candidly, ‘Why I ate a man’s leg’. These are just two examples of a number of retaliatory atrocities committed by anti-balaka guerrillas. The CAR has effectively become trapped in a perpetual cycle of aggression motivated by revenge – ex-Seleka against anti-balaka and their followers, and anti-balaka against the ex-Seleka and their followers. Perhaps the most frightening thing about all this viciousness is that it has only taken a few dedicated practitioners to paralyse an entire society with fear.

The situation has now reached a low of such proportions as to provoke John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to announce to a news conference in Geneva that, ‘it [CAR] has all the elements that we have seen elsewhere, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia. The elements are there, the seeds are there, for a genocide.’ Almost all of Britain’s major news outlets (the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, the BBC) have published a version of this quotation. And, as one would expect, Mr Ging’s dark message has managed to permeate a broad stratum of British society. As you digest the argument that I am about to present to you, do not for a moment think that I am trying to euphemise or diminish the extent of the carnivals of cruelty that have consumed CAR. However, I must raise the following question: is it accurate to draw parallels, as Mr Ging does, between this nightmare of contemporary Africa and the toxic mixture present in pre-genocidal Rwanda and Bosnia?

Although the anti-Tutsi pogroms and the Bosnian massacre differ in a number of ways, they share one distinct commonality: both were meticulously planned and systematically executed. In Rwanda, a racist Hutu government successfully brainwashed and coerced a large proportion of the population to become serial killers overnight. Radio stations, including the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, broadcast hate propaganda around the clock. In the run up to the genocide, 500,000 machetes were purchased from China, and distributed to the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi death squads. Lists of undesirables – Tutsis and moderate Hutus – were carefully drawn up and disseminated amongst future killers. What happened in Rwanda was not just a product of civil unrest, it was a scrupulously planned operation, organised by members of the Hutu elite, with the sole intention of completely annihilating the entire Tutsi population.

In July 1995, in the small Bosnian town of Srebrenica, units of the Army of Republica Srpska (VRS), under the command of General Ratko Mladic, murdered up to eight thousand male Bosniaks. The method of execution followed a distinct pattern. Firstly, Serb forces round-up Bosniak men of military age (in fact many of the men captured were well below or above what is deemed ‘military age’). Secondly, these men were taken to disused warehouses or schools. Thirdly, they were loaded onto buses and trucks, and transported to isolated locations outside of town. Finally, the men were taken off in small groups, lined up and executed by firing squad. The sheer scale and efficiency of the massacre at Srebrenica is indicative of the level of planning and coordination it involved. In a similar fashion to Rwanda 1994, what happened at Srebrenica was not just another war-related massacre; it formed part of a scheme far more grandiose, to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of its male Bosniak population.

Are the acts of barbarism in CAR nothing but an unfortunate by-product of the hydra-like mechanics of ochlocracy, or are they part of a much larger, more sinister plot to cleanse the country of ‘undesirable’ elements? Last Wednesday, on the 29th February, I attended a parliamentary session on the CAR crisis chaired by Jack McConnell, chairman of the Great Lakes All Party Parliamentary group. All three speakers at the event stressed that the conflict currently ravaging CAR is not one motivated by religion or ethnicity. Caesar Poblicks – Conciliation Resources projects manager for East and Central Africa – a man who has spent many years working in CAR, argued that the media’s portrayal of the conflict as a confrontation between Christians and Muslims is a facile misrepresentation of reality. He was at pains to establish that, although the violence has taken a religious turn over recent months, economic and political grievances represent the root causes of unrest. If the conflict in CAR is not one between two distinct ethnic or religious groups, it is rather difficult to understand quite how Mr Ging came to conclude that ‘[In CAR] the seeds are there, for a genocide’.

As I have discussed, the genocides in both Rwanda and Bosnia were carried out by highly organised institutions (the government in the case of Rwanda and the VRS in the case of Bosnia) with specific objectives. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the pogroms would have been as efficient as they were if this had not been the case. The conditions in CAR, at present, could not be much more different. At both the local and the national level, the decision-making state has collapsed. National services – healthcare, the military, the police forces, schools – have slipped into oblivion. There is no way that the government of CAR or any of the militia groups within the country’s borders have the capacity to carry out something on the scale of Rwanda or Bosnia. Are ex-Seleka and anti-balaka capable of mass murder? Absolutely. Are they capable of perpetrating a systematic and selective massacre intended to wipe out an ethnic or religious community? Absolutely not.

A coda. CAR has descended into a state of near total lawlessness and anarchy, which both deserves and requires our immediate and full attention. However, the ‘G’ word refers to a very specific set of crimes within International Law: ‘acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ Contrary to what Mr Ging and the UN may proclaim, genocide is not what is happening in CAR. Since its failures in Rwanda and Bosnia, the international community seem to have imbibed a certain guilt complex, which can be triggered by mention of the ‘G’ word alone. Indeed, since the word has been used in the context of CAR, the country has received a force of over 6,000 peacekeeping troops from a mixture of France, the AU and the European Union. The UN has now requested that this be extended to 10,000. Would these stringent measures have been taken to protect civilians if Mr Ging had not used the ‘G’ word? It is impossible to know. Either way, on a positive note, it seems that the international community has learnt something from its failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, and, perhaps, the words ‘never again’ are finally starting to stick in the minds of those capable of changing the course of history.

Fergus Simpson

Guildford, 7th February 2014

(Published at:

When A Thousand Hills Fell Apart

T H I S  Y E A R  W I L L  M A R K the twentieth anniversary of what arguably represents the nadir of twentieth century human endeavour. There are a number of candidates that both could and should be considered for such a macabre accolade. Such a list would inevitably include some, if not all of the following: the Holocaust, the atomic extirpation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin’s purges, the Vietnam war, Idi Amin’s rape and despoilment of Uganda, ‘Year Zero’ in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s chemical butchery in Halabja, the Srebrenica massacre – I leave you to fill in the gaps. However, in terms of the sheer efficiency, effectiveness and brutality of the slaughter, none of these occasions quite match that which occurred in the small African nation of Rwanda.

In April 1994, a Hutu government in collusion with various militia groups, most notably the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, attempted to implement a final solution to the ‘Tutsi problem’ in Rwanda. Although ethnic tensions had existed for decades, it was not until April 6th, when Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, and Burundi’s president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were killed in a mysterious plane crash, that things began to fall apart. Just as every American knows where they were the day two aeroplanes demolished the twin towers, every Rwandan knows where they were the day that plane was shot down over Kigali. With frightening immediacy, just an hour after the crash, Hutu militia groups erected roadblocks around the city and begun searching houses for ‘undesirables’. Gunshots began to echo through the streets. Many leading personae non gratae – politicians, journalists and human-rights activists – were murdered within just thirty-six hours. The grande peur that was to infect Rwanda and poison its society over the next hundred days had begun.

The event that proceeded Habyarimana’s death was the most efficient genocidal massacre of the 20th century, the rate of killing surpassing that of the holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. Massacres spread like a rash out of Kigali and into the préfectures. Barely a village was left unscathed. The bodies of the deceased cascaded down the Rusumo falls, out of Rwanda and into Tanzania, where they spilled out into Lake Victoria turning the river’s mouth red. 40,000 rotting cadavers were found washed up upon the Ugandan shoreline. Western governments watched with indifference as the gruesome events played out in front of them. There is an infamous video clip of Bill Clinton stating that United States intervention in Rwanda depended solely upon the ‘cumulative weight of the American interests at stake’. The systematic massacre of 800,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations unfortunately did not fulfill this rather isolationist approach to foreign policy and, ultimately, the United States did not invest a single dollar in preventing the anti-Tutsi pogroms.

On the 4th of July, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the party currently governing Rwanda under president Paul Kagame – finally brought the genocide to an end. Kagame and the RPF pushed the Hutu genocidaires out of Rwanda, instigating a mass exodus into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (previously known as Zaire). This migration was made up of both Hutu civilians, who had played no part in the 1994 killing spree, and of Hutu genocidaires, collectively responsible for the genocide. The extremist elements amongst this tide of humanity soon began to instigate incursions against the RPF and started a campaign to ethnically cleanse DRC of its native Tutsi population – the Banyamulenge (a group that has suffered repression so extensive as to be named ‘the Jews of Africa’) – from refugee camps on the Rwandan border. In September 1996, Rwanda launched a full-scale invasion of the DRC, ostensibly with the goal of eliminating the racist Hutu militia at large in the East of the country; Zaire’s generous mineral reserves providing a significant ulterior motive. This aggression ultimately acted as the catalyst that would provoke ‘Africa’s Great War’.

At its zenith, the war pitted the armies of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda against the forces of the DRC, Zimbabwe, Chad, Angola, Sudan and Namibia, as well as up to forty different militia groups. The highest casualty estimates for the Syrian civil fall between 100,000 and 200,000 persons. Although significant, these figures pale when compared to the Congolese wars which, since 1996, have caused over five million people to expire prematurely. The war ended in July 2003, when the current president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, managed to engender a brief parenthesis of peace and stability. However, this period of relative tranquillity was far from sustainable. Since the war officially ended, there has been a recrudescence of guerrilla warfare in the North and South Kivu regions that border Rwanda, of the kind that had continued spasmodically in Europe during the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648. There are currently almost 20,000 UN peacekeepers in the DRC – the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. Despite their recent success in defeating the M23 militia group in North Kivu province, the UN mission has been largely unsuccessful in stemming violence across the country.

As some of you already know, I will be travelling to Rwanda on April 5th 2014 to observe the twentieth anniversary of the genocide. Rather than focusing on the events that preceded and happened during the genocide, I want to write about where Rwanda is now – socially, economically, politically – and the extent to which the genocide lives on in the minds of Rwandans today. I will be carrying out interviews with people working with various charities, aid agencies and (if I can manage it) the Government of Rwanda. I also intend to take every opportunity available to talk to people that I meet upon the way. Genocide Memorial Day takes place every year on the April 7th, followed by a week of official mourning. I will be in Kigali over this period to attend remembrance ceremonies and visit memorial sites. I will then travel through Rwanda, stopping off in some of the towns most affected by the genocide. I am trying to obtain a visa to cross over into the Democratic Republic of Congo on the 1st May 2014 via the town of Bukavu in South Kivu province. From here I plan to take the ferry across lake Kivu to Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

Both North and South Kivu remain two of the least stable provinces in the DRC which, as it happens, is one of the least stable countries in the world. In late 2012, the M23 rebel group – whose leader is currently on trail at the International Criminal Court – captured Goma. The town has now been retaken by Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (the Congolese army) and MONUSCO (the UN peacekeeping mission). From Goma it is possible to track mountain gorillas and scale the live Nyiragongo volcano in the Virunga National Park; both challenges, which, if the security situation allows, I intend to complete. From Goma I will cross back into Rwanda and then south into Burundi, a country with a past almost as turbulent as Rwanda’s. On 20th June 2014, in Bujumbura – Burundi’s capital – my adventures in the great lakes of Africa will come to an end and I will fly back to London.

Over the following weeks it is likely that I will be immersed in planning the finer details of the trip. Obtaining a visa to enter the DRC is already proving to a considerable challenge: the last time I called their London embassy, the operator could not even speak English. Between now and departure, my blog will feature regular commentary on current and historical affairs in Rwanda, DRC and Burundi, along with additional information regarding my adventures. Please do read and comment upon these missives, if you get the time. Any feedback would be most appreciated.

Fergus Simpson

Guildford, 15 January 2014