April is genocide commemoration month in Rwanda. This year it marks the 25th anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsis.
In a frenzied 100 days beginning the evening of April 6, 1994, when the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down in still-contested circumstances as it landed in Kigali, possibly up to a million people, mostly Tutsi, but also opposition Hutus, were slaughtered.
I have a purple wristband imprinted with “Genocide - Never Again - Rwanda 1994”, that I picked up from the Rwanda Genocide Memorial over 10 years ago, and now forms the collection of both the tragic and wonderful documentation of the rhythms of African political life.
Those five words probably best sum up what one might think of the “Rwanda mindset” under the Rwanda Patriotic Front.
It fuels the two forces that seem to be locked in eternal contest for the country’s soul - its fierce determination to succeed, but also its sometimes insular, strident and defiant tone in geopolitics and domestic politics.
However, going back 25 years, the Rwanda genocide story clearly was never meant to be its own alone. It is a collective African, if not global, one.
First, Habyarimana and Ntaryamira became the first presidents from two separate African countries to die together.
Second, happening in 1994 as Nelson Mandela, released four years earlier after nearly three decades in apartheid prison, was being voted in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in one of the 20th century’s most significant moments, it was the biggest counterpoint to the euphoria of the moment.
That euphoria gave birth to the declarations about the arrival of the “African Renaissance,” and a few years down the road to visions of the 2000s as the “African Century.”
Third, it made its cross-border journey in very visceral ways. In May 1994, as the killings entered the second month during the war, thousands of bodies washed down the Kagera River into Lake Victoria in Uganda.
Although the RPF had launched its war from Uganda in October 1990, public interest in their campaign didn’t extend far beyond the newspaper-reading and BBC-listening class.
The stories and photos of the bodies filled Ugandan newspapers, and ordinary people lined the shores and riverbanks to watch in horror as they floated by.
Even for a country that had had its fair share of war and massacres, Ugandans were shocked. They stopped eating fish from Lake Victoria for a while. The genocide had, so to speak, come to their plates.
But one of the most memorable moments was to come some years later. On a chilly night in Kigali, I was having dinner at my hotel with a senior Rwandan official, an old friend.
He mentioned that an Israeli delegation had just visited, and they were horrified when they went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
“They had never really believed that so many people had been killed in Rwanda,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
Very casually, and unfazed by the enormity of what his next words, he said: “Well, there’s the unspoken global politics of genocide. Until Rwanda, it had been defined by the Genocide against the Jews. If you are an Israeli, would you easily make room in that space of horror for another one?
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3.