It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. Though potentially comforting to anyone facing trying times, this is not the sort of reflection that crosses the mind at the time something terrible is happening, or in its immediate aftermath.
Trying to convey the idea to a victim of cruelty is by no means an easy conversation to have. It is even more difficult to have with victims of persistent cruelty for which they are not responsible.
I know this from experience in Rwanda. There, the idea that something positive could have arisen out of the tragedy of 1994 when more than a million people, Hutu and Tutsi, were murdered during the genocide against the Tutsi, must be put forth with extreme care and sensitivity.
For one thing, nothing that has happened since can compensate for the loss those whose loved ones perished feel on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, there is also a sense in which it is true that while the international community’s reluctance to intervene to prevent or stop the genocide against the Tutsi was unforgivable, that particular dark cloud also had a silver lining: It catalysed reactions and processes internally that, 20 years down the road, have produced one of the world’s greatest turnaround stories.
First, as Rwandans who bore witness to the slaughter will say, that the killings took place in their country used to induce powerful feelings of shame that, for many years, followed them everywhere they went.
Some months ago, a member of the country’s Senate told me how difficult she used to find introducing herself as Rwandan while travelling in other countries.
Among other things, this shame and the knowledge that the killings in 1994 and in previous years could have been avoided, produced a determination among Rwandans who wish to see their country leave all that history behind, that “never again” should Rwanda be the site of a genocide and the social discrimination and political exclusion and marginalisation that produced it.
That called for a rethinking of how to organise politics and, even more important, of the relationship between citizens and the state.
If politics is more inclusive today than at any one time in the country’s modern history and if citizens have more say in matters to do directly with their day-to-day lives than in the past, the answer to why that is, lies in the shockwaves the genocide sent through the entire society.
Second, the sense of abandonment led to a realisation by Rwandans, especially the political elite, that at the end of the day, what happens to their country and to them as a people is entirely up to them. Of course, political elites in other countries will claim to be aware of this, too, only for them to behave in ways that disprove it.
As senior Rwandan officials keep saying, outsiders can help in one way or another, but in the end, they do not owe Rwandans a living or anything else. If the post-genocide government is single-minded in doing those things it believes are in the interest of the country and its people regardless of what outsiders think, the events of 1994 are a key factor.
And so are they relentless in the relentless pursuit of development and social change, for the ruling elite believe that prosperity will help eradicate the bigotry that underlay the sharp divisions of the pre-genocide period.
However, as Rwandans continue to seek ways to overcome the divisions of the past, there are actors that often give the impression of being hell bent on opening old wounds and sowing seeds of discord.
In recent times, nothing has demonstrated this better than a documentary broadcast by the BBC at the beginning of this month. The broadcast, which one of the BBC’s Rwanda experts, Belgian academic Filip Reyntjens, advertised on social media way before it was shown, has left Rwandans generally stunned.
Among survivors of the genocide and the mass violence that targeted opponents of the Habyarimana government’s sectarian ideology, its greatest success was to revise what is generally known by claiming, among other things, that the vast majority of the dead were killed, not by Interahamwe extremists and their allies in the old armed forces, but by the Rwanda Patriotic Army, whose leader, Paul Kagame, was interested only in power.
Ignoring findings by French Judge Marc Trevedic that Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by elements of the presidential guard, the BBC claims it was actually the RPF.
Rwandans are understandably angry. However, some good has come out of the broadcast. The BBC’s experts, whose expertise has hitherto been taken for granted, are now under the spotlight, some for their well-established genocide denial credentials.
No longer will their views be taken at face value. Nor will those of Rwandan dissidents whose backgrounds are now under close scrutiny, courtesy of other academics, humanitarian workers, journalists and researchers who have slammed the BBC for failing to live up to the high standards it claims to represent.