Resonance in Rwanda
I have recently returned from Rwanda and from a course focused on transitional justice and truth commissions as a mechanism for dealing with the past. All things ‘dealing with the past’ are, therefore, on my mind. Readers will appreciate that my head is spinning with reactions and questions which I will share here over a number of posts. Please forgive me when I am over-simplistic and feel free to engage with the issues I discuss. There is always more to think about than my teeming mind can weave into one piece. Rwanda has kindled some thoughts and, with a little space from the study visit, it is time to share those thoughts.
Remembering who we are
Rwandans have a very clear view of themselves as Rwandans. Their one flag demonstrates a unified sense of who Rwandans are today – not Hutu, not Tutsi, Rwandan. The strength of the narrative depends on a conviction that a better future is possible if Rwandans grasp that future with both hands. They are not refusing to countenance the past but they know that without this unified narrative the future is bleak. The narrative also depends on the belief that the Rwandan people are not all bad. Responsibility for the past is accepted but with the balance of belief that there were many who influenced and let down the Rwandan people and they too have responsibility. In the beginning it was the colonial powers and then it was the international community. I have come to the conviction that when coming out of conflict people do the very best that they can do and it will, inevitably, be flawed. It becomes all the more important then, to build in times to consider how well things are going and what needs to change. Otherwise there is the very real danger of setting the same relational dynamics in place that brought the differences to violence in the first place.
If the truth about the past is slippy and elusive then a common narrative of the past is even more elusive. A narrative of the past needs to be composed on truth. It is possible to establish factual truth to form a core to any narrative. Factual truth consists, for example, of information about how many people were killed, their age or gender; the places where killings took place, including information about areas where killings occurred more often; the number of foreign nationals that were killed; the number of incidents that took place outside the Northern State. Much of this information is already gathered.
Other truth can be drawn from completed investigations and inquiries. Here begins some difficulty in the narrative. Some inquiry reports have not been made public although information from them leaks out in other ways through the legal system. The level of editing applied to this information whets the appetite for more and stimulates speculation about what information is being held back
Narrative truth must form part of any final or agreed narrative of the past. This is the most complex area of all for it needs to reflect the diversity of experiences among victims and survivors, governments, armies, paramilitaries, security services, educators, police and fire officers, ambulance attendants, undertakers, business owners, the children of the traumatized, and so the list goes on. The gathering of information for this part of the narrative will illuminate differences between rural and urban communities, how different groups see what happened, the different impacts that the Troubles had and beliefs about why things happened, to name but a few.
Constructing a narrative of the past in which each can see themselves and which is, at the same time, truthful, is a very complex matter indeed. The complexity is further complicated when narratives of the past compete with one another and may even be described as the site of conflict today. No one wants to concede anything from their narrative. To do so would be to raise the white flag. Things are difficult enough for political leaders without them being seen to have given in. The danger should not be underestimated.
Is it possible to resolve the difficulties?
One possible way of resolving the difficulty is by compiling a very simple narrative of the past which no one can argue with. It might only include factual truth together with a statement such as:
We wish we hadn’t had to live through the years of trouble and conflict.
That is quite different, of course, from saying that it should never have happened. For some that would be a step too far. Whether such a simple narrative would have any real value beyond having an agreed narrative is a matter for debate. It would not reflect the diversity of experience and victims and survivors would be unlikely to feel heard. Nor would a simple narrative reflect the complexity of what happened and the questions people have about the purpose of some acts of violence, if purpose it can be called. At the very least, it seems to me, a narrative of the past should allow victims to be heard and enable people, still divided from one another, to begin to hear how each view what happened.
In Rwanda we heard a strong, coherent and unified narrative of the past. I would judge it to be a new narrative, constructed to enable Rwandans to move past the genocide and begin rebuilding, to start thinking through how to ensure that genocide never happens again. I would describe the new narrative as being based on a mechanism by which Rwandans understand themselves to have been responsible but in the context of a history in which they say it was the colonial powers that constructed the notion of ethnicity, classified the groups, symbolized difference and thereby set up the circumstances in which genocide would occur. The question is whether a new narrative will sustain Rwandan society into the future or whether excluded voices will become dangerous again. Only time will tell but in the meantime it has been important to find a way to move forward and maybe that is the best we can do at any given point in time.
Who we have been in the past is not who we have to be in the future. But it is important to remember that for some people the past is always the present.