Back in Toronto, via Kigali

I returned from Bukavu yesterday. A sign of a country not having full sovereignty is the fact that you have to get there through another country. Those who have business in Rwanda can go through Rwanda, flying into Kigali and going overland into Bukavu via Cyangugu, which is Rwanda’s sister city to Bukavu (and the place that the Rwandan army and militias have invaded Bukavu from numerous times during the war). An alternative is to fly into Kenya, from Kenya to Bujumbura in Burundi, and overland from Bujumbura. If you take that route, you can see a wide stretch of territory that Mobutu apparently gifted to Burundi decades ago, giving away a community of people and the national territory as if it was a knicknack of his to be disposed of.

In the days before I left, I spoke to a number of people from Congo’s “civil society”, journalists, researchers, and so on, about the conflict, the various economic and environmental aspects, and sexual violence. Sexual violence in the Congo is an important topic and it’s a central concern of a group called SAFER to which my friend Brad Macintosh, who basically arranged the entire DRC trip for me, belongs. The acronym stands for Social Aid for the Elimination of Rape, and its principal activity is to raise funds for the exemplary Panzi hospital, which I visited several times while in Bukavu. Panzi hospital is one of the places that treats the survivors of rape from this war.

I was hoping to learn about the use of rape as a weapon or a strategy of war, which was a phrase I had heard back in November 2008 when Dr. Denis Mukwege of Panzi hospital visited Toronto, sharing the stage of the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall with Stephen Lewis and Eve Ensler.

No one mentioned it at that time, but the Rwandan connection, again, seems important. I came back to Toronto via Kigali, and a one-day visit to Kigali means a visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre, where evidence, photos, physical evidence, and testimonies of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are gathered. One of the aspects of that genocide was the systematic use of rape. A 1996 UN report on rapes during the genocide said: “rape was the rule and its absence the exception”, and estimated that 250-500,000 women and girls had been raped. Rapes were systematic: on the one hand, every single woman was raped, on the other, the rapes were almost all gang rapes. Part of the purpose was to maximize the chances of sexually transmitted infections. Rapes were done in public. They were used to terrorize, to destroy social and cultural cohesion and organization, and to physically destroy women’s bodies and reproductive capacity.

Rape occurs in all places where patriarchy exists, and the wealthy countries are no exception. In the DRC as in other countries, powerful men, including men of armed groups, force women into marriages and into sexual slavery. These crimes are rape, but they are crimes of a different character than systematic, genocidal rape.

But these patterns of rape that were seen during the genocide (systematic public gang rapes of all women in a community) have been practiced against the women of the Congo for the past 15 years, and those practicing it are mostly the Rwandan armed groups and militias, whether of the FDLR, the CNDP, or the Rwandan army directly. I have mentioned some of the effects: the emptying of the countryside, the flight to the cities, the destruction of hinterlands around the cities, the control of mining territories by armed groups (and the production of these territories largely by Rwandan interests), terror, the collapse of society and social organization, and, ultimately, millions of people dead.

As for Rwanda itself, its capital, Kigali, is a testament to what can be done with Congo’s mineral wealth. Kigali is a boom town, and contrasts in every way with Bukavu, which is just a few hundred kilometers away. Skyscrapers are being thrown up faster than you would think possible. Electricity is available all day long – you can get truly cold drinks if you want them, and hot showers. Lots of new cars on the well-maintained roads. Signs of wealth and of a rapid transformation are all over Kigali, and announced throughout the media, of which there is lots.

There are several daily newspapers in Kinyarwanda and several in English. I picked up one called “New Times”, with a cover picture of Danny Glover shaking hands with Paul Kagame (July 2/09). I also picked up a magazine called “Rwanda Dispatch” (for June/09), which includes a commentary by Kagame, first published in the Financial Times, that argues that Africa shouldn’t get any more aid. Aid doesn’t help, and African countries should find their own way. His example of how aid doesn’t help? The DRC, of course, which, is a demonstration of aid’s ineffectiveness with its 17,000 peacekeepers who “treat the symptoms rather than addressing the issues”.

What issues? Perhaps issues like the Rwandan militias who, with Rwandan military support, rape and pillage their way back and forth across the DRC, whose wealth has made Kigali a boomtown? No. Not those issues. Rather, the issues cited by Kagame are those of “capacity, self-determination and dignity”. Kagame contrasts the DRC, with its dependence on ineffective aid, with Rwanda, which has cut “aid as a percentage of total GDP by half over the past decade, and last year… grew at more than 11 per cent even as the world entered a recession.” And in previous years (a fact that didn’t make it into Kagame’s column) Rwanda also managed to export hundreds of millions in minerals that are nowhere to be found on Rwandan territory, as is documented by various UN reports. An interesting recession-busting technique, if it’s available. The message for developing countries would seem to be: don’t get aid, find a neighbour to plunder.

Rwanda has also changed from a francophone country to an anglophone country, seemingly overnight. Rwanda is now joining the East African community, where English is the common language. People seemed afraid to speak French, in fact, even when they obviously knew French better than English. I can imagine why French-speakers would be afraid to be suspected. Given how omnipresent the genocide is in Rwandan culture, and how all Hutus are suspected by the regime of being involved or complicit in the genocide, French could be associated with the genocide by the following logic. The francophone Tutsis who lived in pre-1994, pre-genocide Rwanda are dead. Those who took over Rwanda and came back post-1994 are anglophones. Those who grew up post-1994 grew up speaking English. So those who speak French would be Hutus who were around pre-1994. So if you’re speaking French now, you might have to answer for where you were in 1994. Better to not speak French. I’m not sure if that’s why, but I definitely saw fear when I tried speaking to people in French.

I can see how someone like Danny Glover, who I respect a lot, would be impressed at a country lifting out of poverty as a national project to get beyond a horrific historical event like the 1994 genocide. But the invisible price of this development project has been paid in Congolese blood.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer, just back from the DRC.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.