Truth and reconciliation

Where old enemies meet

Almost thirty years after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, victims and perpetrators have found a refuge in Belgium. For many, a new beginning is hard to imagine

An old woman stands next to a middle-aged man. Both are from Rwanda. She has her arms folded in front of her chest. He has put his right hand on her left shoulder. He looks seriously into the camera. Her look is serious and bitter. She wears a brightly patterned scarf on her head, a brightly patterned skirt, a mini-green shirt and a bright yellow shoulder scarf. He wears a lengthwise striped shirt in brown, red and mustard yellow. The two are standing in front of a mustard yellow wall.

Victims and perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda: Laurent Nsabimana (right) destroyed the house of Beatrice Mukarwambari (left) during the genocide. He was looking for firewood, he says today. Beatrice has forgiven him for the deed.


Eight o'clock in the morning. It's rush hour on the Brussels metro. People are staring at their smartphones. Emmanuel* sits at the very back in the corner. He avoids the four-seater seats for fear that “he” might sit opposite. They take the same train to work. It's the same game every day: the train approaches “his” stop. Emmanuel is gripped by fear. Will he sit in the same compartment again? Today, Emmanuel is not lucky. “He” is there, standing next to the door. Emmanuel lowers his eyes, doesn't want to look at him, but does.

The other man has spotted him already. He looks Emmanuel in the eye and runs his index finger under his throat. The gesture means: the work is not yet finished. Meaning: the Tutsi genocide. Emmanuel survived while Hutu extremists murdered his entire family in Rwanda.

About 13,000 people of Rwandan origin live in Belgium today. Most of them came as protection seekers after the genocide. Initially, it was the Rwandan elites: former ministers and high officials under President Juvénal Habyarimana and important members of his party, the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND). “The masterminds of the genocide - intellectuals, doctors, lawyers and ministers - had the necessary means and contacts to abscond to Belgium.

“In 1995, Yolande fled to Belgium. Since then, she has been working to ensure that her family's death is not forgotten, even denied”

“The genocide survivors came later,” Yolande Mukagasana tells us. The writer is sitting at a large wooden table in the dining room of a small flat in Anderlecht, a municipality in the south-west of Brussels. She has cut her grey hair into a short afro. She smokes one cigarette after another. Laughter lines appear on her face. Yet Yolande has lived through terrible things. In 1994, her entire family was murdered, and her three children died in front of her. She was also on the death squads' list. But she escaped.

In 1995, Yolande fled to Belgium. Since then, she has been campaigning to ensure that her family's death is not forgotten, or even denied. In her books and plays, she tells of the massacres of the Tutsis, the murder of her family. She also knows the gesture with which Emmanuel is reminded of the genocide every day in the underground. Again and again, she is threatened in public. “They call me names every morning and want to finish me off. But I don't let them.”

Before many of the former Rwandan rulers fled to Congo and later to Europe, they plundered the Rwandan treasury. This gave them the means to escape justice. They also received support in Belgium: many high-ranking Rwandans studied there and became friends with politicians and well-known personalities from the Christian Democrat milieu. The Christian Democratic International, a kind of world federation of Christian Democratic parties, played a particularly important role at the time.

“In Belgium, many of the alleged perpetrators found a whole network of supporters”

It is difficult to say how many alleged perpetrators from the Rwandan civil war are living in Belgium today. Most of them did not carry out the genocide themselves, but planned and financed it. Some of them were caught in Belgium. For example, Fabien Neretse, a former senior civil servant whom the Belgian jury court sentenced in 2019 to a total of 25 years in prison for genocide.

Others will never have to face justice, fears Damien Vandermeersch, who as a public prosecutor himself started investigations into the war criminals who settled in Belgium immediately after the genocide. The 66-year-old is proud of his work. But he is also a realist: “Some perpetrators, including high-ranking figures, the justice system will not be prosecuted. You have to link the perpetrators to concrete facts, places and massacres. That makes it more difficult to prosecute.”

The organisations maintain close relations with each other: They are often registered at the same address and the same people sit on the boards of directors. At joint events, they spread an alternative narrative to the genocide and even receive financial support from the Belgian state, for example through the state integration fund FIPI. Many of them claim either that there was no genocide or that it was committed against the Hutu and not the Tutsi.

Jean* is one of the former Rwandan officials who came to Brussels in 1994. He was an agent of the Rwandan secret service and was part of Habyarimana's cabinet. In Belgium, he became the face of the Rwandan exile community and took part in many of its events. There you always hear the same arguments, he says, the genocide is played down. “Many say that there was no genocide or that the real culprit is Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda.”

He provoked the genocide by having the plane of the then President Habyarimana shot down in 1994. Kagame is also behind another genocide, that of the Hutu in Congo. All this serves to whitewash the real perpetrators. Because accepting that there was a genocide and that one was involved in it also means accepting never to be involved in politics again. The former extremists are not ready for that.”

“Researching Rwanda is a bit like walking on eggs. You always get put in one camp or another”

Jean held to this narrative himself for a long time. But today he promotes Kagame's Rwanda and often travels to Kigali. “I hated Paul Kagame. But he reintegrated me into Rwandan society,” he says. Because he has switched sides, Jean is threatened by his former friends. He feels alone and oppressed. “The community of the 1994 victims distrusts me and the Hutu community also insults me”.

Roland Moerland is deeply involved in the Rwandan genocide. As a criminologist at Maastricht University, he knows the hurdles of coming to terms with it. “Researching Rwanda is a bit like walking on eggs. You always get put in a camp. If you mention the crimes of Paul Kagame's currently ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR), you are considered a genocide denier by some. If you condemn genocide, then you are seen by others as a puppet of Paul Kagame.”

Moreover, the genocide is rarely explicitly denied, but rather subtly questioned, for example by talking about a double genocide. “You have to know Rwandan history very well to see through these forms of denial.”

“In Belgium, the traces of the genocide are still visible today and the Rwandan diaspora there remains trapped in the patterns of the 1990s”

Survivors from 1994 often tell of the massacres of their families to fight genocide denial. “My children were tortured in front of me. My whole family is dead. I would rather die than accept the denial of the murder of my children,” says Yolande Mukagasana, for example.

In Belgium, the traces of the genocide are still visible today and the Rwandan diaspora there remains trapped in the patterns of the 1990s. Two camps face each other and their interpretations of the events of 1994 cannot be united. Yet the dividing lines are by no means as sharp as one might think.

Admittedly, the government in Kigali is currently also doing its utmost to propagate a one-dimensional version of history based on clearly defined groups of victims and perpetrators: The Hutu killed the Tutsi. But the truth is also that by no means all Hutu were involved in the genocide. Many of them were even killed because they did not want to kill Tutsis.

“Just because he is Hutu, my eleven-year-old nephew thought he was a murderer”

The fact that Hutu are often equated with “perpetrators” in the collective memory is particularly painful for younger generations who were still children in 1994. Their experiences rarely fit Kagame’s portrayal of the genocide says Richard Benda. The theologian at the Luther King Centre in London has worked with children of perpetrators. “Many of them thought the genocide started in 1997.” At that time, the new regime in Rwanda attacked refugee camps in Congo where murderers were hiding. Only then did these children experience suffering and violence. They lost their parents; some of their relatives were killed by RPF supporters.

At the same time, former Hutu extremists and militias involved in the genocide controlled the camps. Fear and violence determined the everyday life of the refugees.

In Belgium, many of the alleged perpetrators found a whole network of supporters. Numerous associations helped them to deal with the authorities, find housing and jobs. These include the Fédération d'Espoir Afrique and the Association belgo-rwandaise pour la solidarité, fraternité, dignité, les droits et l'espoir des Rwandais. Not least thanks to this support, many former Hutu extremists who are being investigated for their involvement in the genocide are also in high-level positions in Belgium today. Among them are members of the old regime and people associated with the extremist radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which once broadcast the call for genocide in Rwanda.

“I hated Paul Kagame. But he has reintegrated me into Rwandan society”

“Their experiences do not fit the official narrative of the genocide.” Benda tells of his nephew who goes to school in Denmark. When his class was talking about the genocide in history class, his classmates asked him whether he was Hutu or Tutsi, that is, whether he was one of the killers or the victims. “My nephew does not speak a word of Kinyarwanda. He knows nothing about Rwanda. Then in the evening he asked his father, 'Papa, did we kill people in 1994?' Just because he is Hutu, my eleven-year-old nephew thought he was a murderer.”

Today in Belgium, the younger generation in particular questions the history of the Rwandan genocide. They also organise themselves in associations. The best known is “Jambo”. Some of the children of former Rwandan elites who fled to Belgium after the genocide have joined this association. Some of the parents were convicted by the International Criminal Court or by the traditional Rwandan gacaca courts for their role in the genocide.

“Meanwhile, the Rwandan diaspora is so divided that it is virtually impossible to acknowledge each other's suffering”

The Jambo association is embedded in a network of sympathisers of former Rwandan rulers. Just like them, Jambo spreads a distorted narrative on the genocide, in particular the idea of a quid pro quo, where the genocide against the Tutsis and the crimes of the RPF cancel each other out, so to speak.

“Associations like Jambo are trying to rewrite history,” warns Catherine Gilbert, a cultural scientist who researches genocide commemoration at Newcastle University. “The younger generations have no direct memories of the genocide. They adopt an account of events that is not consistent with what happened in 1994. This distorted version of history is also often deliberately nurtured by their parents and passed on to them.”

Meanwhile, the Rwandan diaspora is so divided that it is almost impossible to acknowledge each other's suffering. “It's all very emotional and a lot of things get mixed up: history, politics and the feelings of individuals,” says Felix*. The Belgian of Rwandan origin is one of the young people whose experiences do not coincide with the official history of the genocide.

“I would like to write to the members, to remind them that they too are Rwandans”

His father was a senior military officer and was killed by the RPF. One of his relatives is a member of Jambo. Although he does not approve of his involvement with the association, he understands why people join it. “Imagine your father is on trial for genocide or awaiting trial. You have nothing else on your mind and you are constantly looking for a 'solution' or for 'justice'. Between someone saying, 'your parents were extremists' and 'that's not how it happened', you quickly made your choice.”

For the victims of 1994, this is hard to bear. “When I see what Jambo is doing, it brings tears to my eyes,” says Yolande Mukagasana. “I would like to write to the members, remind them that they too are Rwandans and that I don't hold it against them that their parents or grandparents spread anti-Tutsi ideology. I am not condemning anyone. I only condemn the genocide that made us what we are today: divided.”